“Night Witches” – The All Female Soviet Night Bomber Aviators of WW II

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“Night Witches” was a World War II German nickname for the all female military aviators of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, known later as the 46th “Taman” Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, of the Soviet Air Forces. Though women were initially barred from combat, Major Marina Raskova used her position and personal contacts with the Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, Joseph Stalin, to obtain permission to form female combat units. On 8 October 1941, Order number 0099 specified the creation of three women’s regiments—all personnel from technicians to pilots would be entirely composed of women. This included the 588th Regiment. The regiment, formed by Major Marina Raskova and led by Major Yevdokiya Bershanskaya, comprised primarily female volunteers in their late teens and early twenties.

Image Source: http://www.invenusverit.as/

          An attack technique of the night bombers involved idling the engine near the target and gliding to the bomb-release point, with only wind noise left to reveal their presence. German soldiers likened the sound to broomsticks and named the pilots “Night Witches”. Due to the weight of the bombs and the low altitude of flight, the pilots did not carry parachutes until 1944.

          When the regiment deployed to the front line in June 1942, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment became part of the 4th Air Army of the Southern Front. In February 1943 the regiment was honored with the Guards designation and reorganized as the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment in the 325th Night Bomber Aviation Division, 4th Air Army, 2nd Belorussian Front; in October 1943 it became the 46th “Taman” Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, “Taman” referring to the unit’s involvement in the Novorossiysk-Taman operations on the Taman Peninsula during 1943.

Young Women pilots. Image Source: SOVFOTO/UIG Via Getty Images Sourced From http://www.vanityfair.com

Regiment History – Crucial Soviet Asset of WW II

          The 46th regiment flew harassment and precision bombing missions against the German military from 1942 until the end of the war. At its largest, it had 40 two-person crews. The regiment flew over 23,000 sorties, dropping over 3,000 tons of bombs and 26,000 incendiary shells. It was the most highly decorated female unit in the Soviet Air Force, with many pilots having flown over 800 missions by the end of the war, and twenty-three having been awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union title. Thirty-two of its members died in the war.

Natalya Meklin, awarded the ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’, was 19 when she joined the Night Witches. Image Source: http://www.invenusverit.as

Brynn Holland wrote for History.com “Meet the Night Witches, the Daring Female Pilots Who Bombed Nazis By Night” and how they were a crucial Soviet asset to winning World War II. 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 became a crucial Soviet asset in winning World War II.

Russian aviatrix Marina Raskova (first from left), Captain Maria Dolina, and Natalya Meklin was a shero in her own right. Image Source: http://www.invenusverit.as/

Employing Women – Act of Last Choice

          Using female bombardiers wasn’t a first choice writes Holland. 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 – Leads the Charge

          The squadron was the brainchild of Marina Raskova, known as the “Soviet Amelia Earhart”—famous not only as the first female navigator in the Soviet Air Force but also for her many long-distance flight records, explains Holland. She had been receiving letters from women all across the Soviet Union wanting to join the WW II war effort. While they had been allowed to participate in support roles, there were many who wanted to be gunners and pilots, flying on their own. Many had lost brothers or sweethearts, or had seen their homes and villages ravaged. Seeing an opportunity, Raskova petitioned Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to let her form an all-female fighting squadron.Marina Raskova was a national hero who broke records in the 1930s with her exploits flying planes for thousands of miles. Joseph Stalin also happened to be a big fan of hers, and got convinced that women pilots would be of value to the Soviet cause. Raskova was named Colonel of the three all-women units.  However, most Soviet women aircrews were integrated into mixed-gender regiments, flying alongside men.

Marina Raskova. Image Source: Pinterest

          When Stalin finally gave orders to deploy three all-female air force units, the women would not only fly missions and drop bombs, they would return fire making the Soviet Union the first nation to officially allow women to engage in combat. Previously, women could help transfer planes and ammunition, after which the men took over. Raskova quickly started to fill out her teams. From more than 2,000 applications, she selected around 400 women for each of the three units. Most were students, ranging in age from 17 to 26. Those selected moved to Engels, a small town north of Stalingrad, to begin training at the Engels School of Aviation. They underwent a highly compressed education—expected to learn in a few months what it took most soldiers several years to grasp. Each recruit had to train and perform as pilots, navigators, maintenance and ground crew.

Marina Raskova, Captain Polina Osipenko, and Valentina Grizodubova, 1938. Photo by Sovfoto / Universal Images Group / Shutterstock. Image Source: http://www.historybyday.com

Selection and Grading

          The Museum of Flight’s  blog post  writes about “Who Are The Night Witches?” explains how during the year of training, the women aviators were sorted by ability levels to form the three all-female regiments: the 586 Fighter Aviation Regiment, the 587 Bomber Aviation Regiment, and the 588 Night Bomber Aviation Regiment. The most-skilled aviators became fighter pilots and, to the ire of their male counterparts, were issued brand-new Yakovlev Yak-1s. The middle-tier pilots were assigned to the bomber regiment, and the lowest- scoring pilots were assigned to fly night bombers, and were issued a plane that no one else wanted to fly: the Polikarpov Po-2, a 1928 trainer constructed from wood and canvas with no heat, an open cockpit, and a 100-horsepower engine. The plane was outfitted with three bombs under each wing. It was in this modest trainer that the women of the 588th Regiment would make history. Before the war, “as a pilot,” they studied for three years, but there was no time for this, and the “swallows” mastered the heavenly art for six months, practicing 12 hours a day.

Image Source: http://www.invenusverit.as/

Unwelcome Start of Regiment

          This all-female aviation regiment was not welcomed initially into the military with open arms. Many of their male counterparts saw them as inferior and treated them with lack of respect. Beyond their steep learning curve, the women faced skepticism from some of the male military personnel who believed they added no value to the combat effort. Raskova did her best to prepare her women for these attitudes, but they still faced sexual harassment, long nights and grueling conditions. The men didn’t like the ‘little girls’ going to the front line. It was a man’s thing.

Polikarpov U-2 Aircraft

          The Polikarpov U-2 biplanes, a 1928 design was intended for use as training aircraft (hence its original uchebnyy (training) designation prefix of “U-“) and for crop dusting, which also had a special U-2LNB version for the sort of night harassment attack missions flown by the 588th, and to this day remains the most-produced wood-airframe biplane in aviation history with  as many as 30,000 Po-2s built between 1928 and 1959. The plane could carry only two bombs at a time, so eight or more missions per night were often necessary. Although the aircraft was obsolete and slow, the pilots took advantage of its exceptional maneuverability.

Flying Into Battle With Crop Dusters. A Polikarpov Po-2 biplane, similar to the aircraft operated by the Night Witches during their missions. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Manage With Hand-Me-Downs

          The military, unprepared for women pilots, offered them meager resources. Flyers received hand-me-down uniforms (from male soldiers), including oversized boots, says the history.com story. They had to tear up their bedding and stuff them in their boots to get them to fit. Their equipment wasn’t much better. The military provided them with outdated Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, 1920s crop-dusters that had been used as training vehicles. These light two-seater, open-cockpit planes were never meant for combat. “It was like a coffin with wings,” told Prowse to History team. Made out of plywood with canvas pulled over, 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. Due to both the planes’ limited weight capacity and the military’s limited funds, the pilots also lacked other “luxury” items their male counterparts enjoyed. Instead of parachutes (which were too heavy to carry), radar, guns and radios, they were forced to use more rudimentary tools such as rulers, stopwatches, flashlights, pencils, maps and compasses.

Up and Downside of Old Aircraft

            There was some upside to the older aircraft writes Holland. Their maximum speed was slower than the stall speed of both the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and the Focke-Wulf Fw 190, which meant these wooden planes, ironically, could maneuver faster than the enemy, making them hard to target, which made it very difficult for German pilots to shoot down, with the exception of fighter ace Josef Kociok, who grounded the regiment for an entire night by shooting down three or four of their planes on the night of 31 July – 1 August 1943. They also could easily take off and land from most locations. The downside? When coming under enemy fire, pilots had to duck by sending their planes into dives (almost none of the planes carried defense ammunition). If they happened to be hit by tracer bullets, which carry a pyrotechnic charge, their wooden planes would burst into flames.

Credit: Nikolai Ignatiev/Alamy Stock Photo. Image Source: http://www.history.com

Coolest Name “Night Witches”

          The Museum of Flight’s  blog post further writes that besides having what just might be the coolest name in aviation history, the Night Witches were a tough bunch of women pilots and navigators who stood their own against the male-dominated Soviet military ranks. Although the engine couldn’t be heard while the pilots were executing this new tactic, the plane still made some sound. The wind whistling through the struts could be heard by the German soldiers below, and some commented that it sounded like the screeching of a witch on her broom. The derisive nickname “Night Witch” gained popularity and eventually became a badge of honor. “Night Witches” is a verbatim translation of the German term, “Nachthexen.” The Germans dismissed the Night Witches’ Po-2s as “Nähmaschinen” — “Sewing Machines,” because of their relative lack of sound (compared to 1,100-horsepower fighters), says the blog post. Holland further writes, “This sound was the only warning the Germans had. The planes were too small to show up on radar or on infrared locators,” said Steve Prowse, author of the screenplay The Night Witches, a nonfiction account of the little-known female squadron. “They never used radios, so radio locators couldn’t pick them up either. They were basically ghosts.”

Credit: Nikolai Ignatiev/Alamy Stock Photo. Image Source: http://www.history.com

Sleep During Day – Play Up Hell at Night

          The women of the 588th faced a daunting task of disrupting the Germans as much as possible, causing their forces to lose sleep, and possibly killing or injuring a few in the process says Museum of Flight’s  blog post  . These women slept during the day, and taxied out to the makeshift “runway” before nightfall. They took off in pitch darkness. The navigator doubled as the bombardier. Then dropped the bombs and the crew would head back toward a runway cleared that very day and lit with torches. The Night Witches flew multiple sorties every night, prolonging the attacks as long as possible, to deprive the Germans of sleep.  It worked. The incessant attacks turned the Germans into virtual zombies. The Germans were incensed when they discovered that the pilots were women and started to anticipate the nighttime bombing tactics. The navigator would tap the pilot on the shoulder as a signal to turn off the engine, at a calculated point from where the plane would glide silently. Then, the crew would drop the bombs and hope that the engine would start up again. This risky endeavor was usually successful; but if it wasn’t, the pilots were armed with pistols and the last bullet was always for themselves. The pilots would rather commit suicide than be taken prisoner by the Germans. “And before taking Warsaw, I had 16 sorties overnight,” Nadezhda Vasilyevna, one of the “swallows,” recalled. “Sometimes in the morning after such exhausting flights it seemed that there was no strength to get out of the cabin.”

Long Nights, Stealth Tactics

          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 18 missions a night, flying back to re-arm between runs. The weight of the bombs forced them to fly at lower altitudes, making them a much easier target—hence their night-only missions. The planes, each with a pilot upfront and a navigator in back, traveled in packs: The first planes would go in as bait, attracting German spotlights, which provided much needed illumination. These planes, which rarely had ammunition to defend themselves, would release a flare to light up the intended target. The last plane would idle its engines and glide in darkness to the bombing area. It was this “stealth mode” that created their signature witch’s broom sound.

12 commandments the Night Witches

          There were 12 commandments the Night Witches followed, writes Holland. The first was “be proud you are a woman.” Killing Germans was their job, but in their downtime the heroic flyers still did needlework, patchwork, decorated their planes and danced. They even put the pencils they used for navigation into double duty as eyeliner. The Germans reportedly had two hilarious theories about why these women were so successful. They said 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.

Yevdokia Bershanskaya, commander of the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment is seen instructing her crew in 1942. Image Source: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/gallery/might-night-witches-stunning-colour-10827354

Fear of the Witches

          Eric Grundhauser  wrote in Vanity Fair, about “The Little-Known Story of the Night Witches, an All-Female Force in WWII”, at the time of 73rd anniversary of the Night Witches’ pioneering service that began in 1941. He said that in the Nazi-occupied Soviet Union, German soldiers had a very real fear of witches. The “Night Witches,” who ran thousands of daring bombing raids in the cover of night, and should be as celebrated as their male counterparts, they felt. The infamous Operation Barbarossa saw about four million troops wade into Russia from the west, establishing a line that threatened to overtake Moscow itself. The battle-hardened male soldiers of the Soviet Union held the front lines against the Axis forces, keeping the invasion from overtaking the capital. Of the trio of all-female air squads, the only one reported to have remained exclusively female was the team of night bombers, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, where everyone from the pilots, to the commanders, to the mechanics were women. These future pilots were greeted by Raskova herself with a no-nonsense, military manner. Their hair was cut short. As one of the pilots would recall in a later interview, “We didn’t recognize ourselves in the mirror—we saw boys there.”Starting with an initial bombing run on June 8, 1942, the all-female squadron would harry Nazi forces with overnight bombing runs all the way until the end of the war. Of course this tightly controlled aircraft weight limit also meant the women could not bring parachutes and also had to fly at lower, more easily spotted, altitudes.

Nadezhda Popova, a commander of the squad who flew 852 missions. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Planes with Flowers and Navigation Pencil for Lipstick

          Rumours began to spread among the Germans that the Soviets were giving the women pills and treatments that gave them the night vision of a cat. One of the most famous of the Night Witches, Nadezhda Popova, who herself flew 852 missions, earning her multiple medals and the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, described the situation a bit more accurately in Albert Axell’s book Greatest Russian War Stories: 1941–1945, saying, “This was nonsense, of course. What we did have were clever, educated, very talented girls.” Many Soviet male pilots found the idea of women flying in combat to be laughable, despite their clear ability. Undeterred by the lack of faith from many of their male counterparts, the women embraced their identities. Gisely Ruiz wrote in “The Night Witches: The All-Female World War II Squadron That Terrified The Nazis” in March, 2019, that the Night Witches decorated their planes with flowers and painted their lips with navigational pencils — then struck fear into the hearts of the Nazis.

The commander of the regiment was appointed Evdokia Bershanskaya, an experienced pilot with ten years of experience. It was under her command that women fought until the end of the war. Although the regiment was jokingly called the “Dunkin Regiment” by the name of its commander, there was little to be funny about its activities. Image Source: woman.forumdaily.com

Nightmare in German Skies

Michael S. Rosenwald wrote in Washington Post in March 2019 about Fierce, feared and female: The WWII pilots known as the ‘Night Witches’ and said their planes were rickety crop-dusters, but the Soviet women turned them into killing machines. He aptly describes, “At the height of World War II, as darkness descended on the battlefields, a nightmare would appear in German skies, the ‘Night Witches.’” That’s the name the Germans came up with for their nightly terror, 80 or so female aviators from Russia dropping bombs from rickety wooden planes. These were among the bravest fighters in that terrible, long war. “One girl managed to fly seven times to the front line and back in her plane,” Irina Rakobolskaya, chief of staff for the Night Witches, said in a short documentary for the NBC News education division. “She would return, shaking, and they would hang new bombs, refuel her plane, and she’d go off to bomb the target again. This is how we worked, can you imagine?”

The Night Witches lined up at an airfield in 1942. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Soviet Women Outpaced American Women

          By the time the WW II broke out, Soviet women outpaced American women in terms of work experience. During the 1920s, women worked to expand and modernize the Soviet Union; a few were even hired by various aviation bureaus to build and fly airplanes. In 1941, as Nazi forces were marching through the Soviet Union, these women pilots showed up in droves at recruitment centers, but they were all turned away because the military would not accept women aviators in combat roles initially. Their sacrifices earned them national acclaim and their accomplishments were a result of the Soviet Union’s desperate need to expand and modernize. Women were tasked with building railroads, hammering nails, and laying brick alongside their male counterparts; eventually, they also joined the military. Although the story of the Night Witches isn’t well-known in the United States, it is a fascinating illustration of how women aviators left their mark on WW II history. By the end of the war, there were approximately 500,000 women serving in the Soviet military combat roles alongside men. The women were found to be excellent snipers; they also operated anti-aircraft artillery, and some even became tank commanders. Over 200,000 combat women were awarded medals for bravery during service, and 89 earned the highest honor Hero of the Soviet Union. And out of those 89, 23 were Night Witches of the 588th Night Bomber Aviation Regiment. The Night Witches, garnered the most acclaim of any single group of night combatants.

Four of the Night Witches doing briefing in 1943. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Disbanded and Overlooked

          Their last flight took place on May 4, 1945 when the Night Witches flew within 60 kilometers of Berlin. Three days later, Germany officially surrendered. 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 World War II. 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.

From Left, Marina Raskova, Evdokia Bershanskaya, Evgenia Zhigulenko, Natalia Meklin Image Source: ForumDaily collage Wikipedia, public domain

Unit Timeline and Operations

          Members of the regiment were deployed from the Engels Military Aviation School to the Southern Front as part of the 218th Division of the 4th Air Army on 23 May 1942, where they arrived on 27 May.

  • 12 June 1942 – The regiment’s baptism by fire took place on the Southern front in bombings of river crossings on the Mius, Severny Donets, and Don rivers as well as roads in the Sal steppes and Stavropol suburbs.
  • August–December 1942: In the Battle of the Caucasus, the regiment defended the city of Vladikavkaz as well as bombing enemy equipment and troops in DigoraMozdok, and Prokhladnaya.
  • January 1943: They assisted in the breakthrough of enemy defensive lines on the Terek River as well as offensive operations against ground troops in the Kuban River valley and Stavropol.
  • March – September 1943: provided close air support in the breakthrough of the Kuban bridgehead and the liberation of Novorossiysk.
  • April – July 1943: Participated in the campaign of aerial warfare over Kuban.
  • November 1943 – May 1944: Provided air support to ground troops in the Kerch–Eltigen Operation as part of the Crimean Offensive and in the city of Sevastopol.
  • June–July 1944: Bombed enemy fortifications along the Pronya River, helping to take control of Białystok, Cherven, Minsk, and Mogilev in Byelorussia.
  • August 1944: Operations over Poland in campaigns to expel the Germans from the cities of Augustów, Warsaw, and Ostrołęka.
  • January 1945: Participated in the East Prussian Offensive.
  • March 1945: Participated in offensives over Gdynia and Gdansk.
  • April – May 1945: Assisted in the Vistula–Oder Offensive.
  • 15 October 1945: The regiment was disbanded following the end of the war and service members were demobilized.
Rufa Gasheva (left), navigator, and Natalya Meklin, first navigator and then pilot, both awarded with the Gold Star of Hero of the Soviet Union. Image Source: http://www.facebook.com/Thenightwitchesmovie

Sorties Flown

          Altogether these daredevil women flew more than 23,672 missions in total, or about 800 per pilot and navigator. They lost a total of 30 pilots. 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 state funeral of World War II and her ashes were buried in the Kremlin. Battle wise breakdown was:

  • Battle of the Caucasus – 2,920 sorties
  • Kuban, Taman, Novorossiysk – 4,623 sorties
  • Crimean Offensive – 6,140 sorties
  • Belarus Offensive – 400 sorties
  • Poland Offensive – 5,421 sorties
  • German Offensive – 2,000 sorties

Weapons and Targets 

          The regiment flew 28,676 flight hours, dropped over 3,000 tons of bombs and over 26,000 incendiary shells, damaging or completely destroying 17 river crossings, nine railways, two railway stations, 26 warehouses, 12 fuel depots, 176 armored cars, 86 firing points, and 11 searchlights. In addition to bombings, the unit performed 155 supply drops of food and ammunition to Soviet forces.

Irina Sebrova flew 1,008 sorties in the war, more than any other member of the regiment. Image Source: Wikipedia

Leadership and Unit Personnel

          In total, 261 personnel served in the regiment, of whom 32 died of various causes including plane crashes, combat deaths and tuberculosis. 28 aircraft were written off. Yevdokiya Bershanskaya was the Regiment Commander, an Serafima Amosova was her Deputy. Yevdokiya Rachkevich was the political commissar. Maria Fortus and later Irina Rakobolskaya were the Chief of staff. Valentina Stupina and later Khiuaz Dospanova – head of communications.

Image source: ladieslovetaildraggers.com

Personnel Under Monitoring

          Senior Engineer Sofiya Ozerkova was sentenced to death by a military tribunal in 1942, but she was later acquitted after her sentence was suspended and she was reinstated to her position. Mechanics Raisa Kharitonova and Tamara Frolova were sentenced to ten years of imprisonment for dismantling a flare (used by navigators to illuminate bombing targets) and using the small silk parachute to sew undergarments. Both of them were retrained as navigators, but Frolova was killed in action in 1943.

Marina Raskova died on 4 January 1943, when her aircraft crashed attempting to make a forced landing on the Volga bank. She received the first state funeral of the war. Stamp in her honour on her 100th birth Anniversary. Image Source: Pinterest

Honors and Awards

          Twenty-three personnel from the regiment were awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union, two were awarded Hero of the Russian Federation, and one was awarded Hero of Kazakhstan.

Group photograph of several members of the Night Witches, all of whom became heroes of the Soviet Union. Left to right: Tanya Makarova, Vera Belik, Polina Gelman, Yekaterina Ryabova, Yevdokiya Nikulina, and Nadezhda Popova. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Other Women’s Regiments and Induction of Males

          The other two regiments were the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment, which used Yak-1 fighters, and the 587th Bomber Aviation Regiment, which used twin engine Pe-2 dive bombers. Later the 588th received the Guards designation and reorganized as the 125th Guards Bomber Aviation Regiment. Although all three regiments had been planned to have women exclusively, none remained all-female. The 586th and 588th Regiments employed male mechanics, the 586th because no women had received training to work on the Yakovlev fighter planes before the war. The 586th’s woman commander, Major Tamara Aleksandrovna Kazarinova, was replaced by a man, Major Aleksandr Vasilievich Gridnev, in October 1942. The 587th Regiment was originally under the command of Marina Raskova, but after her death in 1943, a male commanding officer, Major Valentin Vasilievich Markov, replaced her. The 587th’s Petlyakov Pe-2 dive bombers also required a tall person to operate the top rear machine gun, but not enough women recruited were tall enough, requiring some men to join the aircrews as radio operator and tail gunner. The 588th Regiment’s staff driver and searchlight operatives were also male.

Victory (Night Witches)  the thirteenth and last episode of Night Witches: Toils and Trouble. Image Source: geekspacetv.fandom.com

Night Witches Story – Media Revival

          Michael, further wrote in Washington Post, that thanks to New York Times best-selling author Kate Quinn, their story was being revived. Quinn’s new historical novel “The Huntress,” published in February 2019, highlights the exploits of the Night Witches and is being heavily promoted on social media. Quinn stumbled across the story of the Night Witches during a late night Google hunt for potential story lines. She was hooked immediately. “It’s a story about women of the past who have done some truly amazing things,” Quinn said in an interview. “What’s especially cool about the Night Witches is that of all the allies during World War II, the Russians were the only country who put women into combat officially.” To create her fictional Night Witches, Quinn relied, in part, on a collection of interviews with real Night Witches titled “A Dance with Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II.” The women described their fascination with flight in the days after Amelia Earhart captured the world’s attention. Nadezhda Vasiliyevna Popova, one of the pilots interviewed, said she volunteered after her brother was killed in battle. “The Germans called us night witches, and the“ witches ”were only from 15 to 27 years,” wrote Yevgeny Zhigulenko in memoirs.

Stamps to Honour the Women Pilots. Image source: http://www.vanityfair.com

          “I saw the German aircraft flying along our roads filled with people who were leaving their homes, firing at them with their machine guns,” she said. “Seeing this gave me feelings inside that made me want to fight them.” Furious attacks by the Germans left Stalin short on men. “It’s quite astounding when you’re looking at a picture of this Russian babushka,” Quinn said, “and she’s saying something about ‘Oh yes, you know, when the bomb gets stuck on the rack you just climb out on the wing at a thousand meters and, you know, you just lay flat and you give it a push.’” Quinn’s assessment of their tenacity: “You women are crazy. You’re incredibly brave, but my god you’re crazy.” The bonds between the female bomber pilots resembled the bonds formed between men in the trenches. They’d sing and dance on the airfield while waiting for the sun to set. They’d help each other with laundry. They’d complain to one another about the misery of wearing men’s underwear. And then, as darkness descended, they became killing machines. Those who did survived the war spent the rest of their lives marveling at what they had done. “I look up into the dark sky,” Popova said, “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?’ ”

Nadezhda Popova, WWII ‘Night Witch,’ Dies at 91 in 2013. Image Source: nytimes.com

Other Media Highlights and Limelight

  • In 1974, the Soviet film Only Old Men Are Going to Battle featured two Night Witches as love interests of the main characters.
  • In 1981, a Soviet feature-length film called Night Witches In The Sky (В небе «ночные ведьмы») was directed by Yevgenia Zhigulenko, Hero of the Soviet Union, and one of the members of the regiment.
  • In 2001, a UK-Russian co-production starring Malcolm McDowell, Sophie Marceau and Anna Friel was due to be made, but failed to get backing from an American studio.
  • In 2013 two different productions were released. First came a short animation called The Night Witch commemorating Nadezhda Popova — who had died earlier that year — commissioned in collaboration with The New York Times Magazine‘s The Lives They Lived issue, and directed by Alison Klayman. Secondly, a Russian TV series titled Night Swallows, very loosely based on 588 Regiment was produced and distributed. There was also an announcement in the same year of a feature film to be written by Gregory Allen Howard and financed by the grandson of Boris Yeltsin, but there have been no updates since the initial announcement.
  • In 2019 Heidi Jo Markel, a producer on “Olympus Has Fallen” and its sequels attached as executive producer to a screenplay called The Night Witches written by Steven Prowse, which won thirty screenwriting competitions, more than any other screenplay currently available.
  • The Night Witches had appeared in the long-running British comic strip Johnny Red, created by Tom Tully and Joe Colquhoun for the Battle Picture Weekly. Writer Garth Ennis, a childhood fan of the strip, later wrote a three-part comic book mini-series called Battlefields: The Night Witches.
  • Another comic where the Night Witches appeared is “The Grand Duke” by Yann and Romain Hugault (Archaia Entertainment, 2012.)
  • Lieutenant Ludmila Gorbunova from Worldwar by Harry Turtledove is a member of the Night Witches.
  • In Kathryn Lasky’s novel Night Witches, the protagonist sets out to enlist in the unit, her older sister already serving as a Night Witch.
  • Sapphire Skies, by Belinda Alexandra, tells the story of the disappearance of Natalya Azarova, a Night Witch.
  • The Huntress, by Kate Quinn, tells a fictitious narrative through the eyes of one Night Witch during WWII, entwined with the tale of a Nazi hunter.
  • The 14th episode of Season 6 of Drunk History, subtitled Behind Enemy Lines and first broadcast on 23 July 2019, included the story of the Night Witches, with Emily Deschanel playing the role of Marina Raskova.
The Night Witches Movie. Image Source Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Thenightwitchesmovie/

References:

  1. Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_Witches
  2. History.com https://www.history.com/news/meet-the-night-witches-the-daring-female-pilots-who-bombed-nazis-by-night
  3. Eric Grundhauser, Vanity Fair, The Little-Known Story of the Night Witches, an All-Female Force in WWII. June 25, 2015 https://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2015/06/night-witches-wwii-female-pilots
  4. Michael S. Rosenwald, Washington Post, Fierce, feared and female: The WWII pilots known as the ‘Night Witches, Marsh 01, 2019 https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/03/01/fierce-feared-female-wwii-pilots-known-night-witches/
  5. The Museum of Flight Blog, Who Are The Night Witches? https://blog.museumofflight.org/who-are-the-night-witches
  6. Gisely Ruiz, All That is Interesting, The Night Witches: The All-Female World War II Squadron That Terrified The Nazis, March 17, 2019 https://allthatsinteresting.com/night-witches-ww2
  7. Petrolettes in History: The Night Witches https://www.invenusverit.as/the-petrolettes-blog/2017/12/8/the-night-witches
  8. The Night Witches https://ladieslovetaildraggers.com/the-night-witches/
  9. History By Day. https://www.historybyday.com/pop-culture/night-witches-the-fearless-female-pilots-who-helped-win-wwii/?fbclid=IwAR3NMRswDlAZEIaAzlzXFal3gHJCMSeFTeJzmhzK79WoCIifyCFywOsBVow
  10. http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/gallery/might-night-witches-stunning-colour-10827354

Header Image: Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

2 thoughts on ““Night Witches” – The All Female Soviet Night Bomber Aviators of WW II

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