'Nadya's War' How Soviet Women Aviators Fought the Wehrmacht in World War II
By David E. Hubler
Contributor, In Military
I knew the only way to survive was to be ice inside, to feel absolutely nothing.
– Pilot Klavdiya Pankratova of the 586th Fighter Regiment
In June 1941, Nazi armies surged eastward in a massive, 2,000-mile-long invasion of the Soviet Union, known as Operation Barbarossa. In the first week alone, Nazi warplanes destroyed more than 4,000 Red Air Force aircraft out of a fleet of 7,700 planes and along with them countless Russian pilots were killed. Messerschmitts shot down Soviet fighters almost at will while inexperienced Russian pilots resorted to kamikaze-like tactics such as trying to ram the faster, far more maneuverable German warplanes.
Desperate for new planes and pilots, Stalin’s high command turned to the Soviet Union’s celebrated woman flier Marina Raskova (known as the “Russian Amelia Earhart”) to organize three regiments of female pilots. Raskova selected 200 recruits between 18 and 22 years old. They became the only women to fly in combat during World War II. (Their American counterparts, the Women’s Army Air Corps, were involved mainly in shuttling planes from one stateside airfield to another.)
One of the three Soviet units was the 586th Fighter Regiment, in which author C.S. Taylor places his fictional narrator, Lieutenant Nadezhda “Nadya” Buzina, in his novel “Nadya’s War.”
It is a “novel” read indeed for several reasons. For one, Taylor dismisses the age-old writers’ creed – “write what you know.” Taylor is not Russian (Oregon born), nor is he a Cossack like his heroine; also, he did not serve in the Red Army (USMC Reserve) and, perhaps most obvious of all, he is not a she.
Taylor Deftly Manages to Avoid the Worst Excesses
Nevertheless, Taylor deftly manages to create a thoroughly believable story, but not without a few missteps. His metaphors often sound contrived; also, his attempts to exhibit his bona fides about Soviet military weaponry and aircraft sound as if they came right out of the instruction manuals, as in these brief examples:
“I pushed the throttle forward and my fighter started down the runway. It built up speed like a wild horse cut free from the pens, and I was along for the ride. I used the left rudder pedal to counter the plane’s innate desire to hook right, lest I crash before leaving the ground.”
Once airborne Nadya tells us why Kareliya, one of her fellow pilots, could not join in their mid-air chatter: “She couldn’t, as only a few planes in our regiment had RSI-3 Eagle radio transmitters installed. All Kareliya had was the RSI-3 Hawk receiver.”
Another failing of the Soviet collective system, no doubt.
To Taylor’s credit, Nadya is not a one-dimensional character. She is a dedicated pilot and devoted defender of the communist Motherland. She is driven to become a great woman pilot partially out of fear that her secret will be discovered: Her parents fought on the side of the White Army against the revolutionary forces of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution.
Nadya is also driven by her desire to confront and kill German ace Gerhard Rademacher, who shot down her closest friend Martyona. She and the other flyers in the wing form close, if not lasting, friendships because of their dangerous duty. It is Nadya’s desire to revenge Martyona’s death that becomes the arc that drives the narrative.
Nadya Encounters More Trouble on the Ground than in the Air
As narrator and aviator, Nadya encounters more trouble on the ground than in the air because of her unwillingness to bow and bend to every order or charge brought against her. Her obstinacy grounds her and confines her to a prison-like detention for days on end. When she is freed, she forces herself to swallow her pride and apologize on several occasions so that she can fly again.
Taylor certainly has done his homework when it comes to portraying the Stalinist regime’s cruelty toward its own fighters. On an early sortie, Nadya’s plane is downed following an aerial encounter with a Messerschmitt and she is injured. When she eventually makes her way back to her base she is confronted by a cruel NKVD Commissar who accuses her of being a deserter because ipso facto she survived.
“The Commissar pulled his weapon and leveled it at my head,” Nadya tells us. “’I should shoot you on the spot and save myself the trouble of an investigation. You’d serve as a good example to the rest. Failing one’s duties won’t be tolerated.” That won’t be the last time Nadya and the Commissar cross paths.
No wonder Soviet soldiers feared repatriation after being released from prison camps.
Taylor reveals another Interesting oddity: the women flyers slept in dugouts outdoors on mattresses on top of straw. As Nadya explains:
“We didn’t have the luxury of sleeping in buildings since they were more susceptible to explosions during an air raid. Our earthen homes could survive a near miss by a five-hundred-kilogram bomb, whereas a typical wood dwelling would be turned into splinters by similar blasts. Some nights, however, when water stood on the floor and the mice took home in our covers, I would’ve been willing to risk being turned into a crater for a proper room and a clean bed.”
Homage to Soviet Union’s Most Famous Wartime Aviatrix
The ending of Nadya’s War is perhaps a homage to Taylor’s likely inspiration for his protagonist, Lilya (Lily) Vladimirovna Litvyak, the Soviet Union’s most famous wartime aviatrix who was also attached to the 586th Fighter Regiment. Litvyak disappeared over enemy-held territory on August 1, 1943, after completing 268 sorties, 12 aerial solo kills and three group kills in less than one year. Her body wasn’t recovered until 1979.