The Night Witches.
No, we’re not talking about whimsical costumes, glowing pumpkins, or All Hallow’s Eve. We’re not even talking about the Salem Witch Trials of the 17th century.
The Night Witches was an all-female Soviet military bomber regiment that was active between 1942 and 1945 at the height of World War II. The 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Air Forces was comprised entirely of young women, most of whom were volunteers between the ages of 17 and 26. The unit was the most highly decorated female unit in that force, flying thousands of missions over the years to lay waste to Nazi encampments, supplies, and soldiers.
Unbeknownst to many, the Soviet Union was the first nation to allow women to fly combat missions. However, because the Soviets were already suffering mass casualties, the women of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment were not allotted standard military machines. Instead, they flew wood-and-canvas Polikarpov U-2 biplanes which were slow, obsolete, and offered no protection from the barrages of enemy fire directed at them. But leave it to the women to turn what used to be a crop-dusting plane into a subversive weapon of war!
Although the regiment’s biplanes were wood-produced and could carry only two bombs at a time, they were exceptionally maneuverable. Because of their light weight, the planes could make sharper turns than their German counterparts. Their maximum speed was lower than the stall speeds of their enemies causing the biplanes to be overtaken and bypassed by opposing forces who were unable to slow down to target them.
Using wildly dangerous tactics, the women of the 588th would gain altitude, mark an objective, and then glide down in the still of the night. They maintained radio silence to avoid being detected by radio locators and their planes were too small to show up on radar or even infrared locators. The rushing whoosh their planes made upon approach frightened the Germans terribly as they could not see them or locate them on any map. This, coupled with the women’s deadly accuracy, earned them the name “Nachthexen,” which is German for Night Witch.
The Night Witches was the most celebrated female unit of the Soviet Air Forces with 23 of its pilots garnering the prestigious title of “Hero of the Soviet Union.” Two of its members were named “Heroes of the Russian Federation and another was deemed “Hero of Kazakhstan.”
The Night Witches were active through the end of WWII in 1945. Of the 261 women who served in the regiment, 32 died, although not all were in combat (tuberculosis was rampant at this time). Using literal paper airplanes, the 588th’s women dropped a total of 23,000 tons of bombs on the Nazis!
The women who risked their lives in the name of their country were courageous but not without fear.
They carried no parachutes not only because they flew so low to the ground but because they kept strict weight restrictions.
They operated in the dark to avoid detection.
Their cockpits were open to the elements – including the bitter Russian air – and their planes of paper presented them no protection.
They wore men’s hand-me-down uniforms that were often in poor condition and offered no defense against the weather. They use no radar and no radio. In complete silence, they coordinated with their fellow pilots to carry out thousands of sorties.
Perhaps there was something magical about them, after all.
Garber, Megan. “Night Witches: The Female Fighter Pilots of World War II.” The Atlantic. 15 July 2013. Accessed 9 Sept. 2019. < https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/07/night-witches-the-female-fighter-pilots-of-world-war-ii/277779/>
Holland, Brynn. “Meet the Night Witches, the Daring Female Pilots Who Bombed Nazis by Night.” History.com. June 7, 2019. Accessed 9 Sept. 2019. < 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.’” The Washington Post. 1 March, 2019. Accessed 9 Sept. 2019. < https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/03/01/fierce-feared-female-wwii-pilots-known-night-witches/?noredirect=on>
Ruiz, Gisely. “The Night Witches: The All-Female World War II Squadron That Terrified the Nazis.” All That’s Interesting. 17 March 2019. Accessed 9 Sept. 2019. < https://allthatsinteresting.com/night-witches-ww2>
Wikipedia Contrubutors. “Marina Raskova.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 9 Sept. 2019. < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marina_Raskova>
Wikipedia Contributors. “Night Witches.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 9 Sept. 2019. < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_Witches>
Wikipedia Contrubutors. “Yevdokiya Bershanskaya.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 9 Sept. 2019. < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yevdokiya_Bershanskaya>