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Gelman, Polina (1919—)

Gelman, Polina (1919—)

Soviet night-bomber navigator during World War II who received the Hero of the Soviet Union medal for bravery in combat. Name variations: Polya. Pronunciation: Puh-LEE-na Vlah-di-MEE-ruv-nuh GEL-mun. Born Polina Vladimirovna Gelman in October 1919 in Berdichev, Ukraine, USSR; daughter of Vladimir (a tailor) and Yelya (a worker) Gelman; undergraduate study in department of history, Moscow State University; trained as Spanish linguist, Military Institute of Foreign Languages; completed graduate dissertation in economics, earning Candidate of Sciences (Economics) degree; married Vladimir Kolosov (now a retired lieutenant colonel), in 1948; children: one daughter, Galina Kolosov , a historian (b. 1949).

Family moved to Gomel, Byelorussia (1920); entered Moscow State University (1938); joined Soviet Air Force (October 1941); served as navigator with 588th Night Bomber Aviation Regiment (later redesignated 46th Guards, 1942–45); served as military linguist; resigned from military service (1956) with rank of guards major; completed graduate education; served as senior lecturer (docent) and associate professor in department of Political Economy at Moscow Institute of Social Sciences; awarded Hero of the Soviet Union.

Polina Gelman, who received the Hero of the Soviet Union medal for bravery in combat, was a member of the famous "night witches" bomber regiment of Soviet female aviators during the Second World War. Of the 93 women who have received this, she is the only one who is Jewish. Gelman, who longed to fly since childhood, had been told that she would never qualify as a pilot because she was too short to reach the controls. But the exigencies of war allowed her to realize her dream; during her three years as a navigator, she flew 860 combat missions, nearly all at night, in the rickety old Po-2 biplane. The war gave her the chance to fly, but at a terrible price. Writes Gelman:

I remember nights when I flew with tears on my face. We were pushed back from the Ukraine to the Caucasus. We were bombing the advancing columns of German tanks. They were advancing so fast that we had no time to change bases. We didn't even have maps. It was August and September of 1942. We could not harvest the grain, so they burned it. And so I was crying. Because it was my country and it was burning.

Gelman was a deeply patriotic woman. Her father Vladimir was a Bolshevik revolutionary during the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution. Throughout the course of the war, which lasted from 1918 to 1921, territory in the Ukraine changed hands repeatedly. In 1919, the hospital in which Yelya Gelman was giving birth to Polina was hit by enemy fire and half-destroyed. Five months later, Vladimir, the treasurer of a local Bolshevik organization, was returning from meetings in Moscow when his group was captured and then executed by a White Army unit. Yelya Gelman, now a widow, moved from the Ukraine to her parental home in Gomel, Byelorussia, where she later remarried. In 1925, Polina's half-brother was born.

While Polina's first love was always the social sciences—history, languages, and economics—she also became interested in flying at an early age; when she was a teenager, she joined a flying club with her best friend, Galina Dokutovich . The two girls completed the academics course and learned to parachute jump. But when Gelman was scheduled to begin flight training, she was disqualified from the program for being too short. "They were afraid that in difficult situations, for example in a spin, my feet wouldn't be able to reach the pedals," explained Gelman. She was extremely disappointed.

In 1938, after she had completed secondary school with an outstanding academic record, Gelman set out for Moscow. She had applied and been accepted at the Moscow Aviation Institute as well as to the department of history at Moscow State University. After long deliberation, however, she decided to study history at Moscow State while her friend Dokutovich entered the Moscow Aviation Institute. In 1940, Gelman joined the Communist Party.

The "Great Patriotic War," the Soviet term for the portion of World War II in which their country was involved, began on Sunday, June 22, 1941, when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. Gelman was out of town, visiting a friend. Like any college student who had just finished exams, she was looking forward to a relaxing summer before returning to the university to complete her final year. Most students rushed back to the university as soon as they heard the news. When Gelman arrived on Sunday night, in time for an emergency party meeting, the students declared that they would all immediately volunteer to fight; but the women soon found there was no place for them in the military. "We had full equality before the war—in school, in sports, and so on. We were very offended when they wouldn't take us into the military."

During the summer of 1941, Gelman repeatedly went to the military registration offices, where volunteers were enlisted, and she was repeatedly told to go back to her studies, "war is not a woman's affair." Gelman's tiny stature did not make her a likely candidate for hard duty in the field. So she began studying at a school for military nurses, planning to join the medical corps after she completed training.

Hitler's armies swept across the western sections of Soviet territory; by the autumn of 1941, they were less than 50 miles from Moscow. Polina Gelman, along with thousands of other university students, was sent to help with the defense of the city, and she was put to work digging antitank ditches along the Belorussian road. On October 10, she heard a rumor that young women were being accepted into military aviation. Rushing back to Moscow, she sought out her friend Galina Dokutovich; as a student at the Moscow Aviation Institute, Dokutovich had already heard about the call-up, volunteered, and received her orders. Gelman quickly submitted the necessary paperwork, was accepted, and assigned the job of parachute packer. She wrote her mother that she had, at last, joined the army.

Gelman was assigned to Marina Raskova 's training group, Aviation Group No. 122. A famous Soviet pilot (the Russian counterpart of Amelia Earhart ), Raskova had been given the green light to form three aviation regiments to be staffed entirely by women. In mid-October, the entire company was loaded onto a train and sent to a training base at Engels, some 500 miles east of Moscow on the Volga River. As soon as they arrived, Gelman petitioned Raskova to be transferred to flight training. Because of her strong academic background, Polina was assigned to the navigator's group. Even though she was too short for normal flying duty, the 122nd desperately needed women who could swiftly learn the difficult task of navigation. Thousands of women had learned to fly in light aircraft before the war, but very few had received formal training as navigators. Two of the three regiments that would be formed from the 122nd would fly bomber aircraft and would require at least one dedicated navigator for every pilot. The student navigators worked 14 hours a day, cramming three years of normal military ground training into three months. Then flight training began—in January 1942—in the middle of one of the harshest Russian winters in memory.

Gelman was assigned to the 588th Night Bomber Aviation Regiment (later redesignated 46th Guards), which became active on May 27, 1942. The 46th was among the many Soviet night-bomber units that had to make do with one of the oldest aircraft in the inventory: the open-cockpit Po-2 biplane. More than 2,000 Soviet aircraft had been lost in the first year of the war, and the Soviet Air Force threw everything into the fight. Night-bomber regiments were used primarily to harass German troops, to disrupt the soldiers' rest, and to wreak what damage they could on military targets near the front lines. The Po-2 had very little instrumentation, could carry only a few small bombs, could fly only short distances, and had practically no defense against enemy fire. It was so vulnerable that it was impossible to use in the daytime, when it was easy pickings for German fighters. But at night, the small, quiet biplane made an effective short-range bomber. Po-2 units were based near the front and moved frequently to keep up with the army. They could land on rough fields and required only a minimum of support, compared to more modern aircraft. Still, no aviator would have flown the Po-2 by choice. During the war, writes Gelman, "men sometimes said, 'How do you manage to fly this piece of furniture? I would never fly this into combat!'"

The navigator in a Po-2 was responsible for keeping the aircraft on course and for finding the target; once there, the navigator dropped flares and bombs. Each combat flight required the crew to cross the front lines twice, braving the fire of antiaircraft weapons, light weapons, and the dangerously blinding glare of searchlights. Missions were relatively short, about half an hour in duration. Each crew flew anywhere from 5 to 15 missions a night, taking about 15 minutes to refuel and rearm the aircraft. Each flight was fraught with danger. It didn't take much to set a Po-2 afire; the old biplane was built of wood and canvas. And, until late in the war, Po-2 crews carried no parachutes.

When I announced that I had become a flier, my mama wrote to me that it was better to die standing on your feet than to live on your knees.

—Polina Gelman

"Of the three women's regiments formed from the 122nd Aviation Group," said Gelman, "only the 46th remained purely female until the end of the war. In the others, some men served alongside the women." While the 46th was one of many night-bomber regiments flying the rickety Po-2, it was the only one staffed by all-female personnel. According to Gelman, "the regiment was not only equal to the men's regiments in terms of combat effectiveness and other indices—it was among the very best." Combat effectiveness (the accuracy of each mission's bombing) was verified by both aerial and ground reconnaissance. Gelman believes that the women had a special quality of "thoroughness and responsibility" that accounted for their ability to conduct a high number of missions with such accuracy. The women of the 46th also accrued flight time because the regiment was never withdrawn from combat duty for leave or reequipping. "Without a break, over the course of three years, without rest or leave," says Gelman, "I flew an average of 5-10 combat flights a night in the fire of ground batteries and in the blinding beams of searchlights. That's the way it is in war."

Good leadership was the main reason why morale was especially high in the 46th. Throughout the entire war, a single commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Yevdokia Bershanskaya , guided the women of the night witches. "Our regiment was very harmonious and close-knit," wrote Gelman in 1992. "We were like sisters.… [Even now,] we rely on one another as if we were family. Our commander, Lt. Col. Bershanskaya, played a tremendous role in this. I'm very old, I served a long time in the army and worked in many places. I had many commanders. But I never met such a wonderful person as our commander."

Bershanskaya, who had been a civil-aviation pilot before the war, was not afraid to experiment or try new procedures. For example, the women of the 46th reduced the turnaround time between combat missions from 15 to 20 minutes, which was standard in the Soviet Air Force, to less than five. According to normal procedures, each aircraft was tended by its own designated ground crew. This led to duplication of effort. The 46th organized its maintenance into functional groups—one to meet aircraft as they landed, another to refuel each aircraft in turn, yet another to rearm. "It was not according to the regulations," recalls former chief of staff of the 46th, Irina Rakobolskaya . "But because of the better organization of our work, we managed to do more."

One of Gelman's duties in the regiment was that of "party organizer." As a Communist Party member with training in history, she was chosen to conduct political lectures for the squadron and classes on party history. Gelman tried to make these sessions interesting by instituting a "philosophy circle"; another navigator, Yevgeniya Rudneva , gave a lecture on Hegel's dialectic, while Gelman spoke on Feurbach's idealism. She also participated in other projects designed to keep up morale. "There was very little spare time, because we worked at night," she recalls. "Even so we published a literary magazine. We published it ourselves, writing and drawing everything by hand in a single copy."

The innovative procedures and sound morale of the 46th did not protect them from the risks of war. During the summer of 1942, when Galina Dokutovich suffered a back wound, the regiment called for a special ambulance plane to evacuate her. While waiting, they received orders to relocate immediately; with the Germans advancing, the landing strip of the 46th was in danger of being overrun. Dokutovich was vulnerable. If she was spotted by the enemy before her ambulance arrived, she had no way to protect herself. There was a shortage of handguns, so weapons were only issued to crews going on combat flights. Gelman could not bear the thought that her friend would be left behind, wounded and helpless. Before she left, she handed her own pistol to Dokutovich, just in case. Gelman later described this as her only heroic act of the war; she had a deadly fear of going down in enemy territory and being captured by the Germans. Without her pistol, she would be unable to defend, or kill, herself, which she swore she would have done to avoid becoming a prisoner. Fortunately, the ambulance plane arrived

in time. On August 1, 1943, after months in the hospital, Dokutovich was permitted to return to flying duty. Tragically, her aircraft caught fire that very night, and she was killed—the same day that famous fighter pilot Lidiya Litvyak died.

One of the most impressive feats performed by the crews of the 46th was the resupply of Eltigen. In late autumn 1943, a Soviet naval assault team landed near the small town of Eltigen, near Kerch in the Crimea. The team became cut off from the main body of forces without food, supplies, or ammunition. Terrible storms, combined with the precision required to drop packages on a tiny dark strip of beach, made resupply by plane difficult. But Gelman, along with her comrades in the 46th, resupplied the Soviet marines at Eltigen—for 26 consecutive nights.

The regiment developed barracks humor. Gelman claims that one of the funnier incidents was when she almost blew herself up because of a pair of gloves. Like other fliers who endured missions in open-cockpit biplanes, Gelman was issued a pair of fur-lined gauntlets to keep her hands warm. But the heavy gloves were too clumsy for manual work; she was forced to remove them, for example, in order to deploy flares, which had to be armed and then dropped over the side of the aircraft by the navigator. The gloves were connected by a leather thong, so they would hang from her neck when she took them off. One icy night, Gelman was preparing to drop flares to illuminate a target. She had already armed the timer when she realized that the cord to her gloves had gotten tangled in the tail fin of the flare. With seconds to spare, she had no time to unsnarl things; she was forced to pull her precious gauntlets from around her neck and pitch them out together with the flare. As she watched, they slowly descended to earth.

The 46th ended its combat duty in May 1945. On May 8, Gelman was sitting in the cockpit of her aircraft on alert, when word came that the Germans had capitulated. She cried on that day—from happiness, she says, but also because she knew that the way of life she had known for the past three years was ending. She would be leaving the company of her "sisters," and she would no longer be able to fly. The war had taken a heavy toll on the 46th; 31 women, or about 27% of the flying personnel, were killed in combat.

A total of 23 Hero of the Soviet Union medals was awarded to members of the 46th regiment: 18 pilots and 5 navigators—an astonishing number for a single regiment. "One of the fundamental criteria for the award was the quality and quantity of successful combat flights," notes Gelman; "our regiment firmly held first place among all the others for the number of flights." The fact that every member of the 46th was a volunteer was important. "Everyone was a patriot. Often they hadn't even completed a landing before they were already spoiling to carry out the next flight. The men even attempted to stop us. They said, 'the less you fly, the longer you'll live.'"

After the war, Senior Lieutenant Gelman found that she was reluctant to give up her career as a military officer. She enrolled in the Military Institute of Foreign Languages, where she studied Spanish. Despite missing several months of school due to a bout of encephalitis, she finished the difficult program. In 1948, she married Vladimir Kolosov, a fellow student at the Institute in the Polish department, who had been a border guard. When she gave birth to a daughter in 1949, she named her Galina in memory of her dear friend Galina Dokutovich.

Polina served on the faculty of the institute for several years. Later, she spent a year in Cuba studying its economy before she resigned from military duty in 1956. Soon afterwards, when she was in her 40s, Gelman decided to continue her education, and later completed an advanced degree as Candidate of Sciences in Economics. She then served as an associate professor and senior lecturer in Political Economy at the Institute of Social Sciences.

Back in Gomel, at the local flying club that refused to teach Polina Gelman how to fly, there is now a flagstone that carries the names of all its members who were awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal. Among those names, and the only name belonging to a woman, is that of Polina Gelman.


Archival records, unpublished documents and personal interviews.

Bashkirov, B., and N. Semenkevich. "Geroini Sovetskogo neba [Heroines of the Soviet Sky]," in Kryl'ia Rodiny. March 1969.

Pennington, Reina. "Wings, Women and War: Soviet Women's Military Aviation Regiments in the Great Patriotic War." Master's thesis, University of South Carolina, 1993.

Staroselsky, L. "The Heart Cannot Forget," in The Real Truth: Profiles of Soviet Jews. Moscow: Raduga, 1986, pp. 135–147.

Viguchin, S., and E. Ignatovich. "Nezabyvaemoe kryl'ia," in Komsomol'skoe znamia. December 18, 1987, pp. 1–2.

suggested reading:

Cottam, K. Jean, ed. and trans. In the Sky Above the Front: A Collection of Memoirs of Soviet Air Women Participants in the Great Patriotic War. Manhattan, KS: Sunflower University Press, 1984.

Noggle, Anne. Dance with Death. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1994.

Pennington, Reina. "Wings, Women and War," in Smith-sonian's Air & Space. December–January, 1993–94, pp. 74–85.

Reina Pennington , Ph.D. candidate in military and women's history, University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina

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