By L. Ross
75 years ago Naziism was defeated, after a six year war and immense sacrifice. The Trump White House, ever self-congratulatory, recently tweeted: “On May 8, 1945, America and Great Britain had victory over the Nazis! America’s spirit will always win. In the end, that’s what happens”.
Except the White House forgot something. This should fix it for them:
From the moment the Nazis attacked the USSR ( June 22, 1941) the overwhelming majority of their military machine, the Wehrmacht, was devoted to the Eastern Front. The Red Army fought, and over three years destroyed, the Wehrmacht’s elite, the veterans who had overrun the rest of Europe in seemingly invincible blitzkrieg after blitzkrieg. Before the invasion at Normandy (June 6, 1944) the Western Allies never faced more than 10 Wehrmacht divisions; the Red Army faced over 200. By the time the Western Allies landed in France the German armies facing them were a shredded force, almost half of them not even German. Even after Normandy over 80% of the forces fighting the Nazis were Soviet. The US and UK respectively lost 400,000 and 450,000 dead in WW2. The USSR lost 27 million—7 million soldiers and 20 million civilians—while inflicting three times as many casualties on the Nazis as all other fronts combined.
When the Nazis launched their surprise attack against the U.S.S.R. in June 1941 the Western Allies openly speculated that the USSR would be defeated in 6 weeks. In his Mein Kampf Hitler wrote of being inspired by the U.S.’s slave plantations and reservation system for Native Americans for his genocidal designs against the Slavic peoples: “those who survived the initial conquest would be driven to Siberia to be worked to death on “reservations” there, leaving all Slavic Europe open to German colonization.”
How did the USSR, economically and technologically less developed than Nazi Germany, not simply survive but turn the tide to win the war almost single-handedly? Two factors allowed victory in what was the largest military struggle in human history.
The first factor was the ability of socialist planning to rapidly marshal resources, build up the economy and raise the technological level of the people who only 25 years before had been largely illiterate and living in feudal poverty. The mechanization of agriculture through successive Five Year Plans allowed Soviet workers and peasants to grasp modern warfare. Additonally, the construction of entire industrial cities allowed the unprecedented mass production of the tanks, planes and other armaments needed for the struggle, achieving a technological level matching, and by war’s end surpassing, that of their Nazi foe. No one can credibly argue that a Tsarist or capitalist regime could possibly have achieved what socialism did in so short a time. And no one can credibly argue that either could have freed, uplifted and trained women—half the Soviet people—as did the Revolution to unleash their heroism to add to the cause.
The second factor was a revolutionary fighting spirit unlike any other in history, inspiring soldiers and civilians alike, men and women, from youth to elders. The Communist Party played the central role in raising and maintaining this spirit, its commissars (political officers) and general membership leading by example and great sacrifice—so much so that the Nazis issued their infamous Commissar Order, stating that all commissars and “active representatives of the Bolshevist ideology” must be summarily executed upon capture. Every Soviet citizen knew they were fighting for their lives and for each other, as individuals and as a people—the Soviet Resistance was a true precursor to what would later be called People’s War. When Red Army units were surrounded and cut off they became partisans harrying Nazi supply lines; when a city fell, arms were distributed and its people became urban guerrillas and saboteurs. Women fought alongside men, very often rising to leadership through both spirit and skill.
Such a woman was Lilya Litvyak. At age 14 she joined a young pilots club and had her first solo flight at 15. She graduated from the Kherson military flying school and became a flight instructor; by the time of the Nazi invasion she’d already trained 45 pilots. She joined the all-women 586th Fighter Regiment, dubbed “Night Witches” by the Nazis as they rained bombs down on German positions after dark, gliding to their targets to achieve surprise before re-engaging their engines to fly back to base. Her distinction here—her commander called her “a born fighter pilot”—earned her a chance to transfer to another regiment where her skills could be put to different use, against the Nazi air force, the Luftwaffe, over the Battle of Stalingrad (August 23, 1942 to February 2, 1943).
In one encounter she shot down a German fighter on the tail of her squadron commander, saving her life. The Luftwaffe pilot, an 11-victory ace himself, was captured after parachuting from his plane, and asked to meet the Red Air Force pilot who had shot him down. When he was taken to Litvyak he first thought he was being made the butt of a Soviet joke, but as Litvyak calmly described each maneuver and counter-maneuver of their combat he knew he’d been shot down by a woman pilot.
Litvyak was promoted to lieutenant and selected to become one of the “free hunters” (okhotniki)—ace pilots who flew in pairs searching for targets on their own initiative. Wounded twice in battle, the second time taking her plane down safely making a belly landing, she refused medical leave, demanding to return to her unit. Her Yakovlev-1 fighter, its side emblazoned with a bright “32”, inspired her Red Army comrades resisting the Nazi onslaught in the grim street fighting below, who in turn named her the “Rose of Stalingrad” or “Lily of Stalingrad.”
Another of her victories was against a German observation balloon guiding the accuracy of Wehrmacht artillery fire. These were notoriously dangerous targets as they were heavily guarded. Several Soviet airmen had already failed to take it out, driven away by dense anti-aircraft fire. Litvyak flew alone in a wide circle over enemy-held territory, approaching from the rear to detonate the hydrogen-filled balloon with tracer rounds. After this kill she was promoted to command her own squadron in the 73 rd Guards Fighter Regiment (the Guards distinction being given only to the most heroic Red Army and Air Force units).
In her last mission—her fourth sortie of August 1st, 1943—during the Battle of Kursk she attacked a large group of Luftwaffe bombers, not seeing their fighter escort high above. Recognizing her plane the escort dove to attack. Her comrade Ivan Borisenko from another part of the dogfight recalled seeing her turn to meet them; soon all disappeared behind cloud cover. He saw her once more through a gap in the clouds, her plane pouring smoke while pursued by as many as eight German fighters—after the war captured records showed two to have been piloted by Nazi aces who were given credit for killing her. With a mortal head wound she still rammed her fighter into the plane of one of the aces, taking his life along with her own. She was 21 years old. She was one of millions.
Someone tell the White House—this was how the war was won.
This article was updated on May 12, 2020, with this correction: After this kill she was promoted to command her own squadron in the 73 rd Guards Fighter Regiment (the Guards distinction being given only to the most heroic Red Army and Air Force units).