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The Night Witches: Russian Female Combat Pilots of World War II

Readmikenow has written about various medical conditions. He has previously written a series of articles on Polyarteritis nodosa.

Two Night Witches in front of plane

Two Night Witches in front of plane

Have You Heard of the Night Witches?

German soldiers during World War II called them Nachthexen, or "night witches." Their planes made a whooshing noise, resembling a witch on a broomstick, or the sound of a sweeping broom. The sound of the planes was the only warning the Germans had before they came under attack. Their wooden planes were too small to be seen with infrared locators or on the radar. They didn't use radios, so they couldn't be detected by radio location. These planes seemed like ghosts. The Russians had initially kept women from participating in combat. The pressure from the German invasion of Russia made the Russian leaders reconsider this policy.

Marina Raskova

Marina Raskova

Creation of All Female Air Force Units

Units consisting of all-female pilots was the idea of a woman named Marina Raskova. She was considered the Russian version of Amelia Earhart. Raskova was Russia's first female Air Force navigator. She also set many records for long-distance flights. She regularly got letters from women who wanted to be part of the World War II war effort. These women didn't want to be in support roles, they wanted to be fighting at the front. This inspired Raskova to approach Soviet dictator Joseph Staling about letting her create a fighting squadron made up of all females. Stalin gave his approval during October 1941 to create and deploy air force units consisting of only females.

Training Female Squadron

When Raskova started the process of getting female pilots, she had thousands of applications. She eventually selected approximately 400 women to staff each of the anticipated three units. Most of the women selected were between 17 and 26 years old. Once accepted into the program, all the females had to go to a small town north of Stalingrad called Engels. At this place, their training would take place at the Engels School of Aviation. Each of these women had a shortened education period. They had to learn in a few months what normally took other pilots years to learn. All the women had to become proficient in performing as ground crew, navigators, maintenance as well as pilots.


The women pilots flew 1928 U-2 biplanes made of wood and canvas. They were called Polikarpov U-2 biplanes. They flew another version of the plane called the U-2LNB into combat. The planes they used could only hold two bombs at a time, so one pilot would fly up to eight or more missions nightly. Their planes were slow but very maneuverable. The weight of their bombs forced them to fly low. Parachutes were considered too heavy for them to carry. Their planes had no radios, guns, or radar. These women used other items for navigation, communication, and more. Tools like maps, compasses, rulers, flashlights, pencils, and stopwatches. Since they were forced to fly at night, they endured frostbite, freezing temperatures, and extremely cold wind. During the harsh Russian winters, their planes became so cold that touching the wrong spot could tear off a woman's bare skin.

Night Witch plane

Night Witch plane


Each of the planes was operated with a pilot in the front and a navigator in the back, and they went into combat in packs. During the initial phase of their attack, one of the planes would go into an area as bait. Their job was to attract German spotlights. This would result in the area having important illumination. The planes didn't have ammunition to defend themselves. They would fly to the target area and drop flares to light up the area. The last planes in the area would idle their engines and glide silently through the darkness to the bombing area. This is what created their signature sound. The Germans held two main beliefs about these women and their success. All of them were criminals who had been sent to the front as part of their punishment. The other belief was they had been given injections of a special medicine that enabled them to see at night.

Night Witches around planes

Night Witches around planes


A sortie is a combat mission made up of an individual aircraft. A sortie begins when an aircraft takes off. During World War II, the all-female Russian squadron flew over 23,600 sorties. They were key to winning many battles.

German Offensive – 2,000 sorties

Battle of the Caucasus - 2,900 sorties

Poland offensive – 5,400

Novorossiysk, Kuban, Taman – 4,600 sorties

Belarus Offensive – 400 sorties

Scroll to Continue

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Crimean Offensive – 6,000 sorties

Night Witches before going on mission

Night Witches before going on mission


During World War II, the squadron obtained over 28,600 flight hours. They dropped more than 3,000 tons of bombs and 26,000 incendiary shells. They damaged or completely destroyed 176 armored cars, 17 river crossings, 86 firing points, two railway stations, nine railways, 12 fuel depots, 26 warehouses, and 11 searchlights. The female pilots were also able to perform over 150 supply drops for Russian forces of food and ammunition.


There were over 260 women who served in the squadron and 32 of them died. They passed away from a variety of causes involving everything from tuberculosis to plane crashes and other combat-related deaths. There were 23 women from the squadron who were given the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. Two of them were given the Hero of the Russian Federation. One of the women was awarded the Hero of Kazakhstan award.


During World War II, the squadron was the most highly decorated unit in the Soviet Air Force. Their last flight occurred on May 4, 1945. They flew within 37 miles of Berlin. Germany officially surrendered three days later. The squadron known as the Night Witches was disbanded six months after the war was over. There was a huge victory-day parade planned to take place in Moscow. The Night Witches squadron was not included in the celebration. It was determined their planes would be too slow to participate.


Meet the Night Witches, the Daring Female Pilots Who Bombed Nazis By Night | History

Night Witches | Wikipedia

Night Witches: The Female Fighter Pilots of World War II | The Atlantic

The Little-Known Story of the Night Witches, an All-Female Force in WWII | Vanity Fair

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Readmikenow (author) on September 25, 2020:

Miebakagh, thanks. I agree.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 24, 2020:

This is very unique. And the story seems to be forgotton as their service were brought to an end.

Readmikenow (author) on September 24, 2020:

Danny, thanks!

Danny from India on September 24, 2020:

ReadMikeNow, this is a wonderful piece of information.

Readmikenow (author) on September 24, 2020:

Femi, thanks.

femi from Nigeria on September 24, 2020:


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