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“The Night Witches” of the 588th taking a break. Standing looking at the camera is Nadezhda Popova, one of the most highly-decorated and highly publicized of the 588th aviators.

The Wickedest Night Flying Witches

Members of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment decorated their planes with flowers … and dropped 23,000 tons of bombs

The flying “Night Witches” of World War II gained the nickname from an adversary, out of respect for their bravery and lethal sneak attacks. Moral of the story: never sell a female pilot short.

The Nazis called them “Night Witches” because the whooshing noise their plywood and canvas airplanes made reminded the Germans of the sound of a witch’s broomstick.

The Russian women who piloted those planes, onetime crop dusters, took it as a compliment. In 30,000 missions over four years, they dumped 23,000 tons of bombs on the German invaders, ultimately helping to chase them back to Berlin. Any German pilot who downed a “witch” was awarded an Iron Cross.

These young heroines, all volunteers and most in their teens and early 20s, became legends of World War II but are now largely forgotten. Flying only in the dark, they had no 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. Each night, the 40 or so two-woman crews flew eight or more missions — sometimes many more.

At the time Russian men and women were fighting and dying for their country that had been treacherously attacked by Hitler’s Germany. Russia at that period possessed the most powerful and ruthless army the world had ever seen.

During World War II, American women were put to work; in Russia, women were put to war. In 1941, Operation Barbarossa meant the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi forces, and the Soviets’ foray into an untapped reservoir of strength: female bomber pilots. Though Soviet women were barred from combat at the beginning of the war, a record-breaking aviatrix named Marina Raskova (hailed as the “Soviet Amelia Earhart”) was later called upon by Joseph Stalin to organize a regiment of young female pilots to fight the German invaders, making the Soviet Union the first nation to allow women to fly combat missions.

The story of the Women’s Air Service Pilots (WASP) in the United States is relatively well known. Much less well known however is the story of the Night Witches, an incredible group of Soviet women who flew bombing missions during World War II.

The year was 1941 and Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union. By November the German army was just 19 miles from Moscow. Leningrad was under siege and 3 million Russians had been taken prisoner. The Soviet air force was grounded.

In the summer of 1941 Marina Raskova, a record-breaking aviatrix, was called upon to organize a regiment of women pilots to fly night combat missions of harassment bombing. From mechanics to navigators, pilots and officers, the 588th regiment was composed entirely of women. The 588th was so successful and deadly that the Germans came to fear them, calling them Nachthexen–night witches.

The women, most of them barely 20 years old, started training in Engels, a small town north of Stalingrad. The women of the 588th flew their first bombing mission on June 8, 1942. It consisted of three planes; their target was the headquarters of a German division. The raid was successful but one plane was lost.

The top air speed of a PO-2 was 110mph. The biplanes were highly maneuverable and not burdened by the weight of powerful engines.

The conduit to “flying witches” most likely began with Katherine Wright, sister of the Wright brothers. Katherine not only flew with her brothers but contributed as much vigor and knowledge to the first flight at Kitty Hawk as did her famous brothers.

Harriet Quimby was the first woman in America to become a licensed pilot. Nice start, but it would take the U.S. military 65 years to accept female pilots, plus another 17 years before the ladies were allowed to saddle up in combat aircraft. Chopper pilot Major Marie Rossi was the first American female pilot to lose her life in a combat role on March 1, 1991 near her home base in northern Saudi Arabia. She was 32 years old.

Ranked as the top female Air Force pilot in the 1990s, Lt. Col. Martha McSally was the first woman to fly a fighter aircraft on combat sorties. She also flew over 100 combat hours in an A-10 Warthog over Iraq in the mid-90s. The Air Force Thunderbirds performance team recruited Major Nicole Malachowski as their first female demonstration pilot in 2006.

But the wickedest flying witches? While seemingly an inappropriate way to describe female aviators, the German soldiers fighting on the Eastern Front during WWII would disagree with any criticism of their chauvinistic characterization. They respected yet dreaded the “Night Witches” of the Russian Air Force, the most publicized of three units being the 588th Night Bomber Regiment.

Like American women in the age of Amelia Earhart, many Soviet women had become enchanted with aviation in the 1930s. They were initially rejected for combat service during World War II, but Soviet leader Joseph Stalin thought better of the decision in 1941, when Germany broke the Soviet-German nonaggression pact and invaded.

The female pilots of the 588th flew PO-2 biplanes, a slow noisy aircraft developed in the 1920s and constructed of fabric stretched over a plywood frame.

As the war began, Moscow had barred women from combat, and Nadezhda Popova was turned down when she first tried to enlist as a pilot. “No one in the armed services wanted to give women the freedom to die,” she told Albert Axell, the author of “Russia’s Heroes: 1941-45” (2001).

Stalin changed his mind on Oct. 8, 1941, and Stalin issued an order to deploy three regiments of female pilots, one of which became the Night Witches. The Russian pilot corps clearly needed bolstering; in addition, some have pointed out, heroic women made good propaganda. The lobbying of Marina Raskova, who had set several flying records and became the first commander of the women’s units, helped greatly.

Led by Marina Raskova, a renowned aviator who would later die in a plane crash, three women’s regiments were born of necessity. While other nations employed female pilots largely in support roles, the Soviets dispatched their female aviators on delivery and reconnaissance missions, as well as daring raids to take out enemy targets. Treated in many respects like their male colleagues, the women did, however, receive larger soap rations.

The regiment began filling out in 1942, with young women ranging in age from 17 to 26 transferring to the small town of Engels to begin flight training. The future pilots were greeted by Raskova herself with a no-nonsense, military manner. The women were issued size 42 boots, outfitted with ill-fitting military uniforms made for bulkier male soldiers. Their hair was cut short. As one of the pilots would recall in a later interview, “We didn’t recognize ourselves in the mirror—we saw boys there.”

The women faced significant obstacles even before they began engaging in combat—namely, with the equipment. They had to fly Polikarpov Po-2 aircraft—two-seated, open-cockpit biplanes that were obsolete even by the standards of the day. Made of plywood frames with canvas stretched over them, the craft were light, slow, and provided absolutely no armour. The benefit of the planes was that they had a slower stall speed than the standard German fighters, making them hard to target, and they could take off and land just about anywhere. However, this came as literal cold comfort to the aviators who had to fly the ships through walls of enemy fire in the dead of night, with the freezing wind whipping around and through the exposed cockpits, often giving the pilots frostbite.

But this did little to discourage the women of the 588th. Starting with an initial bombing run on June 8, 1942, the all-female squadron would harry Nazi forces with overnight bombing runs all the way until the end of the war. At the peak of the regiment’s strength, it had as many as 40 two-person crews, flying multiple bombing runs as soon as the sky darkened, taking part in as many as 18 in a single night. The light planes could only carry six bombs at a time, so as soon as one run was complete the pilots would be re-armed and sent back out for another run. Of course this tightly controlled weight limit also meant the women could not bring parachutes and also had to fly at lower, more easily spotted, altitudes.

Using such vulnerable craft to make their bombing runs, the cover of night was crucial to their success and survival. Three planes would leave simultaneously, with two of the airplanes drawing searchlights and gunfire, and the third sticking to the darkness, to drop the bombs. In order to remain hidden, the pilots would also kill their engines when they got near their target, and simply glide over it, deploying their payload.

“Night witches” Nataly Meklin and Irina Sebrova. WWII Soviet Union.

It was the spring of 1943, at the height of World War II. Two pilots, members of the Soviet Air Force, were flying their planes — Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, built mainly of plywood and canvas — over a Soviet railway junction. Their passage was on its way to being a routine patrol … until the pilots found themselves confronted by a collection of German bombers. Forty-two of them.

The pilots did what anyone piloting a plane made of plywood would do when confronted with enemy craft and enemy fire: they ducked. They sent their planes into dives, returning fire directly into the center of the German formation. The tiny planes’ flimsiness was in some ways an asset: their maximum speed was lower than the stall speed of the Nazi planes, meaning that the pilots could maneuver their craft with much more agility than their attackers. The outnumbered Soviets downed two Nazi planes before one of their own lost its wing to enemy fire. The pilot bailed out, landing, finally, in a field.

The people on the ground, who had witnessed the skirmish, rushed over to help the stranded pilot. They offered alcohol. But the offer was refused. As the pilot would later recall, “Nobody could understand why the brave lad who had taken on a Nazi squadron wouldn’t drink vodka.”

The brave lad had refused the vodka, it turned out, because the brave lad was not a lad at all. It was Tamara Pamyatnykh, one of the members of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Air Forces. The 588th was the most highly decorated female unit in that force, flying 30,000 missions over the course of four years — and dropping, in total, 23,000 tons of bombs on invading German armies. Its members, who ranged in age from 17 to 26, flew primarily at night, making do with planes that were — per their plywood-and-canvas construction — generally reserved for training and crop-dusting. They often operated in stealth mode, idling their engines as they neared their targets and then gliding their way to their bomb release points. As a result, their planes made little more than soft “whooshing” noises as they flew by.

Those noises reminded the Germans, apparently, of the sound of a witch’s broomstick. So the Nazis began calling the female fighter pilots Nachthexen: “night witches.” They were loathed. And they were feared. Any German pilot who downed a “witch” was automatically awarded an Iron Cross.

Nadezhda Popova, celebrated Soviet ‘Night Witch’ aviator of World War II.

The Night Witches were largely unique among the female combatants — and even the female flyers — of World War II. Other countries, the U.S. among them, may have allowed women to fly as members of their early air forces; those women, however, served largely in support and transport roles. The Soviet Union was the first nation to allow women to fly combat missions — to be able, essentially, to return fire when it was delivered. These ladies flew planes; they also dropped bombs.

In 2013, one of the most famous of the Night Witches — Nadezhda Popova, a commander of the squad who flew, in total, 852 of its missions — passed away. She was 91. And the obituaries that resulted, celebrations of a life and a legacy largely unknown to many serve as a reminder of the great things the female flyers accomplished. Things made even more remarkable considering the limited technology the woman had at their disposal. The Witches (they took the German epithet as a badge of honour) flew only in the dark. Because of the weight of the bombs they carried and the low altitudes at which they flew, they carried no parachutes. They had no radar to navigate their paths through the night skies — only maps and compasses. If hit by tracer bullets, their craft would ignite like the paper planes they resembled. Which was not a small concern: “Almost every time,” Popova once recalled, “we had to sail through a wall of enemy fire.”

Popova, was inspired both by patriotism and a desire for revenge. Her brother was killed shortly after the Germans swept into the Soviet Union in June 1941, and the Nazis had commandeered their home to use as a Gestapo police station.

Popova is quoted recalling the “smiling faces of the Nazi pilots” as they strafed crowds, gunning down fleeing women and children.

But Popova, who rose to become deputy commander of what was formally known as the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, said she was mostly just doing a job that needed doing. “We bombed, we killed; it was all a part of war.” Most of the women who survived the war had, by the end, flown almost a thousand missions each. Nadya Popova recalls those missions and comments that it was a miracle the Witches didn’t suffer more losses. Their planes were the slowest ones in the air force and often came back riddled with bullets, but they kept flying.

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. Eventually the Soviets formed three regiments of women combat pilots — the 586th, the 587th and the 588th.

The 586th also trained at Engels, first in the two-seat Yak-7 trainers and later on in the Yak-1 fighters. The women proved themselves to be as good as the men. The most outstanding pilots were Raisa Belyaeva and Valeria Khomyakova. The later was allowed to fly solo in the Yak-1 after just 52 minutes of dual instruction. She earned the grade of “excellent” during one trial flight but on a subsequent flight crash-landed on the frozen Volga River when she switched to an empty fuel tank. All of the women had their hands full, learning so much information in such a short amount of time.

The female mechanics also had their hands full with the demanding task of keeping the planes flying. The winter of 1942 was brutally cold, with temperatures plunging as low as -54F and countless snow storms. One night in March of that year the women were called upon to save the aircraft from being blown over by gale-force winds. Several women would literally lie on the wings and horizontal stabilizers of each plane, using the weight of their bodies to keep the planes from blowing away. When the wind subsided, the women looked like snowmen, but the planes were intact. Their respite was brief however. By noon the storm had resumed, and again the women rushed to the airfield to save the planes. The storm finally blew itself out around midnight, and the exhausted women, soaked to the skin and half frozen, could finally rest.

The Night Witches practiced what is known as harassment bombing. Their targets were encampments, supply depots, rear base areas, etc. Their constant raids made rest for the troops difficult and left them feeling very insecure.

The Witches developed the technique of flying close to their intended targets, then cutting their engines. Silently they would glide to their targets and release their bombs. Then they would restart their engines and fly away. The first warning the Germans had of an impending raid was the sound of the wind whistling against the wing bracing wires of the Po-2s, and by then it was too late.

The Po-2 would often pass undetected by the radar of the German fighters due to the unreflective nature of the canvas surfaces and also because they flew so low to the ground. Planes equipped with infrared heat seekers fared no better at detecting them due to the small heat emission from their puny little 110-hp engines.

Searchlights, however presented a big problem. The Germans at Stalingrad developed what the Russians called a “flak circus”. They would arrange flak guns and searchlights (hidden during the day) in concentric circles around probable targets. Planes flying in pairs in a straight-line flight path across the perimeter were often ripped to shreds by the flak guns. So the Night Witches of the 588th developed their own technique to deal with the problem. They flew in groups of three. Two would go in and deliberately attract the attention of the Germans. When all the searchlights were pointed at them, the two pilots would suddenly separate, flying in opposite directions and maneuvering wildly to shake off the searchlight operators who were trying to follow them. In the meantime the third pilot would fly in through the dark path cleared by her two teammates and hit the target virtually unopposed. She would then get out, rejoin the other two, and they would switch places until all three had delivered their payloads. As Nadya Popova noted, it took nerves of steel to be a decoy and willingly attract enemy fire, but it worked very well.

Action stations: Night Witch pilots receive orders before a raid on the Byelorussian front in 1944.

Nadezhda Vasiliyevna Popova was born Dec. 17, 1921, in what is now Dolgoye, Ukraine. She planned to become a teacher or a doctor, until one day a plane landed near her home and she met the pilot.

“I had thought only gods could fly,” she said “It was amazing to me that a simple man could get in a plane and fly away.”

Growing up, Popova said “I was a very lively, energetic, wild kind of person. I loved to tango, fox trot, but I was bored. I wanted something different.” At 15, Popova joined a flying club, of which there were as many as 150 in the Soviet Union. More than one-quarter of the pilots trained in the clubs were women.

Popova joined a flying club and later graduated from an aviation school. When the war started, she was working as an instructor. She said that she decided to join the military after losing her brother in the war and after watching Germans abuse her townspeople.

During the German invasion of Russia her town was taken over by the Wehrmacht, her home converted into a feared Gestapo Police Station. He brother lost his life at the front and she saw civilians being gunned down by strafing German planes. Nadezhda, decided to go to war.

“I saw the German aircraft flying along our roads filled with people who were leaving their homes, firing at them with their machine guns,” she said. “Seeing this gave me feelings inside that made me want to fight them.”

Her delight at being accepted into the 588th Night Bomber Regiment gave way to steely seriousness after her first mission, in which a Soviet plane was destroyed, killing two friends. She dropped her bombs on the dots of light below. “I was ordered to fly another mission immediately,” she told Russian Life magazine in 2003. “It was the best thing to keep me from thinking about it.”

Popova became adept at her unit’s tactics. Planes flew in formations of three. Two would go in as decoys to attract searchlights, and then separate in opposite directions and twist wildly to avoid the antiaircraft guns. The third would sneak to the target through the darkness. They would then switch places until each of the three had dropped the single bomb carried beneath each wing.

The women of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, with their aircraft in the background.

Popova served with the night bombers, perhaps the most feared of the three women’s regiments. Their planes, rickety two-seaters made of plywood and canvas, were jerry-rigged as bombers.

“The Germans spread stories that we were given special injections and pills which gave us a feline’s perfect vision at night,” Ms. Popova told Albert Axell, a historian, in an interview for his book “Greatest Russian War Stories, 1941-1945.” “This was nonsense, of course,” she continued. “What we did have were clever, educated, very talented girls.”

Popova was 19 when she joined the pilots and became “one of the best, and one of the luckiest,” according to the Moscow Times. “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,” she said. “If you give up nothing is done and you are not a hero. Those who gave in were gunned down and they were burned alive in their craft as they had no parachutes.”

Once, she watched four planes crash, carrying eight women to their deaths. “What a nightmare,” she said decades later, “poor girls, my friends, only yesterday we had slept in the bunks together.”

Over the course of the war, Popova said, she fought in Belorussia, Poland and Germany. In 1942, she was shot down in the North Caucasus.

The Po-2 biplanes flown by the Night Witches had an advantage over the faster, deadlier German Messerschmitts: their maximum speed was lower than the German planes’ stall speed, making them hard to shoot down. The Po-2s were also exceptionally maneuverable. Still, Popova was shot down several times, although she was never hurt badly.

Once, after being downed, she found herself in a horde of retreating troops and civilians. In the crowd was a wounded fighter pilot, Semyon Kharlamov, also a decorated pilot, reading “And Quiet Flows the Don,” Mikhail A. Sholokhov’s epic Soviet novel. They struck up a conversation, and she read him some poetry. They eventually separated but saw each other again several times during the war. At war’s end, they met at the Reichstag in Berlin and scribbled their names on its wall. They soon married.

They were married for many years until his death; together they had a son, Aleksandr, who grew up to be a general in the Belarussian Air Force. Mr. Kharlamov died in 1990.

Their missions were dangerous; they were also, as a secondary challenge, unpleasant. Each night, in general, 40 planes — each crewed by two women, a pilot and a navigator — would fly eight or more missions. Popova herself once flew 18 in a single night. (The multiple nightly sorties were necessary because the modified crop-dusters were capable of carrying only two bombs at a time.) The women’s uniforms were hand-me-downs from male pilots. And their planes had open cockpits, leaving the women’s faces to freeze in the chilly night air. “When the wind was strong it would toss the plane,” Popova noted. “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.”

The Night Witches’ tactics so aggravated the German High Command that a promise was issued to award the coveted Iron Cross to German fighter pilots fortunate enough to shoot down a Night Witch. A David vs. Goliath syndrome was not a factor. The top air speed of a PO-2 was 110 mph, the same stall speed of German fighters; meaning to line up for a shoot down, the German fighters could lose power then crash and burn. Another factor was altitude. The Night Witches flew so low that the German fighters could plough the earth if unable to pull up in time. The old biplanes were highly manoeuvrable and not burdened by the weight of powerful engines. In an odd twist of fate, the PO-2s’ vulnerabilities proved to be useful assets.

Once, after a successful flight — which is to say, a flight she survived – Popova counted 42 bullet holes studding her little plane. There were also holes in her map. And in her helmet. “Katya, my dear,” the pilot told her navigator, “We will live long.”

Despite all this bravado, however, the female fighter pilots initially struggled to earn the respect of their brothers in arms. The Night Bomber Regiment was one of three female fighter pilot units created by Stalin at the urging of Marina Raskova — an aviation celebrity who was, essentially, “the Soviet Amelia Earhart.” Raskova trained her recruits as pilots and navigators, and also as members of maintenance and ground crews. She also prepared them for an environment that preferred to treat women as bombshells rather than bombers. One general, a male, initially complained about being sent a “a bunch of girlies” instead of soldiers. But the women and their flimsy little crop-dusters and their ill-fitting uniforms and their 23,000 tons of ammunition soon proved him wrong.

Nadezhda Popova, World War II “Night Witch” Died at age 91.

Unfortunately, not everyone was so impressed with the 588th regiment’s fortitude and military prowess. Many in the Soviet military still found the idea of women flying in combat to be laughable, despite their clear ability. Undeterred by the lack of faith from many of their male counterparts, the women embraced their identities, and are said to have painted their lips with navigational pencils and to have drawn flowers on the side of their aircrafts.

By the end of the war, the Night Witches had flown somewhere in the vicinity of 30,000 bombing raids, delivering around 23,000 tons of munitions right to Nazi’s. The 588th lost 30 pilots during the fighting, and 23 pilots, including Popova, were awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. The squadron was never disbanded, but was instead converted into the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, which continued to fight for the Soviet Union.

The Night Witches didn’t have great planes, or superior bombs, or even very much support for their unit, but they nonetheless became one of the most remarkable fighting forces of World War II. No sorcery needed.

Popova was named Hero of the Soviet Union, the nation’s highest honour. She was also awarded the Gold Star, the Order of Lenin and the Order of the Red Star.

Decades after the war, Popova, who often was called Nadya, reflected on the perils she had endured. “At night sometimes, I look up into the dark sky, close my eyes and picture myself as a girl at the controls of my bomber,” she said, “and I think, ‘Nadya, how on earth did you do it?’ ”

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