This is so exciting for me! It was requested that I write about a specific moment in history. Do a happy dance. It’s like a dream come true for a wannabe historian. In my office, I finally looked at what was expected of me. Crap! It’s the first time I’ve heard of the Night Witches! There was no doubt I was in for a long night of research and coffee.
By June 1941, Germany had established a well-defined combat force, considered to be the finest army to fight in the 20th century. With their training, doctrine, and fighting skills dialed in, they had their sights set on the Soviet Union. Historically, Operation Barbarossa is considered to have been the turning point of the war; if Germany had managed to take over Russia, it would have been all over.
It is well known that Germany was never a logistically minded country and that you cannot win a war in winter in the Soviet Union. In the end, the Soviet Union scored the big win, but it was a brutal fight reminiscent of the brutality and mercilessness of the Mongols.
The Night Witches were created as a result of this battle.
The creation of the first all-female air regiment:
Marina Raskova was the first woman navigator in the Soviet Air Force at the age of 19, a record holder of long-distance flights, and the first woman instructor at the Zhukovskii Air Academy. Her survival skills were proven when she had a bailout landing, surviving for ten days without water and almost no food, and finding herself back at the landing site to reunite with her female flight crew.
In the Soviet Union, military service was not restricted; they were at the forefront of equal opportunity. If you want to serve your country, by all means…go for it. They were, however, hesitant to accept applications from women who wanted to become pilots. There was a tendency for applications to get lost, delayed, or denied for no real reason.
Marina Raskova plays a highly significant role here. Among pilots, she is one of the most famous. And as she listens to the International Communist Woman’s Day speech, she gets excited about the next step for females in the Soviet Union Air Force. A celebration of Soviet women’s mastery of technology and knowledge, becoming economic leaders, train drivers, engineers, deputies to Supreme Soviets of the USSR, and deputies to Supreme Soviets of the Union Republics, was the topic of the address. Marina tells the crowd she will write a letter to Stalin asking for the creation of a women’s pilot unit. Everyone goes wild! Cheers and laughter! Vodka for everyone! I am not sure about the vodka, but it seems like it would have been a celebration
Stalin says yes and 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. The entire regiment was staffed with women pilots, engineers, mechanics, and support personnel.
A blog post by the Museum of Flight entitled ‘Who Are The Night Witches?’ discusses the process of sorting women aviators according to their abilities in order to form the three all-female regiments-the 586 Fighter Aviation Regiment, the 587 Bomber Aviation Regiment, or the 588 Night Bomber Aviation Regiment.
Pilots with the highest skills became fighter pilots, and their male counterparts were outraged when new Yakovlev Yak-1s were given to them.
Middle-tier pilots were assigned to the bomber regiment.
Pilots with the lowest scores were assigned to fly night bombers and issued a plane no one else wanted.
The planes that no one else wanted:
The most feared of all the Aviation Regiments were the 46 Taman Guard Night Bombers, nicked named the Night Witches by German forces. With an arsenal of only 40 Polikarpov Po-2 planes- each plane could only carry two to six FAB-50 or one FAB-100 high explosive bomb at a time; the pilots were able to carry out at least 18 missions a night. It is an impressive feat of daring since most nights the pilots would fly the first mission, return to their home station, reload, then fly the second mission.
The planes themselves were not of the highest quality. The popularity of the device grew only because it was easy to control and cheap to construct and repair. However, pilots could only fly at low altitudes, could not withstand significant enemy fire, and had no radar.
Choosing it for a dangerous mission seems logical?
Aside from that, they didn’t get any fresh planes off the assembly line but rather outdated crop dusters that had been used for training.
The aircraft was made of plywood with a canvas covering and had no protection from the elements. Considering the Soviet Union’s mild climate, this makes sense, too! Additionally, they did not receive luxury items like parachutes, guns, or radios. Nevertheless, rulers, stopwatches, flashlights, pencils, maps, and compasses were provided.
I do not sense any impartial treatment here- do you?
Members of the unit used paper maps to get to their destinations. They typically flew in groups of three to outmaneuver the German searchlights and flak guns. Upon being pointed at by the enemy’s searchlights, two planes flew through the trap before abruptly turning away. The third plane would then emerge from the darkness and strike the target. Each plane exchanged places until the pilots released all their bombs.
Because it was sneaking in for the kill, the plane dropping the bombs sounded like a witch’s broom- hence the title.
It is necessary to elaborate on stealth mode. Turning off their engines, they ‘glided’ to the target marked by a flare. They would then turn the plane back on and fly away if they made it through.
Is this even remotely safe? Did these missions receive a safety briefing?
The Nazis feared and hated them, and they awarded the Iron Cross medal automatically to anyone who downed one. Their primary mission was to frustrate the Germans by keeping them up all night wondering where the next attack would come from. Eventually, the Germans became walking zombies, fighting during the day and waiting for the bombing at night. According to the Germans service members, 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.
In an ironic twist of fate, German service members never realized that their tormentors were women pilots until after the war.
No one walks away unharmed:
In all, the regiment flew over 23,000 missions and dropped more than 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 over 800 missions. Twenty-three women were awarded the ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ title, and 32 women paid the ultimate price.
Marina Raskova, who was directing two other Pe-2s to a safe airfield, was killed on January 4th, 1943, when she was forced to land on the Volga Bank, with the full crew dying as a result. Raskova was given the first state funeral of the war, and her ashes were buried alongside those of Polina Osipenko, another pilot. She was awarded the Order of Patriotic War 1st Class posthumously, and the regiments she created served throughout the war.
One of the most celebrated Night Witches, Nadezhda Popova, flew 852 missions. In one instance, Popova returned from an assignment with 42 bullet holes in her plane, helmet, and map. However, Popova was never hit, nor did her delicate plane fall apart.
The end of an era:
Raskova was given the first state funeral of the war, and her ashes were buried alongside those of Polina Osipenko, another pilot. She was awarded the Order of Patriotic War 1st Class posthumously, and the regiments she created served throughout the war.
One of the most celebrated Night Witches, Nadezhda Popova, flew 852 missions. In one instance, Popova returned from an assignment with 42 bullet holes in her plane, helmet, and map. However,t Popova was never hit, nor did her delicate plane fall apart.
During World War II, more than 500,000 women served in the Soviet Union military in combat roles. Their skills as snipers, anti-aircraft artillery operators, and tank commanders were highly regarded. In all, more than 200,000 combat women received medals for bravery, including 89 who were honored as Soviet heroes.
The Night Witches made their last flight just 60 km from Berlin on May 4th, 1945.
The Germans surrendered three days later.
In the aftermath of World War II, their planes were deemed too slow to take part in the victory day parade and they were disbanded six months later.
Friends! This was the most fun I have had 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, dear, and I am not ashamed to say- I wish 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!
For further research or reading I have included a link to some books that you might enjoy… click here!