"My superiors made no distinction between male and female regiments of which the girls were very proud. I must admit, however, I sometimes wished they remembered that our regiment consisted of women, and would not send them into the very hell. Every pilot, every crew member became dear to me. I loved them all, was proud of them, and dreaded the possibility that any one of them might not return...," wrote Major Valentin Markov, the male commander of the women's dive bomber wing, in this unique collection of WWII memoirs that tell, in a simple, unaffected style, the story of the three women's wings which owed their existence to Marina Raskova, a remarkable pioneer woman navigator-pilot.
Of the three women's wings, the night bomber regiment was awarded an unprecedented number of Gold Stars of Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest Soviet decoration, and its aircrews at times flew as many as eighteen short-range missions per night. The unit was staffed exclusively by women. In contrast, the dive bomber and fighter wings included some male personnel, mainly in ground support roles. As well, the fighter wing eventually acquired one male squadron, in part as replacement of a female squadron previously sent to Stalingrad. Alexander Gridnev, the unit's second permanent wing commander, recently presented his controversial memoirs to Reina Pennington, Russian history professor and retired U.S. Air Force captain, for translation into English. The excerpt cited below describes a successful landing in a crippled Pe-2 bomber carried out by Aleksandra (Sasha) Krivonogova, flight commander of the 125th Dive Bomber Regiment:
"They were fully aware of the gravity of their situation. Their aircraft was uncontrollable. With throttle control alone it was possible to fly straight only, albeit with difficulty, but one could not fly straight indefinitely.
"...Instead of proceeding home in a joint formation, Krivonogova had to fly along the front line for some time in the dense explosions of anti-aircraft shells. Ably manoeuvring her engines' power settings, she slowly—on the verge of stalling—turned her crippled machine and headed toward home airfield. The forty minutes of flying seemed like an eternity. Finally, the airfield appeared below them. Here, aircraft that had just landed were quickly taxiing away, clearing the runway. An ambulance and a tractor sped to the scene. On the ground, all knew that Krivonogova was attempting to land. Her landing approach had to be absolutely faultless, with no misses or errors of any kind, since the control wheel of the machine was dead. The pilot had but the engines and trim tabs at her disposal.
"The nerves of the observers on the ground were strained to the utmost. Krivonogova's ground support personnel were incapable of looking at the field. Then the bomber smoothly touched down and sped along the runway. Finally, the pilot switched off the engine, the propellers stopped, and a collective sigh of relief rolled over the airfield. Flight, ground support, and command personnel—all ran to the aircraft to congratulate the pilot.
"She certainly deserved to be congratulated! She had manifested an unusual skill, self-possession, and presence of mind. Then a messenger ran out from the HQ, carrying a telegram from the command element of the ground troops which the bomber group had supported—thanking us for a job exceptionally well done. Soon the aircraft of the corps commander himself touched down on the airfield; the general came to congratulate Krivonogova in person and to announce that she would be awarded the Order of Patriotic War I Class for her valour and skill. We counted fifty-seven shot-holes in her aircraft!"