About World War 2: Night Witches—All-Female Night Bomber Regiment
Polikarpov Po-2 biplane
The Night Witches Flew Biplanes That Couldn't Reach 100mph
When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Marina Raskova, a famous Russian aviatrix, used her influence with Joseph Stalin to form regiments of women pilots. In October, three were formed: the 586th Regiment of fighter pilots, the 587th Regiment of dive bombers and the 588th Regiment of night bombers. The 588th struck such fear into the enemy, the Germans called them Nachthexen, “Night Witches”, a name the women adopted with pride.
At its largest strength, the 588th Regiment consisted of 40 two-person crews. Most of the young women were around 20 years old. A 28-year-old was referred to as “grandma”. They flew Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, basically militarized crop-dusters and trainer planes made mostly of wood and canvas. The pilot and navigator sat in open cockpits, with only small glass windscreens to protect them from the savage Russian winters; there was no radio or machine gun. The Po-2 could carry two 100kg (220lb) bombs at a maximum speed of 94 mph; it cruised at 68 mph.
Marina Raskova, Commemorative Stamp
Bombing and Harassing
The women were assigned to night harassment and bombing missions against supply depots, command centers, etc. They quickly adapted to their mission and their aircraft. Despite the Po-2's obvious shortcomings, it was surprisingly effective in their hands as a night bomber. While even a pencil could pierce the Po-2's fabric, bullets usually did no damage other than making holes that could easily be patched. The women flew so low that antiaircraft shells would actually pass through the airplane and explode harmlessly high above them. Because of their primitive construction, German radar could hardly see them.
Striking Fear Into the Germans
When they approached their target, the pilot would turn off her engine and glide the bomb to its destination. When gliding, the plane dropped at a rate half the speed of a parachutist. On the ground, there was no warning until the Germans heard the sound of wind against the plane's wing-bracing wires followed by the bombs exploding. At first, rumors spread among the Germans that the Russians had a silent night plane that hovered in the air, dropped its bombs and reversed back to its lines. When they learned the truth, that they were being attacked by 20-year-old women in biplanes, it unnerved them even more. Many refused to smoke cigarettes outside at night for fear of revealing themselves to the “Night Witches” and, when darkness fell, stress and tension rose. Years after the war, survivors were still traumatized when woken up abruptly.
Besting Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs
The women were even able to use the Po-2's speed (even slower than most World War 1 planes) to their advantage. The plane's slow speed gave it astonishing maneuverability, allowing them to make tight twists and turns. The German fighters sent against them were too fast. The Po-2's highest speed of 94 mph was so much slower than the Messerschmitts' and Focke-Wulfs' stall speed (the speed below which sent them plummeting to the ground), the enemy fighters only had a very short time to shoot at them before having to make wide, lengthy turns for another run. In the meantime, the women were usually able to disappear in the darkness. The fact that they also flew at treetop level also caused some German fighters to slam into hillsides.
The “Night Witches” were so effective and so hard to bring down that German pilots received the Iron Cross and a cash award of 2,000 marks if they shot one of them down.
Nadezhda Popova, 2009
Multiple Missions Per Night
After releasing their bombs, the women returned to their base and immediately got ready for another mission. The 588th Regiment-- it would later be re-designated the 46th "Taman" Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment in honor of their heroics on the Taman Peninsula-- was the only regiment made up entirely of women. This included its pilots, navigators, electricians, technicians and armorers.
When a plane landed, the armorers had three to five minutes to rearm them. They had to unload the bombs from their crates, set the fuses, manhandle two 220lb bombs and attach them underneath the plane. Each armorer might be involved with loading 3 tons of bombs in one night. Once refueled and rearmed, the women would take off for their next mission. It was not uncommon for each crew to fly ten missions in a night. One crew flew 18 missions in one night.
Searchlights and Parachutes
Searchlights were the women's worst fear, but again they adapted. Flying in pairs, one plane would become a decoy as the searchlights locked onto it. As it dodged and weaved while the lights tried to hold them in sight-- all the while being shot at by antiaircraft guns-- the other plane slipped through the dark and dropped its bombs. Then the two planes would meet up and re-enter the target area with their roles reversed.
The women didn't get parachutes until 1944, which didn't make a lot of difference when over enemy lines because they flew too low for parachutes to open in time, but they did appreciate them as cushions which also provided some protection from ground fire. At least on one occasion, a pilot and navigator were saved by parachutes when they jumped from their burning plane on the way back to base. Unfortunately, the navigator stepped on a mine and only the pilot survived.
More Than 24,000 Missions
While Allied bomber crews might fly 25 to 35 combat missions before being released, Soviet pilots usually fought from the moment they joined up until they were killed or the war ended. Many of the women of the 588th/46th Regiment flew 800 to 1,000 missions during the war; as a regiment they flew more than 24,000 combat missions and dropped 3,000 tons of bombs and 26,000 incendiary bombs. Twenty-four of them were made Heroes of the Soviet Union. Thirty-one women in the regiment died in combat-- more than 25% of its aircrew.
The regiment also participated in the final assault against Berlin. When the Soviet Air Force was deciding what units should participate in Moscow's Victory Parade flypast, however, it was decided to only have fast planes, so the women of the 588th/46th Regiment stayed at their base. In any case, bad weather canceled the flypast portion of the parade.
Some of the Women of the 588th/46th Regiment
- Yevdokiya Bershanskaya - Regimental Commander
- Yevgeniya Zhigulenko, Hero of the Soviet Union - Flight Commander
- Tat'yana Makarova, Hero of the Soviet Union - Flight Commander
- Nina Ul'yanenko, Hero of the Soviet Union - Flight Navigator
- Nadezhda Popova (1921), Hero of the Soviet Union – shot down several times; flew 18 missions in one night.
- Natalya Meklin (1922 – 2005) Hero of the Soviet Union – 908 missions
- Evgeniya Rudneva (1920 – 1944), Hero of the Soviet Union, posthumously – 645 missions
- Vera Bjelik (1921 – 1944), Hero of the Soviet Union, posthumously – 813 missions
- Irina Sebrova (1914 - 2000), Hero of the Soviet Union – 1008 missions
- Polina Gelman (1919 – 2005), Hero of the Soviet Union – 860 missions
- Rufina Gasheva (? - 2000), Hero of the Soviet Union - 848 missions, shot down twice