Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Night Witches

The German troops heard a whistling sound that they liken to the wind through a witch’s broom. They had learned what that sound meant.
They’d been bombed by a night witch.
The Russians were the only country to use women in combat. When war broke out, many female pilots volunteered for service, but their applications were rejected. When Hitler’s army invaded the Soviet Union in 1942, however, and three million Russians became prisoners of war, the Soviet Air Force badly needed recruits.

Marina Raskova

Beginning in 1941, Marina Raskova, the Soviet Amelia Earhart, had petitioned Stalin to allow women to fly. Three squadrons were formed, whose pilots, mechanics, and commanders were all women. Only the 588th remained all-female.

Their planes were primitive, used mostly for training and crop-dusting. The Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes were built mainly of plywood and canvas. With open cockpits, the women’s faces to freeze in the cold air. In winter, when they looked out to see their target better, they got frostbite. Their uniforms were hand-me-downs from male pilots.
Because of the weight of the two 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.
The women flew only in the dark. Every night, generally forty planes would fly eight or more missions, each crewed by two women, a pilot and a navigator. The multiple nightly sorties were necessary since they could carry only two bombs at a time. Eighteen missions a night was not unusual. 

The women flew their little planes low to the ground for cover and to be undetected by radar. Their flimsy planes were highly flammable, so night flying was preferable for protection. The planes were also noisy, so to retain an element of surprise, they would cut the engines, glide down to the German positions, drop their bombs and then re-start their engines and fly away.
This stealth mode resulted in little more than the soft whooshing sound that the Germans equated to the sound of a witch’s broomstick. They began calling the female fighter pilots Nachthexen: night witches (which the women took as a badge of honor). They loathed and feared them. Any German pilot who downed a witch was automatically awarded an Iron Cross.
The bi-planes’ maximum speed was lower than the stall speed of the German planes, so the women could maneuver their craft with much more agility than their attackers. They could turn away from a German fighter, and by the time the German pilot executed his turn, he would be a fair distance away, and the Russian pilot would be executing another turn. Hitting the Russians with cannon fire was difficult.

588 Night Bomber Regiment

From 1942 to 1945, eighty women flew with the Russian air force. The 588th Night Bomber Regiment was the most highly decorated female unit, flying 30,000 sorties over the course of four years, and dropping 23,000 tons of bombs on invading German armies.
Two of the women were fighter aces. Twenty-three were awarded the title “Hero of the Soviet Union.” By the end of the war, thirty women had died in battle, including Marina Raskova. She commanded the third unit, the 125th Guards Bomber Aviation Regiment, until she crashed on landing and died in 1943 at the age of thirty. She received a state funeral and was laid to rest in Red Square.
The last of the Night Witches, Nadia Popova, died in 2013 at 91 years of age. In a 2010 interview, “I ask myself, ‘Nadia, how did you do it?’”

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