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The Amazing Tale of the Night Witches of WWII

Imagine for a moment you are a German soldier in the desolate battlefields of World War II. It has been a quiet night so far, and it is almost enough to lull you into a false sense of safety, enough to make you almost forget that there is a war going on out there at all, that this is just a peaceful night like any other, free from violence and death. Yet something then catches your attention. A dark shadow comes gliding down out of the sky, like some massive bird, blotting out the starlight in its path, but no bird can be so big can it? You focus on the incoming shadow and notice then that it is not a bird at all, but rather a ramshackle wooden plane, a farming plane that looks decidedly out of place hung there in the sky, and making it weirder still is that you can see the mane of hair of a woman whipping about in the wind above the open cockpit. There is no engine noise, just the whistling of the wind as it comes down, a whooshing, and the next thing you hear is the thunderous boom of an explosion and this is the last thing you hear. You are dead, but not before making the acquaintance of the Night Witches of World War II.

1941 was a tense time for the Soviets. The forces of the Nazis were a scourge lurking about just out over the horizon, and Hitler was in the midst of launching a massive invasion of the Soviets called Operation Barbarossa to crush them once and for all. The Nazi forces were taking swift bites into Soviet territory, with an inexorable, seemingly unstoppable force of nearly 4 million German soldiers and thousands of tanks spread out over 150 divisions operating over a vast battlefront measuring two thousand miles from the North Cape to the Black Sea. It is the largest invading the force the world had ever seen before or since, and in the face of this ominous, deadly threat, the Soviets became desperate for any advantage they could come up with, and one of the children born of this desperation was the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, known later as the 46th “Taman” Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, an all-female regiment of bombers who would become one of the most decorated female units in the Soviet Air Force and prove to be a decisive force in shaping the outcome of the war.

Women of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment

Up until that point, the Soviets had long banned women from assuming actual combat positions, regulated to merely supporting roles, but desperate times called for desperate measures, and in October of 1941, hot on the heels of the beginnings of Operation Barbarossa, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin ordered the formation of several all-female units to add their might to the inescapable battle. The 588th Bomber Regiment was thought up by pilot Marina Raskova, famous for her impressive long distance flight records, commanded by regiment commander Yevdokiya Bershanskaya, and down to the last commander, pilot, ground crew, and even mechanic it was made up of nothing but women, mostly volunteers ranging in age from 17 to 26 who were recruited from all over the country, many infused with bloodlust after having lost family members to the war, and which made this the world’s first military to put women in full combat roles. It would prove to be far from a walk in the park, though.

The women were met with serious challenges from the very beginning, not the least of all which was the equipment they were meant to use to fulfill their dangerous missions. Rather than any state-of-the-art warplanes, they were left merely with two-seater Polikarpov U-2 biplanes, which were more or less merely canvas stretched over wooden frames. These outdated planes were never meant to be military bombers, and had up until then been used almost exclusively for flight training or crop-dusting duties. In addition, the pilots had no radar or other gadgets on board, either, relying on compasses and maps, and they had no machine guns mounted, no firearms, no defenses of any kind, really. The obsolete planes were not only technologically primitive, but were also slow and only able to carry two bombs at a time, and additionally they had no cockpit covers, leaving the pilots at the mercy of the biting cold and at risk for frostbite, and they did not even have room for parachutes aboard the planes. Their uniforms were also a little rough around the edges, all hand-me-downs from male divisions, mismatched and ill-fitting, ridiculous. Adding to all of this they were faced with the challenge of a deep lack of respect from their male counterparts and heavy sexual harassment. When first formed, with their baggy clothes, wholly inadequate crappy wooden planes, and lack of experience, the 588th Bomber Regiment was a bit of a running joke in the Soviet military at the time, but the naysayers would be quickly silenced when these women finally completed training and were unleashed to actual combat beginning from 1942.

One of the crop-duster planes used by the regiment

They immediately saw hundreds of successful sorties against the enemy, going back to reload on bombs before pushing out into the deadly skies again, sometimes between 7 and 18 times in a row, their planes often riddled with bullet holes that they would simply patch up before continuing on. The usual routine was to use two planes to draw enemy fire as a third performed the actual bombing, taking turns until all of the ordnance was dropped. They opted to fly solely at night, braving the cold, frigid winds and frostbite, and one of their favorite tactics was to cut out their engines before reaching a target in order to mask their presence, gliding down past the enemy and its wall of gunfire to drop their lethal payloads, appearing as if from nowhere to use simple flares to light their targets up as the two decoy planes circled and prepared for their own runs. The German soldiers at the other end of their fury would later report that the only sound they could here before death rained down upon them was a slight whooshing noise that sounded like a sweeping broomstick, which led to the 588th Regiment’s nickname the the Nachthexen, or “Night Witches.” One historian has said of them:

This sound was the only warning the Germans had. The planes were too small to show up on radar… [or] on infrared locators. They never used radios, so radio locators couldn’t pick them up either. They were basically ghosts.

The painfully slow, almost absurd crop-duster planes they flew were actually found to be quite useful and effective for their purposes. For one, despite their limited payload they were invisible to radar or infrared scopes. They could also take off from and land practically anywhere, and were also found to be incredibly maneuverable, with their lack of maximum speed actually proving to be an advantage, as the German planes had a low stall speed, making it very hard for them to engage the Polikarpov U-2 biplanes in dogfights or shoot them down. Indeed, so hard was it to shoot the Night Witches down that the German war machine actually offered an immediate Iron Cross medal to any pilot who could manage to take one down. There were very few who were successful, and the regiment became greatly feared and a scourge of the enemy, losing forces, convoys, checkpoints, bases, and supply lines to the Witches at an alarming rate.

Scared and unsettled German soldiers would whisper amongst themselves that the Night Witches actually used magic or that they were the result of a secret program to confer upon them perfect night vision and superhuman reflexes, and the regiment themselves did little to allay these wild rumors. They were a force of terror, and by the end of the war would fly nearly 30,000 combat sorties, log 28,676 flight hours, and drop over 3,000 tons of bombs and over 26,000 incendiary shells. Ouch. Only 30 of the pilots would be lost, including the regiment’s founder Raskova, and 24 of them were awarded the prestigious title Hero of the Soviet Union. In fact, the Night Witches would prove to be the most decorated force the Soviet Air Force had ever seen, not bad for a motley crew of peasant women wearing oversized uniforms, lacking the most cutting edge technology, and flying flimsy, rickety wooden crop-dusters without any amenities.

Even with all of this success, the “Night Witches” were eventually converted into the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, and after the war many of these women would try to pick up their lives where they had been before all of the carnage. One of the last surviving members of the regiment was Nadezhvda Popova, who would decades later reflect upon her time with the Night Witches, saying, “I sometimes stare into the blackness and close my eyes. I can still imagine myself as a young girl, up there in my little bomber. And I ask myself, ‘Nadia, how did you do it?” How did they do it, indeed? Flying low over waves of gunfire, pushing through physical limits and limitations that would have been the end of some of the best pilots, these determined, brave women of war did their country proud, and the Night Witches remain a little-remembered but very important feature upon the landscape of not only women in war, but of heroism in combat in general.