I got so excited! Someone asked me to write about a particular moment in history. Happy dance. I called my mom, told my son, wrote a letter to Santa- I was asked to research something! A wanna-be historian’s dream come true. I settled into my office and finally looked at what was asked of me. Crap! I know nothing about the Night Witches! I knew then I was in for a long night of research and coffee.
Let’s set the stage- June 1941- World War II. Germany at this point had created a well-defined combat force, one that has been said to represent the finest army to fight in the 20th century. They were dialed in on their training, doctrine, and fighting skills- and they had set their sights on the Soviet Union. Operation Barbarossa is considered to be the turning point of the war; if Germany could pull off claiming the Soviet Union for themselves, it would have been all over. It would be like former Vice President’s Bidens lead over President Trump- it was a battle that was going to change everything for every country. Nailbiter! However, Germany was never a logistical-minded country, and history proves that you can not win a war over in the Soviet Union in winter. The Soviet Union scrapes by with the big win at the last minute, but it was a brutal fight that resembled the brutality and mercilessness of the Mongols (or of the 2020 U.S. Congress race to majority between the Rep. and Dem).
It was this battle that led to the creation of the Night Witches. Marina Raskova was the first female navigator in the Soviet Air Force at the age of 19, a record holder of long-distance flights, and the first woman to teach at the Zhukovskii Air Academy. She was a tried and true survivalist proving her worth when she had a bailout of a landing, surviving ten days with no water and almost no food, finding herself back to the landing site to reunite with her all-female flight team.
Now, the Soviet Union had no restrictions in their military who could serve; they are the forefront of equal opportunity, they did not care- if you wanted to serve your country, by all means…have at it. But they were funky about accepting applications from women to become pilots. Applications tended to get lost, delayed, or denied for no real reason. This is where Marina Raskova comes in. She is a pilot and a famous one. While she is present at the International Communist Woman’s Day speech, she gets excited about the next step for females in the Soviet Union Air Force. The address was a celebration of how Soviet women had mastered technology and knowledge, became economic leaders, train drivers, engineers, deputies to the Supreme Soviets of the USSR, and deputies to the Supreme Soviets of the Union Republics. Marina tells the crowd that she will write a letter to Stalin himself to ask to create a women’s pilot unit. The group goes wild! Cheers and laughter! Vodka for everyone! Ok, I am not sure about the vodka, but it seems like they would have celebrated.
Stalin says yes and he authorizes three new air regiments- the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment, the 125th Guard Bomber Aviation Regiments, and the 46 Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment. Each regiment was fully staffed with only women- pilots, engineers, mechanics, support staff—all girls.
The Museum of Flight’s blog post entitled ‘Who Are The Night Witches?’ explains how, during the year of training, the women aviators were sorted by ability levels to form the three all-female regiments. They were then separated into either the 586 Fighter Aviation Regiment, the 587 Bomber Aviation Regiment, or 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 46 Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment was known as the Night Witches and feared by the Germans. They flew thousands of missions from the unit’s creation to the end of the war. It had 40 plans and, on most nights, they flew up to 18 missions. Their plane, the Polikarpov Po-2 plane, could only carry 2-6 FAB-50 or FAB-100 high explosive bombs at a time (number depends on what the website is reporting), so they would fly a mission and return to home base to reload and head back out. The planes themselves were not the top of the line, their popularity was because it was easy to control and cheap in construction and repair, and they had to fly at low altitudes. However, it could not withstand significant enemy fire and had no radar. It seems like a logical choice to fly.
Let’s also mention here that they didn’t get the planes just coming off the production lines- they got the outdated, crop-dusters that had been used as training planes. The aircraft was literally made out of plywood with a canvas pulled over it and had no protection against the elements. This, too, makes sense because the Soviet Union is known for its mild weather! They also didn’t get the luxury items such as parachutes, guns, or radios. But they did get supplied rulers, stopwatches, flashlights, pencils, maps, and compasses. I am not sensing any impartial treatment here- are you?
The unit members would use their paper maps to get to their destinations flying primarily in groups of 3 to outmaneuver the Germans searchlight and flak gun combination. Two of the planes would fly through the trap only to abruptly turn away once the enemy pointed searchlights at them. The third plane would then come out of the darkness and hit the target. The three planes switched places until the pilots released all their bombs. The last plane that was dropping the bombs would sound like a witch’s broom; this is because the plane would go into stealth mode and sneak in for the kill. Stealth mode needs to be elaborated. They turned the damn engines off and ‘glided’ to the target that a flare had marked. If they made it through, they would turn the plane back on and fly away. Does this even seem halfway safe? Where was the safety briefing for these missions?
They were feared and hated by the Nazis, and any German airman who downed one was automatically awarded the prestigious Iron Cross medal. The primary mission of the Night Witches was to annoy the crap out of the Germans, and they did this by keeping them up all night wondering where the next attack would come from. After a while, the Germans were walking zombies, fighting during the day, and waiting for the bombing at night. The Germans claimed that the women were:
all criminals who were masters at stealing and had been sent to the front line as punishment or they had been given special injections that allowed them to see in the night.
They didn’t realize that it was a unit of women who were really pissed at Germany for coming into their homes and destroying everything they held dear. Don’t piss off women; they will come back to haunt you on their brooms!
The regiment flew over 23,000 missions and dropped over 3,000 tons of bombs and 26,000 incendiary shells. It was the most decorated female unit in the Soviet Air Force, with many pilots flying around 800 missions. Twenty-three of the women were awards the Hero of the Soviet Union title, and in all, 32 paid the ultimate price with their lives. Raskova herself was killed on January 4th 1943, while attempting to lead two other Pe-2’s to a safe airfield. She was forced into making a forced landing on the Volga Bank, which resulted in the deaths of the entire crew.
Raskova received the first state funeral of the war, and her ashes were buried in the Kremlin Wall beside those of fellow pilot, Polina Osipenko. She was posthumously awarded the Order of Patriotic War 1st Class, and the regiments she created continued to serve for the duration of the war.
Nadezhda Popova is one of the most celebrated Night Witches; she flew a projected 852 missions. In one instance, Popova returned from an assignment with 42 bullet holes in her plane. There were even holes in her helmet and map, yet astonishingly Popova wasn’t hit, nor did her delicate plane fall apart.
By the end of World War II, over 500,000 women served in the Soviet Union military in combat roles alongside men. They were found to be excellent snipers, operated anti-aircraft artillery, and some even became tank commanders. All in all, over 200,000 combat women were awarded medals for bravery, 89 earned the highest honor of Hero of the Soviet Union. The Night Witches’ last flight was on May 4th, 1945, where they flew within 60km of Berlin. Three days later, the German’s surrendered. They were disbanded six months after the end of the war and were not allowed to fly in the victory day parade because it was decided that their planes were too slow.
Friends! This was the most fun I have had in a while researching a brand-new topic! If you have made it this far, thank you! I rarely get to highlight a role that females played in history, especially when it comes to females supporting a war. It is personal, it is dear, and I am not ashamed to say- I wish that more stories like this were talked about for female veterans.
As always, my friends, I invite you to do more research on your own. There is no way I could fit years of historical WWII moments into a single blog- but I had fun researching the Night Witches’.
And remember- be Great at something you are Good at!