Stamp of Russia, 100th birth anniversary of the Soviet female pilot, navigator, Hero of Soviet Union Marina Raskova
Captain Nancy W Aldrich,
In World War II, America had Jacqueline Cochran and Nancy Love who formed and commanded the WASP (Women’s Army Service Pilots); England had Pauline Gower who was responsible for the women’s division of the ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary); and Russia had Marina Raskova!
Marina was born into a musical family in 1912. Her father, Mikhail Malinin, was an opera singer, her mother a teacher, and her aunt, also a singer. As a child, she was trained to be a musician and wanted to be an opera singer. However, as she grew older she found it too stressful. During her teen years she studied to become a chemist. As a youngster, she had shown no particular interest in aviation.
After graduation from high school, Marina worked in a dye factory as a chemist. There, she met and married Sergey Raskova. They had one daughter, Tanya, in 1930. The next year, she changed jobs and began working in the Aero Navigation Laboratory of the Air Force Academy, as a draftswoman. It was here that her interest in aviation began. She learned and taught navigation, then decided to get her pilot’s license. She became famous as the first woman navigator in the Soviet Air Force. She was the first woman to teach at the Zhukovskii Air Academy. In 1937 and 1938, she set several long distance records, giving her celebrity status in the Soviet Union.
Her most famous flight occurred on September 24 & 25, 1938, “The Flight Of The Rodina.” On this flight, she acted as the navigator, with Valentina Grizodubova as commander, and Polina Osipenko as the co-pilot.
Joseph Stalin made it clear that he wanted Soviet pilots to connect Moscow with all points of the Soviet Union. In June, pilot Kokkinake and navigator Bryandinskogo had flown from Moscow to Spassk-Far, a distance of 6,850 miles, and were declared heros. After that Stalin wanted women to complete a similar flight. He personally picked the three best and most experienced women to make the state sponsored flight and gave them a specially modified Tupolev DB-2B, called “Rodina,” which means ‘motherland’ in Russian.
The crew took off on a flight from Moscow to Komsomolsk-on-Amur, a distance of 5947 kilometers (roughly 3700 miles), on the evening of September 24. During the flight they encountered clouds and turbulence which forced them to climb to higher altitudes. Having no radio navigation aids, no accurate charts, and low visibility, Marina’s navigation skills made little difference. After more than 26 hours of flying, they were lost. Finally, they were able to locate the shore of the Sea of Okhotsk. They knew that with only 30 minutes of fuel remaining, they must turn back. Nothing on their charts matched any landmarks they could see. Marina somehow was able to give them a rough idea of their location, but by this time it didn’t really matter, they were too low on fuel to try to find a safe place to land. They would be forced to make crash landing.
The navigation pod, a glass enclosed bubble in the nose of the airplane, would hit the ground first and would be crushed. There was no way for Marina to get out of the pod into the body of the airplane, so she was ordered to bail out! Their highly publicized, state sponsored, record setting flight, was deteriorating into a disaster.
Marina put on her parachute, opened the emergency hatch, and jumped out into the freezing air. Once she knew she had cleared the airplane, she pulled the ripcord and drifted down into a forested area, trying to keep the airplane in sight as long as she could. She would need to know what direction to walk if she survived the jump. Somehow she made a safe landing, but then discovered she had left her emergency kit on the airplane. She did not have a compass or water, and only a couple of chocolate bars for food. With only hope to guide her, she set off in the direction she had last seen the plane.
Meanwhile, the pilot and co-pilot continued a slow descent and searched for a safe place to land the airplane. The best they could find was a swampy area, which they thought would be better than crashing into trees. Leaving the wheels up, the were able to set the plane down in the half frozen swamp safely enough so they were not injured. Knowing only that they were somewhere in the far eastern part of Siberia, they decided their best option was to stay with the airplane and hope a search party would find them.
Eight days later, a rescue party from the nearby village of Kirby did find the airplane. Grizodubova and Osipenko were reluctant to leave the airplane, hoping that Marina would eventually find her way to them. Two days later, somehow, after wandering in the frozen forest and swamps for 10 days, she came walking toward the plane. The rescue party brought all three women into the village, then they were taken back to Moscow and feted as heroines! They had flown for 3,672 miles, in 26 hours and 29 minutes, setting a record for an all women aircrew.
All three women were celebrated as “Heros of the Soviet Union,” marking the first time any women had that award bestowed on them. They also each received 25,000 rubles for their service to the country. The state controlled press conveniently ignored the fact that they had crashed.
When the Germans launched Operation Babarossa, it was devastating. They attacked Russia with four million troops along a 3,000 kilometer front. They were supported by more than half a million vehicles and over 700 hundred thousand horses. Almost immediately, three million Russians were taken prisoner. The Red Army was left in shambles, and the Air Force was sitting on the ground.
Because of her status as a hero, Marina was given the opportunity to meet with Joseph Stalin. She was able to convince him to use women air crews during the war. Three all-woman combat regiments were formed, consisting of pilots, navigators, officers, ground crews, mechanics. This group of 1,200 “in-you-face” women would be issued ninety airplanes. When Stalin agreed with her proposal, Marina was off and running.
She formed the 46th Raman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, which became knows as the Night Witches*; the 125th Guards Bomber Aviation Regiment, which flew 1,134 missions and dropped over 980 tons of bombs, producing five “Heros Of The Soviet Union;” and the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment, which was the first of the units to take part in actual combat, flying 4,419 flights, destroyed 38 enemy aircraft in 125 air battles.
Within just a few months, she had all three regiments ready to go. Her women had quickly learned what normally took four years to master. These women warriors, most of whom were in their late teens or early twenties, took to the skies and racked up 30,000 combat missions, dropped tens of thousands of bombs, and were responsible for the destruction of dozens of enemy aircraft. One of her regiments, “The Night Witches” flew fifteen to eighteen missions a night for months on end, in second rate airplanes normally used only for training. Many had flown over 1,000 missions by the end of the war. Thirty were killed in action. This group alone produced twenty four “Heros of The Soviet Union.”
While the press acclaimed these women as equal to the men, the truth was quite different. The women had to fight tooth and nail to have the opportunity to fly. The men dismissed the women as being of lesser ability.” It was only because of Marina’s status as a “Hero Of The Soviet Union” that gave her the clout to convince Stalin to use women.
The combat regiment led by Marina Raskova herself, commandeered some of the best equipment the Air Force had. This did not sit well with the men. However, in Marina’s eyes, it was the women who had turned the war around. In her opinion, the men were jealous because they simply didn’t understand that “in-you-face” women were not better at what they did because they were women, they were just better!
Marina was the Commander of the 125th Guards Bomber Aviation Regiment. She was killed on January 4, 1943, while attempting to make a forced landing on the Volga bank. Her entire crew was killed. She was leading two other Pe-2s to their first operative airfield near Stalingrad when the crash occurred. Marina Raskova received the first state funeral of the war. Her ashes were buried in the Kremlin Wall beside Polina Osipenko’s, on Red Square.
Marina stands with Jacqueline Cochran, Nancy Love, and Pauline Gower. However, it must be noted that of the three groups of women pilots in World War II, only Marina’s actually flew combat and bombing missions.
(* to read more about the Night Witches, see my previous article titled, “The Witch Is Dead”)
“Your word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path.” Psalms 119:105
Captain Nancy W Aldrich,
Aviation writer 20thCenturyAviationMagazine.com