Hidden Histories: Night Witches

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION by DOUG DOBEY

 

by Jack R. Johnson

For a short while during World War II, the air over the Eastern front was inhabited by witches. That’s what the Germans called them, anyhow:  Nachthexen or Night Witches, a German nickname for the Russian female military aviators of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment.

The squadron was the brainchild of Marina Raskova, known as the “Soviet Amelia Earhart.” She was famous as the first female navigator in the Soviet Air Force and also for her many long-distance flight records. As the Soviet’s losses mounted during the war, Raskova petitioned Stalin to let her form an all-female fighting squadron. Thanks to her efforts, Stalin issued an order on October 8, 1941 to deploy three women’s air force units, including the 588th regiment.

But because they were women, the regiment wasn’t considered especially important, and their equipment was often second rate. The Soviets provided them with outdated Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, 1920s crop-dusters that had been used as training vehicles. Byrnn Holland notes on History.com that “These light two-seater, open-cockpit planes were never meant for combat. ‘It was like a coffin with wings.’”

“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.”

Luckily, the flimsy and light construction actually assisted them in their missions. The female pilots could operate in stealth mode, idling their engines as they neared their targets and then gliding their way to their bomb release points. As a result, their planes made little more than soft “whooshing” noises as they flew by. That’s when the Germans decided they sounded like witches, flying by on broomsticks.

“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.”

Their actual impact was considerably more devastating.

All told, the pioneering all-female 588th Night Bomber Regiment dropped more than 29,000 tons of bombs and incendiary shells on Nazi targets. They were so feared that any German pilot who downed a “witch” was automatically awarded an Iron Cross.

According to Atlantic magazine, “Because of the weight of the bombs they carried and the low altitudes at which they flew, they carried no parachutes. They had no radar to navigate their paths through the night skies—only maps and compasses. If hit by tracer bullets, their craft would ignite like the paper planes they resembled.”

Each night, about 40 planes—each crewed by two women, a pilot and a navigator—would fly eight or more missions. They had to fly multiple nightly sorties because their plyboard planes were only capable of carrying two bombs at a time. The women’s uniforms were hand-me-downs from male pilots. And their planes had open cockpits, leaving the women’s faces to freeze in the chilly night air. Because of this they sometimes suffered frostbite. Occasionally, if a stalled engine would not restart, the navigator had to climb out on the wing and manually spin the blade to jump start the engine.

The planes 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.

At its largest, the 588 regiment had 40 two-person crews. The regiment flew over 23,000 missions, 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 during the war. Holland writes that despite being the most highly decorated unit in the Soviet Air Force during the war, “when it came to the big victory-day parade in Moscow, they weren’t included—because, it was decided, their planes were too slow.”

Marina Raskova, the mother of the movement, and the lady who convinced Stalin to let women fly, died on January 4, 1943, when her aircraft crashed attempting to make a forced landing on the banks of the Volga near Stalingrad. She was given the very first state funeral of World War II, and her ashes were buried in the Kremlin.

 

 

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