Magazine article The Spectator

'Defending the Motherland: The Soviet Women Who Fought Hitler's Aces', by Lyuba Vinogradova, Translated from the Russian by Arch Tait - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Defending the Motherland: The Soviet Women Who Fought Hitler's Aces', by Lyuba Vinogradova, Translated from the Russian by Arch Tait - Review

Article excerpt

Defending the Motherland: The Soviet Women who Fought Hitler's Aces Lyuba Vinogradova, translated from the Russian by Arch Tait

MacLehose Press, pp.352, £20, ISBN: 9780857051929

The name Lyuba Vinogradova may not ring any bells, but her ferrety eye for spotting a telling detail may already have impressed you. As Antony Beevor generously acknowledges in his introduction to this book, her work as his researcher in various archives played an important role in the creation of his triumphant Russian histories; she has also assisted Simon Sebag Montefiore and Max Hastings, among others. Here she brings to light the fascinating story of the world's first and only all-female aviation regiments.

As German troops advanced towards Moscow in 1941, the celebrated aviatrix Marina Raskova determined to form three 'women's regiments': fighters, night bombers and long-distance bombers. The glamorous Raskova was a heroine in the USSR following a record-breaking flight that crashed in the Siberian taiga , leaving her to survive for ten days on a single bar of chocolate. In a grim Soviet twist, she also turns out to have been a secret police officer who sent many to their deaths just months before war broke out. Thousands of members of the Soviet air force, as well as the other armed services, were repressed in 1940 -- one reason why the Wehrmacht made such swift progress.

Young women from all over the country hurried to respond to their idol Raskova's appeal for volunteers. Many were trained already, thanks to the flying clubs attached to dozens of factories which gave even the poorest the opportunity to fly. Katya Budanova, one of the best-known pilots of the war, was a village girl who had been sent out to work aged nine. Others flocked to be the regiments' navigators, mechanics and armourers.

'At that time,' writes Vinogradova, 'all occupations were open to women,' and Soviet girls took pride in proving themselves the equals of men on construction sites and in the tunnels of the new Moscow metro as well as in the skies. Attitudes to women, however, had not kept pace with state ideology. Raskova's 'dollies', as they were nicknamed, were teased and mocked, particularly when first kitted out in absurdly ill-fitting men's uniforms. In one comic scene, a political officer (the much-hated snoop attached to every regiment) complained of 'the particular difficulty of indoctrinating women' when an exhausted girl, sick of his propaganda talk, invited him to 'nip in under her blanket'. Even battle-hardened pilots found themselves grounded because their commanding officers thought the situation too dangerous for women. …

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