Night Witches Who Terrified Nazis
The Nazis called them the ‘Nachthexen’, the ‘Night Witches’. They were the volunteer Soviet women pilots of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, an exclusive female regiment of the Soviet Air Force in World War II.
We simply couldn’t grasp that the Soviet airmen that caused us the greatest trouble were in fact women. These women feared nothing. They came night after night in their very slow biplanes, and for some periods they wouldn’t give us any sleep at all.
– Hauptmann Johannes Steinhoff, German Commander of II./JG 52, Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross, September 1942.
After Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Nazis took over 3 million Russian prisoners and grounded the Soviet Air Force. Desperate, Marina Raskova, a record-breaking aviatrix, persuaded Stalin to establish three female units grouped into separate fighter, dive bomber and night bomber regiments. She trained her personnel as pilots, navigators, maintenance and ground crews, and deployed them to fly night combat missions of harassment bombing. (1)
These amazing women who were most often teenagers or in their early 20s, earned a total of 23 awards, including the highest recognition for their country, the Hero of the Soviet Union medal. Many others recieved Orders of the Red Banner, another prestigious award. This group later became the first women’s regiment to recieve the honor of the 46th Guards Bomber Aviation Regiment, recognizing them as one of the best fighting units. (2)
These fearless heroines terriffied Nazis with their basic wooden Polikarpov Po-2 open-cockpit biplanes which could be shot down with one bullet. The canvas of the airplane would make a wooshing sound when they stopped the engine of the plane to glide down, in order to drop the bombs, which reminded Nazis of the sound of a witch’s broomstick. This flying technique was developed by the pilots themselves. Due to the weight of the bombs and the low altitude of flight, the pilots carried no parachutes. (3)
They had to fly only in the dark, without parachutes, guns, radios or radar, only maps and compasses. If hit by tracer bullets, their planes would burn like sheets of paper. Their uniforms were hand-me-downs from male pilots. Their faces froze in the open cockpits. (4)
The ladies who piloted these planes, onetime crop dusters, took the “Night Witches” nickname as a compliment. In over four years, they dumped 23,000 tons of bombs on the German invaders during their 30,000 missions, ultimately helping chase them back to Berlin. Any German pilot who downed a ‘witch’ was awarded an Iron Cross. (5)
There was a great deal of resistance to the idea of women combat pilots from their male counterparts. The women had to fight both enemy aircraft as well as the resentment of their male colleagues. In spite of the never-ending fatigue , the loss of friends, and sexual harassment from their suspicious male counterparts, the women kept on flying. (6)
On a more sombre note, the number one fear expressed by nearly all female aircrew was what might occur if they were ever captured alive by the Germans. Galina Beltsova, a navigator with the Dive Bombers regiment says: “All of us were provided with one extra bullet and if I could see I was being circled by the enemy of course I could take out my pistol and shoot myself – as a last resort.” (7)
After the war, a number of the women continued to fly, some as test pilots. Others retired to a quiet life or returned to work, either in factories or on farms. In spite of the danger and their heavy losses, most of the women later described their combat experience as the most exciting time of their lives. They endured loss of family and homes in their absence, met and lost lovers and husbands, and were often wounded or killed in action.
A fitting tribute was made to the dedication of this unit’s airwomen by the male Free French pilots of the Normandie-Niemen Fighter Regiment who often fought alongside the Night Witches:
Even if it were possible to gather and place at your feet all the flowers on earth, this would not constitute sufficient tribute to your valour.(8)
- Yevdokia 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
- Vera Bjelik
- Rufina Gasheva
- Polina Gelman
- Natalya Meklin
- Nadezhda Popova
- Yevgeniya Rudneva
- Irina Sebrova
In this Women’s History month, we remember these incredible ladies who changed the course of history, not only for their country, but for all of us!
Photo credit: Foreign Policy Blog
3- Axell, Albert (2002). Russia’s Heroes 1941–45. Carroll and Graf Publishers. pp. 60–62. ISBN 0-7867-1011-X.