The VVS knew the attack would come on July 5, but not the precise time or location. So they boldly decided to attack preemptively and throw the Wehrmacht timeline into confusion. More than three hundred aircraft took part in the raid, but they were detected 80 miles out by German radar. Messerschmitts from JG 52 and JG 3 lifted off and hit the Soviets just as they were making their initial attacks, and more than a hundred VVS aircraft went down.

The Ninth Army began its pincer from Orel, north of the salient, as the 4th Panzer Army stabbed upward from the Kharkov area. More than 3,000 German tanks, including the new Panthers and Tigers, sliced into the Russian positions. Hitler had purposely delayed the offensive until his new tanks were ready, thinking they would be decisive. Unfortunately, the delay also gave the Soviets time to prepare 3,000 miles of trenches and lay nearly a half million mines. There were also over a million Russian troops with 3,600 tanks to oppose the Germans. The VVS could muster about 2,500 combat aircraft, of which half were fighters.

For a week both sides slugged it out. The Soviets, and in particular the VVS, took frightful losses. One estimate puts fighter losses at over 50 percent and ground attack aircraft down by a third. This again revealed Russian weaknesses in aircraft and especially in pilots. Numerically the VVS exceeded the Luftwaffe, by five to one in some cases, but pilot experience levels were vastly different, and it showed. JG 52 passed the 6,000-kill mark when Operation Citadel began. Bubi Hartmann, Gerd Barkhorn, and Günther Rall, the top three aces of all time, were part of this extraordinary fighter wing. Six of the fifteen top Luftwaffe aces flew with JG 52 and between them accounted for 1,580 aircraft.

The Red Air Force had its ringers as well. Ivan Kozhedub ended the war as the top Allied ace, with sixty-four confirmed kills. Sasha Pokryshkin, a Siberian peasant who emerged as the top tactician of the VVS, was right behind him. Pokryshkin pioneered a layered defense based on aircraft type. This type of “fighter stack” had been used by the Germans on the Western Front during the Great War and was adapted by both Mölders and Galland during the Battle of Britain. Pokryshkin’s talent, other than killing, was defying conventional VVS and Russian dogma by thinking for himself. Just as the RAF’s Hugh Dowding could see the value of radar, early warning, and radio-controlled intercepts, so too could Pokryshkin.

Three times a Hero of the Soviet Union, an honor he shared with Ivan Kozhedub, Sasha almost certainly had a higher number of actual kills than Kozhedub. At least a dozen of his earliest weren’t credited to him, and he often gave his victories away to pilots who had been killed. This passed on the government-supplied bonus to the dead pilots’ families and gave them some measure of support. Phenomenal aviator that he was, Sasha Pokryshkin was forbidden to fly after the summer of 1944 for fear that his death would devastate Soviet morale. Both Russian aces, like Hartmann, Barkhorn, and Rall, would survive the war.

On July 12 Operation Citadel came to a head in an immense tank battle outside Prokhorovka, about 40 miles southeast of Kursk. The II SS Panzer Corps had been advancing north from the Belgorad area when several Soviet armies were thrown against them. More than a thousand tanks engaged, and at the end of the long, bloody day the German thrust had been halted. To be stopped in this, their last great offensive, meant time was running out for the Wehrmacht.

It was also running out for Lilya Litvyak. On July 16 she ran up against a fifty-three-victory ace named Hans Grünberg. Pouncing on a formation of thirty Ju-88s near Luhansk, she’d shot one down when Grunberg jumped her. He’d already accounted for two Yaks that day and knew exactly who was flying this particular Russian fighter with the white flower painted on the side. Big 30 mm shells had ripped into her plane, but Lilya managed to slip and slide away from a lethal hit. Sometime during the joust the German overshot and Lilya repositioned, rolling around behind the Messerschmitt. Hosing off bursts from her own 20 mm cannon, she was able to watch him ditch the fighter.

Three days later she wasn’t so lucky. Her wingman went down when they were attacked by at least eight 109s. Crashing, gear up, into a farmer’s field behind enemy lines, Lilya thought her war was over. If she surrendered, she knew, she could never go home again due to Stalin’s Order 270, and her family would also be thrown into prison. If she fought back against the approaching German infantry she would certainly die. But just then a dirty green Shturmovik dropped out of the sky and bounced in for a landing, and the pilot threw open the cockpit. Hobbling across the field, clutching her leg, Lilya made it to the plane. The pilot hauled her inside, goosed the power, and slammed the canopy shut as they staggered back into the aio many close calls normally means your bag of luck is empty. If possible, pilots go on leave or stay on the ground until the ominous signs pass. This couldn’t be done when every experienced pilot was needed to fight the still very formidable Luftwaffe—not that Lilya would’ve done it anyway.

On August 1, 1943, Lilya Litvyak took off from her airfield near Krasny Luch in southeastern Ukraine. Her first two sorties involved escorting Shturmoviks to attack German positions to the west. The third time up, in late morning, she shot down a 109G and shared a second kill on another. Around noon, she took off on her fourth mission of the day, to intercept a large formation of Ju 88s crossing the lines heading east.

Weather had been building from the noonday heat; like a field of mushrooms, the big, puffy clouds reflected sunlight bounced from the edges. Yellow beams slanted into countless shifting canyons, as the dark green Russian fighter sliced down to line up on the bombers. The tired, wounded pilot never saw two of the escorting Messerschmitts roll inverted and dive at her.

Orange tracers arced across the sky as nearly fifty aircraft swirled, twisted, and killed each other. Lilya’s wingman, Ivan Borisenko, was fighting for his own life, but he caught a glimpse of her turning back toward the Germans. As the three fighters clawed at each other they fell into the clouds and disappeared. As fast as it had begun it was over, and the survivors limped home, Borisenko among them.

But not Lilya.

Hours went by and the ground crews waited. Waited until night fell and the stars came out. Waited for word from somewhere that she’d bailed out or landed. But there was nothing. It was her 168th combat mission, and she never came back.

Thirty-six years later, in 1979, villagers near the town of Dmytrivka discovered the skeleton of a small woman. From the gold fillings in the teeth, the Soviet government identified the remains as those of Lidiya Vladirmirovna Litvyak. Eleven years later, during a celebration of the forty-fifth anniversary of World War II, the last premier of Stalin’s Communist Russia awarded Lilya a medal—she was at last a Hero of the Soviet Union.

Many people, experts and friends alike, don’t believe that she died that afternoon over the Ukraine. One very plausible theory is that she collided with, or rammed, one of the attacking Messerschmitts. Luftwaffe records confirm that Hans-Jorg Merkle, a twenty-nine-victory ace from JG 52, was credited with a kill against a Yak-1b on August 1, 1943, in the same area in which Lilya vanished. One of the surviving Germans also stated that Merkle had been rammed. In any event, he didn’t survive. Whether she rammed the Messerschmitt or her plane was too badly damaged to make it back, Lilya very well could’ve survived only to find herself behind the German lines again, and this time she was captured. Dr. Kazimiera Cottam, an expert on Soviet female combat veterans, is certain Lilya survived. If she’d been captured, then knowing what awaited her in Russia after the war may have convinced her that there was no going back. She would’ve faced a filtration camp, or worse, as would her family. Maybe, she thought, it was better to have them think she was dead, her reputation untarnished and her family safe.

Cottam also wrote that “Russian television featured a broadcast from Switzerland during which a correspondent introduced a former Soviet woman World War II pilot, a mother of three children who was twice wounded during the war and resided abroad since the war.” On a practical note, the village of Dmytrivka, where her remains were “discovered,” is more than 50 miles northwest of where Lilya’s final dogfight occurred. This was the wrong direction for a pilot trying to land a damaged plane, and she would have known that.

Lilya Litvyak may or may not have died that day in August 1943. Regardless of her end, in the end the White Rose of Stalingrad, and her legacy as an extraordinary fighter pilot, live on forever.

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