Nadezdah “Little Boar” Buzina, a young pilot with the Red Army’s 586th all-female fighter regiment, dreams of becoming an ace. Those dreams shatter when a dogfight leaves her severely burned and the sole survivor from her flight.
For the latter half of 1942, she struggles against crack Luftwaffe pilots, a vengeful political commissar, and a new addiction to morphine, all the while questioning her worth and purpose in a world beyond her control. It’s not until the Soviet counter-offensive at Stalingrad that she finds her unlikely answers, and they only come after she’s saved the life of her mortal enemy and fallen in love with the one who nearly kills her.
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13 August 1942
Anisovka, Saratovskaya Oblast
When I climbed into my single-engine, low-wing fighter, praying to get my first kill, I never thought I’d fall in love with someone who’d have me shot.
I flew through my pre-flight checklist as fast as I could, verifying every setting and gauge in the cockpit. I was a last-minute substitution for a patrol near the Don River, and the added pressure of having to scramble put a tremor in my hands. I feared I would miss something that would prove deadly. A single overlooked item could be the difference between coming home in one piece and not coming home at all. And I had promised my little brother a game of cards when the war was over. I didn’t want to go to my grave knowing a fourteen year old had cleaned me out the last time we played.
“Nadya! Slow down!” Klara Rudneva shouted as she hopped on my plane’s wing. Her short stature and oversized male, khaki uniform made her look childish, but her face looked anything but. She reminded me of the famous operetta star, Anastasia Vyaltseva, as they both had the same lively smile, sparkling dark eyes, and angelic beauty. Despite the urgency in Klara’s voice, she gently slid a pair of goggles over my leather cap. “You’ll want to have these, Little Boar.”
I groaned as I set the trim and flaps to neutral in preparation for takeoff. “I wish you wouldn’t call me that. I’m not a boar.”
Klara was a mechanic at the airfield and had seen me off for all seven combat sorties I’d been on. She’d called me Little Boar since I’d arrived at the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment regardless of my constant objection. She gave the gritty harness that held my parachute on my back one solid tug before tightening my lap belt. “Little boars are hot headed and charge fearlessly at their enemy.”
“Boars are mean and ugly.”
“You are far from ugly, Nadya,” she said with a longing in her tone. “Not with those gorgeous cheek bones and golden locks of yours.”
“And fat head,” I tacked on. “You forgot to mention that, and you do think I’m mean.”
“Only when someone teases you about your Cossack heritage,” she replied, referring to an incident that had happened two days ago involving me and our commanding officer, and ended with me scrubbing floors for eight hours straight. “But if you are mean, be mean to the Germans. Be mean and deadly as my Little Boar should be.”
The roar of two engines firing up on the airfield drew both our attentions. That was the start of the other Yak-1 fighters on this mission’s flight. In moments, we’d all be in the air, eagerly looking to pick a fight with the German Luftwaffe. The time Klara and I had was short, despite my wishes to the contrary.
Klara leaned into the cramped cockpit and gave me a one-armed hug. She smelled of sweat and oil, and grease transferred from her face to mine. I didn’t mind. “Come back to me safe, Nadya.”
“I will,” I replied. This brief exchange had become a ritual between us since our first pairing, twelve days ago. It was a moment in time I’d come to relish. It was our little space where nothing could harm us. Not Hitler nor his army looking to conquer. Not Stalin nor his fanatics looking to purge. It was a place where two friends could savor a moment before being thrust into the chaos of the Great Patriotic War.
“Now go and get your first kill,” she said, squeezing me one last time before jumping off the wing.
Once she waved she was clear of the propeller, I gave her a light-hearted salute and started my plane’s engine. I watched the needle on the oil pressure gauge climb and tried to calm my nerves. The Luftwaffe had dominated the air since the start of the war. Today would be no different, and I wondered how many more planes and pilots we would lose in defense of the homeland. My muscles tightened in my back, and I blew out a simple, hushed prayer. “God be with me.”
As comforting as those words were, I hated whispering them, but over the last twelve years I’d learned to keep prayers to myself after seeing those who didn’t be shot or sent to labor camps. I told myself I was being pragmatic, surviving, even if official persecution had been called off. Some nights when I tried to sleep, however, I considered it was more cowardice than anything.
I used the two wheels on my right to open the water and oil radiators, and then started taxiing the plane into position on the runway. I leaned out of the cockpit to see where I was going since the plane’s nose blocked my view. The cool afternoon breeze carried with it hints of petrol.
The radio sprang to life. Martyona Gelman, my wing leader, spoke with calm authority. “Form on me after takeoff, five hundred meters. One circle of the airfield and we’re going.”
I slid my canopy over my head and locked both it and the tail wheel into place. The roar of the engine softened by about a third, but I felt as if its vibrations in the stick and the foot pedals were three times what they were. I soon became aware that the engine wasn’t causing my controls to shake. I was.
“Easy, Nadya. You can do this.” I told myself, double-checking the gun sight. Focusing on the crosshairs felt reassuring, as if I had control over my destiny. All I had to do was put my enemy in them and down he’d go. I could make a difference in this flight, in this war. A great difference. More so than any of the other girls? No. As far as I was concerned, each one of us in this all-female regiment would leave our mark in history.
“Red Eight, this is tower. You’re clear for takeoff.”
I pushed the throttle forward, and my fighter started down the runway. It built speed like a wild horse cut free from the pens, and I was along for the ride. I used the left rudder pedal to counter the plane’s innate desire to hook right, lest I crash before leaving the ground. God, how embarrassing would that be?
Once the plane hit one hundred and seventy kilometers per hour, with both vehicles and buildings zipping by on the ground, I eased the stick back. My Yak-1 leapt into the air as if it were as eager to reach the sky as I was. An overwhelming sense of freedom washed over me, and I smiled while slipping into a V-formation with the two other girls. Flying was still as magical as I’d dreamed it would be when I had been a little girl watching hawks sail overhead.
I took my position flying wing for Martyona. I was off her right side by a dozen meters, and another girl, Kareliya Malkova, flew on Martyona’s left. In the short time I’d known Kareliya, I had learned two things. First, she was as reserved as they come, and second, she had a vicious streak that hungered for her first victory against a German pilot like none I’d ever seen. I wondered if she’d beat me to it and secretly prayed she wouldn’t.
Our flight should have been four, a pair of wing leaders and wingmen, but another girl’s plane needed last-minute work on the landing gear, and even a dullard knew taking off with only one wheel ended badly. Normally, we would have waited on the repair, but the Germans had reached the town of Kalach-on-the-Don a couple of days ago and were now less than seventy kilometers from Stalingrad. We couldn’t afford to let them reach that mighty city, and thus were forced to go up one pilot short. Our CO said we’d be fine. I dared to believe her.
Our trio headed south. On most flights we’d protect high-value targets from the Luftwaffe, such as railways, bridges, and depots, but with the pressure on Stalingrad, we were being sent to patrol a swath of area northwest of the city. Despite the Red Army Air’s high losses, I was glad we were headed closer to the front as it let me be proud of my service and reinforced the notion we were all doing something important. That and guard duty was about as exciting as hours of pot scrubbing.
The Volga River flowed off to my left. I enjoyed the view of it from above as it reminded me that even in war, nature was beautiful. I also loved seeing the ships come and go from port—they looked so free—and enjoyed wondering what the little girls in the nearby fields thought when they looked up and saw us fly by.
“Everyone tighten up,” Martyona ordered. There was a bite to her tone, not painful, but threatening, like a straight razor pressed against the skin. “Sloppy girls are dead girls.”
I stiffened in my seat. Kareliya was in formation, but I had drifted off and dropped altitude, putting me outside and low of my slot by fifty meters. I slipped back into position with a combination of throttle, elevator, and rudder so we once again made a perfect V.
For the next fifteen minutes we flew in silence, and I was embarrassed at my rookie mistake. I was a Cossack, proud and true, and from a long line of warriors whose skill was only rivaled by our dedication. Thankfully, Father hadn’t been witness to it.
I wondered when we’d encounter German fighters on the prowl. At our current speed, we’d reach their lines in about twelve minutes. As such, I kept a constant watch over the bright blue skies and the rears of the other girls’ planes as best I could and trusted they did the same for me. Though rear visibility wasn’t as bad as I heard it was with German fighters, our Yaks still had a blind spot.
I saw no planes other than the two dark green Yak-1 fighters to my left, and nothing shared the sky with us other than the late afternoon sun. That scared me more than anything. Ever since I’d come to Anisovka, Martyona had told me time and again most pilots were shot down by enemies they never saw. German aces came from unseen places, like monsters in the night every child fears. Luftwaffe pilots, however, were real and more lethal than any imagination.
The radio crackled, and our wing leader spoke. “I can see the Don. Change course to two-three-zero and look sharp. The fascists want to tear into us as much as we want to tear into them.”
Her plane climbed with a gentle bank, and Kareliya and I followed suit. My mouth dried, and goosebumps rose on my skin. The past seemed to fade away, and thoughts of the future fell as well. All that existed was the moment.
I flipped the safeties to both the nose-mounted cannon and the pair of machine guns in the cowl. They should have been ready to fire after takeoff, but I’d developed the habit of waiting later in flight to do so. I was fearful of an accidental discharge, and the last thing I wanted was to be responsible for damaging—let alone destroying—another girl’s plane.
“Stay with me and Kareliya, Nadya. I haven’t lost a girl in almost twenty-four hours,” Martyona said.
I chuckled nervously, her joke doing little for my nerves. Still, I tried to keep the air light and confident. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to ruin your new record.”
Kareliya didn’t chime in on the conversation. She couldn’t, as only a few planes in our regiment had RSI-3 Eagle radio transmitters installed. All Kareliya had was the RSI-3 Hawk receiver, thanks to some genius who thought the ability to talk during a dogfight was unnecessary. After all, who in her right mind would want to lug around a few extra kilos for the ability to say, “Check your six!” or, “I need help!” Idiots probably thought we’d talk about hair and makeup the entire flight, as if that’s all us girls were capable of. They did promise us we’d all have two-way capabilities in the future, but I wasn’t expecting that day to be anytime soon.
The Don River passed beneath us. I bit my lip in eager anticipation of a fight and the chance to prove myself. At the same time a knot formed in my stomach. I checked and rechecked everything. Water temperature. Clear tail. Oil temperature. Oil pressure. Clear tail. Fuel pressure. Manifold pressure. Clear tail. Gun sights. Fuel level. Clear tail. I did this entire routine four times before running my fingers over my leather cap and wondering what I was missing.
“I’ve got eyes on Luftwaffe, one o’clock low,” Martyona said. “Four He-111s along with two 109 fighter escorts. Five kilometers away. Headed east.”
I easily spotted the flight. He-111s were medium-sized, twin-engine bombers, and a staple of Hitler’s war machine. Their lumbering bodies flew in a tight formation and bristled with machine guns to cover one another. Their green paint jobs blended well with the terrain, but their bulk made them stand out. The bright yellow noses of their Bf-109 escorts were even easier to see.
Martyona’s plane accelerated, and my engine’s pitch grew louder and higher as we followed her higher into the sky. The enemy planes stayed on course, apparently unaware of our presence. Even as a green pilot, I understood why Martyona didn’t charge in. She wanted to have the advantage in altitude. Altitude could be traded for speed, and speed meant life. The only thing flying a low and slow plane would grant you in a dogfight was a condolence letter to your next of kin. The only letter I wanted written was to Father, telling him how his little girl scored her first aerial victory. I’m sure he’d celebrate for a week straight once he got that news.
“Stay fast and hit them hard,” Martyona said. “Hit them for the Motherland. Hit them for all you’re worth!”
The ferocity of her words ignited a fire in my soul. I narrowed my eyes and turned my anxiety into hate, hate for those who bombed our cities and razed our villages. I rolled my plane to the left and followed Martyona in a diving attack, vowing to make the fascists pay for flying half asleep over Soviet soil and thinking we’d been so beaten they were safe from our air force. Their audacity fueled the burning in my chest.
Though I was flying to cover my wing leader, I placed the last of the German bombers in my sights. I’d be able to make at least one firing pass on it while keeping Martyona clear of escorts. Once we shot by, we could reassess, maybe even engage the 109s if no one took damage from the tail gunners. Three on two were good odds as far as I was concerned.
Time stretched, and I measured each second by the heavy thumps of heartbeats. I used the gun sight to gauge the distance to my target. Once the bomber’s wings filled the diameter of the sight, it would be about two hundred meters away.
The bomber drew near. Six hundred meters. Five. Four. I don’t know if it was sheer luck or an angelic whisper that tore me away from my target to peek over my shoulder, but when I did, I gasped. Four German Bf-109 fighters bore down on us from out of the sun, their yellow noses filled with guns and cannons promising swift and certain death.
“Break! Break! Break!” I yelled.
Martyona snap rolled her plane and reversed direction with an inverted dive. I followed her as best I could, flipping my fighter and pulling back on the stick. The hard maneuver pressed me against my seat. My arms felt as if they had large bags of lead attached to them. I strained under the G’s, gritting my teeth. My head grew light, and the world muted. I prayed I didn’t black out under the maneuver, and I prayed it had been fast enough that the Germans couldn’t follow.
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About the Author
C.S. Taylor is a former Marine and avid fencer (saber for the most part, foil and epee are tolerable). He enjoys all things WWII, especially perfecting his dogfighting skills inside virtual cockpits, and will gladly accept any P-38 Lightnings anyone might wish to bestow upon him. He’s also been known to run a kayak through whitewater now and again, as well give people a run for their money in trap and skeet.
His latest book is the historical fiction, Nadya’s War.
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