During WWII, the German’s had a nickname (Nachthexen which in English translates to ‘Night Witches’) for the female military pilots who were members of the Soviet Union’s 588th Night Bomber Regiment. This Soviet Air Force regiment was originally formed by Col. Marina Raskova and would evntaully become the 46th ‘Taman’ Guards Night Bomber Aviation. The group was under the command of Major Yevdokia Bershanskaya. The Nazis referred to these female Soviet pilots as ‘Night Witches’ due to the whistling noise their plywood and canvas airplanes made which reminded them of the sound of a witch’s broom
The women in this Night Bomber regiment began flying bombing missions in 1942. These missions targeted the Germans and would continue through to the end of World War II. They flew over 23,000 sorties and are believed to have dropped as much as 3,000 tons of bombs. By war’s end, each pilot in the regiment had flown more than 1,000 missions. Twenty-three of them were awarded the title ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’. A total of 30 had been lost in combat.
Plane of the Night Witches
The night witches of the Soviet Union used a Polikarpov Po-2 bi-plane, which was constructed of wood and canvas. This 1928 aircraft was originally intended to be used as a training aircraft or as a crop duster. Despite being the most produced biplane in aviation history, its size would still only allow two bombs be carried at a time, which meant multiple missions would be required each night.
The biplane was obsolete for WWII and it was a slow aircraft. However, the night witches were able to make use of the aircrafts maneuverability. The maximum speed of the Polikarpov Po-2 was below the stall speed of the German Bf109 and Fw 190, making it difficult for German pilots to shoot them down.
Night bombers would often engage a stealth technique of idling their engines near the target. They would then glide to the position where the bomb was to be released, which meant only the noise of the wind could divulge their location. The lack of reflective surface on these canvas planes also added to their abilities to remain undetected.
Eventually, the Germans developed searchlights and positioned flak guns in and around the most probable targets. The paired aircrafts (which is how the women first flew) could be spotted and shredded by gunfire. The women pilots, however, came up with their own technique to offset this advantage of the Germans – they began flying in sets of three. Once searchlights spotted their incoming planes, two of the pilots would fly off in opposite directions forcing the light operators to follow them as they maneuvered wildly. As this was taking place, the third pilot would continue in the dark and to the target, hitting it virtually unopposed.
Once the first pilot hit her target, she would join the others. The two remaining pilots would then take their turn delivering their payload. Attracting enemy fire required nerves of steel, but the tactic worked.
About the Women
Most of the women in this regiment were hardly 20 years old. They began their training in a small town just north of Stalingrad – Engels. They suffered a great deal of resistance and sexual harassment from their male colleagues, but the women persevered and learned a great deal in a very short time frame.
The women’s dedication did not cease once they landed. In the bitter winter of 1942, as a blizzard with gale-force winds swept into the area, these women went out and laid their bodies across the wings of the planes to prevent them from being blown over. The wind finally subsided but they were only given a short reprieve. With barely any time to recuperate from the exhaustive action and bitter cold, the women were once again forced out to the planes when the storm resumed. When it was all over – more than 12 hours later – the women were finally able to rest. They were exhausted, half-frozen and soaked to the skin, but they saved their planes.
The Night Witches may be a relatively unknown group of Soviet female pilots from WWII, but they no doubt had a huge impact on the war’s outcome.