|"It was very difficult to be the leader of a male squadron. They trust you – not because you are a woman, but because you are a skillful and trained pilot. The Germans always fired at the lead plane, because if the leader was shot down, the formation would disperse and leave without the commander."|
Senior Lieutenant Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova of the Soviet Union's 805th Ground Attack Regiment wasn't one of history's most badass aviatrixes just because she neck-punched antiquated social conventions and resolutely commanded a squadron of airmen who unquestioningly followed her orders. It's not even because she flew one of the most versatile and effective attack craft of the Second World War and survived nearly 250 combat missions at a time when the typical pilot was lucky to make it to 10 without getting pulped into ground beef by any number of highly-efficient German devices designed for shredding aircraft armor apart like a .50-caliber sniper rifle round punching through a can of Sprite. No, Timofeyeva-Yegorova was a badass chick because she never backed down from anything, ever, no matter how intense – not misogynistic subordinates, not perpetual German anti-aircraft fire, and not even harsh interrogations from two of the most brutal, torture-iffic secret police organizations this side of the Inquisition. She had one primary objective in life – dessicating fascists into bloodless hunks of meat – and she pursued it with the sort of unstoppable relentlessness that would have made the Terminator himself manufacture tear ducts for the sole purpose of crying a single tear of joy.
Anna's quest to defend her homeland from the specter of Fascism started from a pretty inauspicious place. Yegorova (her vowel-rich name is generally shortened to this to preserve the sanity of all those reading and/or writing about her) was one of 16 children born to an apparently-nymphomaniac peasant family in some podunk village in Western Russia. In her early years, Anna neglected annoying serf duties, went to school, studied history and physics, and eventually moved to Moscow. In the city she found work as a locksmith, a flight instructor, and a construction worker, where she helped build the Metro.
Being well-versed in a variety of manual labor specialties is cool or whatever, but the day she heard about the war breaking out, Yegorova immediately got pissed, ran down to the recruiting office, and volunteered to serve her country in combat. As soon as they heard that she was an experienced pilot, the Soviet Air Force dropped Anna in the cockpit of a miserably-shitty Polikarpov Po-2 reconnaissance plane and set her to work scouting out enemy troop movements and weapon emplacements. While this may sound like some kind of cushy desk job or some ballsack, in reality this kind of recon work is about as safe as strapping on a hot dog vest and trying to sprint through the tiger enclosure at the zoo. Clumsily looping through the air in a dinky wooden aircraft with a top speed that makes a Segway look like a jet engine, this fearless pilot spent the first two years of her military career flying out in broad daylight looking for locations packed with ground-to-air artillery and people looking to kill her, then circling around the bullets for a little while until she had a good mental count of what was in the area before finally heading home.
The risks associated with this sort of work are perhaps best exemplified in one particular mission Yegorova undertook in mid-1942. She was dispatched by high command to haul ass to the front lines and deliver a critical message to some randome battlefield commander, but right as she was putt-putt-putting her way to the warzone in a flying typewriter she suddenly found her plane locked firmly in the gun sights of a state-of-the-art German fighter aircraft. Yegorova attempted to evade, but there's really only so much you can do when your plane handles like a shopping cart and your only armament is a small-caliber handgun strapped to a holster on your thigh. The Soviet aviatrix's Po-2 ended up on the wrong end of some dual-linked 20mm cannons, got punched full of holes, caught on fire, exploded, and suddenly turned into a giant, no-longer-airworthy fireball of death. Despite the notable setback that she wasn't issued a parachute with her uniform (Soviet high command's view was that people were significantly more expendable of a resource than canvas), Yegorova somehow managed to pull out of a fiery death-spiral, ditch in a field, and extricate herself from the crumpled flaming shitball before it was completely incinerated.
But the German pilot wasn't going to let this chick get off that easy. That jackass circled back around for another pass, strafing her from an extremely low altitude as she ran for the cover of a nearby cornfield. Badly burned, bruised, and exhausted, Yegorova evaded the machine gun fire, made it to a nearby cornfield, ducked behind the stalks, and buried herself under the vegetation. The German guy came back around again, but when he was unable to find her he got bored and went home.
Not only is this about as hardcore as an Everlasting Gobstopper, but it's not even the best part of the story. As I mentioned in the intro – Anna Yegorova never backed down from anything, and never gave up on her mission. Before the plane had burnt to a crisp, she somehow managed to pull the commander's orders out of the cockpit and jam them into her flight vest. Now burned, bruised, and half-dead she got up, dusted herself off, and ran to the front lines on foot, hand-delivering the message to the commander in the middle of a raging firefight against German tanks.
Balls-out displays like this are hard to overlook, and after a couple more demonstrations of her titanium ovaries, the Soviets decided to train Yegorova as a combat pilot. She didn't join Raskova's Night Witches like many other women pilots of the time, however – instead she fell in as one of the only female pilots in the all-male 805th Ground Attack Regiment. Yegorova was assigned to fly the Il-2 Shturmovik attack aircraft, which was a significant upgrade over the Po-2 bullshittery she'd been stuck with over the first two years of her career. The Sturmovik was serious shit – it wasn't fancy, but it sported decent armor, two machine guns, and either 1,300 pounds of bombs or 8 rockets, depending on what kind of mood you were in at the time. Primarily used to sautee the fuck out of tanks, railways, airfields, and even warships, this thing was like the A-10 Warthog of World War II. Only without the Avenger gun. And it blew up a lot. Like, a lot.
For the next two years, Anna Yegorova gave the middle finger to the obscene casualty rates of the Soviet Air Force and flew 243 combat missions, busting German armor across the Taman Peninsula, across the Stalingrad Campaign, through Belorussia, and over Poland. She received the Order of the Red Banner for a mission where she volunteered to fly into a heavily-defended German area and drop smoke bombs to conceal the movements of advancing Soviet troops, was then promoted to Squadron Commander and Regimental Navigator. Even in Soviet Russia, where it wasn't completely uncommon for women to serve in front-line warfare, a warrior babe had to have some serious badass cred if she wanted a bunch of hotshot men to follow her orders. Anna had it.
As was the case with many pilots during this hellacious war, Anna's luck eventually ran out. On 20 August 1944 her craft was hit by AA fire while she was on a strafing run against some strategically-critical German armored positions. Even as she pulled up to examine the damage, she knew the outlook was grim – her instruments were smashed, the engine was on fire, the radio was damaged, and her gunner was splattered out in pieces in the Shturmovik's backseat. But once again Anna refused to give in – this badass chick knew that if she broke off the attack, the rest of her squadron would follow her lead. As flight leader she had to stay with it no matter what, Wedge Antilles style, and make sure that her men stayed on target.
The second strafing run would be the last of her career. A German round exploded up through the bottom of her plane, detonating the craft, blowing her out through the cockpit like Goose from Top Gun, shattering the glass and probably looking kind of awesome in the process. The force of the impact caused Anna to black out temporarily, and by the time she regained consciousness and yanked the parachute cord she was already too low to the ground for the newly-issued piece of equipment to do a hell of a lot of good. Even though the 'chute opened, hitting the ground at high velocity isn't exactly like being gently licked a thousand unicorns with Skittle tongues and pillows for teeth – the bitch-force of gravity drove her hard into the ground, breaking her spine, leg, both arms, and all of her ribs in the process. In the span of about thirty seconds she'd gone from the Death Star trench run to a flying explosion to a crumpled, badly burned, broke-to-shit heap on the battlefield. German infantry closed on her position immediately, capturing her before she even had time to draw her sidearm.
Barely conscious, Anna Yegorova was dragged to a German POW camp in Poland, where she was unceremoniously dumped her in a cell and left to rot. The only medical treatment she received in captivity was from her fellow inmates, many of whom were then subsequently beaten for aiding her (though they continued to do so anyway). For six months, the half-dead pilot slowly recuperated from her grievous injuries, somehow hanging on to what was left of her life and refusing to quit. She was questioned a couple times by prison guards, the SS, and the Gestapo, but never once broke under their interrogation.
Finally, in 1945, Soviet tanks rolled into the prison camp, crushing through the walls and liberating the captured soldiers inside. The Germans killed as many POWs as they could before they left, but once again Yegarova survived. Unfortunately, the Red Army wasn't particularly interested in the humane treatment of Lieutenant Yegarova either – she was the only woman in the camp and they immediately suspected her as a traitor and a spy, arrested her, and threw her into an NKVD prison. How being a woman equates to being a traitor is anyone's guess, but there you have it. For an additional 10 days, the one-time Soviet hero was ruthlessly grilled by her own countrymen – hardcore KGB and NKVD interrogators who cut their teeth drilling information out of SS prison camp guards and Gestapo prisoners. It sucked.
But once again, Anna Yegarova showed that she had balls of steel. She was a fucking hero, and these guys were treating her like a traitor. On the eleventh day of captivity in Russia, she finally resolved to exonerate herself or die trying. When the guards came for her that evening, she pushed past them, rushed through the prison, knocked over an armed guard, and busted into the office of the NKVD Colonel in charge of the prison. Standing there defiantly as a group of Russian guards hurried after her, she told the dude straight to his face, "You can shoot me, but I won't let you torture me."
He released her that day. When she returned home she learned that she had been "posthumously" named a Heroine of the Soviet Union – the highest award for military bravery offered by the USSR.
Noggle, Anne and Christine A. White. A Dance with Death. Texas A&M University Press, 2001.
Sakaida, Henry. Heroines of the Soviet Union. Osprey, 2003.
Timofeyeva-Yegorova, Anna. Red Sky, Black Death. Slavica, 2009.
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