Imagine standing outside at night, the only light available coming from the stars and moon above. This only provided enough illumination to be able to see a couple of feet in front of you. Then you see a shadow cast over the moon, further reducing your vision. The sound of whooshing wind hits your ears, but no breeze hits your skin. Suddenly, the building behind you blows up and the blast throws you forward. There is no hope for rest and sleep tonight.
This scenario sounds like a scary story told around campfires about witches and goblins who fly across the sky at night and throw their spell and potion bombs on their enemies. It would make sense why the Germans aptly called their attackers: the “Nachthexen” literally translated as the “Night Witches”. However, these Night Witches were not mythical creatures filled with magic nor were they masterful criminal thieves sent to the front lines as punishment for their crimes or given injections to give them the night vision of a cat like the Germans believed.
In reality, the Night Witches were a group of women between the ages of 17-26 who volunteered to serve in WWII for the Soviet Union. There was a total of 261 Night Witches who served in the regiment when it was active from 1942-1945, of which 32 died during the war. The real title of the Night Witches was the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, later renamed as the 46th “Taman” Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment of the Soviet Air Forces. The members of the Night Witches became the most highly decorated female unit with 23 receiving the Hero of the Soviet Union title, 2 awarded the Hero of the Russian Federation award, and 1 the Hero of Kazakhstan award.
But what was it that the Night Witches did to earn all these titles? They were tasked to conduct harassment and precision bombing at night on the German Nazis to destroy crucial modes of transportation such as river crossings and railways as well as their warehouses, fuel depots, armored cars, firing points, and searchlights. But most importantly, they were tasked to make the Nazi’s night become a living nightmare, keeping them busy so they could not rest and sleep, turning them into sleep-deprived zombies during the day. Their tactic of sleep depriving the enemy became so successful that the Germans awarded any German airmen who were able to down a Night Witch the prestigious Iron Cross medal. But even with such a big target on their back, there was only one night that enough of them were downed to stop their relentless attack. Every other night they were successful in their mission to torment their enemies, completing over 23,000 sorties (missions) where they dropped over 3,000 tons of bombs and 26,000 incendiary shells on their enemies.
How were the night witches so successful and what were their tools of destruction which they wielded? Hearing their tales, it seems that these women were practically ghosts flying in incredibly fast and silent armored planes. However, the Night Witches had some of the most simplistic and rudimentary tools and supplies in the entire Soviet Union army. After Marina Raskova (known at the time as the “Soviet Amelia Earhart”) formed the 588th Night Bomber Regiment along with two other regiments, the women were trained in a few months what most soldiers would learn over 3 years. Then they were given their gear for battle which consisted of old, oversized hand-me-down uniforms and boots. They also weren’t given the more modern technology which their male counterparts had. Instead of being given radars, guns, and radios, they were only given rulers, stopwatches, flashlights, pencils, maps, and compasses. Each of them would also receive one pistol for if they were downed, but the women would make sure to leave the last bullet in the chamber for themselves to refrain from being captured alive by the Nazis.
The Night Witches were also only given Polikarpov Po-2 wood and canvas planes with open cockpits as their bombers. These planes were only used for pilot training and crop dusting before being given to the Night Witches. One hit by a tracer round would make their canvas and wood plane burst into flames. Their planes were also so light that they were only able to carry two bombs at a time (one under each wing) and they couldn’t carry parachutes until 1944 since they were too heavy. As a result, they had to be extremely stealthy on their night missions especially when these women would typically make around 8-18 missions each per night.
The Night Witches’ planes’ shortcomings ended up also becoming their strengths in a twisted way. The lightweight structure of the plane made it so it couldn’t be picked up by radars or infrared indicators, so they were able to travel right above the Germans without them noticing, even at the low altitudes they had to fly due to the weight of the bombs. Additionally, even though these planes were slow with their max speed being slower than the stall speed of the Nazi planes, this meant their planes were easier and quicker to maneuver than the German planes. If they were engaged in the air, they would dodge by sending their planes into dangerous dives.
The Night Witches understood the weaknesses of their planes, so they devised a strategic plan to optimize their safety and success of their missions. They would go out on their mission in packs of three planes with two women in each plane (one being the pilot, the other being the navigator and bombardier). The first two planes would fly into the Nazis’ camp and draw the attention of the searchlights before flying off in separate directions, acting as the bait. The third plane would then arrive late, making sure to cut its engines before coming upon the campsite, the only noise the plane would make would be the whooshing of the air over its wings. Once above their target, the Night Witches would drop their bombs, turn back on the plane’s engine, and make a quick getaway. They would take turns until all three planes dropped all of their bombs. Then they would all head back to base to refuel and reload on bombs before heading right back out again.
Even with working under the darkness of night and the silence of their flying, there were still many dangers facing the Night Witches. Their planes were old and unreliable, it was always a hope that the plane’s engine would start back up after dropping its bombs. Also, sometimes the bombs would get stuck under the plane’s wing, so one of the Night Witches would have to crawl out onto the wing of the plane and give the bomb a push to get it to drop. They weren’t completely safe from being attacked by the Nazis either. One Night Witch, Nadezhda Popova came back from one mission with 42 bullet holes in her plane and some holes in her map and helmet as well. Another Night Witch lost the bottom of her plane but kept on flying until she completed her mission.
When the Night Witches were first formed, their male counterparts were worried about sending the “girlies” into war and that fighting was a man’s job. They shouldn’t have worried about these women since they became dangerous killing machines as soon as the sun went down. Most of these women were so dangerous because they wanted revenge on the Nazis for killing their loved ones. They made sure that the Nazis felt their wrath and feared their presence and wore the nickname of Night Witches given to them by their enemies as a badge of honor.
It is a shame that their story has been all but lost to the history books in the present, but their name and accomplishments are recognized and honored here in our Tribute to Badasses.
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Meet the Night Witches: The Badass Female Pilots of WWII. https://taskandpurpose.com/history/night-witches-wwii-pilots/. Accessed 11 Dec. 2021.
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Martin, Douglas. “Nadezhda Popova, WWII ‘Night Witch,’ Dies at 91.” The New York Times Magazine, 14 July 2013, https://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/15/world/europe/nadezhda-popova-ww-ii-night-witch-dies-at-91.html.