They arrived under the cover of darkness, the only warning a faint whooshing sound in the night sky. To German soldiers plunged into the chaos of the Eastern Front, it sounded like a witch’s broomstick flying through the air. But the Nachthexen, or “Night Witches,” weren’t the stuff of fairy tales: They were a squadron of female bomber pilots who wreaked havoc on the Nazi war machine from the Caucasus Mountains to the outskirts of Berlin and helped to turn the tide of WWII.
The 588th Night Bomber Regiment was so fearsome that any Luftwaffe airman who downed one of its planes was awarded the Iron Cross. It should have been an easy task–the Polikarpov Po-2 airplanes they used were obsolete, open-cockpit biplanes made of plywood and canvas. Before the war, the Polikarpov Po-2 had primarily been used for training exercises and crop dusting. The Night Witches carried no parachutes, guns, or radios and navigated without the benefit of radar. They flew low to the ground at the slowest speeds in the Soviet air force. But the women of the 588th turned their limitations into advantages: With a maximum airspeed slower than the stall speed of the German Messerchmitts, the Po-2 was capable of making tight turns and other evasive maneuvers that couldn’t be matched by Hitler’s flying aces. Some aviatrixes even flew so low that they could hide behind hedgerows.
But outflying the enemy was a last resort. The Night Witches preferred to deliver their devastating payloads without being seen at all. To do so, they would fly close to the target and then cut the Po-2’s engine, gliding the rest of the way to drop site. The sound of air whooshing over a stalled plane quickly became the stuff of German nightmares.
Nazi air defense forces fought back by placing rings of searchlights around likely targets. Illuminated from below, the flimsy, slow-moving Po-2s were no match for flak guns and tracer bullets. But the Night Witches responded with an innovation of their own. Flying in formations of three, they sent two planes ahead as decoys. Once they’d attracted the attention of the searchlight operators, the decoys flew in opposite directions, zigzagging through the air to avoid being hit by antiaircraft fire. Meanwhile, the third plane would fly into the darkness above the target and drop its bombs. The planes would then change places until all three had delivered their payloads.
It took incredible bravery and determination to willingly draw enemy fire. Those qualities were part of the Night Witches’ story from the very beginning. The 588th Night Bomber Regiment was the brainchild of Marina Raskova, a famous pilot and navigator often called “the Soviet Amelia Earhart”. Raskova was the first woman to become a navigator in the Soviet Air Force and set many long-distance flying records while serving as an instructor at the Zhukosvky Air Academy. When the Nazis launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded Russia, Raskova received letters from female pilots all across the country wanting to know what they could do to help the war effort.
At the time, women were barred from serving in combat, so Raskova lobbied to change that. In October 1941, with the Soviet Air Force devastated by Luftwaffe attacks, Stalin granted Raskova’s wish and issued an order to form three women’s air force regiments. The 588th, under the command of Major Yevdokia Bershanskaya, was the only one of the three to remain all-female for the duration of the war. Hundreds of young women ranging in age from 17 to 26 were trained as pilots, navigators, mechanics, and ground crew members at the Engels Military Aviation School near Stalingrad. Many had belonged to local flying clubs before the war and were eager to avenge the loss of loved ones.
Deputy Commander Nadezhda Popova, who flew 852 missions with the 588th and was one of 23 members to be named a Hero of the Soviet Union, had lost a brother in the Nazi invasion and seen her family home turned into a Gestapo police station. In Amy Goodpastor Stebe’s Flying For Her Country: The American and Soviet Women Pilots of World War II, Popova recalled watching the “smiling faces of Nazi pilots” as they mercilessly gunned down women and children fleeing their homes.
The Night Witches flew their first mission in June 1942 and quickly developed a reputation for deadly precision. Rumors swirled among German soldiers that the aviatrixes took special pills and injections to develop the night vision of a cat—how else to explain the power of female pilots? In truth, these brave and determined women were extremely skilled at navigating by map and compass and indefatigable in their commitment to battling the enemy. Because the Po-2 could only carry two bombs, pilots and navigators flew as many as 18 combat missions per night, reloading after each trip. In cold weather, conditions in the open-cockpit Po-2s were nearly unbearable. Nadezhda Popova recounted to historian Albert Axell that “when the wind was strong it would toss the plane. In winter, when you’d look out to see your target better, you got frostbite, our feet froze in our boots, but we carried on flying.”
At its peak strength, the 588th consisted of 40 two-person crews who took off as soon as the sky darkened and didn’t stop until first light. All told, the Night Witches flew 30,000 missions over four years of warfare and dropped 23,000 tons of bombs. They destroyed 17 river crossings, 12 fuel depots, and 176 armored cars, among other targets. Despite the regiment’s success, the women of the 588th routinely faced derision and harassment from their male counterparts. Forced to fly clunky crop dusters and wear ill-fitting men’s uniforms and boots, they celebrated their unique status as an all-female combat unit by drawing flowers on the sides of their planes and coloring their lips with navigation pencils.
By the end of war, 32 Night Witches had given their lives in defense of their homeland. Marina Raskova, who had been so instrumental in leading the Soviet Union to become the first nation to officially allow women in combat, died in a crash landing near Stalingrad in 1943. Nadezhvda Popova, who was shot down numerous times and once returned from a mission to find her plane riddled with 42 bullet holes, married a fellow fighter pilot, worked as a flight instructor, and raised a son who became a general in the Belarussian Air Force. She looked back on her time in the legendary 588th with a mixture of astonishment and pride. “I sometimes stare into the blackness and close my eyes,” she said in 2010. “I can still imagine myself as a young girl, up there in my little bomber. And I ask myself, ‘Nadia, how did you do it?’”
All photos: Wikimedia Commons