She ain't heavy - she's my sister

Look again at the photograph above and see if your assumption about the pilot sitting in front of a Soviet Yak-9 fighter is correct. Because the Soviet Union was the first country in the world to give women legal equality their military flying schools were open to both men and women. This meant that during World War Two Russian women piloted both fighters and bombers. Despite technical equality women flyers were not given military roles until after the German invasion in June 1941. As the Nazi threat increased Russian women were hastily trained for aircrew combat duties, and were issued with male flying clothing - including underwear. It is one of those women pilots in the photo.

Training of the women was overseen by the legendary Soviet woman aviator Marina Raskova who had previously studied piano at academy level. Three all-female regiments (squadrons in Western parlance) were formed by the Russians, and between 1941 and the end of the war they flew more than 30,000 missions. The photo below shows three of the Soviet aircrew preparing for a sortie. Marina Raskova was killed when her bomber crashed in January 1943 en route to the front at Stalingrad. She was given the first state funeral of the war and was buried in Red Square. In June 1943 an American Liberty Ship was named after her.

Russia's western allies also used women aircrew, although the attitudes towards them were sometimes less enlightened. In Britain women flew planes for the Air Transport Auxiliary, a civilian organisation that pioneered equal opportunities for those with physical disabilities and equal pay for women. But the British government kept the ATA's use of women secret for the very chauvinist reason that they didn't want the Germans to know they were so desperately in need of pilots that they had to call upon women. Across the pond WASP (Women Airforces Services Pilots) was formed in August 1943 in America by merging two existing organisations. My photo shows three WASP crew members at Laredo, Texas in 1944. The WASP flew sixty million miles, carried out 80% of US ferrying missions in the war, and thirty-eight of them died on flying missions. But the story of the WASP does not have a happy end.

Unlike their British counterparts the WASP were paid 30% less than their male colleagues, and, in common with ATA pilots, they did not have military status. In 1944 a bill was introduced into Congress to make WASP a woman's service within the USAAF. The bill was defeated and WASP remained civil servants without the benefits contained in the GI Bill. As well as the loss of medical coverage and life insurance this meant that when a woman crew member died on duty the US government was not obliged to pay for her body to be shipped home and buried. But worse was to come. After the defeat of the militarisation Bill pressure came from a powerful lobby of male civilian pilots who wanted the WASP jobs. This resulted in the disbandment of WASP in December 1944, eight months before the war ended. It was not until 1977 that President Jimmy Carter granted WASP veteran status.

German women were not allowed to fly in combat for the Third Reich. But a small number flew ferry missions for the Luftwaffe in the dangerous skies over Gerany. One was Beate Uhse who ferried classic German warplanes such as the Stuka and Messerschmitt 109 to combat zones. After the war Uhse struck the ultimate blow for women's liberation. In 1972 she opened the world's first sex shop in Flensburg in Germany. She died in 2001 but her name is immortalised in Beate Uhse AG, Germany's most successful erotica chain.

The story of the American and Soviet women military pilots World War II is magnificently told in Amy Goodpaster Strebe's new book Flying For Her Country (Praeger Security International ISBN 9780275994341). My text and photos are based on her book, which was borrowed from the invaluable 2nd Air Division Memorial Library in Norwich. The copy of the book was donated by Marion Stegeman Hodgson, who was herself a WASP. The Woman's Collection at Texas Woman's University provided material for the book and I know the path has at least one regular reader at TWU. The photo below shows a WASP in conversation with a male colleague on the wing of an A-25 Helldiver at Camp Davis, North Carolina.

That great anti-war statement, Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, was written for the 1962 re-consecration of Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed by German bombs in 1940. Britten had written the parts of the two soldiers for the British Peter Pears and German Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and the role of celebrants for the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya (who was married to Mstislav Rostropovich) together with full chorus and orchestra. The Russian Minister of Culture refused permission for Vishnevskaya to sing in the premiere and her place was taken by Heather Harper. But Vishnevskaya was able to sing in the definitive 1963 recording conducted by Britten, and my photo below shows them together at the sessions.

Marina Raskova was killed when her bomber crashed flying to Stalingrad. A reproduction of the Madonna of Stalingrad, which was drawn by a German doctor and clergyman who died in the siege of the city, is housed in Coventry Cathedral, where the War Requiem was first performed. The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin was destroyed by Allied bombers in November 1943. A wonderful new church with a fine organ has risen from the ruins in Berlin, and houses the original Madonna of Stalingrad.

Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Garth Trinkl said…
Pliable, I wish that I had more time to study your recent posts in detail but matters are rather chaotic now on this side of the lake. Thank you for your undiminished posting productivity.

I did want to add - regarding the above story - the footnote that Barack Obama's late grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, worked on B-29s at a Boeing plant in Wichita, Kansas, during the war.

I also recall that a neighborhood classmate of mine had a mother who was a American women military pilot. Ann Darr later became a poet.

The Washington Post had an informative article about her when she passed away about a year ago:
Pliable said…
Email received:

Dear Bob,

Thank you very much for featuring my book Flying for Her Country on your blog! I greatly appreciate you spreading the word to your readers about the achievements of these courageous World War II women pilots.

You mentioned WASP Marion Stegeman Hodgson in your article. What a fine lady! I had the pleasure of meeting her last month at the WASP Reunion in Dallas, Texas.

I am very happy to be acquainted with your blog. I look forward to reading more from “On An Overgrown Path.”

Take good care and thanks again!

Best Regards,

Amy Goodpaster Strebe

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