Gridnev's memoir: on meeting Litviak
Meeting with L. Litviak
In April 1943 Lidiia Litviak, a pilot from R. Beliaeva's squadron (which in September 1942 was mistakenly transferred to one of the front-line VVS regiments that was operating near Stalingrad) unexpectedly appeared at the regiment. After the mistake was corrected all the pilots from the 586th IAP had returned to their own regiment, but L. Litviak and E. Budanova remained in a men's regiment.
I had not met Lidiia Litviak before this, but had heard enough about her. She was an energetic girl, boyishly smart and shrewd. She didn't introduce herself to me right away. First she met with her girlfriends, sought their advice on something, found something out, and the next morning she came up to me by the command post with an official order from the staff of IA/PVO, addressed to the commander of the 586th IAP, in which is was listed that JrLt Lidiia Litviak was ordered to the 586th IAP to continue further service at the discretion of the commanding officers of the regiment.
"That's great," I said. "You've come back to the regiment! Of course I'd heard of your exploit, when you so deftly struck down a German ace who at the time had about sixty kills." And Litviak told me how it happened.
In battle with the very experienced ace, she flew a turning maneuver, cutting off the radius with a steep turn to the point of blacking out; the ace tried to follow, but apparently overdid it, sharply pulled the stick back and the airplane, at a critical angle of attack, lost stability, dropped its nose, and went into a steep spiral, coming out below Litviak. The stall only straightened out her own aircraft so she could aim a long stream from the weapons of her Yak at the ace's aircraft. The German plane (a Messerschmitt) managed to level off, but the engine caught fire. The pilot bailed out and landed by parachute in our ground forces' position and was taken prisoner.
At interrogation the German ace asked to see the pilot who had shot him down. And when Litviak appeared before him, he categorically began to protest.
"It can't be, that this little girl . . . it's impossible to think of a more humiliating way to mock me . . . "
But when L. Litviak, without an interpreter, in German, reminded him of the details of the air battle, known only to them, the German ace bowed his head, and knelt before her.
I asked Litviak: "You speak German well?"
"Just what I learned at school. German came easily to me," she answered.
"What in your opinion is the main thing for a fighter pilot to win?"
"Everything is the main thing. To be able to pilot the aircraft, to shoot, to orient oneself in the air, to cooperate with comrades, and so on. but the most important thing is to be able to withstand high G-forces during air combat, both horizontal and vertical. To do that you have to constantly train your body in flight. I was lucky to fly often in a pair with squadron commander Solomatin. In almost every flight we engaged the enemy, but if there was no engagement, we conducted a training battle with maximum G-loads. And so day by day the results build up."
Hearing a familiar name, I asked: "What's Solomatin's first name?"
"Aleksei," she answered.
That's our Aleksei, from the 8th Bakinskiy Air Corps. At the beginning of the war from the 8th corps, in the period of reorganization of fighter aviation (from four squadrons in a regiment to a 2-3 squadron structure), an order was given to once more form fighter aviation regiments of a greater number of highly-qualified pilots, who had gone through the full course of training for day and night flying and for flying in bad weather. These pilots came to the regiment with a special designation. From our 82nd regiment six pilots were singled out, among them Aleksei Solomatin. He was flying then in the 3rd squadron in the I-153 (Chaika). He was an excellent pilot-- of the Bakinskiy school.
It was interesting to talk with this pilot who was "wise" though not through age and length of service. She didn't lack resourcefulness and cleverness. I thought then that she had natural talent. And I began to think about what position she should be assigned. But she was way ahead of me. When I suggested the position of deputy squadron commander, she categorically protested. "It's not necessary," she says, "to give me a promotion. Let me go to Baranov's regiment. There I am a flight commander, but happy to work as an ordinary pilot, as long as it's in the same regiment as Aleksei Solomatin."
"What does Solomatin have to do with it?" I objected.
"Alyosha is my fiancé," she said.
"I'm not opposed to Aleksei Solomatin, but I don't have the power to change the decision of the higher command. Indeed you yourself brought an order of the deputy commander of IA/PVO Gen. Antontsev for continued future service in the 586th IAP. You should have settled this in Moscow, with General Antontsev, not with me."
"I appealed to General Antontsev, but he said that per the official request of Gridnev, higher bodies admitted that the order to send Beliaeva's squadron to men's regiments in the VVS was an error, contradictory to the very idea of the organization and function of women's aviation regiments, approved by the Soviet government.
"Therefore all personnel of Beliaeva's squadron are ordered to return to the 586th. But General Antontsev, in the end, advised me to appeal to you. He told me that no one could object if you could arrange things with Gridnev."
I categorically refused to decide this question unofficially. On that our conversation concluded. Dissatisfied, with tears in her eyes, she left me. She spent the whole day in the barracks. As if in a fever she tossed in bed. Seeing her, her closest friends were worried. Many loved her.
Throughout the day people came to see me, some singly, some in small groups of 2-3 persons. The majority of them asked not to release her from the regiment. Let her cry a little, and then she will stop. She will understand that the honor of the regiment is more important than personal interests. But several insisted on not holding her back, let her go to that regiment. If she wasn't released, she would run away all the same, and even steal an airplane. That was the kind of girl she was, Liliia.
All right then, I told the members of the regiment at the end of the day. Go calm her down. Let's get some rest, and we'll decide tomorrow. Tomorrow is a new day. There's one possibility, I think it will suit everyone.
In the morning she found me in the PARM (airfield repair shop). Completely ignoring chain of command, she came up to me with quick steps and as though we were conspirators, like equal accomplices sharing a common, secret and not entirely above-board goal, asked in a hushed voice, looking around in all directions, "Well? What? What possibility"?
I considered it awkward to talk to her in front of the PARM workers, all the more so because they were all men unknown to her. Therefore I walked over to the side and we sat down on a bench standing alongside a wall of big aircraft boxes. And I started to talk about the possibility I had thought up. I began with a question:
"Tell me, you are dying to be in Baranov's regiment because Aleksei Solomatin is there, and you cannot fly or live without each other. Is that so?"
"Yes, that's so."
"Then it's possible to accomplish this in another way. If they don't permit you to leave the women's regiment and to be in the same regiment as Solomatin for reasons we know, then it's entirely possible to transfer Aleksei to our regiment. We have many vacant positions and we could accept not only Aleksei alone. But together with him and about five more people, no one would object; neither higher command nor the regimental staff.
"We would install Solomatin in a vacant position as regiment navigator or even as deputy regimental commander, and you as deputy squadron commander in Yamshchikova's squadron. There are great pilots in that squadron, trained in combat work, but they don't have a real battle leader. Iamshchikova doesn't fly fighters. R. Beliaeva is training her in the Yak-7, but she still hasn't finished the testing program, Iamshchikova hasn't soloed in a combat fighter. Many months are still needed before she joins the formation as a combat pilot. But you are already a recognized ace.
"The young pilots Akimova, Batrakova, Petrochenkova, Salomatina, Smirnova and others who have completed the flying program with excellence are eager to join ranks, they are burning with desire to fly, they are bursting to go into action, but we don't have a regular leader. But you, together with Aleksei, could lead this young squadron into the great sky.
"After all you also found your wings here in this regiment, it must be like family to you, so helping these young girls would be like helping your family.
"The military situation is getting more intense. There is a huge realignment of troops on both sides.
"The regiment will move forward with the front. Great air battles lie ahead. Personally you will be given unlimited possibilities, as regards combat flights, including being able to fly as a free hunter."
I tried to inspire her, tried to arouse burning patriotic feelings toward the regiment where she was born as a fighter pilot, and then became a famous person nation-wide. And now the chance arose to thank the regiment without infringing on her personal interests, for the greater good.
And it seemed that she was all for doing that. Only she didn't know how to do this and stay together with Aleksei.
I explained that she needed to fly to Moscow immediately in an official L-2 going that way, which took off from our airfield almost every day. In Moscow she needed to get a meeting with the commander of the VVS, Marshal of Aviation A. A. Novikov. Besides the fact that he is a brilliant military leader, he is also a sympathetic person. Explain everything to him the way it is and ask about transferring Aleksei Solomatin together with you to the 586th. With the aim of strengthening the combat leadership of the regiment. I'm sure that the Chief Marshal will meet your interests and those of the regiment. He will telephone Chief Marshal of Artillery N. N. Voronov, who controls all of PVO forces, and the question will be settled without delay.
L. Litviak left the same day from Voronezh to Moscow. That was the end of April 1943.
It is unknown, whether or not a meeting occurred with Liliia Litviak and Commander in Chief of the VVS A. A. Novikov. But judging by her promptness and assertiveness, it's possible to guess that she did meet with Novikov and got assigned to Baranov's regiment, to be together with her friend.
But in May 1943 the alarming news reached us about the death of Aleksei Solomatin.
Much later, after the war, the journalist S. Gribanov wrote in the book In the Sky Above the Front:
"Liliaa was sitting at the time in the cockpit of her fighter, listening to the radio, and through her headset ever louder, ever stronger broke through the growing moan of a dying machine — the parting swan song of her friend. He had come home to die. And the girl did not turn away, did not close her eyes. Up until the last meters, Lilya hoped, did not believe that death was inevitable. But the blast swept over the airfield with a loud echo and everything fell silent. Liosha was no more."
And on the first of August 1943, Lt. Liliia Litviak did not return from a combat mission.