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Unsung Heroes: The Night Witches

2011 May 27

Russia, 1942. Not a good place to be.

A year into the war with Germany, the German 6th Army surrounding Stalingrad, millions dead and countless more dying of starvation and disease. Supplies and equipment were running low and the need for people to throw into combat was soaring. These were the conditions that gave rise to some of the most daring and impressive pilots ever, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, nicknamed the Night Witches by the German forces. The name alone pretty much conveys how ridiculously amazing these women were, but let’s go into a bit more detail.

Formed in October of 1941, the Night Witches were an all female bomber regiment tasked with precision bombing1 runs against German military targets. The formation of the group took some time, as the move to recruit female combat pilots had initially been rejected, with one recruiting officer quoted as saying “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.” This in spite of the fact that many young Russian women had more piloting experience than the pilots of the front line fighter regiments thanks to the Osoaviakhim, a paramilitary flying club that provided free training to Soviet boys and girls in the 1920s and 30s.

Soviet military officials then, as US military officials now, questioned whether it was strategically or morally appropriate to send women into combat. But the Night Witches proved to themselves and a skeptical country that their gender made no difference in the defense of one’s home.

– Phyllis-Anne Duncan

black and white photo of Marina Raskova, a dark haired woman with hair scraped back from her forehead, smiling in uniformThe heavy casualties of the war brought about a quick change to this attitude, and three regiments were formed, commanded by the famous aviatrix Major Marina Raskova (left)2. The selection process for the 588th (and its companion squads, the 586th Fighters and the 587th Dive Bombers) was gruelling, the young women going through two years’ worth of training in just six months. Up to fourteen hours a day were spent in the air, including night flights and simulated dogfights. By June 1942, they were ready to fight against the formidable might of the German invasion.

The Night Witches were not a well equipped regiment. Wearing hand-me-down uniforms from male pilots (boots were reportedly stuffed with paper and fabric to make them fit), they flew in aging Polikarpov PO-2 biplanes. The PO-2s were about as basic as a plane could get and still technically qualify as a plane. First built in 1928, they consisted of fabric strung over a wooden frame, and lacked any but the most rudimentary of instrumentation. There was no radio to communicate with ground control, and navigation was done with a stopwatch and a map – just a normal map, not even a flight chart. The planes carried no guns and only had enough weight allowance to take two bombs up on a flight, forcing the Night Witches to make multiple sorties in a single night, returning to base each time to collect more bombs.

The one thing the PO-2 had going for it, and which the Night Witches used to full effect, was its remarkable maneuverability. With a top speed of around 95mph, the plane was slower than the slowest speed a German fighter could maintain (its stall speed), allowing them to pull tight, evasive circles that the faster German craft couldn’t match. Combine this with the impressive nap-of-the-earth piloting skills that allowed the Night Witches to get closer to the ground than the planes of the Luftwaffe could manage, and shooting down a PO-2 from the air became a challenging prospect. There was, supposedly, a promise to award an Iron Cross to any Luftwaffe pilot who actually managed to bring down a Night Witch.

black and white portrait photograph of Evgeniya Rudneva, a caucasian woman in uniform with mid-dark hair coiled behind her head in a 1940s hairstyleWhilst the German fighters struggled to bring down the Night Witches (who included Evgeniya Rudneva, left), the ground defences proved rather more formidable. 6th Army encampments were protected by what was known as the ‘circus of flak’ – concentric rings of up to two dozen flak cannons and searchlights. The traditional tactic for dealing with this had been to fly directly towards the target and hope to get your bombs away before the flak could blast you out of the air. It wasn’t the most successful tactic. The Night Witches developed a far more effective method for getting past the circus of flak: flying in groups of three, two planes would approach the target and wait for the searchlights to pick them up. These two would then split apart and manoeuvre around the target, drawing the attention of the cannons. The third plane, having waited behind, would cut their engines and glide in to deliver the bombs. This was repeated until each of the three planes had made a bombing run. The mind boggles at the sheer level of stone-cold bravery needed to repeatedly offer yourself as a distraction to dozens of flak cannons, protected only by a flimsy frame of wood and fabric, and to keep doing that night after night.

At its largest the Night Witches’ regiment consisted of 80 flying crew, plus ground support. By the end of the war they had collectively flown over 23,000 bombing runs. The surviving pilots had all flown around 1,000 missions each by 1945 (for sake of comparison, Colonel Don Blakelee, who had more missions for the USAF than anyone else in WW2, completed 500). Thirty of them had died in combat, and over a quarter of the pilots had been awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.

Examples of extreme courage were almost the rule for them.

– Valerie Moolman, Women Aloft

The best English language source of further information on the 588th Bomber Regiment is probably Bruce Myles’ Night Witches: Untold Story of Soviet Women in Combat. There’s also Women in Air War: The Eastern Front of World War II by Kazmeira Jean Cottam.

  1. Precision bombing differs from strategic bombing in that the bombs are aimed for individual targets as opposed to mass releasing them over an area, resulting in less collateral damage. It’s hard to do in the best of conditions, let alone an ageing biplane at night. []

  2. In 1938 Rakova had taken part in a record breaking non-stop flight across Russia. Somewhere over Siberia, the plane began to ice up and lose altitude, forcing the three-woman crew to jettison everything they could to lose weight and gain height. Eventually Rakova herself parachuted out of the plane to allow her two co-pilots to complete the trip. Jumping out of a plane over Siberia at night is the aviation equivalent of Lawrence Oates’ “I’m going outside, I may be some time.” []
7 Responses leave one →
  1. Pet Jeffery permalink
    May 27, 2011

    I’m enormously pleased to see this post. I think that we (in the west) are too little mindful of how much we owe to the Soviet people (and the women not least) in defeating the Nazis. After Hitler’s invasion of Russia, the Western allies never again had to face more than 30% of the German army. The lioness’ share of the fighting was taken up by the Soviet Union. But for their victory, the world in which I grew up would have been a very different place.

    Soviet women soldiers and aircrew proved that women could fight every bit as well as the men, and usually much better. It’s a pity for feminism that the Soviet Union passed so quickly from being perceived as wartime ally to cold war enemy. I think that this led, in the west, to forgetting just what women are capable of doing.

    The initial reluctance, in the Soviet Union, to deploy women also (surely) marked a forgetfulness. Very capable women soldiers (known, at the time, as the Amazons) fought on the red side in the revolution and civil war. It is thought that Arthur Ransome, in his Swallows and Amazons books, took the name of the Amazons from these redoubtable women. Ransome spent a lot of time in revolutionary Russia and, indeed, married Trotsky’s secretary. Generations of girls must have found inspiration in the fierceness of Nancy Blackett. One of the wellsprings for that inspiration lay in revolutionary Russian women. Another wellspring lay in Taqui Altounyan… who may qualify as another unsung hero… but she takes us a long way from the Night Witches.

    • Robert Templeton permalink
      November 10, 2014

      I was ‘forced’ to read about the “Great War” by a friend’s father since I had a love of WWII but not much knowledge of the Soviet side of the struggle. It is amazing that Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt were so engaged in the process and yet once the war was over, the Soviet Union’s activity, sacrifice, and participation were omitted from Western history of WWII due to the ideological differences. They defeated Nazi Germany. They were in Berlin way before the other allies. They bore the brunt of the atrocities committed by that Nazis (because they were slavs and communists, two of the many focal points of Nazi hatred). Yet they liberated Stalingrad and pushed the entire German army back into Europe and into the fatherland in a fashion unseen in long history. Their ferocity in recompense was due to the Nazi scorched earth policy going into and hence retreating from Soviet Russia. While much can be said about atrocities on both sides, millions of russian soldiers perished at internment and concentration camps and millions of civilians perished in cleansing processes. Sometimes the enemy of your enemy is your friend, even if just for the time needed to vanquish your enemy.

  2. Tatsiana permalink
    November 8, 2014

    My second grandma was in the Night Witches!! She is already deceased, but I remember sees her in Moscow, Russia 15 years ago! My grandma Rufina was and still is the hero!!!

  3. Winston permalink
    November 8, 2014

    I learnt about them through the Sabaton song.

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  1. Generatie nachtheksen verdwijnt | De Zesde Clan
  2. TIL of a Russian all-female bomber unit flying biplanes against the Germans in WW2. While two pilots distracted the searchlights, a third would cut her engines and glide in to deliver her bombs; 23,000 missions were flown and the enemy dubbed them "N
  3. TIL of a Russian all-female bomber unit flying biplanes against the Germans in WW2. While two pilots distracted the searchlights, a third would cut her engines and glide in to deliver her bombs; 23,000 missions were flown and the enemy dubbed them “

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