The Night Witches - Russian Combat Pilots of World War Two Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Night Witches - Russian Combat Pilots of World War Two

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Forgotten Heroines
Edith Cavell - Nurse and WWI Martyr | Margaret Sanger - Pioneer in Birth Control and Women's Rights | Lisa Potts - Schoolyard Heroine | Flora Sandes - Heroine of the Great War | The Night Witches - Russian Combat Pilots of World War Two | Lillie Hitchcock-Coit - Firefighter | Emily Wilding Davison - Suffragette | Caroline Chisholm - The Emigrants' Friend | Grace Darling - the Lighthouse Heroine

We simply couldn't grasp that the Soviet airmen that caused us the greatest trouble were in fact women. These women feared nothing. They came night after night in their very slow biplanes, and for some periods they wouldn't give us any sleep at all.
- Hauptmann Johannes Steinhoff, Commander of II./JG 52, Oak Leaves to the Knight's Cross, September 1942.

The women of the Russian 588th Night Bomber Regiment flew their tiny vintage aircraft night after night against a better-armed, better-equipped and better-trained enemy during the Battle for Russia, one of the longest and most brutal campaigns of the Second World War. The invading German forces soon came to call these courageous female pilots the Nachthexen, or Night Witches.

War Is Declared

On 22 June, 1941, Nazi Germany declared war on the Soviet Union. Russian men and women alike rushed to join in the fight to protect their country from the invaders. However, in the beginning, military officials rejected women without exception. The response to one young lady, who was later to become a Hero of the Soviet Union, was fairly typical:

Things may be bad, but we're not so desperate that we're going to put little girls like you up in the skies. Go home and help your mother.

But there were women who believed that they had as much right as the men to fight - and die - for their country.

One Woman's Dream

In 1938, Marina Raskova and two other women set a world record for non-stop direct flight by women when they flew a Tupolev DB2/ANT37 aircraft named Rodina1 6,000 kilometres (3,700 miles) from Moscow to Komsomolsk-on-Amur, on the south-eastern tip of Siberia. During the flight over Siberia the aircraft started icing up, and the female aircrew could not gain altitude. They jettisoned all they could out of the DB2, but continued to drop. Realising that they might soon crash, Marina noted their position on a map and then promptly bailed out. The two remaining women eventually landed safely at their destination, and a hunter rescued Marina. All returned to Moscow and were awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal for their record-breaking flight.

In early 1941, during the beginnings of the German invasion, Marina Raskova was already a major in the Soviet Air Force. Seeing an opportunity, she led a campaign to get women into the air to defend their country. It was Marina's accomplishments and vision that helped persuade Soviet leader Josef Stalin to allow the formation of three regiments of female combat pilots in the summer of 1941. The 586th Women's Fighter Regiment, the 587th Women's Day Bomber Regiment and the 588th Women's Night Bomber Regiment comprised pilots, mechanics and other ground staff, every one of them female. Each regiment required at least four hundred personnel. Women in the thousands applied, the average age being 22, and most wanted to fly. It was not possible to accommodate all of them, and so only the best were chosen to be pilots. The rest made up the ground crews, responsible for keeping the planes in the air. This was extremely hard work, as the women hauled and operated heavy equipment in all types of weather. In summer, sunburn was as common as frostbite was in the bitter winters.

Marina Raskova was of course the logical choice to interview and oversee the training of female aviators for combat duty. As nervous about recruiting the young women as many of them were about meeting the Marina Raskova, Hero of the Soviet Union, she was aware that she could be sending all of them to their deaths. Marina asked a gathered crowd of hopefuls:

Aren't you frightened to go to the front? Don't you know that these bad men on the other side will be shooting at you?

A shout came from the crowd:

Not if I shoot them first, Major Raskova!

In October of 1941, the young women were to report to the town of Engels on the River Volga, north of Stalingrad. After refitting left-over uniforms and trying to feel confident in an air of uncertainty, the would-be pilots laughed and joked on their trip south from Moscow, speculating on what the boys would be like in Engels.

Flight School

Initial training at Engels was intense. The Soviet Air Force needed to get pilots into the air because the Germans had superiority in the skies over Russia. Twelve- to fourteen-hour days of flying and ground school were necessary to cram what would in peacetime have been two years' worth of training into six months. Polikarpov Po-2 wood and fabric biplanes were used by the trainees to practice bombing from different altitudes - as well as night flying, dual and solo flight and learning to navigate with only the most basic instruments and without any radio communication. Navigation was accomplished with stopwatches, flight computers and regular maps, not aeronautical charts.

There were a pilot and navigator in each aircraft, and Marina rotated them so she could evaluate which teams flew best together. Although the Po-2s had no guns, instructors attempted to teach dogfighting2 through simulation - on the ground and in the air - of cannon fire in air-to-air combat. The women took turns dogfighting with each other and their instructors. Many of the female pilots also took great delight in making up combat aerobatics on the spot and 'killing' their instructors - including some male pilots who had combat experience against the Luftwaffe3, who were brought in to be worthy adversaries for the apparently inexperienced and amateur women.

After six months of training at Engels, Major Raskova posted the regimental assignments. All the women had, of course, wanted to be fighter pilots, and there was bitter disappointment for many who would be flying the less glamorous aircraft like the Po-2 training planes, which had been refitted as bombers for the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. The male commander of the training base also decided that the new women pilots did not look soldierly enough and ordered them to cut their hair. They could cut it themselves or a military barber would do it for them. Either way, their long tresses had to go; hair could be no longer than two inches all over their heads. A Russian woman's pride was often her long hair, usually never cut in her lifetime, bound up in braids or allowed to swing freely below her waist. This order was a severe blow to the women who had wanted to be pilots but who also wanted to retain their femininity. However, all reported the next day, cropped and ready to fly4.

The 588th were given a fast lesson in combat when, during their first mission, the base commander decided to test their mettle and instructed the fighters sent to escort them to 'attack' them. Nervous and anxious about their first mission, the women mistook their own fighter cover for enemies and panicked, breaking formation and scattering. Many of the women immediately headed back to base, some soon realising from radio chatter what had happened. When they all returned to base they were embarrassed and humiliated at their behaviour. Despite the praise for their flying skills, they were determined to do better the next time. The women of the 588th flew their first official bombing mission on 8 June, 1942. The squadron consisted of three planes and their target was the headquarters of a German division. Flying through flak and trusting their fighter escorts to dispense with the attacking enemy fighters, the raid was successful with only one plane lost.

The Nachthexen

Nobody knows the exact date when they started calling us 'Night Witches'. We were bombing the German positions every night, so the Germans began saying these are 'Night Witches', because it seemed impossible to kill us or shoot us down.
- Senior Lieutenant Serafima Amosova-Taranenko

The 588th, like all night bomber regiments, usually practiced harassment night bombing, which consisted of flying to enemy encampments, airfields or other enemy targets during the night and bombing them. Harassment night bombing was very difficult to do, considering the low performance of the Po-2 biplanes and how vulnerable that made them to enemy night fighters. But the Night Witches learned their trade well. The Po-2 was very slow, but it was also very manoeuvrable. When an enemy aircraft, usually a German Bf109, attempted to intercept, the Russian plane could turn violently and nimbly at much less than the faster monoplane's minimum speed, requiring that the attacking aircraft make a wide circle to come in for another pass. The same evasive tactic was effective time after time. Many of the Po-2 pilots got to nearly ground level, some even flying low enough to hide behind hedgerows. The attacking fighter could only try again and again until either the Russian escaped or the enemy gave up and left the Po-2 alone5.

The Witches' Way

For a successful bombing run, the Witches would fly a certain distance from their target and then turn off their aircraft's engine. Gliding in, they would release their bombs before the enemy even knew they were there. The Night Witches' downfall, however, was anti-aircraft measures such as searchlights and flak guns. The Germans at Stalingrad developed what the Russians called a 'flak circus': they would bring out anti-aircraft guns that had been hidden during the day and lay them in concentric circles around probable targets, doing the same with searchlights. Po-2s crossing the perimeter in pairs, in the straight-line flight path typical of untrained pilots, were spotted by the searchlights and then completely destroyed by anti-aircraft fire.

The 588th, however, developed another tactic. They flew in formations of three. Two would attack the target, attracting the attention of the searchlights, and when all the lights pointed skywards, the women would separate suddenly, flying in opposite directions so as to shake off the searchlights. The searchlight operators would follow the two initial bombers, while the third bomber sneaked in through the darkened path made by her two comrades, hitting the target unopposed. She would then get out, rejoin with the other two, and they would switch places until all three had delivered their payload of bombs. It took tremendous nerve and courage to be a decoy and willingly attract enemy fire, but as Nadya Popova said, 'It worked.'

Nadya and her colleague Katya Ryabova once conducted eighteen raids in one night. The slow Po-2s all too often came back riddled with bullets. In August 1942, Nadya and her navigator crashed in the Caucasus. They were found alive a few days later. Often other pilots crashed behind enemy lines and no one knew where they were. Most women declined to carry parachutes, deciding they would rather die than become the Germans' prisoners-of-war. Many of the women died in combat or while on official missions; Marina Raskova was one of these. After getting the regiments up and into the air, she asked to be transferred to the front in 1943. Whilst flying in a snowstorm, her plane crashed and all aboard were killed. 31-year-old Raskova was held in such high esteem that she received the first Soviet state funeral of the war and her ashes were buried in the Kremlin Wall.

The 588th were employed in intense fighting in the Kuban area of southern Russia. They flew their missions in resistance to reputedly the finest fighter group of the German Luftwaffe, JG 54. This fighter group included some of the world's highest-ranking fighter aces in history, including Erich Hartmann. All three of the regiments suffered terrible losses, but the women were not deterred. Even after being shot down or wounded, the pilots returned as soon as possible, ready to fly again. As the war took a toll on the numbers of pilots within the groups, a few men transferred into the fighter and fighter-bomber regiments, but the 588th remained exclusively female.

On most occasions, the poor bombing and navigational devices of the Night Witches prevented them from dealing any heavy damage to the enemy. But on the night of 25 October, 1942, a bomb strike set ablaze a fuel depot at the enemy airfield of Armavir. The fire spread, and six Ju-88 night fighters and He-111 bombers of KG 51 were destroyed. Only one aircraft escaped damage. This led to the quick withdrawal of KG 51 to the Kerch Peninsula. On 6 January, 1943, the 588th received the acknowledgment of its members' meritorious service and was awarded the new title of '46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment'. Soviet statistics show this unit to have flown about 23,672 sorties and is credited with dropping 3,000 tons of bombs6. Twenty-three airwomen of this regiment were awarded the Gold Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union, and it was the most highly decorated regiment in the entire Soviet Air Force: each pilot had flown at least 1,000 missions.

A Tribute in Flowers

After the war, a number of the women continued to fly, some as test pilots. Others retired to a quiet life or returned to work, either in factories or on farms. In spite of the danger and their heavy losses, most of the women later described their combat experience as the most exciting time of their lives. They endured loss of family and homes in their absence, met and lost lovers and husbands, and were often wounded or killed in action.

At night sometimes, I look up into the dark sky, close my eyes and picture myself as a girl at the controls of my bomber and I think, 'Nadya, how on earth did you do it?'
- Nadya Popova

A fitting tribute was made to the dedication of this unit's airwomen by the male Free French pilots of the Normandie-Niemen Fighter Regiment who often fought alongside the Night Witches:

Even if it were possible to gather and place at your feet all the flowers on earth, this would not constitute sufficient tribute to your valour.
1Translates to 'Homeland'.2One-on-one airplane combat.3The German Air Force.4Ironically, a high-ranking general came to inspect the new pilots and was dismayed at the short haircuts of the women, lamenting that they 'looked like boys'.5Luftwaffe pilots were promised an Iron Cross for shooting down a Russian Po-2.6The maximum bomb load of a Po-2 plane was only 300 kilograms.

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