The Germans nicknamed them the “Nachthexen,” or “night witches,” because the whooshing noise their wooden planes made resembled that of a sweeping broom. This sound was the only warning the Germans had. The planes were too small to show up on radar and they never used radios, so radio locators couldn’t pick them up either. They were basically ghosts. They flew under the cover of darkness in bare-bones plywood biplanes. They braved bullets and frostbite in the air, while battling skepticism and sexual harassment on the ground. They were feared and hated so much by the Nazis that any German airman who downed one was automatically awarded the prestigious Iron Cross medal. All told, the pioneering all-female 588th Night Bomber Regiment dropped more than 23,000 tons of bombs on Nazi targets. In doing so, they became a crucial Soviet asset in winning World War II.
Using female bombardiers and pilots wasn’t a first choice. While women had been previously barred from combat, the pressure of an encroaching enemy gave Soviet leaders a reason to rethink the policy. Adolf Hitler had launched Operation Barbarossa, his massive invasion of the Soviet Union, in June 1941. By the fall, the Germans were pressing on Moscow, Leningrad was under siege, and the Red Army was struggling. The Soviets were desperate.
Marina Raskova, a record breaking aviatrix known as the “Soviet Amelia Earhart,” was given special permission by Joseph Stalin to form an all-female fighting squadron. Previously, they had been allowed to participate in support roles, but many wanted to be gunners and pilots. Many had lost brothers or sweethearts and had seen their homes ravaged. On October 8, 1941, Stalin gave orders to deploy three all-female air force units. These women would not only fly mission and drop bombs, but they would return fire, making the Soviet Union the first nation to officially allow women to engage in combat. Raskova selected around 400 women from over 2,000 applications to fill up those units, most of whom were barely 20 years old. The military, unprepared for women pilots, offered them meager resources. They received hand-me-down uniforms from male soldiers and had to tear up bedding and stuff them in their boots to make them fit. Their equipment wasn’t much better. The military provided them with outdated Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, 1920’s crop-dusters that had been used only as trainers. These light, two-seater, open-cockpit planes were never meant for combat. Made out of plywood with canvas, the aircraft offered virtually no protection from the elements. Flying at night, pilots endured freezing temperatures, wind, and frostbite. In the harsh Soviet winters, the planes became so cold, just touching them would rip off bare skin.
Near Sheldon, Illinois, grower Joe Zumwalt applies a low-insecticide bait that is targeted against western corn rootworms feeding on and laying eggs in these soybeans.Image Number K7803-2, Ken Hammond.
United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service
Due to both the planes’ limited weight capacity and the military’s limited funds, the pilots also lacked other “luxury” items afforded to their male counterparts. Parachutes were far too heavy for the planes to carry and the women used more rudimentary tools to calculate bombing runs and to navigate. There was one upside to the older aircraft, however. Their maximum speed was slower than the stall speed of the Nazi planes, which meant these wooden planes, ironically, could maneuver faster than the enemy, making them hard to target. They could also easily take off and land from most locations. The downside, however, was that when coming under enemy fire, pilots had to duck by sending their planes into dives as almost none of the planes carried defensive ammunition. If they happened to be hit by tracer bullets, which carry a pyrotechnic charge and are, in most cases, every fifth bullet, their wooden planes would burst into flames. Tracer bullets are ignited by the burning powder, and the pyrotechnic composition burns very brightly, making the trajectory, or flight path, visible to the naked eye during the day and very bright at night. This enables the shooter to make aiming corrections without wasting precious time observing the impact of the rounds fired and without using sights on the weapon.
The Polikarpovs could only carry two bombs at a time, one under each wing. In order to make meaningful dents in the German front lines, the regiment sent out up to 40 two-person crews a night. Each would execute between eight and eighteen missions a night, flying back to base to rearm between runs. The weight of the bombs forced them to fly at lower altitudes, making them a much easier target for anti-aircraft guns–hence their night-only missions. The Night Witches practiced what is known as harassment bombing. Their targets were encampments, supply depots, rear base areas, etc. Their constant raids made rest for the Nazi troops difficult and left them feeling very insecure.
The planes, each with a pilot up front and a navigator in back, traveled in packs, typically groups of three: The first two planes would go in as bait, deliberately attracting German spotlights. When all the searchlights were pointed at them, the two pilots would suddenly separate, flying in opposite directions and maneuvering wildly to shake off the searchlight operators who were trying to follow them. In the meantime, the third pilot would fly in through the dark path cleared by her two teammates and hit the target virtually unopposed. She would idle her engines and glide in darkness and silence to the bombing area. It was this “stealth mode” that created their signature witch’s broom sound. She would then restart her plane, get out of the drop zone, rejoin the other two, and they would switch places until all three had delivered their payloads. As Nadya Popova, one of the pilots, noted, it took nerves of steel to be a decoy and willing attract enemy fire, but it worked very well.
The 588th’s first mission, on June 28, 1942, took aim, successfully, at the headquarters of the invading Nazi forces. Their last flight took place on May 4, 1945, when the Night Witches flew within 60 kilometers, or 37 miles, of Berlin. Three days later, Germany officially surrendered.
According to one source, the Germans had two theories about why these women were so successful: They 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 at night.
Altogether, these daredevil heroines flew more than 30,000 missions in total, or about 800 per pilot and navigator. They lost a total of 30 pilots, and 24 of the flyers were awarded the title “Hero of the Soviet Union.” Raskova, the mother of the movement, died on January 4, 1943, when she was finally sent to the front line. Her plane never made it. She was given the very first Soviet state funeral of World War II and her ashes were buried in the Kremlin.
Despite being the most highly decorated unit in the Soviet Air Force during the war, the Night Witches regiment was disbanded six months after the end of the war. And when it came to the big victory-day parade in Moscow, they weren’t included, because, it was decided, their planes were too slow.
Header Image credt: Night witches 1943, Unknown Author, 1943. English: Group photo of several members of the “Night Witches”, all of whom in the photo became Heroes of the Soviet Union. Left to right:Tanya Makarova, Vera Belik, Polina Gelman, Yekaterina Ryabova, Yevdokiya Nikulina, and Nadezhda Popova.
Holland, Brynn. Meet the Night Witches, the Daring Female Pilots who Bombed Nazis by Night. History. 2017. https://www.history.com/news/meet-the-night-witches-the-daring-female-pilots-who-bombed-nazis-by-night
Rosenwald, Michael S. Fierce, Feared and Female: The WWII Pilots known as the “Night Witches.” Washington Post. 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/03/01/fierce-feared-female-wwii-pilots-known-night-witches/?utm_term=.3d6a511136ae
Dowdy, Linda. The Night Witches. Seize the Sky. 2007. http://www.seizethesky.com/nwitches/nitewtch.html