I recently read some comics that actually got me to check off a book that’s been sitting on my to-read pile (or, to use Greg Hatcher’s far better term, shelf of shame) for well over ten years. The comics were the installments of Garth Ennis’ series Battlefields (published by Dynamite) dedicated to the character named Anna Kharkova, a Soviet combat pilot during World War II and after, and they led me to dust off and finally read A Dance with Death. Soviet Airwomen in World War II. This is a collection of oral histories dictated by the airwomen in question to the book’s nominal author, Anne Noggle, in 1990. I came across it on sale in a local bookstore and snapped it up – and then took it home and tucked it away on a bookshelf, with the thought of, “I’ll get to it soon.” Yeah, right.
Anyway, I’m glad the Ennis series shamed me into reading it, because it is well worth reading. I don’t quite exactly recall when I learned about the Soviet airwomen, probably sometime in the late 1990s when I stumbled across an article or post of some sort on the then still new-fangled internet – it certainly wasn’t in high school or even college, where the immense Russian/Soviet contribution to actually winning the Second World War was regularly downplayed. The fact that there were women actively serving in combat in the former Soviet Union (and not just there) during World War II, and distinguishing themselves as fighter pilots among other things, has fascinated me ever since.
The accounts collected by Noggle (herself a former pilot in the American Woman Air Force Service, who later retired from US Air Force with the rank of captain) were translated by her friend Margarita Ponomaryova. Noggle, also a photographer and former art professor, photographed all of the then still living airwomen and these portraits are included at the end of the book.
Most of the women who shared their memories in this book were veterans of three aviation combat regiments: the 46th Guards Bomber Regiment (initially called the 588th Night Bomber Regiment), the 125th Guards Bomber Regiment (initially called the 587th Regiment) and the 586th Fighter Regiment. The regiments were formed thanks to the efforts of Marina Raskova, an aviation navigator and later pilot who was already something of a celebrity in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, as she and two other women aviators broke some distance records (by flying all the way to Russia’s far east). Her status was similar to that of Amelia Earhart in the US. (She died in a plane crash in early 1943 while flying to an airbase, before she could actually participate in any combat flights.) The first of these regiments (46th) is perhaps the best known, often mentioned in foreign accounts of the Soviet airwomen, as they were famously nicknamed the “Night Witches” (Nachthexen) by the Nazis because they flew in over German positions at night and dropped bombs on them – usually they cut their engines before they got close so they couldn’t be heard, and the planes they flew were basically old-fashioned bi-planes, mostly made of wood and canvas. The book’s title actually comes from the testimony of one of this regiment’s members, pilot Serafima Amosova-Taranenko, who described each night-time bombing raid as “a dance with death.”
It’s so interesting reading the accounts because these veterans often look back on their experiences in different ways – some of them really took to their duties and, of course, enjoyed flying, and remained in the military and/or aviation after the war, while others never wanted to fly or deal with planes ever again once the war ended. However, something common to all of them is their pride in what they accomplished and their contribution to their country’s defense.
The pilot in the old photograph on the book’s cover, by the way, is named Raisa Surnachevskaya, who was a member of the 586th Regiment. She and another pilot, Tamara Pamyatnykh, recounted a really interesting story: in March 1943 they were sent out on a mission to shoot down a German recon plane near a vital railroad junction. They actually ran into two formations of bombers, 42 planes in all, that were probably going to bomb the hell out of said junction. So they engaged them, each of them managing to shoot down two planes before they were both strafed themselves and forced to make crash landings (and survive!). But they succeeded in getting the Nazi squadron to scatter and turn back without dropping any bombs. Apparently word of this somehow got to Great Britain, and the queen at the time, the mother of the current queen, urged King George VI to send them both inscribed gold watches in recognition of their heroism.
It’s worth noting that besides pilots and navigators, women also served as aircraft mechanics and armament (ordnance) technicians in these regiments. One thing that comes out of their accounts is how seriously they took their jobs, and how concerned they were about the crews of “their” planes while they were on missions, always taking it very hard if they didn’t return. Also, some of their descriptions of the work they did often made me physically cringe, .e.g., like when they note that during the super-frigid Russian winters, the skin on their fingers would get stuck to the frozen metal of the aircraft parts or bombshells and tear off. Gaaaaghhhh!
Now this leads to the comics I actually read first, mini-series installments in the Battlefields metaseries written by Garth Ennis, with art by Russ Braun: The Night Witches, Motherland and The Fall and Rise of Anna Kharkova. I’m pretty sure Ennis read Noggle’s book, or some of the other scholarly texts that were published after it, because his titular character, Anna Kharkova, is a bit of an amalgam of several of the actual airwomen. Of course, it’s considerably embellished, and Kharkova sort of passes through the whole experience of the Soviet airwomen, starting out as one of the ‘Night Witches’ and then ending up as a fighter pilot – which, at least based on the accounts in Noggle’s book, was not a common career path for any of these women (although in a few cases, navigators, and even a few mechanics, did become pilots, but in the same regiment).
(The lettering on the covers, by the way, is a pet peeve of mine, i.e., spelling out words in Latin characters but using the Cyrillic letters that are – somewhat – similar to them. If you can read Cyrillic, you can see what they spell is gibberish. For example, the letters used to render the name Anna Kharkova on those last three covers actually spell, if properly transliterated into Latin, DIID KNDYAKOLD – and the ‘L’-equivalent is actually actually turned upside down to make it look like a ‘v’).
The first series, The Night Witches, introduces readers to the young Anna Kharkova, as she begins her career as a combat pilot in the regiment that would become known as the Night Witches. In this one, though, Ennis tells a parallel story, following a German infantry unit moving toward Stalingrad, which is narrated by a young soldier named Kurt Graf, who is a little more sensitive and considerably less bloodthirsty than his battle-hardened comrades (which disgusts his particularly cruel sergeant). In fact, the story opens with these German troops advancing.
We first see Kharkova when she and other new recruits report to duty to their new commander, a surly pilot who is none-too-pleased with the prospect of being responsible for a bunch of women with their “female requirements” (this initial skepticism on the part of many male military personnel is something mentioned by several actual airwomen in Noggle’s book.) There’s a nice little humorous bit here, as Kharkova shows up for duty with a seat cushion, which she needs to sit on to see out of the cockpit of her plane – much to the commander’s consternation (again, this is something a few of the actual more short-of-stature pilots mentioned that they had to do).
Otherwise, though, there some very effective illustrations of the horror of the war on what we in the West called the Russian Front. I’ll avoid posting any of that disturbing imagery, but suffice it to say that Ennis made sure that the story, and Braun made sure that the art, conveyed all of the carnage and related atrocities of war. It’s not pretty, and not romanticized.
The two narratives in the first series come together in the last chapter, i.e., Kharkova and Graf do meet after her plane is shot down, and not to spoil too much, but the ending is pretty brutal.
The second series, Motherland, sees Kharkova transferred to an otherwise all-male fighter regiment, because she’s scarred by the tragic events at the end of the preceding series (mainly the deaths of her commander – who eventually became her lover – and her navigator and best friend, Zoya, when their plane is shot down by the Nazis) and can’t work with anybody in the squadron. She was on the verge of being discharged, but the regimental commanding officer is impressed with her reputation as a pilot and requested her transfer (there were some women pilots in mainly male units, but it was pretty rare according to Noggle’s book). She is now flying solo in an actual bomber rather than the rickety aircraft used in her previous regiment. In this series, Kharkova is, obviously, quite hardened, and we also see that she’s psychologically scarred, as she has “conversations” with her now deceased friend, Zoya, and is sometimes seen talking to her out loud by her rather mystified comrades. Furthermore, her mechanic is a young girl, Private Meriutsa, nicknamed ‘Mouse’, who stutters nervously and absolutely idolizes Anna. There’s an echo of the humor seen in the first series, but there are also some troubling scenes, as initially Anna treats Mouse quite harshly.
Another character introduced here is Merkulov, a political commissar who comes to despise Kharkova because she witnesses him lose his composure and ball up on the ground in fetal position, cringing in fear, during a Nazi air-raid on their base. He turns up later to cause problems for her. Otherwise, Kharkova comes into her own as a combat pilot, winning the respect of everyone in her regiment and winning a medal (Hero of the Soviet Union). And as it comes to a close, a bunch of new, inexperienced women pilots join the regiment and are placed under Kharkova’s command, something that initially makes her bristle but which she then comes to accept and appreciate.
The last series, The Fall and Rise of Anna Kharkova, starts near the end of the war, as the Soviet military is moving westward in pursuit of the retreating Nazis. Kharkova and Mouse, now also a pilot, are on an unauthorized flight behind enemy lines (they’re supposed to be on a defensive patrol near their base) when they’re hit by antiaircraft fire. Kharkova is hit and badly wounded. Her plane crash lands but she survives, and wakes up in the infirmary of a Nazi prison camp, all bandaged up and in traction. She is being treated by another POW, a British officer (who’s Jewish). The Nazis abandon the camp when Soviet troops approach, and Kharkova stays behind, only to be accused of being a traitor by the first Soviet soldier who finds her (also a woman). This reflects the fact that during the war, Stalin apparently said that there are no Soviet prisoners of war, only traitors – the implication being that if you ‘permitted’ yourself to get captured, you’re probably collaborating with the enemy. This part of the story is also based on the real-life experience, and testimony, of at least one of the Soviet airwomen, Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova, a pilot and navigator who served in a mainly male regiment and who was shot down over the Belorussian Front. Her parachute didn’t completely open, so she sustained heavy injuries when she landed in enemy territory. She was held in a German camp for international POWs and received some minimal medical attention from a Russian physician who was also interned there (the Nazis refused to treat her). After Soviet troops liberated the camp, she was then transferred to a Soviet prison camp, and had to endure a series of interrogations and hearings with the secret police before she was cleared of any charges of “collaboration.”
The second chapter begins with Kharkova stationed at an airbase in the Russian far east in 1951, where her former mechanic and later flight comrade, Mouse, is now her commanding officer. We learn in flashbacks that after the war, Kharkova was put before a political tribunal (one of its members was the scumbag Merkulov) under charges of collaboration with the fascists. She was cleared of all charges when Mouse, now a highly-decorated major, interrupted the hearing and vouched for Kharkova, reminding the tribunal of Kharkova’s career, heroism and many decorations.
Anyway, back in the “present,” Kharkova is now training Chinese pilots to fly the simpler type of craft that she flew when she began her career at the onset of World War II. She looks longingly at the new MiGs parked on the same runway. Soon she and Mouse are informed by a gloating Merkulov (that bastard again!), who has just been reassigned to the base, that their services are no longer needed and that they’re being sent back to Moscow. This leads Kharkova to commandeer one of the MiGs and actually engage an American fighter jet, and force the pilot to eject. When she returns, she’s – obviously – in hot water, but she also ends up getting Mouse in trouble, as she is stripped of her rank and also thrown into the brig with Anna.
And that leads to the final chapter: it’s now 1964, and both Kharkova and Mouse have been interned in a Soviet military prison camp in Siberia all that time. The camp’s commander, by the way, is the one-and-only Merkulov. There’s an airbase adjacent to the camp, where the latest model MiG is being tested. In a fashion similar to the preceding chapter, Kharkova finds a way to commandeer it and then zoom out eastward into American air space. She’s intercepted by several USAF jets, whose pilots ask her what her intentions are… and I won’t spoil it, although the ending is a somewhat, and deliberately, ambiguous.
In general, this is a very good series, and definitely worth reading. Even so, I was a bit disappointed by the concluding chapters. I think it’s good that Ennis included the many truly reprehensible aspects of the Soviet regime in his story, since it did touch on the actual lives of a number of the real Soviet airwomen (like pretty much everyone else in the country), but those last two chapters seemed a bit repetitive, what with Kharkova taking a MiG on a joyride as a major plot point, and perhaps a bit overdone. Also, I lost a bit of sympathy for Kharkova when her initial insubordination caused Mouse – someone who loved her and always helped her in every way from the beginning – to lose everything and also end up interned in Siberia.
Anyway, the fact is that most of the airwomen went on to lead pretty normal lives after the war; I think it would have been just as interesting to have an epilogue that showed Kharkova living a perhaps more mundane life, either working in civilian aviation (which several of the WW2 veterans did), or in the military, eventually becoming an instructor for the future cosmonauts (which at least one of the veterans did).
And needless to say, I definitely recommend Noggle’s book if you have even a passing interest in World War II history, Russian/Soviet history, oral histories, women’s history or female pilots and/or women in combat roles.