Why were these brave female pilots given such an unfavorable nickname? Well, it was actually the Germans themselves who called them “Night Witches” (Nachthexen) because of the whooshing noise their plywood and canvas airplanes would make. And it reminded them of the sound of a witch’s broomstick. But these women were anything but witches. And when you see how young, inexperienced, and unequipped they were, their success makes it all the more impressive.
These women who piloted old wooden biplanes actually took the nickname as a compliment. Heck, in 30,000 separate missions over four years, the Night Witches dumped 23,000 tons of bombs on German invaders. They ultimately chased them back to Berlin. These women flew under cover of darkness, facing bullets and frostbite in the air, while also dealing skepticism and sexual harassment on the ground. They were both feared and hated so much by the Germans that whoever managed to take a Night Witch down was automatically awarded the prestigious Iron Cross medal.
This is the story of the all-powerful Night Witches of WWII. Prepare to be impressed…
The Heroines of WWII
These young female superheroes were all volunteers, and most of them were in their teens and early 20s, which only makes it even more impressive. These women became legends of World War II, but, for some unfortunate reason, they are now largely forgotten. They flew only in the dark, with no parachutes, guns, radios, or radar. All they had on them were maps and compasses.
Their uniforms were actually hand-me-downs from male pilots, and their faces would freeze in their planes’ open cockpits. Every night, the 40 two-woman crews flew eight or more missions – sometimes reaching as many as 18 in one night. And their missions were by far some of the most dangerous…
They Were Basically Ghosts
If they got hit by tracer bullets, their old wooden planes would burn like sheets of paper. This all-female group of pilots was the pioneering 588th Night Bomber Regiment that, after dropping more than 23,000 tons of bombs on German targets, became a crucial Soviet asset in winning the Second World War. And the nickname makes more sense when you learn of the near-supernatural nature of these women.
The distinctive swooshing sound that gave them their moniker was the only warning the Germans had. Their planes were too small to even show up on radar or on infrared locators, according to Steve Prowse, the author of the screenplay The Night Witches (a non-fiction account of the female squadron). “They never used radios, so radio locators couldn’t pick them up either. They were basically ghosts.”
The Soviets Were Desperate
It turns out that using female bombardiers wasn’t the Soviet Union’s first choice. Before WWII, women had been barred from combat, but with the pressure of an invading enemy gave the leaders a reason to rethink their outdated policy. With Germany’s launch of Operation Barbarossa, a massive invasion of the Soviet Union occurred in June 1941.
By the fall, the Germans were coming down on Moscow, Leningrad was under a blockade, and the Red Army was struggling. To put it short: the Soviets were desperate. And desperate times call for desperate measures, as they say. Little did they know that their Plan B (or C or D) would end up being their saving grace.
The Mother of Witches
The squadron was the brainchild of a woman named Marina Raskova, who was known as the “Soviet Amelia Earhart.” She was famous for being not only the first female navigator in the Soviet Air Force but also for her countless long-distance flight records. She would get letters from many women, telling her they wanted to join the war effort.
These female hopefuls knew that they were allowed to participate in support roles, but many wanted to be gunners and pilots and fly on their own. They wanted to get their hands dirty. Many of these young women were highly motivated after having lost brothers or lovers, or their homes and villages. Noticing such an opportunity, Raskova pleaded with Joseph Stalin to let her form an all-female fighting squadron.
The First Women to Engage in Combat
Stalin, who also recognized the opportunity, agreed. And on October 8, 1941, he gave orders to deploy three all-female air force units. The women ended up getting more than they asked for – not only would they be flying missions and dropping bombs, they would also be returning fire. This meant that the Soviet Union was the first nation to officially allow women to engage in combat.
Before that, women were technically able to get their hands dirty, too, but it was by helping transfer planes and ammunition. Then the men would take over. But now, with Stalin’s orders and Raskova’s guidance, young women were about to start a whole new chapter in their lives as well as in the war’s.
400 Young Women in Training
Raskova had to quickly start to fill out three teams. With over 2,000 applications in her hands, she selected about 400 women for each unit. Most of them were students, between the ages of 17 and 26. Those selected were sent to Engels, a small town north of Stalingrad, for training at the Engels School of Aviation.
There, they had to go through a highly condensed education. They were expected to learn in just a few months what it took most soldiers a few years to grasp. Each woman was recruited to train and perform as pilots, navigators, maintenance, and ground crew. In addition to such a steep learning curve, these women had to face the added stress of skepticism.
It’s a (Wo)Man-Thing
Some of the male military personnel weren’t so gung-ho about all these girls suddenly showing up and basically taking their positions. Some men believed that the women added no value to the combat effort. Raskova, however, obviously disagreed, and she did her best to prepare her recruits for these negative attitudes.
At the end of the day, they still faced sexual harassment on top of the long nights and grueling conditions. “The men didn’t like the ‘little girls’ going to the front line. It was a man’s thing,” author Prowse told HISTORY in an interview. And because of this reluctance on the part of the men in the military, the women were given less than ideal resources.
Hand-Me-Downs and Leftovers
The military, whether they were willing or not, were ultimately unprepared for women pilots. And so they provided them with inadequate resources. The pilots received hand-me-down uniforms from male soldiers, along with their oversized boots. “They had to tear up their bedding and stuff them in their boots to get them to fit,” Prowse described.
It turns out their equipment wasn’t any better. The military gave them outdated Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, which were 1920s crop-dusters that were being used as training vehicles. They were light two-seater, open-cockpit airplanes, and they were never meant for combat. If anything, it just proves how when there’s a will there’s a way. And these Russian go-getters weren’t going to let some flimsy planes stop them from getting the job done.
Like a Coffin With Wings
“It was like a coffin with wings,” said Prowse of the planes they were flying. Made of plywood with canvas pulled over them, the aircraft offered no protection whatsoever from the elements. And since they only flew at night, the pilots endured freezing temperatures, wind, and frostbite. And if you know anything about Russia, it’s that it’s cold.
In the harsh winters, the planes would become so cold that simply touching them would rip off bare skin. Considering the planes’ limited weight capacity along with the military’s reduced funds, the pilots lacked any “luxury” items their male counterparts enjoyed. Instead of heavy parachutes, radar, guns, and radios, they had no choice but to use basic tools like rulers, stopwatches, flashlights, pencils, maps, and compasses.
Ups and Downs
Believe it or not, there was a plus to using the older planes. Their maximum speed was actually slower than the stall speed of the Germans planes, which meant that their wooden planes, ironically, were able to maneuver faster than the enemy. And that means these Witches were harder to target. That’s definitely a plus.
They were also able to easily take off and land from almost any location. But there was a downside, of course. And it was when coming under enemy fire, the female pilots had to duck down by sending their planes into dives. Again, almost none of their planes carried defense ammunition. So ducking was their only means of defense. Can you imagine? A war in the sky and dodging bullets is your best option. I told you you’d be impressed…
Long, Action-Packed Nights
As I mentioned earlier, if they got hit by tracer bullets, which carry a pyrotechnic charge, the wooden planes would immediately burst into flames. The biplanes could only carry two bombs at a time, with one under each wing. So, to make any dents on the German front lines, up to 40 two-person crews were sent out every night.
Each crew would execute between 8 and 18 missions every night, having to fly back to ammo up between runs. Due to the weight of the bombs, they were forced to fly at lower altitudes, which made them easier targets. That’s why they only flew at night. They weren’t called Day Witches, after all.
In Stealth Mode
With a pilot upfront and a navigator behind her, the planes traveled in packs. The first planes went in as bait, attracting German spotlights, which provided the pilots with much-needed light. The planes would then release a flare to light up the intended target. The last plane of the pack would idle its engines and glide in the darkness toward the bombing area.
It was in this “stealth mode” that their signature witch’s broom sound was created – a sound that eventually came to be both terrifying and infuriating to the Germans. It came to the point that whenever a German pilot gunned down a Night Witch, he was given a medal of honor. If that’s not a compliment to these women, then I don’t know what is…
The First Rule of Night Witch Club
Despite the fact that these women were basically killin’ it, they still had to face not just institutional sexism, but also misogyny from their male peers. In response to the negativity, they remained determined, dedicated, and powerfully female. The Night Witches followed 12 commandments. The first: “Be proud you are a woman.”
While killing Germans was indeed their job, the heroic flyers still needed to do needlework and patchwork in their downtime. They defied the sexism by painting their planes with flowers and finding the time to dance, too. Oh, and the pencils they used for navigation were also used as a makeshift eyeliner. These women were feminine, and they were feared.
Feminine and Feared
Raskova believed that women could be fighters, and to pretend to be men to do so was a shame. She didn’t think that they had to appear masculine or unfeminine to fight, either. It was a unique idea for her time: women fighting among other women. But then again, she didn’t allow any vanity to get in the way of practicality.
When the women first arrived for training, Raskova ordered them to cut off their braids. Why? Because they wouldn’t be able to maintain them to a standard where they would look clean and professional. The women followed orders, with and without tears. And if Raskova saw them spending their evenings trying their feminine clothes on in front of the mirror instead of studying, she ordered the clothing and shoes to be sent home.
Despite the Tears
One of Raskova’s Captains, Klavdia Ivanovna Terechova, credits Raskova’s firmness as part of the reason the women were able to complete two years of training in a mere six months. One anecdote that resonated with many is about the commander who told the young women assigned to him that it was shameful they had to do such unwomanly work.
But here’s the thing — some women would keep crying. Klava Blinova, one of the pilots, shot back, “If we do cry, please just ignore it.” With time, the female pilots gradually won respect and admiration of their male peers — not to mention their enemies. “Night Witch” wasn’t just some angry German slur; it had an element of admiration and respect.
Take it from a German himself…
A Hard Pill to Swallow
Johannes Steinhof, the German fighter ace, admitted that they “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 peace at all.”
There were Germans who just couldn’t believe that women could naturally be both as terrifying and effective as the Night Witches were. A rumor eventually started about how the women were given pills to give them night vision. Nadezhda Popova, one of the most famous Night Witches, said: “This was nonsense, of course. What we did have were clever, educated, very talented girls.” Yeah, something the Germans didn’t see coming.
Disbanded and Overlooked
According to author Prowse, the Germans had two theories as to why the women were so successful. Aside from their theory of night vision, they thought the women were all criminals – masters, at stealing, and were sent to the front line as punishment. Their last flight was on May 4, 1945, when the Night Witches flew within 37 miles of Berlin.
Just three days later, Germany surrendered. Despite their incredible bravery, determination, and successful contribution to the Soviet victory, the Night Witches were nonetheless disbanded six months after the war ended. While they were the most highly decorated squadron in the Soviet Air Force, they weren’t included in the victory parade. Why? Because their planes were “too slow.” What a disgrace…
Heroes of the Soviet Union
These daredevil heroines flew over 30,000 missions in total, which equates to about 800 per pilot and navigator. They ended up losing a total of 30 pilots. Twenty-four of them were awarded the title “Hero of the Soviet Union.” Sadly, Raskova died on January 4, 1943, when she was finally sent on a mission to the front line.
She was flying in low visibility due to the fog but decided to press. Attempting to dive below the fog, she ended up crashing into a riverbank. None of the crew survived. She was later given the very first state funeral of World War II. After the war, the Soviet Union chose not to continue to recruit and train female pilots. The reason for it, however, is unclear. Another thing that remained unclear was whether or not Raskova was a spy…
A Hero or a Spy?
Records show that Marina Raskova joined the Communist party in 1940, after which she spent time traveling and giving propaganda speeches. People didn’t know at the time, but Raskova had actually been an officer in the NKVD secret police since 1937. These police were known for political repression and enforcing Stalin’s “purges.”
This bit of information about Raskova may be shocking and upsetting, of course. And for all those women who looked up to her, and probably idolized her, must have felt at odds when they found out the same information. But you can’t deny that Raskova nevertheless inspired a generation of women to fulfill their potential. She did seem to genuinely care about both their achievements and their losses.
She Was an Aspiring Opera Singer
Marina Raskova was born in 1912 in Russia, and as a young girl, she wanted to be an opera singer. But illness and a lack of money forced her onto a more practical path of studying chemistry. She didn’t get into aviation until 1931 when she started working at the Air Force Engineering Academy in the drafting department.
She joined the VVS (Military Air Forces) in 1933 and became Russia’s first woman to qualify as an aviation navigator after graduating from the Leningrad Air Force Scientific Research Institute in 1934. Raskova soon became a star as she started to set several international records, earning her the nickname of the Russian Amelia Earhart. Her face was on the stamps for a while.
One of the Most Famous Night Witches
Nadezhda Popova became one of the most famous of the Night Witches, and she was only a teenager. At the age of 19, Popova was one of the first to join the all-female squadron. Popova and her female comrades would cut their engines near the German target, glide in, drop their bombs, restart their engines, and head back to base camp.
I know I said it before, but it’s still amusing to mention that the Germans hated having to scatter by these women. One German source said the Night Witches were “precise, merciless, and came from nowhere.” Popova grew up in Ukraine, and her father was a railwayman. Like many young girls, Popova hoped to become an actress. She loved music and dance, and even performed in amateur theatre.
From the Stage to the Skies
Growing up, Popova was a “very lively, energetic, wild kind of person. I loved to tango,” she said. But she never expected her life to take her into the skies above Germany, risking it all in the name of victory. All her early childhood hopes of becoming a performer came to a halt when a small aircraft landed near her village.
She then became passionate about aviation and enrolled in a gliding school without even telling her parents. When she was 16, she made her first parachute jump and her first solo flight. It came at a time when women were also busy conquering the skies. In 1938, Popova heard about Russia’s very own Marina Raskova and two other women who set a world record for a non-stop direct flight by women – they flew an ANT-37 3,728 miles from Moscow to Siberia.
Becoming a Flight Instructor
Popova was passionate and ambitious, inspired by all the strong and brave women she was seeing master the skies. And so, despite her parent’s opposition, Popova carried on with her new passion. She got her flying license and applied to a pilot school, but ended up getting turned down. It was Polina Osipenko, the inspector for Aviation in the Moscow Military District that recommended she be given a chance.
Popova was then accepted as a student in the Kherson flight school. By 18, she graduated and became a flight instructor. In June 1941, her brother was killed when the Germans swept into the Soviet Union. They seized her home to turn it into a Gestapo police station.
“We Bombed, We Killed. It Was All a Part of War”
Popova, now highly motivated and looking for justified revenge, joined the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, eventually rising to become deputy commander. According to Popova, she was just doing a job that needed to be done. “We bombed, we killed; it was all a part of the war,” she said in a 2010 interview. “We had an enemy in front of us, and we had to prove that we were stronger and more prepared.”
But her initial delight at being accepted into the exclusive squadron quickly faded to black after her first mission when two of her friends were killed. But war is war, and she 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.”
Downed a Number of Times
Ms. Popova became an expert at her unit’s tactics. As the planes flew in formations of three, two would go in as decoys, then separate in opposite directions and twist around wildly to avoid the Germans’ antiaircraft guns. The third plane would then sneak to the target in the darkness. The planes would then switch places until each one dropped the single bomb carried under each wing.
The biplanes were exceptionally maneuverable, but still, Popova was shot down several times. Luckily, she was never hurt badly. One time, after being shot down, she found herself in a flock of retreating troops and civilians. In the crowd, a wounded fighter pilot by the name of Semyon Kharlamov was reading “And Quiet Flows the Don,” an epic Soviet novel.
An Unlikely Love Story
The two then struck up a conversation, and she read him some poetry. They separated after that evening but saw each other several times during the war. At the end of the war, the two met at the Reichstag in Berlin, where they scribbled their names on its wall. They got married soon after that.
They remained married until Kharlamov passed away in 1990. Popova lived in Moscow and continued to work as a flight instructor after World War II. After the war, women returned to ordinary jobs. The female pilots were regarded as “loose women,” but Popova stayed in aviation. She was also promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel.
At the Age of 91
Popova survived 852 missions, which began in Ukraine and ended up in Berlin in 1945. She managed to survive several forced landings. “I sometimes stare into the blackness and close my eyes,” Popova said in 2010. “I can still imagine myself as a young girl, up there in my little bomber. And I ask myself, ‘Nadia, how did you do it?’”
Nadezhda Popovadied at the age of 91 on July 6, 2013. She is survived by her son, Aleksandr, who is a general in the Belarussian Air Force. I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Popova was named a Hero of the Soviet Union, which happens to be the nation’s highest honor. She was also awarded the Gold Star, the Order of Lenin and the Order of the Red Star.
What About Americans?
In World War II, about 400,000 American women served with the armed forces. And as many as 543 died due to war-related causes. Sixteen of those were from enemy fire. That’s despite the fact that U.S. political and military leaders decided not to use women in combat. And that decision was based on the fact that they feared public opinion.
By 1948, however, women were finally recognized in America as a permanent part of the U.S. armed forces when the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948 passed.
You’ve probably heard of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) – the group of civilians who flew stateside missions, mainly flying planes from one location to another as the male pilots were needed for combat roles.
In 1942, as per General Henry H. Arnold’s agreement, two units of women were formed who would help fly aircraft in the United States. The Women’s Auxiliary Ferry Squadron (WAFS) was led by Nancy Harkness Love. The other unit, the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD), was led by Jacqueline Cochran.
The two groups then merged in 1943 to become WASP. More than 1,074 skilled female pilots became the first women to fly American military aircraft. They took off from airfields at 126 bases across the country to relocate 50% of the combat aircraft during the war. But in 1944, the WASP squadron was disbanded when returning combat pilots took over their tasks. In total, 38 WASPS died during their duties.