These daring Russian women in aging aircraft haunted Nazi dreams
(Featured Image by Deviant Art user NovaCaster)
In 1941, after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, famous aviatrix Marina Raskova lobbied Joseph Stalin to form regiments of women pilots. Out of necessity, Russia became the first country to allow women to fly combat missions and formed three regiments.
The most fearsome of these groups, the 588th Regiment, became known as the Nachthexen or, “Night Witches,” a name the women adopted with pride.
The Night Witches were not treated equally to their male counterparts. The only regiment made up entirely of women — ages 17 to 23 — wore hand-me-downs from male pilots and flew militarized crop-dusters known as Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes.
The planes were made mostly of wood and canvas and, if hit by tracer bullets, would ignite like paper. The pilot and navigator sat in open cockpits, with only small, glass windscreens to protect them from the savage Russian winters. To top it all off, the aircraft carried no radio or machine gun. The Po-2 could carry only two 220-lb. bombs at a maximum speed of 94 mph. 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 help navigate through the night skies — only maps and compasses.
The courageous and smart women that made up the 588th, however, used these trainer planes’ shortcomings to their advantage. Because of the planes’ primitive construction, German radar could hardly see their approach, so they were assigned night harassment. Often operating in a sort-of stealth mode, idling engines as they neared the targets, they would glide their way to the bomb release points.
As a result, their planes made little more than soft “whooshing” noises as they flew by. Until, that is, they dropped their bombs right in the middle of sleeping Nazi formations.
The Germans became terrified of the “Night Witches” and spread wild rumors that the women were given special injections that gave them feline-perfect night vision. Soldiers often would refuse to go outside and smoke for fear of letting the bombers know where they were. The “Night Witches” were so effective and so elusive that German pilots received the Iron Cross and a cash award of 2,000 Reichsmarks if they shot one of them down.
Dealing with daily sexual harassment on the ground and grueling night runs (sometimes up to 18 per night), the women were hardened and feared very little. However, the all-female aircrew did fear one thing above all else, and that would be what might occur if they were grounded and captured alive by the Germans.
Galina Beltsova, a navigator with the Dive Bombers regiment said,
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.
The female fighter pilots initially struggled, but later earned the respect of their brothers-in-arms. As a regiment, they flew more than 24,000 combat missions and dropped 3,000 tons of bombs and 26,000 incendiary bombs. The leader of the 588th Regiment, Irina Sebrova, became one of the most decorated pilots in the Soviet Army and was awarded the distinctions of Hero of Soviet Union and the Order of Lenin. Sebrova also received 3 Orders of the Red Banner, the Order of the Patriotic War, 1st and 2nd class, the Order of the Red Star, and various medals.
The “Night Witches” didn’t have great planes, 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 broomsticks needed.