Born in Moscow, to a Jewish family Litvyak became interested in aviation at an early age. At 14 she enrolled in a flying club. She performed her first solo flight at 15, and later graduated at Kherson military flying school. She became a flight instructor at Kalinin Airclub, and by the time the German-Soviet war broke out, had already trained 45 pilots.
After the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, Litvyak tried to join a military aviation unit, but was turned down for lack of experience. After deliberately exaggerating her pre-war flight time by 100 hours, she joined the all-female 586th Fighter Regiment of the Air Defense Force (586 IAP/PVO, istrebitel'naia aviatsia protivovozdushnoi oborony), which was formed by Marina Raskova. She trained there on the Yakovlev Yak-1 aircraft.
Litvyak flew her first combat flights in the summer of 1942 over Saratov. In September, she was assigned to the 437 IAP, a men's regiment fighting over Stalingrad. On 10 September she moved along with Katya Budanova, Maria M. Kuznetsova and Raisa Beliaeva, the commander of the group, and accompanying female ground crew, to the regiment airfield, at Verkhnaia Akhtuba, on the east bank of the Volga river. But when they arrived the base was empty and under attack, so they soon moved to Srednaia Akhtuba. Here, flying a Yak-1 carrying the number "32" on the fuselage, she would achieve considerable success. Boris Eremin (later lieutenant general of aviation), a regimental commander in the division to which she and Budanova were assigned, saw her as "a very aggressive person" and "a born fighter pilot".
In the 437th Fighter Regiment, Litvyak scored her first two kills on 13 September, three days after her arrival and on her third mission to cover Stalingrad, becoming the first woman fighter pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft. That day, four Yak-1s—with Major S. Danilov in the lead—attacked a formation of Junkers Ju 88s escorted by Messerschmitt Bf 109s. Her first kill was a Ju 88 which fell in flames from the sky after several bursts. Then she shot down a Bf 109 G-2 "Gustav" on the tail of her squadron commander, Raisa Beliaeva. The Bf 109 was piloted by a decorated pilot from the 4th Air Fleet, commanded by General Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen (a distant relative of the Red Baron), the 11-victory ace, Staff Sergeant Erwin Maier of the 2nd Staffel of Jagdgeschwader 53. Maier parachuted from his aircraft, was captured by Soviet troops, and asked to see the Russian ace who had outflown him. When he was taken to Litvyak, he thought he was being made the butt of a Soviet joke. It was not until Litvyak described each move of the fight to him in perfect detail that he knew he had been shot down by a woman pilot. But according to other authors, the first air victory by a female pilot was achieved by 586° IAP's Lieutenant Valeriya Khomiakova when she shot down the Ju 88 flown by Oblt. Gerhard Maak of 7./KG76 on the night of 24 September 1942. On 14 September, according to some authors, Litvyak shot down another Bf 109. But on that day, the Luftwaffe did not lose any Bf 109 over Stalingrad. On 27 September, Litvyak scored an air victory against a Ju 88, the gunner having shot up the regiment commander, Major M.S. Khovostnikov. For some historians, that was her first kill.
Litvyak, Beliaeva, Budanova and Kuznetsova stayed in the 437 IAP for a short time only, mainly because it was equipped with LaGG 3s rather than Yak-1s, that the women flew, and was lacking the facilities to service the latter. So the four women were moved to the 9th Guards Fighter Regiment (9 GvIAP, gvardeiskii istrebitel’ nyi aviatsionnyi polk). From October 1942 till January 1943, Litvyak and Budanova served, still in the Stalingrad area, with this famous unit, commanded by Lev Shestakov, Hero of Soviet Union.
In January 1943, the 9th was re-equipped with the Bell P-39 Airacobras and Litvyak and Budanova were moved to the 296 IAP (later the 73 GvIAP, Guards Fighter Aviation Regiment) of Nikolai Baranov, of the 8th Air Army, so that they could still fly the Yaks. On February 23, she was awarded the Order of the Red Star, made a junior lieutenant and selected to take part in the elite air tactic called okhotniki, or "free hunter", where pairs of experienced pilots searched for targets on their own initiative. Twice, she was forced to land due to battle damage. On 22 March she was wounded for the first time. That day she was flying as part of a group of six Yak fighters when they attacked a dozen Ju 88s. Litvyak shot down one of the bombers, but was in turn attacked and wounded by the escorting Bf 109s. She managed to shoot down a Messerschmitt and to return to her airfield and land her plane, but was in severe pain and losing blood. While in 73 GvIAP, she often flew as wingman of Kapitan Aleksey Frolovich Solomatin a flying ace. He had claimed a total of 39 victories (22 shared), when he flew into the ground, in Pavlonka, and was killed in front of the entire regiment on May 21, while training a new flyer. Lydia was devastated by the crash and wrote a letter to her mother describing how she realized only after Solomatin's death that she had loved him.
Senior Sergeant Inna Pasportnikova, Litvyak's mechanic during the time she flew with the men's regiment, reported in 1990 that after Solomatin's death, Litvyak wanted nothing but to fly combat missions, and she fought desperately.
Litvyak scored against a difficult target on May 31, 1943: an artillery observation balloon manned by a German officer. German artillery was aided in targeting by reports from the observation post on the balloon. The elimination of the balloon had been attempted by other Soviet airmen but all had been driven away by a dense protective belt of anti-aircraft fire defending the balloon. Litvyak volunteered to take out the balloon but was turned down. She insisted, and described for her commander her plan: she would attack it from the rear after flying in a wide circle around the perimeter of the battleground and over German-held territory. The tactic worked—the hydrogen-filled balloon caught fire under her stream of tracer bullets and was destroyed.
On June 13, 1943, Litvyak was appointed flight commander of the 3rd Aviation Squadron within 73rd GvIAP.
Lydia made an additional kill on July 16, 1943. That day, six Yaks encountered 30 German Ju-88 bombers with six escorts. The female ace downed a bomber and shared a victory with a comrade, but her fighter was hit and she had to make a belly landing. She was wounded again but refused to take medical leave. She shot down two more Bf 109s on 19 and 21 July 1943.
On August 1, 1943, Litvyak did not come back to her base at Krasnyy Luch. It was her fourth sortie of the day, escorting a flight of Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmoviks. As the Soviets were returning to base near Orel, a pair of Bf 109 fighters dived on Litvyak while she was attacking a large group of German bombers. Soviet pilot Ivan Borisenko recalled: “Lily just didn’t see the Messerschmitt 109s flying cover for the German bombers. A pair of them dived on her and when she did see them she turned to meet them. Then they all disappeared behind a cloud.” Borisenko, involved in the dogfight, saw her a last time, through a gap in the clouds, her Yak-1 pouring smoke and pursued by as many as eight Bf 109s. Borisenko descended to see if he could find her. No parachute was seen, and no explosion, yet she never returned from the mission. Litvyak was 21 years old. Soviet authorities suspected that she might have been captured, a possibility that prevented them from awarding her the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. Two German pilots are believed to have shot down Litvyak: Feldwebel Hans-Jörg Merkle of 1./JG.52 and Leutnant Hans Schleef, of 7./JG 3. Merkle is the only pilot that claimed a Yak-1 on Dmitryevka (where she was last seen and was - reportedly - buried), on 1 August 1943, while Schleef claimed a LaGG-3 (often confused in combat with Yak-1s by German pilots) on the same day, in the South-Ukraine area where Litvyak's aircraft was at last found.
In an attempt to prove that Litvyak had not been taken captive, Pasportnikova embarked on a 36-year search for the Yakovlev Yak-1 crash site assisted by the public and the media. For three years she was joined by relatives who together combed the most likely areas with a metal detector. In 1979, after uncovering more than 90 other crash sites, 30 aircraft and many lost pilots killed in action, "the searchers discovered that an unidentified woman pilot had been buried in the village of Dmitrievka... in Shakhterski district." It was then assumed that it was Litvyak and that she had been killed in action after sustaining a mortal head wound. Pasportnikova said that a specialist commission was formed to inspect the exhumed body and it concluded the remains were those of Litvyak.
On May 6, 1990, USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev posthumously awarded Litvyak Hero of the Soviet Union. Her final rank was senior lieutenant, as documented in all Moscow newspapers of that date.
Arguments have been published that dispute the official version of Litvyak's death. Although Yekaterina Valentina Vaschenko, the curator of the Litvyak museum in Krasnyi Luch has stated that the body was disinterred and examined by forensic specialists, who determined that it was indeed Litvyak, Kazimiera Janina "Jean" Cottam claims, on the basis of evidence provided by Ekaterina Polunina, chief mechanic and archivist of the 586th Fighter Regiment in which Litvyak initially served, that the body was never exhumed and that verification was limited to comparison of a number of reports. Cottam, an author and researcher focusing on Soviet women in the military, concludes that Litvyak made a belly-landing in her stricken aircraft, was captured and taken to a prisoner of war camp. In her book published in 2004, Polunina lists evidence that led her to conclude that Litvyak was pulled from the downed aircraft by German troops and held prisoner for some time.
Gian Piero Milanetti, author of a recent book about Soviet aviatrixes, wrote that an airwoman parachuted in the approximate location of the alleged crash landing of Litvyak's aircraft. No other Soviet airwomen operated in that area, so Milanetti believes the pilot was Litvyak, probably captured by the enemy.
A television broadcast from Switzerland was seen in 2000 by Raspopova, a veteran from the women's night bomber regiment. It featured a former Soviet woman fighter pilot who Raspopova thought may have been Litvyak. This veteran was wounded twice. Married outside of the Soviet Union, she had three children. Raspopova promptly told Polunina what she inferred from the Swiss broadcast.
There are conflicting claims about Litvyak's victory score in different publications; none are official records. Most often, 11 individual kills and 3 team kills are quoted, but also eight individual and four team, 12 individual and two team, or other combinations. Pasportnikova stated in 1990 that the tally was 12 solo kills including the balloon, and three shared. Polunina has written that the kills of top-scoring Soviet pilots, including those of Litvyak and Budanova, were often inflated; and that Litvyak should be credited with five solo aircraft kills and two group kills, including the observation balloon.
Litvyak was awarded the Order of the Red Banner, Order of the Red Star, and was twice honored with the Order of the Patriotic War.
Litvyak displayed a rebellious and romantic character. Returning from a successful mission, she would "buzz" the aerodrome and then indulge in unauthorised aerobatics, knowing that it enraged her commander.
Litvyak could also be superstitious, as Paspotnikova testified:
She never believed that she was invincible. She believed that some pilots had luck on their side and others didn't. She firmly believed that, if you survived the first missions, the more you flew and the more experience you got your chances of making it would increase. But you had to have luck on your side.
Despite the predominantly male environment in which she found herself, she never renounced her femininity, and would carry on dyeing her hair blonde, sending her friend Inna Pasportnikova to the hospital to fetch hydrogen peroxide for her. She would fashion scarves from parachute material, dyeing the small pieces in different colours and stitching them together and would not hide her love of flowers, which she picked at every available occasion, favouring red roses. She would make bouquets and keep them in the cockpit, which were promptly discarded by the male pilots who shared her aircraft.
Her comrade Solomatin is believed to have been her fiancé, and after his death she wrote to her mother:
You see, he was not my type, but his insistence and his love for me convinced me to love him... and now, it seems I will never meet someone like him ever again.
The novel Vernis iz Poleta ("Return from Flight") by Natalya Kravtsova fictionalizes the death of Solomatin, stating that he was killed when he ran out of ammunition while battling with a German Bf 109 fighter plane over his own airfield. In this version, Litvyak and others at the airfield watched the fight and witnessed his death.
She was called the "White Lily of Stalingrad" in Soviet press releases; the white lily flower may be translated from Russian as Madonna lily. She has also been called the "White Rose of Stalingrad" in Europe and North America since reports of her exploits were first published in English.
Lilya is the major character in Mary Ann Cook's romanticized novel The White Rose, a fictional account of her wartime experiences.
A heavily fictionalized Lilya (Natasha in the book) is the main character of Belinda Alexandra's novel "Sapphire Skies"
Perhaps the most detailed work of literary fiction about Lilya Litvyak, her life, times and loves, was written by an American, M.G. Crisci, with no Russian ancestry, in cooperation with Valentina Vaschenko, the curator of the Lilya Litvyak Museum and School in Krasny Luch, Eastern Ukraine. The book entitled "Call Sign, White Lily," also contains never-before-seen photographs contributed by the museum.
Lilya(along with Budanova) are depicted in Preston Poulter's comic book "White Lily". Issue 1 was funded on Kickstarter in February 2017. Issue 2 will be attempted to be crowdfunded at a later date.
The play White Rose by Scottish playwright Peter Arnott portrays Litvyak's imagined political thoughts, with her character discussing war and Soviet women's resistance against Nazism. It was first performed on 22 May 1985 at the Edinburgh Festival, in the Traverse Theatre. Ken Stott and Tilda Swinton played the lead characters; the role helped advance Swinton's career. Swinton met her future husband John Byrne during the production. Byrne, also a playwright, served as the set designer for White Rose.
There has been a production at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow in February–March 2013.September 13, 1942
two solo, a Junkers Ju 88 and a Messerschmitt Bf 109 (of E. Maier.) Another source suggests a Heinkel He 111 instead of a Ju 88.
September 14, 1942
one solo, a Bf 109 (according to historian Hans D. Seidl, it was a kill shared with Katya Budanova)
September 27, 1942
one solo, a Junkers Ju 88
one shared, with Raisa Beliaeva, a Messerschmitt Bf 109
February 11, 1943
one solo, a Junkers Ju 87
one shared, with Alexei Solomatin, a Focke-Wulf Fw 190
March 22, 1943
two solo, a Messerschmitt Bf 109 and a Junkers Ju 88
May 5, 1943
one solo, a Messerschmitt Bf 109
May 7, 1943
one solo, a Messerschmitt Bf 109
May 31, 1943
one solo, an artillery observation balloon
July 16, 1943
one solo, Messerschmitt Bf 109. One source claims the victim aircraft had an "Ace of Spades" card painted on the fuselage. Another source claims that this kill was a bomber.
one shared (According to another source, the shared kill was a Bf 109 while the solo was a Ju 88)
July 19, 1943
one solo, a Messerschmitt Bf 109
July 21, 1943
one a Messerschmitt Bf 109
August 1, 1943
one solo, a Messerschmitt Bf 109,
one shared, a Messerschmitt Bf 109
The following table summarizes Litvyak's victories and their fates: