Being a World War II fighter pilot wasn’t all glamour and bravado as Hollywood suggests. It meant coaxing a temperamental machine into the air, dodging lethal bits of metal at high speeds and testing one’s physical limits and mental resolve.
And for Anna Yegorova, one of the few women to fly alongside the men in World War II, that was just the beginning.
In the 1940s, thousands of women flew support missions, but few made it into the almost exclusively all-male combat club. Yegorova might’ve joined the celebrated all-female Night Witches Soviet bomber squadron, a front-line band of women in rickety biplanes who inflicted losses on the Germans, but instead she became one of the only women in the nearly all-male 805th Ground Attack Regiment.
In doing so, Yegorova out-flew, out-gunned and outlived most of the male fighter pilots who took to the skies above World War II’s toughest front.
Most men didn’t like seeing women on the front line, and many scoffed at Yegorova’s presence.
Yegorova’s background could’ve been lifted from a Soviet propaganda poster. One of 16 children born to a Russian peasant family, she embodied the working-class hero celebrated in Stalin’s USSR. And thanks to women like Marina Raskova, the “Russian Amelia Earhart” who fought for gender equality in the new 20th century world of aviation, Yegorova got her chance to fly.
While working at a factory, she learned flight basics at glider school. Then, as one of the first female students at a flight school in southern Ukraine, she learned to fly biplanes and eventually became a flight instructor.
At the start of World War II, Yegorova jumped at the chance to enlist, and because she had pilot experience, she landed exactly where she wanted to be: on the front line.
But Yegorova soon learned that combat didn’t equal comradeship. The Soviet Union may have put 800,000 women in combat roles during World War II, but misogyny still flourished in the military.
Underestimating her abilities, Yegorova’s superiors assigned her to “reconnaissance missions,” a term for daylight flights over amply defended enemy lines. Heading home one day, she was attacked by a German plane and forced to crash land. Yegorova scrambled to her feet and dove into a cornfield as the German pilot thrashed her plane with machine gun fire.
Yegorova’s masterful flying set her apart and protected her life during two years of anti-aircraft fire, Nazi attacks and the piercing Russian cold. Her outstanding record led to her being recommended for fighter pilot training and, by 1944, she was named commander of an 80-man Red Army Air Force squadron with more than 200 combat missions under her belt.
“You can shoot me, but I won’t let you torture me!”
Flying for Yegorova’s squadron, tasked with destroying Nazi ground targets like tanks and supply trains, demanded superhuman concentration, stamina and mental fortitude. This meant flying Sturmovik fighters at high speeds and low altitudes, nearly brushing one another’s wings through smoke and waves of bullets while searching for pinpoint targets on the ground.
On top of these near-suicidal combat missions, Yegorova had to deal with discrimination. Despite her rank, many new pilots didn’t believe she had the chops and constantly challenged her to prove herself, she later admitted.
“They trust you — not because you are a woman, but because you are a skillful and trained pilot,” she recalled. She once had to pull a pistol on a young soldier to force him to help her start her bullet-riddled plane so she could get back into a dogfight.
During a mission in 1944, Yegorova was shot down behind enemy lines and bailed out, smashing into the ground. She ended up in a Nazi concentration camp with a broken spine and other serious injuries, when a stroke of good luck saved her life. Georgy Sinyakov, a Russian doctor the Nazis forced to work in the camp, hid Yegorova’s Air Force medals and Communist Party certificate. Under his care, she managed to endure brutal interrogation by the SS and Gestapo, never surrendering a word of information.
The torture and taunts of being labeled a “fascist bitch” by her fellow Soviets hurt the most.
Despite her remarkable exploits, Yegorova went largely unacknowledged by her own country. After being liberated from the camp by the Russian advance, she was imprisoned again — this time by Soviets who suspected she’d betrayed information to the Nazis while she was held captive. After two weeks, Yegorova confronted her Russian commanding officer, “You can shoot me, but I won’t let you torture me!” but her bravado fell on deaf ears. They held her without trial for another two weeks, alternating nightly interrogations with sleep deprivation and beatings.
Yegorova may have escaped death numerous times during the war, but she did not emerge unscathed. In her memoir, Red Sky, Black Death, she speaks candidly of the relentless discrimination and hardship she faced as a Soviet pilot. And while the burns and broken bones she suffered in the crash plagued her until her death in 2009, the torture and taunts of being labeled a “fascist bitch” by her fellow Soviets hurt the most. “After [the Soviets] tortured me, something within me died,” she recalled.
Yet another insult was being forced to wait 20 years for the Hero of the Soviet Union medal she’d been awarded immediately after her crash landing.
Yegorova fought for the Soviets and for her own rights, proving she had the necessary skill, strength and ruthlessness to be on the front lines.
The lesson for modern militaries? Never underestimate a woman.
This piece was originally published July 14, 2014, and updated as of Nov. 9, 2014.
Why you should care
Modern militaries still aren’t sure women make good combat pilots, but Anna Yegorova’s ass-kicking record against fascism proves them wrong.