Women in military aviation (Pre 1945) - UK Airfield Guide

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Women in military aviation (Pre 1945)

I will make no apologies for including these accounts in a ‘Guide’ to British flying sites. I think they serve as very good examples with which to compare the British military mind to that of other regimes.

In Britain women were not allowed to become military pilots during WW1, and even when they eventually did in WW2 they were not allowed to get involved in combat. During WW1 the French had one female military pilot, Hélène Dutrieu who served in the Paris Air Guard, and, she was awarded the Légion d’Honneur although no record appears to exist of her flying combat missions. This said, and if this was the case, it seems a tad odd that she would be awarded such a distinguished honour.

It seems worth adding that, as far as I can make out, the first women to be awarded her wings by the RAF - was Jean Bird in Sepember 1952. But of course, only a few since.

It would appear the first ever female military pilot, was Princess Eugenie Mikhailovna Shakhorskaya. This came about when she made a personal request to the Tsar, who could obviously pull a few strings! She was posted to the First Field Air Squadron for reconnaissance duties and here again no record appears to exist of her flying any combat encounters. She gained her license on the 16th August 1911 therefore just beating Hilda Hewlett gaining her civilian license in the UK by thirteen days. I think I’m correct in stating that only ‘military’ and/or ‘State controlled’ flying existed in Russia at that time? A situation that would remain in place, regarding private flying, until a decade or so after Glasnost (1985) and Perestroika (1989).

Without much doubt, ranking amongst the most interesting female pilots in the pre-WW2 era, was Sabiha Gökçen from Turkey. Doubly so because she was a military pilot and she did take part in combat missions. An unique claim to fame in respect of being the first as far I can discover to date. She was an orphan adopted by Kamal Atatürk, who had formed modern Turkey - after whom the country is now named. The newest main airport in Istanbul is named after her. And yes, this was, and still is predominantly an Islamic country!

Quite a good point to ponder on I suppose. Do we Brits have a Hilda Hewlett or Amy Johnson airport? No! We’d rather name an airport after a ‘pop’ star or footballer, neither of which had the foggiest idea about flying matters. Or for that matter, even giving credence to a mythical character like Robin Hood. The British are strange folk - and, being British myself I think it is most unwise to try and determine any reason or logic to the way they think and reach their conclusions regarding how many of our airports have been renamed in the last thirty years.

I have found most of the information regarding Gökçen on Wikipedia, and it looks authentic? It certainly compares well with numerous other accounts I’ve come across regarding this singular woman.

“Atatürk attached great importance to aviation and for that purpose, oversaw the foundation of the Turkish Aeronautical Association in 1925. He took Sabiha along with him to the opening ceremony of Türkkusu (Turkiskbird) Flight School on May 5, 1935. During the airshow of gliders and parachutists invited from foreign countries, she got very excited. As Atatürk asked her whether she would also want to become a skydiver, she nodded “yes indeed, I am ready now”. Atatürk instructed Fuat Bulca, the head of the school, to enrol her as the first female trainee.”

My note: Without any doubt whatsoever Kamal Atatürk was a most extraordinary person. Exactly the sort of character the early Christians would describe as a ‘Messiah’. It is claimed that on the 19th December 1934 Atatürk gave Sabiha the family name Gökçen. It is said, (note how I’m being very wary here), Gök means sky in Turkish and Gökçen means – belonging or relating to the sky.

The problem being how to interpret the accounts of her life, written by people who obviously have no knowledge of aviation matters. However, it does appear Gökçen achieved her pilots license in Turkey. She was then sent, along with seven male students, for an advanced course in glider and powered aircraft piloting to Russia, to a facility near Moscow. This was in 1935.

In 1936 Atatürk urged her to attend the Air Force Academy to become the first female military pilot of Turkey. Just think about it. In most of ‘Christian’ Europe and the UK and USA especially, the very idea that a woman could be a military pilot was an impossibility, a non-starter. Even though women were now flying all around the world with great success! Often on record-breaking flights. 

“She improved her skills by flying bomber and fighter planes at the 1st Aircraft Regiment in Eskisehir Airbase and got experience after participating in the Aegean and Thrace exercises in 1937. In that same year, she took part in the military operation against the Dersim rebellion and became the world’s first female air force combat pilot! She was awarded the Turkish Aeronautical Associations’s first “Jewelled Medal” due to her superior performance in this operation.” To me it is a matter of considerable embarrassment that I hadn’t even heard of this most remarkable lady before indulging in research for this project.

The report goes on to say; “In 1938, she carried out a five-day flight around the Balkan countries to great acclaim. Later, she was appointed chief trainer of the Türkkusu Flight School of the Turkish Aeronautical Association, where she served until 1955 and became a member of the association’s executive board. She trained four female aviators - and flew around the world for a period of 28 years until 1964.” So why is it I wonder, that we in the west, (even today!), don’t automatically include her name in the general list of the most notable female pilots for that period?

There is one thing I now know for sure, when it comes to the basics of determining the ability of anybody learning to fly; and that is that there is no difference whatsoever between the male and female of our species. The only difference I can determine is that of inclination - more men seem attracted to learning to fly. And yes, if you are asking - I have flown with several female pilots and found exactly the same mix of competence as with the blokes. Generally most being highly competent, but only a few being exemplary. However, when it comes to being outstanding - world class - sadly I have only viewed the female contenders from the ground.

For example, regarding women running flying schools, often if not mainly training military pilots, in the early years and during WW1, the American Stinson sisters trained Canadian pilots for the RFC before 1917. In Germany Melli Beese had run a flying school in Berlin since 1912 - and by heck she had a very difficult time indeed. Even suffering sabotage! Also see BROOKLANDS (SURREY) for information about Mrs Hilda Hewlett who co-ran both a flying school and aircraft manufacturing facility there, before WW1. 

Without any doubt whatosever the most effective military unit manned by women was in Russia during World War 2. I have read other accounts but by far the best precis is on Wikipedia, from which I quote:

"Night witches" is the English translation of Nachthexen, a World War II German nickname, for the female military aviators of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, known later as the 46th "Taman" Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, of the Soviet Air Forces. The regiment was formed by Colonel Marina Raskova and led by Major Yevdokia Bershanskaya."

"The regiment flew harassment bombing and precision bombing missions against the German military from 1942 to the end of the war. At its largest size, it had 40 two-person crews. It flew over 23,000 sorties and is said to have dropped 3,000 tons of bombs. It was the most highly decorated female unit in the Soviet Air Force, each pilot having flown over 800 missions by the end of the war and twenty-three having been awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union title."

My note: By comparison, in the RAF during WW2, it was deemed that after flying thirty combat missions, aircrew members could elect to return to non-combat duties. It would of course be very unfair to compare the relative dangers involved as the 'Night Witches' were engaged in a completely different theatre of war, albiet very dangerous indeed - thirty of its members died in combat.

"The regiment flew in wood and canvas Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, a 1928 design intended for use as training aircraft and for crop-dusting, and to this day the most-produced biplane in all aviation history. The planes could carry only six bombs at a time, so multiple missions per night were necessary. Although the aircraft were obsolete and slow, the pilots made daring use of their exceptional manouverability; they had the advantage of having a maximum speed that was lower than the stall speed of both the Messerschmitt Bf109 and the Focke-Wulf Fw190, and as a result, the German pilots found them very difficult to shoot down. An attack technique of the night bombers was to idle the engine near the target and glide to the bomb release point, with only wind noise to reveal their location. German soldiers likened the sound to broomsticks and named the pilots "Night Witches". Due to the weight of the bombs and the low altitude of flight, the pilots carried no parachutes."

"From June 1942, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment was within the 4th Air Army. In February 1943 the regiment was honored with a reorganization into the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment and in October 1943 it became the 46th "Taman" Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment. The word Taman referred to the unit's involvement in two celebrated Soviet victories on the Taman Peninsular, during 1943." 




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