By Henry Sakaida

Yekaterina Zelenko soviet air force wwii pilot hero

Zelenko wore her hair short and always looked boyish. She was married to a fighter pilot who was KIA in 1943.

The Soviet Union created posthumous heroes to inspire the nation during and after the Great Patriotic War. These individuals served as national role models, especially for the youth. Information was tightly controlled by the highly repressive Communist regime and no one questioned it. It is well known that the Soviets often inflated and falsified records for propaganda and political purposes, and there are many examples of this. For 76 years, Yekaterina Zelenko was celebrated as the first and only woman pilot to ever ram an enemy aircraft in combat, but is it true?

Yekaterina Zelenko soviet air force wwii

The Russian Federation honored the memory of Yekaterina Zelenko and her heroic deed on this postage stamp. It depicts her ramming a German Me-109 after shooting down another.

Yekaterina Zelenko was born in February 1916, one of ten children in a peasant Ukrainian family in a small village in the Rovno Region of Western Ukraine. Her family resettled in Kursk in the Soviet Union where she attended school. Paramilitary clubs were popular with young students back then, just like in Nazi Germany. Yekaterina became interested in aviation and joined an aero club. After graduation from high school, she entered the Orenburg Aviation School. She graduated in 1934 with the rank of lieutenant and became an instructor and test pilot.

On 30 November 1939, the Winter War against Finland broke out. Lt Zelenko requested a combat assignment, but was told that “wars are not women’s business.” She kept pestering her commanders, but her pleas were ignored. Finally taking matters into her own hands, this crafty young woman wrote a letter directly to Red Air Force HQ in Moscow, citing her wealth of experience and her patriotic zeal to serve the Motherland. Instead of signing the letter with her full name and revealing her sex, she simply used an initial for her given name. Her request was immediately granted!

When Lt Zelenko arrived at an airfield on the Karelian Isthmus, the base commander was surprised and irritated. But he dared not protest her assignment with headquarters; he knew better. Thousands of officers had been arrested and executed by Stalin’s NKVD (secret police) from 1936 to 1938 during The Great Purge for perceived disloyalty. The commander sent Zelenko out on dangerous missions, sometimes alone but she always returned.

The commander’s doubt soon turned to admiration. He wrote, “She flies combat missions, both reconnaissance and bombing runs, with great desire and calculation. She operates with equal coolness under bad weather conditions and in difficult situations. When under anti-aircraft artillery fire, she manages to continue her assaults bravely, and carries out orders and performs her duty perfectly.” Based on his recommendation, Lt Zelenko was awarded with the highly prestigious Order of the Red Banner medal. She was the only female fighter pilot to participate in the Winter War, which ended on 13 March 1940.

In the Spring of 1941, Zelenko was transferred in the 135th Short Range Bomber Regiment where she was introduced to the Sukhoi-2 light bomber. As soon as she mastered it, she began teaching others.

Sukhoi-2 light bomber and recon plane carried a crew of 2. At the start of the Great Patriotic War, it was considered obsolete. It carried 6 x 7.62mm (.30 caliber) machineguns: 4 in the wings, one in the rear turret, and one in the hatch in the floor. It could carry 600 kg of bombs inside the bomb bay, as well as air-to-ground rockets. Maximum speed was 300mph while the Me-109 was about 80mph faster. Against German fighters, it suffered appalling losses. This aircraft was withdrawn from the frontlines in 1942.

On 22 June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The 135th  inflicted serious damage to the advancing enemy troops, but it wasn’t enough to make a difference. The Luftwaffe fighter pilots owned the sky and Soviet air units fought a desperate war of attrition. Sr/Lt Zelenko flew reconnaissance, bombing, and dangerous ground attack missions as deputy squadron leader.

Yekaterina Zelenko flew her 40th and last mission less than 3 months after the start of the Great Patriotic War. Colonel Yansen, commander of the 135th, wrote the following after Zelenko disappeared: “For military merits before the homeland, for demonstrative courage and heroism, in the struggle against the German invaders, I nominate Yekaterina Ivanovna Zelenko for the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.” Zelenko qualified for the award because she had flown the minimum required 40 missions. Yansen further wrote: “in aerial combat at Romny with Me-109s, Zelenko was shot down.”

The date of her loss was not recorded because it was unknown at the time; she was missing in action. In her revised postwar dossier (December 1985), the date of her death is listed as 12 September 1941. The nomination for her HSU award failed. Those captured or missing in action were ineligible for the highest honor. A missing soldier could have been captured and Stalin turned his back on Soviet prisoners; he considered them traitors.

Almost everything written about Zelenko’s last mission is contradictory, questionable, and embellished. One source says that she ordered her gunner Lt N. Pavlyk to parachute from the stricken plane, and that he survived. He supposedly made it back to his unit in 3 days to give a detailed eyewitness account of Zelenko’s heroism. If this was true, why wasn’t the ramming incident mentioned in Zelenko’s nomination for the hero title? A giant red flag for a forensic historian!  Another source says Pavlyk was killed. Two sources say that Zelenko shot down a Me-109 before she rammed.

Due to the confused state of the war and lack of witnesses at the time, both Zelenko and Pavlyk are not recorded as casualties in the unit’s record. The records of the 135th Bomber Regiment report that 2 pilots, Lt Nikolay Filinski and Sr/Lt Ivan Sidorenya, were killed at Romny (Sidorenya was killed on the airfield and not in the air) on 12 September 1941. Luftwaffe historians identify the German fighters as II./JG51 Me-109s and none were lost in combat. Perhaps the date and location of Zelenko’s ramming attack is wrong, or it never happened.

Long after the war, a Soviet soldier from the 267th Airfield Maintenance Battalion came forward to claim that he witnessed the ramming attack. Ukrainian journalists had written stories about the heroine and asked the public to respond if they had any information.  According to V.A. Sochinski, the date of the ramming incident was 12 September 1941 and he was based near Berestovka. Sochinski stated: “This battle crashed into my memory forever! One of our planes against 7 Fascists! He killed one ‘Messer’ but we understood that he was doomed, and we could not help. From it, red ribbons no longer flew out; cartridges ran out.  And suddenly he rushed to the ‘Messer’ unarmed, defenseless. He seemed to instantly merge with the enemy, and then the parachute separated from the Facist. I was always tormented by the thought that no one would recognize the name of the pilot who had rammed the enemy, after all, we were given an urgent order to relocate to another area…”

The distance between Berestovka and the village of Anastasyevka is approximately 13 miles. Even if Sochinski had binoculars, he would not have been able to come up with such a detailed story! The veteran’s supposed eyewitness recollection “helped establish the truth” about Zelenko’s alleged ramming attack.

Another interesting testimony surfaced. When the area was liberated from the Germans, so the story goes, a local schoolteacher brought Zelenko’s documents to the regional military commissar. She stated that the items came from the pilot who rammed an enemy plane on 12 September 1941 over her village. Anastasia Marchenko reportedly said, “We, the villagers of Anastayevka, on 12 September 1941, hurried to harvest the crops before the arrival of German troops, in order to hide it. A battle was fought overhead. Seven Fascist planes surrounded one Soviet plane. The Soviet plane shot back and one enemy plane caught fire and fell to earth. Then the Soviet plane rammed another and both planes fell to the ground. The Fascist plane came down in the forest while our’s hit the edge of the field.”

Marchenko stated that the woman pilot was buried close to where her plane fell; another source says she was buried in the village cemetery. The following day, the Germans came and occupied the villager for over 2 years. When the Germans left, Marchenko supposedly contacted the local commissar and delivered Zelenko’s identity cards to confirm her story.

A postwar article states that Zelenko was later disinterred and her remains transferred to Kursk where she was buried with full military honors. There are monuments and plaques in memory of this woman, but no final resting site. I find this extremely odd! Where is her grave??? If there is no grave, then the entire ramming story falls apart.

According to another unverified Russian source, “In 1971, the site of the death of E. Zelenko was excavated. At a depth of three meters, parts of the  airplane were found, and a few kilometers from this place fragments of ‘Me-109’ with traces of an impact from a ramming.” If this is true, how can anyone differentiate between an intentional ramming, an accidental collision, or simply impacting the ground? The Anastayevka residents supposedly  installed an obelisk at the site of the Katya Zelenko plane crash but I’ve never seen such a photo on any Russian and Ukrainian internet site.

The famous Luftwaffe ace, Uffz (staff sergeant) Anton Hafner, claimed two Sukhois at Romny, his 8th and 9th victories on 12 September 1941. Hafner was credited with 204 victories, and was killed in a dogfight with Soviet Yaks in zero altitude on 17 October 1944 when he flew into a tree. Did Zelenko fall to Hafner? No one knows although it would make a great story.

anton hafner luftwaffe ace

Luftwaffe ace Anton Hafner was the most successful member of JG51. Although he claimed 2 Sukhois on the date and location where Zelenko supposedly rammed and was killed, the exact circumstances and date of her death is questionable.

Anastayevka (Анастаъевка) is approximately 12 miles south of Romny (Ромны). Since Luftwaffe pilots could not possibly know the names of the villages and settlements outside of major cities, they would name the nearest biggest city when it came to identifying the location of their aerial victories.

Sr/Lt Yekaterina Zelenko’s military record card below offers still another version about the date of her combat and death. According to the postwar penciled entry (red arrow): “12.9.41 near the city of Sumy, shot down by a German fighter in combat with numerically superior enemy forces. Defense Ministry Archives, Fund 135 (word unclear), Listing 518977, publication Soviet Aviation 28.2.1958 (issue).” There is no mention of a ramming attack. Did the official entry originate from a 1958 article??!! To add further confusion to this very confusing story, the city of Sumy is located about 64 miles from Romny. Sumy is 75 miles from the small village of Anastayevka.

Yekaterina Zelenko soviet air force wwii pilot hero

So, what is really known about Zelenko’s last mission? She was killed in combat against many German fighters one day in September 1941, either around Romny, Anastayevka, or Sumy. There is nothing in her military records which confirms that she rammed an enemy fighter.

Yekaterina Zelenko was a genuine heroine. At the time of her death, there was no other Soviet female pilot who even came close to her combat achievements. On 19 August 1941, Stalin decreed that any pilot achieving 10 aerial victories or completing 40 daylight ground attack missions would receive the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. She had flown 40 missions, then went missing.

Yekaterina Zelenko soviet air force wwii pilot hero

A monument in Kursk dedicated to the heroine “Fearless Katya” who lived and studied there.

Yekaterina Zelenko soviet air force wwii pilot hero

A plaque affixed to the apartment complex where Yekaterina Zelenko lived, from 1921 until 1932, in Kursk. It states that she was the first woman in aviation history to have rammed an enemy plane. The Russian term for intentional ramming is “taran” and those who rammed were greatly respected as heroes.

A Soviet veterans group pushed to have Yekaterina Zelenko awarded the posthumous title of Hero of the Soviet Union. During the 45th Anniversary of Victory Day, on 6 May 1990, Yekaterina Zelenko became a Hero of the Soviet Union, along with another female pilot Lydia Litvyak. The circumstances surrounding Litvyak’s award and her fate is equally mystifying (see my previous article concerning Lydia Litvyak).

Yekaterina Zelenko soviet air force wwii pilot hero

Official Soviet decree issued on 5 May 1990 by President Mikhail Gorbachev.

Yekaterina Zelenko soviet air force wwii pilot hero

Translation of the decree from above.

Yekaterina Zelenko soviet air force wwii pilot hero

Yekaterina Zelenko soviet air force wwii pilot hero

Yekaterina Zelenko’s Hero of the Soviet Union medal was accompanied by a large diploma and two award booklets. They were given to her next-of-kin. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the relative sold this set. It has changed hands several times. The current owner who supplied the two photos above, wrote: “I believe Zelenko deserved this honor regardless of the ramming claim. She was the  first female nominated for the title of Hero of the Soviet Union for combat valor!”

For Related Articles See:

For Books by Henry Sakaida Check Out:

Heroes of the Soviet Union 1941–45

Heroines of the Soviet Union 1941–45

I-400: Japan’s Secret Aircraft Carrying Strike Submarine, Objective Panama Canal

Genda’s Blade: Japan’s Squadron of Aces: 343 Kokutai

Aces of the Rising Sun 1937–1945

B-29 Hunters of the JAAF

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