Close this search box.
Close this search box.

Female Vs Male Pilots In WW2

To what degree did the women bomber pilots of the Red Air Force in World War II owe their success to the physiology of the female brain?

Mariya Dolina: Bomber pilot

Female Vs Male Pilots In WW2 This night’s bombing mission of the 46th Guards Regiment was horrific.  It was a nightmare for the two surviving crews flying Soviet built Po-2s. That returned to land on a grass field lit only by kerosene lanterns.  Thirty minutes earlier, six of the biplanes, each laden with 200 kilograms of bombs, struggled up and into the warm air of a July night.

The wooden airframe and cloth covered Polikarpov biplane. Looked more like a relic of the First World War than a modern attack aircraft. In addition, she only had a top speed of barely ninety miles per hour. 

These planes-some unarmed and some fitted only with a single 7.62 mm rear machine gun. Fired by the plane’s navigator, flew into combat. 

Instead of veteran Soviet airmen at the controls. Young girls-eighteen, nineteen, and twenty years of age were flying night bombing missions to repel the Nazi invaders.  Now, only half an hour later, just two of the Po-2s. Both showing extensive damage, returned to a grassy meadow, used as a landing field.  The others fell burning from the night sky. Victims of a new tactic by the Nazis of employing night fighters against the slow flying biplanes.

The two Po-2s finally rolled to a stop.  At the controls were Larissa Razanova and her navigator and friend, Nadia Studilina. Along with nineteen-year-old Natalia Meklin in the cockpit of the second fragile bomber. The other four aircraft along with eight young women had fallen from the skies over the Kuban River. Carrying their friends to their deaths. Yet, as Larissa would report, both she and Nadia maneuvered to out-fly the Messerschmitt fighters and its pilots. Striking and destroying their target. 

On the flight back, the women recalled that tears clouded eyes as they grieved for their friends. Once on the ground, Larissa stated, “mission accomplished,” to her commanding officer, Major Bershanskaya.

These were the young women of the 588th night bomber regiment that had been elevated to the 46th Guards Regiment in January of 1943, flying antiquated Po-2 biplanes, powered by five cylinder one hundred-fifteen horsepower motors affording them a cruising speed of only one hundred kilometers per hour (sixty-two mph) and no protection from enemy fire.  The 46th Guards Regiment had the distinction of being one of the highest decorated night bombing squadrons of the entire Red Air Force.

With twenty-three of its pilots receiving the distinguished award: “Hero of the Soviet Union.”

The 46th Guards flew more missions with surviving pilots averaging five hundred and more combat missions and more sorties per night (in the case of one pilot) eighteen flown from dusk until dawn, than any other similarly equipped regiment in the Red Air Force.

This regiment had one other singular distinction above and beyond other Red Air Force bomber regiments: The 46th Taman Guards were all women, from the pilots and navigators, to the mechanics and armorers, and even commanding officers. 

Their skill, bravery, and determination were unmatched in the efforts of the USSR. In driving back the Nazi invaders. Completing over twenty-five hundred bombing missions. With greater accuracy and destroying more of the enemy and his supplies than any other night bombing unit.  History records their achievements. And there is no question of what these women accomplished. Both as firsthand accounts and the recollections of their commanding offices and official Soviet archives.  

We know when the events occurred, and we know how they occurred.  We even know that the women of the 588th bomb group, the 46th Taman Guards by far outperformed their male counterparts, but as of now, no one has ventured into why this was the case.  While Soviet women also achieved the distinction of being fighter pilots. Flying the YAK-1 and YAK-1b, none of these regiments had achieved the success of the women’s bomber regiment. 

The question arises why were the women pilots flying bombing missions outstandingly successful. While women flying fighter aircraft, with a few exceptions, only average in their ability. 

Could human biology and the physiological and psychological differences between the male and female brain be the factor that set them apart from their male counterparts and account for the outstanding success of the 46th Taman Guards, night bombing regiment? 

It is only recently in a historical context. That those in the West have had the opportunity to learn of the achievements of the regiments of Soviet women pilots in the Second World War. Although late in coming and stymied by the Cold War. There is now a reasonably good amount of information available on these young women.  While a number of books and articles are on these airwomen. Furthermore, how successful they were at carrying out their missions, to date. No one has ventured a reason as to why they were so successful. 

This is an attempt to explain the outstanding success of the women pilots and in particular the 588th 46th Guards Regiment, known to the enemy as “The Night Witches”. Through the use of recent scientific data showing differences in the architecture of male and female brains. 

A prelude to war: The military readiness of the Soviet Union the evening of June 21st 1941 was an invitation to disaster.  A series of events that included the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. That denuded the ranks of the Red Army officer corps. The long delayed transition in Soviet military aircraft. From obsolete designs, such as the Polikarpov, I-16 (in Russian pronunciation this is “E”-16). To more modern fighter aircraft. Grouping large numbers of fighters at forward air bases near the Soviet borders. And limited fighter production in favor of bombers, insured that during Operation Barbarossa.

The Luftwaffe would achieve air superiority. 

When the attack came at 0300 hours on June the 22nd, 1941, the Soviet Union was unprepared and unable to stop the crushing air and ground assault by the Nazis. 

In the first days of the attack, the Red Air Force was devastated with the loss of some 4,300 aircraft.  Those few aircraft which Soviet pilots managed to get airborne were hopelessly outclassed by German fighters. 

In all, the Luftwaffe suffered a loss of only 150 aircraft in the initial attack. 

The Luftwaffe forces concentrated against the Soviets totaled 3,032 operational aircraft.  It was not surprising that Hitler and his generals, including the man commanding the aerial component of the invasion, Wolfram von Richthofen. Felt assured that the Soviets would face total defeat in a matter of weeks.

In the first months of the invasion. Massive amounts of Soviet troops were called up to defend the Motherland, both conscripts and volunteers. 

Many of those seeking to volunteer for military duty were women.

Having been inspired by the images of Anka the machine gunner of the 1934 Soviet film, Chapaev. This film, directed by Sergey and Georgie Vasiliev. Was about Red Army Commander Vasilii Chapaev and his exploits in the Russian Civil War. Featured a young woman combatant, Anka, a machine gun operator. 

The film was a patriotic exercise that extols the self-sacrifice and dedication of the young woman.  Seen by over fifty million Russians over the course of five years (1934-1939). This image of a heroic young female machine gunner, fighting to secure her nation’s future. Became deeply ingrained in the Soviet psyche and was held up as an example. Both by the women who at first were rebuffed at their attempts to volunteer for the Soviet armed forces. And later as rallying image for more participation in the military by women as the Soviet position in the war deteriorated.  

When the Nazis invaded in 1941. Russian and Ukrainian women made up a significant number of volunteers, not just in support roles, but in combat roles. 

These included infantry, snipers, and pilots. During the Second World War, a conflict referred to in the Soviet Union as the Great Patriotic War.

Eight percent of the Soviet military were women.

With over 800,000 serving in uniform.  These women distinguished themselves with bravery and honor, many losing their lives to drive back the Nazis.  

While recent studies of the theory behind granting women combat status, such as that done by Mady Wenchsler-Segal in 1995. Moreover, suggest that an acute threat to the sovereignty of a nation, such as invasion. As a result, would cause social-cultural considerations for keeping women out of combat roles to be overruled. There is a flaw in this theory with respect to the women pilots of the Red Air Force. With over four-thousand military aircraft destroyed in the first weeks of the Nazi invasion. The issue was not a lack of trained pilots; it was a lack of aircraft.

Marina Raskova- a Russian Amelia Earhart.

Whose stunning achievements included her long distance flight as the navigator of a converted bomber. And her survival in the Siberian wilderness after an air crash, inspired Soviet would-be women aviators.  Her accomplishments earned her notoriety, the title “Hero of the Soviet Union,” and the ear of Stalin.  When war came in the form of the German invasion. Thousands of licensed women pilots contacted Raskova. In addition, begged to become combat pilots. With some traveling hundreds of miles over several days to personally petition her to seek military appointments for them. 

Raskova’s close personal ties with Josef Stalin led to the creation of three female air regiments. Which incorporated the 586th fighter regiment. Flying the La-5 and Yak-1, along with some flying Yak-9 fighters later in the war.  Not only were these groups to be staffed by women pilots. But woman mechanics, ground support personnel and commanding officers, totaling over three thousand female personnel. 

Airfield of 1 Pułk Lotnictwa Myśliwskiego in Stare Zadybie in September 1944. Yakovlev Yak-9 aircraft are being serviced.

Of particular interest were the women of the 588th night bomber group. Later elevated to the status of the 46th Guards Regiment.

They flew obsolete Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes (also designated as the U-2 but pronounced in Russian as (oooh dva). Which featured canvas covering over a wooden airframe. And a simple 115 horsepower five cylinder engine giving the Po-2 a maximum speed of barely ninety miles per hour. 

Damaged and abandoned Po-2 forced to land in Ukraine, and subsequently captured by German troops, 1941.

This aircraft, the Po-2, was used as a training plane. And was one of the aircraft that saw extensive service in civilian flying schools before the war.  Many Soviet pilots couldn’t believe it was being used as a combat aircraft.  

The Po-2 flew at night and carried a mere two hundred kilograms of bombs. Yet this primitive aircraft inflicted considerable damage to materiel, as well as psychological, damage to enemy troops in stealthy night bombing raids.

These women were the scourge of the Nazi forces at the front lines. Who called them the “Night Witches,” for their uncanny ability to strike almost silently and with deadly accuracy.

The 587th air regiment flew the Petlyakov Pe-2 light bomber which doubled as a dive bomber. 

The Pe-2 was a thoroughly modern twin engine aircraft with features such as all metal construction and two, eleven-hundred horsepower engines. The aircraft carried a crew of three and with a speed of 345 mph at cruising altitude; the Pe-2 was nearly as fast as the German Bf-109 fighters.  In fact, the women of the 587th regiment managed to shoot down a fair number of German fighters that had attacked their bombing group.  

The Pe-2 did have one disadvantage for the women pilots.  The light bomber’s controls and non-counter rotating propellers required a fair amount of physical strength on takeoff. 

The solution was to have the navigator-radio operator, who sat directly behind the pilot, grab her comrade’s arms and shoulders and add her strength in order to pull back on the control yoke in order to get the Pe-2 airborne.  In one engagement, watched from the ground by a group of male fighter pilots, the women flying the Pe-2s managed to shoot down two Luftwaffe Bf 109 fighters while returning to base. Upon landing, the men were quite surprised that women were piloting the Pe2s, and they commented that they flew and fought very well. One of the pilots stated, 

“I find it hard to believe that girls are flying the Pe-2s. We observed your battle.  You did well! It took downright heroism to withstand such a charge by Messerschmitts!”

However, all of the achievements in battle by these women might never have occurred without an individual such as Marina Raskova. 

By the late 1930s, Marina Raskova had achieved numerous awards, including the Order of Lenin, in setting flight records with all women crews.

There are no official records of how or why Stalin agreed to the formation of the women’s air regiments but it seems likely that the decision was made at the highest levels of the Soviet government and by Stalin himself as a result of Raskova’s persistence. As a result of what can be inferred as Raskova’s personal plea to Stalin, Order 0099 creating the three all female regiments was promulgated.

By mid October of 1941, Marina Raskova and the women that would eventually form the three all female regiments, left by train for the Engels Flight Academy.  Some three to four hundred female recruits arrived at the academy after several grueling days, traveling in unheated railcars in sub-zero weather.  At the air academy the women studied and trained twelve to fourteen hours per day to ready themselves for combat operations.  The women’s training program condensed what normally took three years into an intensive six months.

As was the case with Raskova, it was her educational opportunities that allowed her to have the right circumstance to pursue a career in aviation and to lead the training of her all women’s regiments, as it was the climate of intense modernization that had placed women into the learning of technical skills that had formally been the province of men. 

These included manufacturing, engineering, and construction.  Although these changes created by the need for rapid industrialization had placed greater demand on women, it did have a significant benefit for the Soviet Union in the coming conflict with Nazi Germany. 

The result of so many young women being educated in technical trades, led to a great many women possessing the kinds of technical skills that would become necessary in a modern military conflict.  Along with the expansion of Soviet women into these technical fields came with a corresponding interest in areas that had heretofore been the province of men.  One of these areas was flying. Initially flying schools and flying clubs were resistant to the acceptance of women pilots and many were turned away.  Those who were persistent, citing Soviet laws of equality, were grudgingly approved for flight training.  

By the eve of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, there were dozens of women’s flying clubs, along with over two-thousand qualified women pilots. It was from this pool of qualified women flyers that Raskova’s pilots were selected. The fact that Russian women were available to fly and to fight for their country can be attributed to the unique conditions of rapid industrialization in the USSR. 

There is a tradition in Russian culture and mythology. Of the strong woman as defender of her home and her children. 

This is coupled with the concept of the Motherland, and the defense of her against invaders.  The impassioned calls to Russian patriotism, and in particular to Russian women, can be exemplified by Marina Raskova’s speech in September of 1941, even before having been granted her request to form her women’s regiments.  

Raskova spoke at the Women’s Anti-fascist Rally in Moscow, making it a point of asserting that women were ready to join the ranks of the military in high tech combat roles, both in the air and on the ground.  These rallying calls contained references to female soldiers in the First World War and the later Bolshevik and Russian Civil Wars. 

In 1915, during the First World War, Russia was under siege and hard pressed to defend against the advancing Germans. 

The Russians, by 1916, had lost over one-million men.  At that time, Maria Bochkareva, affectionately known to her supporters as Yashka. Approached the Tsar to form an all female regiment.  This regiment of three-hundred women distinguished themselves in battle.  There is a tradition, if somewhat tenuous, of Russian women participating in the defense of their country. Existing well before World War Two.  The overwhelming number of women pilots who volunteered to face the hardships and dangers of combat. Furthermore, speaks to this cultural tradition of woman as the defender of the home. And family and the concept of the Rodina (the Motherland) as an extension of family.  Then too there was a sense of revenge. Many of these women had lost close familial members to the Nazis.  

While this aspect of Russian culture may explain women’s participation in combat, it does not explain their significant success in night bombing missions that placed the 588th as the top night bombing regiment in the entire war. 

Military tradition among Russian women coupled with a new socio-cultural dynamic. Brought about by the Soviet Union’s drive for modernization. One that placed women in heretofore traditional male roles. Gave these women the opportunity to fly and fight for their country. Yet this does not explain why they were so successful in their missions. 

Mariya Dolina: Bomber pilot

We have over one hundred years of air combat data, however, the only significant sample of female combat pilots available for study are those of the Soviet Union’s Red Air Force during the Second World War.  What becomes evident are behaviors, tactics, and strategies formulated by the women, especially the 588th (later awarded the title of 46th Guards Regiment) that are markedly different than those promulgated by male pilots, and in particular male bomber pilots of the Red Air Force.

To answer why this was the case is to delve not only into socio-cultural aspects of women at war. But also biological factors. 

Clearly, the factors that existed for Soviet women (for not all of the women combatants were Russian. Many being from Ukraine and Belarus) were a unique combination of a martial heritage, a climate created by their government that placed women into technical schools and work that heretofore was consider to be strictly the province of men, such as the construction of the Moscow Metro, and even participation in the numerous flying clubs. 

However, the opportunity to participate in mechanized warfare still does not explain the success of the women’s bomber air regiments. Especially, in terms of missions completed and targets destroyed.  For that answer a thorough examination of the architecture of the female brain is required. 

In the West, we have a past perception that emphasized differences between male and female thought processes and the capabilities of women.  These assumptions did not have a real basis in factual science. Other than the obvious: men are physically stronger than women and women bear children. To a heightened state of political correctness that tended to deny the biological differences between the genders. 

This had led to a long and often difficult road toward a goal of equality with women. Having to step over many stereotypic hurdles. 

By the late 1960s and 1970s, it became a given assumption that, other than the obvious differences in physical size. Hormonal factors, and childbearing capacity of women. There was no difference between the mental abilities or the thought processes of men and women. 

In the 1990s, scientific and medical studies involved new techniques to image the human brain such as the MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging). Moreover and the PET scan (Positron Emission Tomography).

Showed not only distinct differences in the architecture between the brains of men and women. But entirely different thought pathways within the areas of the brain activated by stress, and other stimulations. 

In fact, the differences are so profound that leading research on these physiological differences would engender a conclusion that men and women are almost two different species.  

The differences in brain structure, reasoning under stress, spatial orientation, and night vision between men and women are among the most potent factors that resulted in the tremendous success of the women bomber pilots of the 588th (46 Guards Regiment) and the more or less average performance of the 586th Regiment of female fighter pilots. 

This in no way detracts from these women’s bravery or patriotism under fire or their exceptional abilities as pilots, but helps to explain why the 588th women’s night bomber group was exceptional while the 586th fighter group was merely average, with only two notable female fighter aces of relatively low scores in the Red Air Force. 

The research will attempt to demonstrate the link that is tens of thousands of years old.

Between the division of tasks between males and females in early hunter-gatherer societies.  In this case, male fighter pilots correspond to hunters and female bomber pilots correspond to gatherers. This is broken down by gender. Not due to artificial cultural constraints but by tens of thousands years of biological evolution. 

The first advantage of the women night bombing pilots of the 588th Regiment had over their male counterparts was superior night vision. The structure of the human eye reveals a degree of difference between men and women. 

While men’s forward vision is extremely acute. With a significant ability to detect even small degrees of motion.

A woman has broader peripheral vision and more light gathering rods in her eyes for enhanced night vision.

Women have greater visual perception in red light and better visual memory. 

Men on the other hand have better depth perception and greater visual acuity in their central field of vision. This would place a woman pilot at a significant advantage in night flying missions over her male counterparts. According to first hand accounts of the pilots of the 588th Regiment, the airfields that they would return to were lit with kerosene lanterns that had deflector hoods on them, so they could only be spotted by the women from a particular low angle on landing approach. 

The reason for this was obvious with the Po-2 bases being so close the German lines as any stray light might give away their location.

One of the comments of the 588th pilot, Irina Rakobolskaia, to the ever diminishing light levels on their airfields was that, “soon we will have to land by the light of our commander’s cigarette.”   

The advantage of superior night vision by women over men is also obvious in the night missions. With the women using stopwatches to gauge distance. And then straining their eyes in the darkness to pick out landmarks on the ground. 

Those landmarks would then have to be remembered, located and followed back to base in order to avoid becoming hopelessly lost in the darkness.  

The air operations carried out by the 588th Regiment during the war, covered different deployment areas as varied as the Crimea Peninsular, The Stalingrad area, the Caucasus, and the Baltic.  The size of the territory and the variations in terrain and climate created significant navigational problems.  The women pilots were fighting on Soviet territory.

Yet they were no more familiar with such a vast expanse of countryside. Than a New Yorker flying and navigating over the Arizona Desert would be. Brain studies of women indicate a very strong predisposition for memory of fixed locations. 

Lydia Litviak and Katya Budanova were both pilots originally selected by Raskova for the 586th Fighter Regiment, flying the YAK-1 and later, the YAK-1b.  Both of these aircraft were capable of speeds over 350 mph and had excellent maneuverability.  YAKs were a match for frontline German aircraft such as the Bf-109 and the Focke Wulf-190. Litviak and Budanova were the two top scoring female aces. With twelve kills for Litviak and eleven for Budanova. 

While these figures represent significant success in air to air combat. Their scores do not approach those of Soviet male pilots. Such as Major Ivan Kozhedub with sixty-two victories or Alexander Pokryshkin with fifty-nine German aircraft falling to his guns. This is not to take anything away from either of the two women. For by all accounts, they were superb fighter pilots. But, compared to the scores of their male counterparts, they were not exceptional. 

One may argue that there were simply more male fighter pilots so that out of that greater number.

Those of high skill might emerge, it does not answer the opposite question of why there were so many successful and decorated female bomber pilots out of an equally small group of women compared to a greater number of male bomber pilots. 

A possible answer to this is the difference between men and women with regard to spatial perception. Versus the ability to remember fixed landmarks. And the ability to multitask under extreme stress of combat conditions in the air. 

While males exhibit a significant advantage over women in the ability to locate objects and inferred object locations in a shifting three dimensional environment, women have superior memory of fixed locations.  

Under PET scanning (Positron Emission Tomography). Which allows researchers to actually see the workings of the human brain when confronted by challenges of object locations. Either fixed or in motion, women use both hemispheres of the brain for this activity while men use only one. 

These scans demonstrate that men and women use completely different areas of the cortex for these tasks. With women being superior in the memory of fixed locations. And men being superior in determining three dimensional spatial locations. 

Further experiments with forty-four women and forty-six men of college age reinforce this fact. With the women scoring significantly higher in remembering the location and identification of hidden objects.  Flying to a predetermined fixed target and then finding your way back to your airbase under very low light conditions is a task that women would excel in.  Air to air combat in the shifting spatial world of three dimensions is an area that men would excel in. This breaks down along the lines of hunters in pre-agrarian societies who were males and gatherers who were females.  

The small bands of Neolithic humans that existed some 50,000 years in the past had no politics. Moreover, no special interest groups. 

The primary mission of the small hunter-gatherer clans was the survival of the clan in a harsh Ice-Age environment. If the women of the clan had the superior spatial ability. Moreover, high acuity in the center of their visual fields. And if the men had a superior memory for landmark detail then the roles would have been reversed. With the women hunting and the men gathering, but they were not.  

Men were hunters because they were biologically predisposed by brain function. As well as physical strength and women were gatherers because of superior powers of recollection. In addition, their ability to utilize cooperative schemes to achieve a goal of keeping the clan supplied with food.  This biological specialization between men and women. According to a 1997 study by researchers James and Kimura on object location memory.

Suggests that for gatherers, correct object identification is a crucial factor while for the hunters; their position in a spatial relationship to their prey is the critical factor for survival.

If the studies in human beings are not sufficient attest to women’s superior abilities to locate specific areas and navigate by the use of landmarks. There are animal studies with rats that bear the same results. In a study by Dr. Christian Williams, Chairmen of the Psychology Department at Duke University, research using male and female rats reveal similar results to those of human beings.  According to the study, male rats exhibit “tunnel vision,” or focus on single clues when trying to navigate a maze.  The male rats use geometry only, while the females use multiple clues that include examining landmarks as well as the geometry of the maze.  

This holds well for the conclusion that the women pilots’ superior natural ability to navigate by the use of landmarks resulted in their success in bombing missions. It also highlights an incredibly dangerous mission by the women Po-2 pilots to locate and re-supply trapped Soviet troops, army and navy. On a spit of land known as Malaya Zemlya (Little Land) near Novorossiysk harbor on the Black Sea. Nadia Popova and Katya Ryabova had to drop supplies to these troops with pinpoint accuracy at night. 

The margin of error was about a dozen meters (forty feet). 

Flying between and around the remaining buildings that the two women used as landmarks and guided by a soldier’s flashlight from the ground, they dropped supplies to the beleaguered troops at an altitude of less than one hundred meters. 

The drop was on target. 

Nadia was wounded in her hand. Despite her injuries, she and Katya unerringly found their way back to the airbase, landing by the light of bonfires built along the edge of the landing field. 

The women of the 588th night bomber regiment developed uniquely effective tactics that were based upon cooperative behaviors not typical to men. 

The women pilots had to deal with well guarded German targets such as troop concentrations, ammunition and supply dumps and railroad staging areas. 

These targets were protected by batteries of searchlights and anti aircraft guns. The slow, low level attacks by the women flying the Po-2s. Made them exceptionally vulnerable to massed ground fire and, to a lesser extent, the big anti aircraft guns. Since the Po-2 flew so low and was made of wood and stretched canvas. It did not register on German radar, and due to its low altitude, the high explosive antiaircraft shells often passed harmlessly though the wings and fuselages of the biplanes as the anti aircraft shells were fused for much higher altitudes. 

The real danger in an attack was submachine gun and rifle fire.  In order to combat this, the women developed cooperative tactics to achieve success in their missions. 

The women of the 588th (46th Guards Regiment) would fly in a group of three or more aircraft to the target, usually spaced a few minutes apart. They would then utilize a diversionary tactic.  The first of the Po-2 biplanes would circle the target to attract the enemy’s searchlights.  The pilot of the second plane would cut her engine and glide in over the bank of searchlights and drop her bombs, killing a number of searchlight operators and anti aircraft gunners. Once the lights were put out of commission, the third pilot would attack the target.  Then, the first plane’s pilot that had originally drawn the searchlights would cut her engine and come in for a follow up strike on the target.

One of the more remarkable accomplishments of the night bomber regiment was the high number of sorties flown and the missions completed. 

In many cases in combat, when bombers came under intense fire by anti aircraft or fighters. The bomber crews would often drop their bombs and run for home. As was the case with over forty German bombers jumped by just two Soviet fighters before they had reached Stalingrad.  

There are many accounts from many combat theaters that indicate similar “cut and run” maneuvers by bomber crews when jumped by surprise.  This apparently was not the case with the women. 

The horrific night bombing mission where only Larissa Rozanova, Nadia Studilina, Natalia Meklin and her navigator returned from their mission. The only survivors from a flight of six planes and twelve young women, was the result of being attacked by a specially equipped German night fighter. 

Larissa’s Po-2 had been the first in on a bomb run and Natalia’s was the last plane out.  The other four aircraft were caught and shot down by the night fighter.

Despite the loss of their “sisters” and the Messerschmitt that was hunting them, Larissa and her navigator did not run, but continued to draw fire so that Natalia Meklin, flying the last aircraft in the group, could hit the target and complete the mission. 

The women bomber pilots, even in the face of sustained enemy fire. Focused on trying to outwit the antiaircraft fire and enemy fighters in order to complete their mission.  

America Rebuilt Europe After WW2

If the stress and complexity of a bombing mission is considered, in particular a night bombing mission that involves locating the target, avoiding ground fire and fighters, calculating altitude and angle of the attack and then formulating an escape plan, this complex array of simultaneous decision making would translate into what is today called “multitasking.” 

Recent studies indicate that women possess a superior ability to multitask in their handling of a number of simultaneous and often stressful situations. 

The ability of women to handle these complex tasks under extreme stress that these combat missions created seems to correlate to the 588th Regiment’s superior mission statistics over similar male bomber regiments, flying the same types of aircraft.

According to Brandy Criss, at the Department of Psychology for Missouri Western State University, women appear to be born with a more accurate ability to multitask than do men, an idea that appears to support the Corpus Colssoum theory; being larger in women, allows for greater multitasking efficiency. 

In women, the Corpus Collosum, a fibrous nerve junction between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, is considerably larger, and with significantly more neural connections than in the brains of men.  There are up to 20 million more connections between the left and right hemispheres in the female brain than in the male brain. This would allow for better communication between the right and left sides of a woman’s brain as opposed to that of men. 

When this is added to research evidence that the “flight or fight” response in men and women also utilize quite different areas of the brain, it would support the evidence suggesting that the 588th Regiment’s women bomber pilots were better than their male counterparts due to the biology, physiology, and function of their brains. 

Part of what we call the flight or fight response is based on the emotion of anger. 

From brain studies, male response to a situation or a stimulus that triggers anger is almost immediate as the male brain has neural pathways to the amygdala that are like expressways. The amygdala is the gateway or focal point and the emotional center of the brain. 

Location of the Amygdala in the Human Brain The figure shows the underside (ventral view) of a semi-transparent human brain, with the front of the brain at the top.

This organ is about the size and shape of an almond and is located within the temporal lobe. In men, the amygdala has numerous testosterone receptors, causing in men, a rapid up-tick in anger under stress.  Anger can cloud concentrating and decision making. 

When being fired upon, anger and a desire to strike back has to be taken into consideration as well as the effects of anger in clouding logical decision making. Women on the other hand have far more complex neural pathways that route stimuli that would generate a fight response into the prefrontal cortex and to the anterior cingulate cortex. 

In men the stimuli that will trigger a combative reaction speed directly to the most primitive and reactive areas of the human brain. 

In women, these stimuli must first traverse areas of the brain that are the newest and most advanced from an evolutionary perspective. 

These areas and in particular, the prefrontal cortex. Are responsible for our ability to use logic and rationalization of an event. 

The amygdala’s neural connections to the rest of the brain are the reason for human beings’ rapid response to sensory input as well as its influence on memory storage.

Psychological studies as well as PET scan observations of the actual function of the neural pathways from the amygdala to other areas of the brain reveal gender related differences to emotional responses. 

Since these responses color memory, men and women may actually recall the same stressful event differently. Again, this appears to support that idea that men are hunters, women are gathers. 

As indicated by the first hand accounts of the Soviet women bomber pilots. Rather than giving in to the fight or flight response and acting impulsively, they were very methodic in their attacks on Nazi targets.

 Aerial combat is a life or death high stress environment.  Medical research using PET scans indicates that under high levels of stress. Men and women use very different areas of the brain. 

For example, under conditions of stress, a male brain response is narrowly focused to an area responsible for the “fight or flight” response, while a woman’s hypothalamus and limbic areas of the brain become active. 

The female response to stress incorporates many more areas of the brain than in the male brain. Aerial combat in fighter aircraft allows for the full range of the fight or flight response in men, taking advantage of the three-dimensional environment and the enhanced male ability to operate in that environment. 

A fighter pilot has the freedom to go on the offensive as well as to retreat when facing overwhelming odds.  Bomber pilots on a fixed course to a target are constrained in their ability to avoid ground fire and aerial attacks from fighters.  Taking aggressive action and fighting is severely limited.  The women, due to actual brain function. Are not seized by the fight or flight response in the same way men are. But instead use different coping strategies to accomplish a goal under stress by virtue of the physiology of their brains. 

Prior to our ability to image a living brain and to discern the structural differences between male and female brains many of the differences between men and women in combat could go down two directions; either as cultural or social artifacts of nurture as opposed to nature in society.

That was male dominated or the tendency to simply ignore behavioral evidence in the face of a trend towards political correctness. And discounting any differences between genders in behavior. 

The advent of MRI and PET scans not only reveal significant structural differences in the brains of men and women. But functional differences as to how thoughts are generated and how information is processed.  This includes marked differences in the size and function of male and female amygdala, with the male amygdala being larger. Memory encoding within the male amygdala is on the right hand side, while in women, it is on the left.  This difference may have a significant bearing on how locations are recalled as well as how tactical planning is developed. However, in women, the Corpus Collosum, a fibrous nerve junction between the right and left hemispheres of the brain is considerably larger with significantly more neural connections. 

This allows the two hemispheres of the female brain to operate in greater unison than in the male brain.  In the “flight or fight” response, the operational areas of the brain are very different and would indicate a variation on how women would perform under combat stress.  In men, stress induces increased blood flow to the right prefrontal cortex. The location of the “fight or flight” response. While in women, blood flow increases to the limbic system, which is associated with a far less reactive response.

Studies that date back as far as the 1980s in early CT Scans revealed measurable structural differences between the male and female brain that include the proportions of white to gray matter (with men having a greater proportion of gray matter) and more ventricles in male brains than female brains. 

Researchers working with the new imaging technology could see differences in male and female brains. But that research had not reached the point where structural differences could correlate to actual differences in thinking and perception between males and females.  Later studies with more defined PET scans, using mental problem solving of spatial relationships of objects, revealed men had an advantage over women. 

As mentioned earlier, experiments done with object location showed that women excelled in remembering locations of hidden objects and the ability to recall what the hidden object was, supporting the idea of evolutionary bifurcation of survival tasks between male and female human beings. 

Women’s brains control the activity reserved for the functions of identifying landmarks and memory in both hemispheres.  In men, these activities are in just one hemisphere.  However, in operations of spatial orientation. The two hemispheres of the female brain can provide conflicting information, thus reducing spatial performance. In effect, men are hunters, women are gatherers.

Or in this case, men are fighter pilots and women are bomber pilots. 

Using PET scan technology and presenting men and women with equal tasks in navigation with virtual mazes demonstrates results that show different areas of the brain are utilized in males and females. Women use the right parietal and prefrontal areas of the brain, while men use the left hippocampal region. In navigational efforts, men and women “see” and process information about spatial clues and landmarks in many different ways.  

Structural differences in the human brain between men and women can correlate to differences in behavior as well. An interesting set of data from the initial research shows a remarkable similarity between the success of Russian women in the male dominated field of construction and the success of the female combat pilots.  In the early 1930s, women became part of the construction crews building the Moscow Metro subway system.  This initiated a great deal of negativity from the male workers, especially when it came to the women’s use of pneumatic drills. 

In 1933, to answer the question as to whether women could keep pace with the men. Wwo teams of workers, one male and one female were pitted against each other. 
The woman outperformed the men.
How To Succeed : Barnard College President Sian Beilock On Empowering Students For Continued Success
The women workers said that while the men had to take a break for a smoke and to chat. The women kept on working. 

Interestingly, these were the same comments, made some ten years later, by the women pilots in explaining why they flew more sorties than the men.  The women said they would land, rearm, and refuel. And be back in the air before their male counterparts had finished a rest break and a smoke break.  

Possibly attributed to some degree to the ingrained cultural expectations. Moreover, of the level of work expected from a Russian woman. Or factors such as the desire to “show up” the men competing in similar activities. First hand accounts bear out that both male pilots and male commanders such as Colonel Popov, who were at first very reluctant to acknowledge the women pilots skills. Later was very supportive and there was no need for the women to further “prove themselves.” 

Popov in fact required the “instance” at first of Soviet General Vershinin. That the women be combat pilots first and women second.  Later, it was Popov who elevated the 588th to the level of a Guards Regiment in January of 1943.

The idea that the success of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment was cultural or that the women, in flying fifteen and more missions per night on occasion were striving to “show up” the men is not realistic.  Instead it points to the women approaching the task at hand. And the stress levels involved in ways that were different than their male counterparts.  Even their recreational activities, sewing, singing, flower decorations in the summer. And poetry reflect uniquely feminine means of coping with their nightly forays into battle.  

In all, thirty-seven of the women of the 588th 46th Guards Regiment lost their lives in combat with twenty-three of the women awarded, “Hero of the Soviet Union.” 

The losses suffered by the 588th, their victories and their outstanding successes in completing their missions, striking their targets and hurting the enemy, placed these women at the very top of Red Air Force personnel. 

Psychological research in the West has done very little with the wealth of information and firsthand accounts of the women of the Red Air Force.  Perhaps it is the resistance to use data from outside of the Western comfort zone as in, “If it did not originate here, it’s not relevant.”  This being the case, it was a very recent (and in this case tardy) study of women’s reaction to combat stress in Iraq and Afghanistan with the conclusion indicating that women and men handle stress equally. 

This is perhaps a grudging admonition that may still strain those of a more traditional bent in the military in accepting the study.

But, women in the June 2011 study were caught in combat situations, (by 2009 over 750 had lost their lives or were wounded, according to the Department of Defense). Not on direct combat missions as were the “Night Witches” and other women pilots and crews.

American women in the military may still NOT engage in direct combat missions. 

While no one can dispute the sacrifice of those American women lost in the Iraq and Afghanistan combat. Caught in indirect actions is not the same as being a frontline combat pilot. 

The Soviet women pilots had trained for their missions. In addition, had a briefing before takeoff, and were expecting to be fired upon and possibly killed; the women caught unintentionally in firefights or roadside bombings in Iraq or Afghanistan were not.  

Sadly, the long term mental health records for these women don’t exist. 

The mindset of Soviet culture discounted the mental condition.

Such as posttraumatic stress disorder and it has only been recently, after the collapse of the USSR. That psychology has even emerged into general popularity. Regrettably, there is only anecdotal information from women of the bomber and fighter regiments who survived the war.  

Scientists found other differences in males and females through animal studies.

The binding sites for GABA receptors. Areas that are receptive chemical neurotransmitter sites in the rat cortex and amygdala differ between male and female rats with the conclusion that the females have greater resistance to stress than do male rats.  

The architecture of the male and female brain in human beings is notably different. And certainly reason to suggest that women under high levels of combat stress may later suffer less debilitating effects in civilian life.  Women have a higher ability to verbalize inner problems with others than men. In addition, this may also be a factor in how posttraumatic stress disorder may be less severe than in men. Who tend to internalize horrific warfare experiences and grief.

A reason for this may be that women utilize larger and more varied areas of the brain for the verbalization of thoughts.  

Another factor with respect to any difference between men and women in their long term psychological health after traumatic wartime experiences. May be the way in which emotional memories are processed in the female brain.  Women have a larger hippocampus than do men. 

The hippocampus, located within the medial temporal lobe of the brain. Is part of the limbic system and responsible for long and short term memory consolidation.  The amygdala response to a highly stressful situation will send this information to the hippocampus. But, because of the female brain’s architecture. These short and long term memories of events under stressful conditions. Will take a different processing path than they would in a male brain. 

Although there is no clear research at this time. To prove or disprove that women can process stressful memories in a way that mitigates PTSD. It would certainly seem possible, given the differences in brain structure and memory processing. 

Perhaps the fact that an intensely stressful moment for a man goes directly from the amygdala to long term memory. While the same experience for a woman is routed through the higher functioning areas of the cortex. And would result in coming to terms with the event in a more rational manner.  

It is fair to say that the evidence from modern brain studies, psychology experiments and even animal studies provides the answer.

As to why the women piloted bomber regiments were superior to their male piloted counterparts.  It would also help to explain the average performance of the women fighter pilots as due to innate biological differences as opposed to any lack of courage, skill, or determination.  Looking at the two very different aerial tasks.

One can conclude that the bomber pilots, and in particular those who flew night bombing missions. Moreover, in virtually unarmed Po-2s, faced a far greater challenge and test of will than the women in fighters. Furthermore, with an equal ability in speed and weapons to hit back at their Nazi enemies. 

See the source image
By virtue of her brain structure and thus her enhanced ability to navigate. Furthermore, efectively multitask under high stress levels, and her better night vision. The “Night Witches,” of the 588th 46th Guards Regiment, distinguished themselves. In addition, demonstrated that a woman’s place is in the cockpit with a load of bombs beneath the wings of her aircraft. 

In male regiments flying Po-2s, the average number of pilots being “Hero of the Soviet Union”. Was somewhere between one and three. The 588th had twenty-three.  It was Po-2 pilot Polina Gelman, who herself received this award for her successful completion of 860 combat missions.

Who attributed the success of the regiment to the fact that they were an all women regiment from the beginning of the war until the end.

This comment by Gelman at the end of the war was a reversal from her earlier comments in 1941. When she was quite reluctant for transfer out of a mixed male-female regiment to the 588th.

With evidence from psychological studies, brain imaging and the comparative success of the women’s bomber regiments when judged against the all-male bomber regiments. One needs to closely examine the evidence with an open mind. There is a strong correlation for the research that the different roles of men and women that have evolved over many thousands of years. Moreover, show that in the modern era of mechanized warfare. The roles of hunter and gatherer still are viable and applicable to the differences in performance. Between male and female pilots of the Red Air Force during the Second World War.

In conclusion, the best current medical evidence suggests that the differences between the male and female brain accounts for this success. 

Female Vs Male Pilots In WW2 by Chris Berman

Additional information:  The spelling for the names of the Russian and Ukrainian pilots, as well as place names, varies from source to source.  The reason for this is the difficulty of turning Cyrillic letters of which there are thirty-two in Russian. And thirty-three in Ukrainian, into English letters, of which there are only twenty-six.  With the aid of my wife, a Russian native speaker. I have tried to use the most accurate phonetic translations of both names and places into English. 

Special thanks to my wife Larisa as well! For her input on male-female psychology (she holds a psychology degree from St. Leo University here in the USA) and her insight into the socio-culture aspects of the Russian woman.

Female Vs Male Pilots In WW2 Sources Cited:

Andersson, Lennart. Soviet Aircraft and Aviation 1917-1941. London: Putnam Aeronautical Books, 1994. 

Attwood, Lynne. Creating the New Soviet Woman: Women’s Magazines as Engineers of Female Identity, 1922-53. Hampshire, UK: Palgrave, 1999.

Axell, Albert, Russia’s Heroes, 1941-45. New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers Inc. 2001.

Brizendine, Louann, M.D. The Female Brain. New York: Morgan Road Books: (Random House), 2006.

Brain anatomy may make women better decision makers Accessed 11/15/2011.  

 Criss Brandy R., “Gender Differences in Multi-Tasking”. Missouri Western State University, Department of Psychology,, 2. (Accessed July 29th 2011)

Cottam, Kazimier. J. The Sky Above the Eastern Front, A Collection of Memoirs of Soviet Airwomen Participants in the Great Patriotic War Edited and translated, Kansas, University of Kansas Press 1984.

Darlington, Cynthia. The Female Brain. Taylor and Francis, New York: Taylor and Francis, 2002.

Engel, Barbara, A. Women in Russia, 1700-2000. Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 2004.

Grön, George, Arthur, P. Wunderlich, Manfred Spitzer, Reinhardt Tomczak, and Matthias W. Riepe “Brain  activation during human navigation: gender-different neural networks as substrate of performance”: Nature Neuroscience vol. 3 no.4 (April 2000), 404-408.

Gordon ,Yefim and Dmitri Khazanov, Alexander Medved. Soviet Combat Aircraft of the Second World War: Volume Two: Twin-Engine Fighters, Attack Aircraft, and Bombers. Leicester, UK: Midland Publishing. 

Hamann, Stephen, “Sex Differences in the Response of the Human Aygdala:, Neuroscience Update, Deparment of Psychology, Emroy Univeristy, Atlanta, vol. 11, no 4, 2005.

Hardesty, Von. Red Phoenix: The rise of Soviet Air Power, 1941-1945. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1982.

Kravchenko, Valentina, The Bombs Went into the Target, The Sky Above the Eastern Front, A Collection of Memoirs of Soviet Airwomen Participants in the Great Patriotic War Translated by, Kazimier J. Cottam, Kansas: University of Kansas 1984.

Krylova, Anna. Soviet Women in Combat: a History of Violence on the Eastern Front. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Miller, Russell, and Editors of Time-Life Books. The Soviet Air Force at War. Chicago: Time-Life Books, 1983.

Moir, Ann, David Jessel. Brain Sex: The Real difference between Men and Women. New York: Carol Publishing, 1991.

Mozes Alan, “Women Exposed to Combat Trauma as Resilient as Men: Study, Female military personnel experience PTSD, depressions similar rates as men: Health Day Reporter, Mercy Heath System; (Accessed, July 31st, 2011) 1-3.

Murphy, Paul, J. The Soviet Air Forces. North Carolina: McFarland and Co. 1984.

Muller, Richard, The German Air War in Russia. Baltimore: Nautical & Aviation Publishinng Company of America, 1992.

Myles, Bruce, The Night Witches, The Amazing Story of Russia’s Pilots in World War II. Chicago: Academy Press, 1990.

Night Witches, Female Combat Pilots on the Eastern Front, Part III, Accessed, July 9th, 2011.

Night Witches, Female Combat Pilots on the Eastern Front, Part II, Accessed, July 9th, 2011.

Pennington, Reina, Wings, Women and War, Soviet Airwomen in World War II  Combat. Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 2001.

Pease, Barbara, Allan Pease, Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps. New York: Broadway Books, 2001.

Science Video News: Men are from Mars: Neuroscientists Find that Men and Women Respond Differently to Stress:  Accessed June 25th 2011

Segal, Mady-Wenchsler. “Women’s roles Cross-Nationally: Past, Present and Future.” Gender and Society, 9 no. 6 (Dec., 1995) 757-775.

Stockdale, Melissa, K. “My Death for the Motherland is Happiness” “Women, Patriotism and Soldiering in Russia’s Great War”, 1914-1917. The American Historical Review, 109, No.1 (Feb 2004) 78-116.

Szalavitz, Maia, “Do Women Have a Higher Pain Threshold?” MSN Health, Medically reviewed by Lindsy Marcellin, M.D. M.P.H.  Accessed August 6th 2011.

Timofeyeva, Yevgenia. The Flight that Stayed Together, In the sky above the Eastern Front. A Collection of Memoirs of Soviet Airwomen Participants in the Great Patriotic War. Translated by, Kazimier J. Cottam. Kansas, University of Kansas Press 1984. 
Vogt, Dawne, and Brian Smith, Rani Elwy, James Martin, Mark Schultz, Mari-Lynn Drainoni, Susan Eisen, “Predeployment, Deployment, and Postdeployment Risk Factors of Posttraumatic Stress Symptomatology in Female and Male OEF/OIF Veterans,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology, (June, 2011) 1-14.

Female Vs Male Pilots In WW2