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Who Were The Night Witches? Soviet Female Soldiers in World War Two

Who Were The Night Witches? Soviet Female Soldiers in World War Two


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They always came at night, swooping down low on their terrorised targets under the cover of darkness. They were called Night Witches, and they were highly effective at what they did – even though the wooden craft from which they attacked was far more primitive than anything belonging to their enemy.

So who were these Night Witches? They were the members of the Soviet Union’s all-woman 588th bomber regiment that bedevilled the Nazis during World War Two.

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The group’s main mission was to harass and strike fear into the Nazis by bombing enemy targets at night, which it did with such success that the Germans nicknamed them the ‘Nachthexen’, the Night Witches.

Although these “witches” didn’t actually fly on broomsticks, the Polikarpov PO-2 biplanes they flew were hardly much better. These antiquated biplanes were made of wood and were excruciatingly slow.

Irina Sebrova. She flew 1,008 sorties in the war, more than any other member of the regiment.

Genesis

The first women to become Night Witches did so in answer to a call put out by Radio Moscow in 1941, announcing that the country – which had already suffered devastating military personnel and equipment losses to the Nazis – was:

“seeking women who wanted to be combat pilots just like the men.”

Women, who were mostly in their twenties, came from all over the Soviet Union in hopes that they would be selected to help their country beat back the Nazi threat. Not only were the pilots of the 588th Regiment all women, so were its mechanics and bomb loaders.

There were also two other less famous all-women Soviet Union regiments: the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment and the 587th Bomber Aviation Regiment.

A Soviet-made Petlyakov Pe-2 light bomber, the aircraft flown by the 587th Bomber Aviation Regiment.

Operational history

In 1942, 3 of the 588th planes took off on the regiment’s first mission. Although the Night Witches would unfortunately lose 1 plane that night, they were successful in their mission of bombing the headquarters of a German division.

From that time onward, the Night Witches would fly over 24,000 sorties, sometimes completing as many as 15 to 18 missions in a night. The 588th would also drop approximately 3,000 tons of bombs.

23 of the Night Witches would be awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal and a number of them would also be awarded Orders of the Red Banner. 30 of these brave women were killed in action.

Although the PO-2 planes these women flew were very slow, with a top speed of only approximately 94 miles per hour, they were very manoeuvrable. This allowed the women to elude the faster, but less agile German fighter planes.

A Polikarpov Po-2, the aircraft type used by the regiment. Credit: Douzeff / Commons.

The old wooden PO-2 planes also had a canvas covering that made it slightly less visible to radar, and the heat created by its small engine would often go unnoticed by the enemy’s infrared detection devices.

Tactics

The Night Witches were skilled pilots who could actually, if necessary, fly their planes low enough to be hidden by hedgerows.

These talented pilots would also sometimes cut their engines as they approached a target in the dark for a silent but deadly attack, dropping bombs on the unsuspecting enemy before they could react and then restarting their engines to make their escape.

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Another tactic employed by the Night Witches was to send two planes in to draw the attention of the Germans, who would then aim their searchlights and flak guns at the biplanes.

A third plane would then sneak up on the preoccupied Germans and take them out with bombs. The frustrated German High Command eventually began offering an Iron Cross to any of its pilots that were able to shoot down a Night Witch.

Most people would say that it takes balls to fly a plane as antiquated and slow as a PO-2 into combat again and again, especially when the aircraft often came back shredded with bullet holes. Well, those people would obviously be wrong. It takes more than balls. It takes a Night Witch.


Night Witches: The Female Fighter Pilots of World War II

Members of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment decorated their planes with flowers . and dropped 23,000 tons of bombs.

It was the spring of 1943, at the height of World War II. Two pilots, members of the Soviet Air Force, were flying their planes—Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, built mainly of plywood and canvas—over a Soviet railway junction. Their passage was on its way to being a routine patrol . until the pilots found themselves confronted by a collection of German bombers. Forty-two of them.

The pilots did what anyone piloting a plane made of plywood would do when confronted with enemy craft and enemy fire: they ducked. They sent their planes into dives, returning fire directly into the center of the German formation. The tiny planes' flimsiness was in some ways an asset: their maximum speed was lower than the stall speed of the Nazi planes, meaning that the pilots could maneuver their craft with much more agility than their attackers. The outnumbered Soviets downed two Nazi planes before one of their own lost its wing to enemy fire. The pilot bailed out, landing, finally, in a field.

The people on the ground, who had witnessed the skirmish, rushed over to help the stranded pilot. They offered alcohol. But the offer was refused. As the pilot would later recall, "Nobody could understand why the brave lad who had taken on a Nazi squadron wouldn't drink vodka."

The brave lad had refused the vodka, it turned out, because the brave lad was not a lad at all. It was Tamara Pamyatnykh, one of the members of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Air Forces. The 588th was the most highly decorated female unit in that force, flying 30,000 missions over the course of four years—and dropping, in total, 23,000 tons of bombs on invading German armies. Its members, who ranged in age from 17 to 26, flew primarily at night, making do with planes that were—per their plywood-and-canvas construction—generally reserved for training and crop-dusting. They often operated in stealth mode, idling their engines as they neared their targets and then gliding their way to their bomb release points. As a result, their planes made little more than soft "whooshing" noises as they flew by.

Those noises reminded the Germans, apparently, of the sound of a witch's broomstick. So the Nazis began calling the female fighter pilots Nachthexen: "night witches." They were loathed. And they were feared. Any German pilot who downed a "witch" was automatically awarded an Iron Cross.

The Night Witches were largely unique among the female combatants -- and even the female flyers—of World War II. Other countries, the U.S. among them, may have allowed women to fly as members of their early air forces those women, however, served largely in support and transport roles. The Soviet Union was the first nation to allow women to fly combat missions—to be able, essentially, to return fire when it was delivered. These ladies flew planes they also dropped bombs.

Last week, one of the most famous of the Night Witches—Nadezhda Popova, a commander of the squad who flew, in total, 852 of its missions—passed away. She was 91. And the obituaries that resulted, celebrations of a life and a legacy largely unknown to many of us here in the U.S., serve as a reminder of the great things the female flyers accomplished. Things made even more remarkable considering the limited technology the woman had at their disposal. The Witches (they took the German epithet as a badge of honor) flew only in the dark. Because of the weight of the bombs they carried and the low altitudes at which they flew, they carried no parachutes. They had no radar to navigate their paths through the night skies—only maps and compasses. If hit by tracer bullets, their craft would ignite like the paper planes they resembled. Which was not a small concern: "Almost every time," Popova once recalled, "we had to sail through a wall of enemy fire."

1943 Russian military photograph of Nadia Popova with her Po2 biplane (via the book Night Witches)

Their missions were dangerous they were also, as a secondary challenge, unpleasant. Each night, in general, 40 planes—each crewed by two women, a pilot and a navigator—would fly eight or more more missions. Popova herself once flew 18 in a single night. (The multiple nightly sorties were necessary because the modified crop-dusters were capable of carrying only two bombs at a time.) The women's uniforms were hand-me-downs from male pilots. And their planes had open cockpits, leaving the women's faces to freeze in the chilly night air. "When the wind was strong it would toss the plane," Popova noted. "In winter, when you'd look out to see your target better, you got frostbite, our feet froze in our boots, but we carried on flying."

Once, after a successful flight — which is to say, a flight she survived — Popova counted 42 bullet holes studding her little plane . There were also holes in her map. And in her helmet. "Katya, my dear," the pilot told her navigator, "we will live long."

Despite all this bravado, however, the female fighter pilots initially struggled to earn the respect of their brothers in arms. The Night Bomber Regiment was one of three female fighter pilot units created by Stalin at the urging of Marina Raskova—an aviation celebrity who was, essentially, "the Soviet Amelia Earhart." Raskova trained her recruits as pilots and navigators, and also as members of maintenance and ground crews. She also prepared them for an environment that preferred to treat women as bombshells rather than bombers. One general, male, initially complained about being sent a "a bunch of girlies" instead of soldiers. But the women and their flimsy little crop-dusters and their ill-fitting uniforms and their 23,000 tons of ammunition soon proved him wrong. And they did all that while decorating their planes with flowers and using their navigation pencils as lipcolor.


Night Witches – Soviet Female Flying Aces Who Struck Terror Into the Hearts of the German Wehrmacht

In 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Because of their superior technology and their rapid success in taking territory, the Germans had expected a quick victory, only to be disappointed. For besides their fierce resistance, the Soviets had a secret weapon – witches.

Because of their racial policies, the Germans considered Eastern Europeans to be sub-humans and treated them accordingly. All over Europe, everybody was putting themselves forward for the war effort – including women.

A few women had already served in the Russian armed forces during WWI – and the government was happy to keep it that way. But after the disastrous Battle of Tannenberg (August 1914) and the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes (September 1914), Russia was quickly running out of able-bodied men.

So they allowed more women into the military. A number even got into the Imperial Russian Air Service in 1914, the most prominent of these being Princess Eugenie Shakovskaya.

With the rise of the Soviet Union in 1922, women officially became the equal of men – at least on paper. In reality, the new leadership was just as doubtful about women’s abilities in just about everything. In 1933, Marina Raskova achieved fame as both a pilot and a navigator, becoming the first woman to join the Soviet Air Force.

Princess Eugenia Mikhailovna Shakhovskaya (left) on April 24th, 1913 with aviator Abramovich Vsevolod Mikhaylovich

A plane landed near her village before her very eyes. From that moment on, thoughts of the stage faded while the sky beckoned. But flying wasn’t enough for her, oh no. She wanted to pilot a plane. But there was a problem – she was a girl.

It wasn’t a problem for the gliding school which accepted her at the age of 15. The problem lay with her parents, so she didn’t bother telling them about her lessons.

The utility biplane Polikarpov Po-2. By Douzeff – CC BY-SA 3.0

The following year, she made her first parachute jump. Shortly after, she made her first solo flight. It didn’t take her parents long to find out, and they weren’t too happy about it. Fortunately, she didn’t care and tried to get herself a pilot’s license.

But while the gliding school had no objections about teaching a teenage girl how to fly and to parachute, the pilot school did. Enter Polina Denisovna Osipenko. She was most notable as the second pilot who, together with Valentina Grizodubova and Marina Raskova performed a non-stop flight between Moscow and the Sea of Okhotsk, setting a new distance record for non-stop flights operated by women. They all later became a Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest military distinction in Soviet Union.

Osipenko was also the Inspector for Aviation in the Moscow Military District. With her recommendation, the young enthusiastic Nadezhda Popova (Nadia) got into the flight school at Kherson (in southern Ukraine), graduated at 18, and became a flight instructor.

A rebuilt Messerschmitt Bf 109 G-2. By Kogo – CC BY-SA 2.0

Her timing was perfect since it was 1939 and WWII had just begun. When Germany invaded two years later, Nadezhda tried to join the military, but they refused to take her in.

But in October 1941, Joseph Stalin (leader of the Soviet Union) set up several women’s regiments, including three air units. Nadezhda joined the 558 th Night Bomber Regiment because she wanted revenge.

Her brother, Leonid, had died in the first month of the German onslaught. Before long, they took her village, commandeered her family home, and it only got worse.

A Focke-Wulf Fw 190 in 1942.

But the Soviet Union was not a technologically developed nation. It was also practically broke. So all the Women’s Regiment had were Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes. Built out of wood and canvas in 1928, they had no radar, no radio, nor guns because they were meant to be crop dusters.

They could, however, carry six bombs. And to make sure they did, the pilots had to fly without parachutes because of weight requirements. The Germans called them “sewing machines” because Po-2 engines produced a nerve-wracking sound that put their teeth on edge.

German soldiers inspecting a damaged P0-2 in Ukraine in 1941. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de

Although the Germans had superior planes, the Po-2s were hard to hit for two reasons. First, they could fly at treetop level where they were hard to spot. Second, the stall speed of Messerschmitt Bf 109s and Focke-Wulf Fw 190s was the maximum speed that a Po-2 could achieve, making it hard to keep the latter within weapons range.

They were also incredibly maneuverable, allowing the Night Bombers to target German supply depots, camps, and bases. They’d fly in threes as low as possible to avoid German aircraft, but that left them vulnerable to ground attacks.

The first two were decoys for the searchlights. As soon as they were spotted, they flew in opposite directions to avoid ground fire, engaging in spectacular aerial acrobatics. The third would kill the engine, drop its payload, then restart the engine and become the decoy, repeating the process till all three were out of bombs before flying back to base.

The Germans called them Nachthexen (Night Witches) because the wind of their passing sounded like a witch’s broomstick flying overhead (though how they’d know…). Like many of her comrades, Nadezhda was shot down many times. Unlike many of them, she suffered no serious injuries.

The one that stood out most for her was getting shot down on August 2nd, 1942 by German fighter planes. Forced to land near Cherkessk, she made her way back to her unit when she stumbled upon another injured pilot – Semyon Kharlamov, the man she would later marry.

Nadezhda also flew relief missions, delivering food, water, and medical supplies to beleaguered Soviet forces in Malaya Zemlya in February 1943. When the Germans began retreating, she managed 18 sorties in a single night over Poland. Rising to the rank of lieutenant-colonel, she totaled 852 sorties by war’s end.

The Reichstag on June 3rd, 1945, after Soviet troops captured it.

Her final revenge came in 1945 when Soviet troops entered Berlin. She and Semyon bumped into each other at the Reichstag and wrote their names on the bombed-out building.

After the war, she went back to being a flight instructor, earning the Gold Star, The Order of Lenin, and the Order of the Red Star. Nadezhda made her final flight on July 8 th , 2013 at the age of 91, without a plane, and is survived by her son – a general in the Belarusian Air Force.

Nadezhda in 2009 with Russian President Medvedev. By Kremlin.ru – CC BY 4.0


8 thoughts on &ldquo The Night Witches &rdquo

Hello! I am working on a group project for National History Day. My group’s topic is the Night Witches. We were hoping that you could give us some tips for looking for primary sources on this topic since it was based in Russia. Thank you!

hey there goregeous i am trying to do a project and can you pls respond to me?

Hello I am a high school student conducting national history day research – is it possible you could provide the source that proves how German soldiers were presented the Iron cross for downing a PO-2? This would greatly bolster my research.

Hey Carl, have you had any luck? I was considering that topic but was unable to find an adequate amount of primary resources so I switched. Best of luck!

Hi, I was wondering if you could give some tips on finding primary sources? I’m doing an NHD project, and my partner and I are having trouble.

If you are in a need of primary sources, the pictures on sites such as this one or history.com counts, as long as you try to cite the photographer (if you know it) and website in your bibliography.

Look at the book A Dance With Death, it has personal accounts from all of the Witches.

thank you this helps so much!! I am doing my IB History IA on the Night Witches.


The Awe-Inspiring Night Witches

Wikimedia Commons Nadezhda Popova, a commander of the squad who flew 852 missions.

The way the pilots used their gliding technique reminded the German soldiers of a witch’s broomstick and so they called the stealthy assailants the Night Witches. The Germans became so afraid that they refused to light their cigarettes at night so as not to reveal themselves to the Night Witches. The 588th Regiment heard about their nickname and adopted it as a badge of pride.

The Germans were so in awe of the considerable skill of the Night Witches that they spread rumors of the Soviet government enhancing the eyesight of the women with experimental medicine to give them a sort of feline night vision. And the German military responded by automatically issuing a prestigious Iron Cross medal to any German who was able to shoot one of the Night Witches down.

Wikimedia Commons Four of the Night Witches in 1943.

Aware of their technical disadvantages, the Night Witches only flew in the dead of night. And they always flew in groups of three: Two of the planes would act as decoys and draw the searchlights and gunfire. The two planes would then go off in opposite directions, and twist wildly to avoid the antiaircraft guns. The third would then fly in darkness to head toward the target and drop the bombs. This sequence would continue until each of the three planes had dropped all of their bombs.


Yakovlev Yak-1

Number Built: 8,700 built

Length: 8.5 m (27 ft 11 in)

Wingspan: 10.0 m (32 ft 10 in)

Loaded Weight: 2,883 kg (6,343 lb)

Engine: 1 x Klimov M-105PF V-12 liquid-cooled, 880 kW (1,180 hp)

Max Speed: 592 km/h at altitude (368 mph)

Range: 700 km (435 mi)

Service Ceiling: 10,050 m (32,972 ft)

Armament: 1 x 20 mm (0.8 in) ShVAK cannon, 1 x 12.7 mm (0.5 in) Berezin UBS machine gun.

Two pilots from this unit, Katya Budanova (11 kills) and Lydia Litvyak (probably 12 kills including an observation balloon, plus three shared) would go on to become the world’s only female fighter aces, while serving on the Stalingrad front with a mostly-male squadron.

Some Soviet female aviators flew the small, maneuverable Yakovlev Yak-1. San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives photo

By comparison, the women of the 587 th Bomber Regiment had the most difficult plane to fly: the Pe-2 twin-engine dive bomber.


Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation

Aniela Krzywoń was a private in the "Emilia Plater" Independent Women's Battalion of the Polish People&rsquos Army, which operated within the Soviet troops during the war. On October 12, 1943, the 18-year-old Emilia died while rescuing wounded soldiers and saving important documents from a burning truck after a Luftwaffe raid. She is the only Polish female awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union.

Find out whom Russians consider national heroes.

If using any of Russia Beyond's content, partly or in full, always provide an active hyperlink to the original material.


Formation of the Witches

When the Soviet Union became embroiled in World War II, women were initially forbidden from entering combat. The attitude of the Soviets quickly changed when the Germans started laying waste to their territory. On October 8, 1941, Stalin ordered the deployment of three female air force units. Colonel Marina Raskova oversaw the establishment of the units although only the 588th remained entirely female for the duration of the war.

Raskova was already renowned as a pilot of considerable skill, and in 1938 she broke the world record for a non-stop direct flight by a female with two other women. The trio flew their aircraft some 6,000 kilometers from Moscow to the southeast of Siberia. When they arrived in Siberia, their plane froze and was destined to crash. Raskova brilliantly navigated the plane to safety, and all three women survived. They received the Hero of the Soviet Union medal, and Raskova&rsquos achievements played a significant role in persuading Stalin to form the female regiments.

By November 1941, the situation looked desperate for the Soviets as the Nazis placed Leningrad under siege and were less than 20 miles from Moscow. The Soviet air force was all but grounded so the new regiments had even more responsibility. The ranks of the 588th swelled in early 1942 with the majority of pilots aged 17 to 26. Raskova quickly asserted her authority and the pilots were left in no doubt as to the importance of their role.

Each pilot received standard military boots, poorly fitted uniforms designed for larger male troops, and they all cut their hair short. The first challenge faced by the 588th was the poor quality of their equipment. They only had Polikarpov Po-2 aircraft plywood framed planes with canvas pulled over them. They were terrible even by the standards of 1942! Perhaps worst of all, the aircraft were slow, light, and had no armor.

The planes also had an open cockpit, so the women had to endure the bitter Soviet weather as they flew frostbite was a common complaint! On the plus side, the planes had a slower stall speed than enemy craft which meant they were hard to target. It was also incredibly easy to fly the aircraft, and the pilots could take off and land just about anywhere.

Despite the poor quality of their planes, the Night Witches were enthusiastic about their role in the war and embarked on their first mission on June 8, 1942, a three plane raid on a German division headquarters. The mission was a success although the Witches lost a plane.


Soviet 'Night Witches' Flew Bombing Missions Against the Nazis

In 1995, now-retired Air Force Col. Martha McSally became the first female U.S. pilot to fly a combat mission, when she patrolled Iraqi airspace as part of an operation to prevent Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from attacking his own people.

But McSally wasn't the first woman to fly under fire, not by a long shot. A Turkish woman pilot, Sabiha Gökçen, became the first to fly in combat back in 1937, when she bombed rebellious Kurds in eastern Turkey. And in 1942, more than a half a century before McSally took to the air, Soviet Major Marina Raskova formed three combat air regiments composed entirely of female pilots, to aid in the desperate fight to repel the German invasion of the Soviet Union.

The most renowned of these units was the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, nicknamed the Night Witches, who flew 30,000 missions during the war, dropping 23,000 tons (20,865 metric tons) of bombs on the German forces, according to this 2013 Atlantic article. All the more amazingly, the women of the 588th did all that while flying slow, flimsy wood-and-canvas biplanes that once had served as civilian crop dusters and trainers. The aircraft were such easy targets that the women could only risk flying under cover of darkness.

Even so, "they flew low to the ground, and didn't have the air speed, so they were vulnerable to ground fire," explains Reina Pennington, a former U.S. Air Force intelligence officer who is now a history professor at Norwich University in Vermont and author of the 2007 book "Wings, Women, and War: Soviet Airwomen in World War II Combat." (She also wrote this 2014 article for Air Force magazine on the Night Witches.) "Even soldiers with rifles could hit them. And [the planes] could catch on fire easily."

Flying Without Parachutes

To make things even more perilous, "early in the war, most of the pilots didn't carry parachutes," Pennington says. "Most of them figured that because of their low altitude, they wouldn't be able to parachute out anyway."

While the male pilots in the Soviet air force flew similarly repurposed civilian aircraft on the same sorts of missions, what's significant is that the women pilots stepped up and took on the same job, and faced the same risks, according to Pennington.

"There was no allowance made for them," she says.

"Anybody flying these planes, because they had short range, flew sometimes eight to 10 missions a night," Pennington says. "They might be in the air for 12 to 14 hours a night, in an open-air cockpit in the Russian winter."

Soviet women were able to become military pilots because the Soviet Union — though it was brutally repressive in other ways — embraced equality of the genders, Pennington explains. "Women had the same rights as men. There were no legal barriers."

Avoiding Enemy Fire

As this 2013 New York Times obituary of Night Witches pilot Nadezhda Popova describes, the female pilots used clever tactics to avoid enemy fire. They flew in formations of three, with two of the aircraft suddenly veering off in opposite directions to confuse anti-aircraft gunners, while the third plane slipped through the darkness to attack the target with the single bomb that each plane carried. Then they regrouped and switched places, until all three had dropped their bombs.

Popova, who signed up for a flying club at age 15 because she was looking for something exciting to do, was motivated to fly bombing missions both by patriotism and a desire for revenge. Her brother had been killed by the Germans at the beginning of their invasion of Russia in June 1941, when they had commandeered the family home.

Popova was just 19 when she started flying in combat. On her first mission, two aircraft crashed and four of her comrades were killed when the pilots became disoriented in a snowstorm. "It was a tragic lesson for us," she recalled in Anne Noggle's book, "A Dance With Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II."

Popova eventually flew 852 combat missions and became a squadron commander. That meant surviving being shot down on several occasions and making forced landings at other times. But miraculously, she was never even wounded. "My friends used to say that I was born under a lucky star," she explained in Noggle's book.

She was lucky in more ways than one. As this article in the Telegraph, a British newspaper, explains, when Popova was shot down in action over the North Caucasus in 1942, she joined a retreating Soviet infantry unit, and met a male Soviet pilot, Semyon Kharlamov, who also had been shot down. The two pilots, who both were awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal in 1945, fell in love and married, and were together until Kharlamov's death in 1990.

Learn more about the Night Witches in "'Tonight We Fly!' The Soviet Night Witches of WWII" by Claudia Hagen. HowStuffWorks picks related titles based on books we think you'll like. Should you choose to buy one, we'll receive a portion of the sale.

Some accounts say that the Germans gave the Night Witches their nickname, but Pennington is skeptical, because she says the enemy didn't have any way of knowing that the pilots bombing them were women.


Who Are The Night Witches?

Besides having what just might be the coolest name in aviation history, the Night Witches were a tough bunch of women pilots and navigators who stood their own against the male-dominated Soviet military ranks. Their sacrifices earned them national acclaim and their accomplishments were a result of the Soviet Union’s desperate need to expand and modernize. Women were tasked with building railroads, hammering nails, and laying brick alongside their male counterparts eventually, they also joined the military. Although the story of the Night Witches isn’t well-known in the United States, it is a fascinating illustration of how women aviators left their mark on World War Two history.

Yes They Can

By the time the Second World War broke out, Soviet women outpaced American women in terms of work experience. During the 1920s, women worked to expand and modernize the Soviet Union a few were even hired by various aviation bureaus to build and fly airplanes.

In 1941, as Nazi forces were marching through the Soviet Union, these women pilots showed up in droves at recruitment centers, but they were all turned away because the military would not accept women aviators in combat roles. In their frustration, these women wrote letters to their national hero, the pilot and navigator Marina Raskova, who broke records in the 1930s with her exploits flying planes for thousands of miles.

Raskova, sympathizing with the plight of these women aviators, demanded a meeting with the Premier, Joseph Stalin (who also happened to be a big fan of hers). Raskova presented him with all the letters she received and convinced him that women pilots would be of value to the Soviet cause.

By October 1941, women aviators were accepted for military training, and Raskova was named Colonel of the three all-women units. However, most Soviet women aircrews were integrated into mixed-gender regiments, flying alongside men.

Making the Grade

During their year of training, the women aviators were sorted by ability levels to form the three all-female regiments:the 586 Fighter Aviation Regiment, the 587 Bomber Aviation Regiment, and the 588 Night Bomber Aviation Regiment. The most-skilled aviators became fighter pilots and, to the ire of their male counterparts, were issued brand-new Yakovlev Yak-1s. The middle-tier pilots were assigned to the bomber regiment, and the lowest- scoring pilots were assigned to fly night bombers, and were issued a plane that no one else wanted to fly: the Polikarpov Po-2, a 1928 trainer constructed from wood and canvas with no heat, an open cockpit, and a 100-horsepower engine. The plane (pictured below) was outfitted with three bombs under each wing.

It was in this modest trainer that the women of the 588 th Regiment would make history.

Air-combat Tactics

The women of the 588 th f aced a daunting mission: flying low over German front lines and dropping bombs during the night. The objective was to disrupt the Germans as much as possible—causing their forces to lose sleep, and possibly killing or injuring a few in the process.

After the 558 th Regiment’s women slept during the day, they were briefed about their nightly mission and taxied out to the makeshift “runway” to await nightfall. The pilots would take off in pitch darkness towards the German front lines at tree top level, flying over an area plotted by the navigator (who doubled as the bombardier). Then, the navigator/bombardier would drop the plane’s six bombs and the crew would head back toward a runway cleared that very day and lit with torches.

The Night Witches flew multiple sorties every night, prolonging the attacks as long as possible, to deprive the Germans of sleep. It worked: the incessant attacks turned the Germans into virtual zombies. The Germans were incensed when they discovered that the pilots were women and started to anticipate the nighttime bombing tactics.

So, the women aviators revised their approach: they ascended while turning, slowly climbing in a wide circle until coming to a point designated by the navigator. Then, the navigator would tap the pilot on the shoulder as a signal to turn off the engine, at which point the plane would glide silently. Then, the crew would drop the bombs and hope that the engine would start up again.

This risky endeavor was usually successful but if it wasn’t, the pilots were armed with pistols and the last bullet was always for themselves. The pilots would rather commit suicide than be taken prisonerby the Germans.

Earning Their Name

Although the engine couldn’t be heard while the pilots were executing this new tactic, the plane still made some sound. The wind whistling through the struts could be heard by the German soldiers below, and some commented that it sounded like the screeching of a witch on her broom. The derisive nickname “Night Witch” gained popularity and eventually became a badge of honor. “Night Witches” is a verbatim translation of the German term, “Nachthexen.” The Germans dismissed the Night Witches’ Po-2s as “Nähmaschinen” -- “Sewing Machines,” because of their relative lack of sound (compared to 1,100-horsepower fighters).

By the end of the war, there were approximately 500,000 women serving in the Soviet military combat roles alongside men. The women were found to be excellent snipers they also operated antiaircraft artillery, and some even became tank commanders.

But it’s the Night Witches, gliding in their rickety trainers under the cloak of darkness, who garnered the most acclaim of any single group. Over 200,000 women were awarded medals for bravery during service, and 89 earned the highest honor Hero of the Soviet Union. And out of those 89, 22 were Night Witches of the 588 th Night Bomber Aviation Regiment.

Want to learn more about WWII aviation?

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