Reading and Remembrance: Women and War

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Women and War

Louise Johnson, Ajax

Robert Lavack and female pilot

Note from Canadian Robbie Lavack who was a World War II RAF bomber pilot

The Russians trained women pilots for combat during WW2 and even had a few women squadrons (regiments). In 1944, when I was operating out of Foggia, Italy, we did the occasional supply drop to Tito's partisans at Tuzl, their main base in Yugoslavia. These drops were done during the day in Wellington night bombers that were no match for any German fighters that might happen to be in the area. To offset this danger, fighter sweeps were arranged for our protection. These sweeps involved Yak-1 or 7 fighters flown by Russian women who operated out of Bari, Italy. American and RAF aircraft also took part in these sweeps. I did a couple of these supply drops but never saw any German, Russian or allied aircraft during these flights.

I drove down to Bari to see what sort of aircraft the Russian gals were flying and was surprised by such hi-tech machines. It is only through reading current aviation magazines that I found out how good these and other Russian aircraft were. Some of their fighter series (Yaks & Migs) were actually superior to our much vaunted Spitfire and comparable to American aircraft. I met some of the gals flying these machines, but that's another story.

Russian female pilots also flew the antiquated Po-2 (a1926 light biplane) and were given the name of 'Night Witches' by the German front line troops during the Battle of Stalingrad. These ladies flew over the German lines through the night and dropped small bombs to keep them awake and generally harass the troops. They were the highest decorated women air regiments.

Just checked out your 'Females in Flight' draft and think it would be fantastic if you include the Russian female pilot stuff. Maybe my little 'Danuta' will surface again

Robert "Robbie" Lavack World War II reminiscences:
Women and War: the mystery Canadian nurse

During WW2 there were Canadian nurses serving in the South African Nursing Services. I had the honour of taking one of these on a Naples bombing mission in 1943. This was just before the invasion of Sicily when we (the RAF) were operating from Al Qayrawan in Tunisia. The squadron aircrews had been briefed and our crew were doing the usual last minute check and 'widdle' before taking off when our squadron CO drove up to the aircraft and called me aside. He asked me if I would mind taking a Canadian nurse on the raid. I told him it was OK with me. If the rest of the crew didn't object, she was welcome. The CO had brought a parachute along for her and one of the crew explained how to use it in the event she had to bail out. The flight over the Mediterranean went well and we made landfall near Capri where we circled the island at low level so that she could see where Gracie Fields, the English singer and comedienne, had a villa. I remembered her famous song, Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye, and hoped this wasn't a bad omen.

By that time as the main force was drawing flak from the Naples defences, we climbed to 8,000 feet altitude and headed towards Naples to drop our bombs there on the marshalling yards. On our bombing run, the nurse remarked how lovely the fireworks looked as light and heavy flak projectiles lit up the dark sky. I saw one of our aircraft going down in flames and didn't want to alarm her by directing her attention in that direction. The flak wasn't that bad after a while and there didn't appear to be any night fighters active.

After the bombing run I thought our new crew member might like to see Vesuvius so we eased down to 5000 feet and circled the volcano crater before heading back to our Tunisian base. I often wondered if she ever told a disbelieving audience about her unique bomber experience. She was one cool gal.

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Links for Remembrance Day | Veterans' Week | Womens' History Month: Canadian War Museum | Canadian Museum of Civilization | The Memory Project |
The Royal Canadian Legion |The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry | 48th Highlanders Museum | 48th Highlanders Memorial Video | Veterans Affairs Canada |
First World War Audio Archive
| Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University Library | CBC Digital Archives |
The Historica-Dominion Institute | We'll Never Forget by Jean Miso | Poppy Manual

Anciens Combattants Canada | La Légion royale canadienne | Le Projet Mémoire | Musée canadien des civilisations | Musée canadien de la guerre
Livres Rares et Collections Spéciales, Bibliothèques de McGill | La force francophone | Des femmes sur tous les fronts
Institut Historica-Dominion | Commission de la capitale nationale | Manuel du coquelicot