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MIGHTY HISTORY

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis

With what is arguably one of the most badass names in military history, the story of the female aviators nicknamed Nachthexen, or “Night Witches” by German soldiers, tends to fly under a lot of people’s radar (bad pun intended). Flying no-frills wooden planes with ill-fitting uniforms and no parachutes, these Soviet pilots not only faced off against Nazis, but also judgment, doubt, and mistreatment by many of their male counterparts. 

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis
The women of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, with their aircraft in the background. (U.S. Air Force)

From the start of WWII, Russian women were looking for ways to contribute in both support roles at home and in hands-on roles near the front lines. These women had a seasoned advocate in their corner, in the form of Soviet pilot Colonel Marina Raskova. 

Raskova, known to many as the “Russian Amelia Earhart,” had already made a name for herself as the first female navigator in the Soviet Air Force, with an impressive number of long distance flights already recorded. Once Raskova began receiving letters from women asking how they could help, she used her position within the military to open up new opportunities for them. Her success was helped by the fact that Joseph Stalin personally knew and respected Raskova and her efforts, and in October of 1941, he ordered her to create three female-only air squads. While two of them inevitably became mixed-gendered, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment remained exclusively women for the entirety of its existence.

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis
A stamp portrait of Marina Raskova in uniform with the insignia of a major of the Soviet Air Force. (WikiMedia Commons)

Around 400 women, ranging in age from 17 to 25, were selected and moved to Engels, where they began training at the Engels School of Aviation. In addition to having to learn years worth of training and information in just a few short months, they also had to deal with misogyny from many of the male soldiers within the Soviet ranks.

Since the women of the 588th were seen by many to be less than, or as “little girls,” they weren’t taken seriously or provided proper equipment. The female pilots were given ill-fitting male uniforms and oversized boots, which they would have to stuff with their own torn up bedding to ensure a better fit. With sexual harassment and ridicule a daily occurrence, these women had to learn quickly how to be stronger both in and outside of battle. 

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis
Night Withes in 1943 (WikiMedia Commons)

They also weren’t able to equip their planes with things like parachutes due to a lack of funds and strict weight limits for the outdated aircraft they were provided. These planes were crop dusters from the 1920s and typically only used for training purposes. Made predominantly of canvas and plywood, the two-person Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes were considered by most to be a death wish if used in combat. 

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis
(WikiMedia Commons)

Since the plane itself already posed so many of its own safety issues, flying at night was really their only way to ensure any sort of stealth and safety. Most runs would happen with three planes, the first two meant to draw attention and enemy fire, with the third being the one to drop the bomb. What made this so dangerous is the fact that the third plane, to avoid detection, would have to cut their engine and glide over their target as quietly as possible.

Getting the engine back up and running after the drop was always a “fingers crossed” kind of scenario, given the age and ability of the aircraft. One of the only things these planes offered in their favor was the fact that, due to their slower top speed, they were able to maneuver faster than the German planes, making it harder to get a target on them. In terms of defense munitions on board, there was little to none. Many pilots would have only a loaded pistol, typically leaving the last bullet for themselves, as suicide was preferrable to being captured.

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis
Irina Sebrova flew 1,008 sorties in the war, more than any other member of the regiment. (WikiMedia Commons)

The main goal of the 588th was to disorient and sleep deprive the enemy, and soon after beginning their runs, it became clear that they were successful. Not only were the Nazi’s thrown off by the near-nightly attacks, but they were also particularly incensed when they learned that an all-woman regiment was responsible. The name Night Witches was given by the Nazis — due to the noise the planes would make when they would glide, engines cut, overhead. They described it as the sound of “brooms sweeping.”

Despite their clear aptitude and success, the Night Witches, a name they wore with pride, continued to receive criticism and contempt from many of the males in the Soviet military throughout their time in the war. They were arguably never given the complete appreciation and recognition they deserved. That didn’t seem to bother them too much, however, and they went on to fly around 30,000 sorties and have 23 of their pilots awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis
Group photograph of several members of the Night Witches, all of whom became heroes of the Soviet Union. Left to right: Tanya Makarova, Vera Belik, Polina Gelman, Yekaterina Ryabova, Yevdokiya Nikulina, and Nadezhda Popova. (WikiMedia Commons)

While the roles of women in the military have continued to grow and evolve across the globe, the Night Witches were instrumental in showing that women are just as capable, even with minimal support, respect, equipment, and with all the odds stacked against them. It’s stories like these, the lesser-known tales, that add so much to history. It’s these stories that set the stage for where we are today.

This article originally appeared on Sandboxx. Follow Sandboxx on Facebook.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The insane way the first cosmonaut got back to Earth

The very first man to go to space was a Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, who rose to the top of his class thanks to his stunning memory, quick reactions, and poise during emergencies. That poise would come in handy since his spacecraft couldn’t survive re-entry, used compromised design components, and ultimately took the astronaut through an 8g spin cycle on his way back to Earth.


Vostok 1

www.youtube.com

Vostok 1

The first manned space mission was launched with Vostok 1, and Yuri Gagarin at the helm. Gagarin had trained for years to be the first human to leave the atmosphere and had gotten the mission because his peers in cosmonaut training had voted that he was the best choice.

But it was a dangerous honor. After all, only animals had entered space before, and the U.S. and Soviet Union had less than stellar records of getting mammals back alive.

And the plan for getting Gagarin back wasn’t one to inspire confidence. First, while Gagarin had been selected partially based on his reflexes, he was locked out of the controls. And it wasn’t certain the spacecraft could slow itself down during re-entry. Instead, it relied on Gagarin ejecting at almost 4.5 miles above the Earth, right after he dealt with all the tumult of hitting the atmosphere.

As a bonus, there was a chance that the controls would simply fail in space, so Gagarin flew with 10 days worth of food in case he had to wait until his orbit decayed naturally.

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis

Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space and first man to orbit this beautiful blue orb.

(NASA archives)

The actual launch on April 12, 1961, went well. The rocket made it into space, the launch vehicle broke away, and Gagarin rode through one orbit of the Earth. So far, so good. But then, the service module failed to separate from the spacecraft.

When the two-module spacecraft hit the atmosphere, the modules tumbled around each other and began to burn up.

“I was in a cloud of fire rushing toward Earth,” he later said.

After about 10 minutes, the cable burned up and Gagarin’s spacecraft re-oriented itself slowly. Freshly drained from a trip around the Earth and an 8g flaming tumble through the atmosphere, Gagarin had to pull himself together and get to work quickly or else he could die on impact like some animals in prior tests.

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis

Yuri Gagarin’s space capsule sits in a museum.

(SiefkinDR, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Because, again, the capsule had little protection for the cosmonaut, and he couldn’t be certain he would survive the capsule’s impact with the Earth. So he had to activate his ejection seat almost 4.5 miles up. Gagarin and his capsule traveled separately from there. Gagarin landed near a farm and walked up, in full orange spacesuit and helmet, to the farmers for help.

He was quickly named a Hero of the Soviet Union and put on a high shelf where he couldn’t be broken. He was able to lobby for a potential return to space though, but a tragic training accident ended his life while he was still preparing for the mission.

On March 27, 1968, he was piloting a MiG-15, entered a steep dive, and crashed into a forest. An investigation in 2010 concluded that a vent was left partially open. This vent was supposed to be closed as the plane entered high-altitude flight so the pilots would have enough air in the cockpit. The investigator supposed that Gagarin and his co-pilot entered a steep dive to get back to a safe altitude to close the vent, but passed out and could never pull out of it.

(As a fun side note, Gagarin asked the bus to stop for him to piss while he was on the way to Vostok 1. Cosmonauts today remember him by taking a leak on their way to the launchpad.)

MIGHTY HISTORY

This was the average day for an ancient Roman soldier

Today, the modern soldier wakes up, eats chow, goes through a day of training with his or her squad before resting up. They follow this schedule every day from Monday to Friday. If the troop is on a deployment, they could work anywhere from 12 to 18 hours (if not more) per day, seven days a week, for nearly a year.

It’s a tough lifestyle.

Once a troop fulfills their service commitment, they can be honorably discharged or reenlist — the choice is theirs.

Now, let’s rewind time to around 15 C.E. The Roman Empire is thriving and you’re an infantryman serving in the Imperial Roman army under Emperor Tiberius. In many ways, life was quite different for the average sword-wielding soldier when compared to today’s modern troop. In other ways, however, things were very much the same.


Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis
A Roman soldier proudly stands in front of his men.

Many young Romans joined the army at the age of 18. Of them, most were poor men with little-to-no life prospects due to being born into a family of low standing. Once they became soldiers, Roman troops had to overcome 36 kilometer (22 miles) marches in full battle rattle.

For these ancient troops, a full loadout consisted of body armor, a gladius (sword), a scutum (shield), and two pilum (spears). This gear weighed upwards of 44 pounds. To add to that weight, troops carried a scarina (backpack), which contained rations and any other tools needed to serve the Roman officers.

At the end of each grueling march, soldiers set up camp to get some rest. Men were assigned to stand watch and look over the others, the gear, and the animals hauling the heavy equipment. Being ambushed in the middle of the night was a constant possibility.

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis
These Roman troops stand in a defensive position awaitng the enemy to strike.

Like most troops, they feared the unknown. At any given moment, they could encounter a fierce battle, contract sickness from other soldiers or the environment, or be left to endure the elements. It was a consist struggle to survive in a cutthroat world that was all about expanding the Roman Empire.

In their downtime, most men would gamble, play instruments, or talk about future plans. If the soldiers served for their full 25-year commitment, they would receive several acres of land on which to retire — but surviving to the end was considered a longshot.

So, in many ways, the typical Roman infantryman was a lot like the ground pounders of today — only they were stuck in the suck for longer.

MIGHTY HISTORY

A brief, deadly history of chemical weapons

On April 22, 1915, a stiff wind outside of Ypres helped loose the first systematic poison-gas attack in history.

On a sunny afternoon in April 1915, outside the Belgian city of Ypres, the wind began blowing in the direction the German troops wanted – toward the French lines. German soldiers set up over 5,000 barrels of chlorine gas along their position, and let loose a rolling cloud of thick, yellow death. More than 6,000 French troops died in what was the first systematic use of poison gas on the battlefield. Its effectiveness caught even the Germans off guard. Willi Siebert, a German soldier, noted in his diary, “When we got to the French lines, the trenches were empty, but in a half mile the bodies of French soldiers were everywhere. It was unbelievable.” Just over 99 years later, on June 17, 2014, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed chlorine gas was used by the Syrian government in an attack on its own people.


Origins and evolution

In 1918, a German chemist named Fritz Haber won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for a method of extracting ammonia from the nitrogen in the atmosphere. The process made ammonia abundant and easily available. Haber’s discovery revolutionized agriculture, with some calling it the most significant technological discovery of the 20th century – supporting half of the world’s food base.

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis
German chemistu00a0Fritz Haber.

Haber was also a staunch German patriot who quickly joined the war effort at the outbreak of World War I. He was insistent on using weaponized gases, despite objections from some army commanders about their brutality, and treaties prohibiting their use. He personally oversaw the first use of chlorine gas at the front lines at Ypres. The next morning, he set out for the eastern front to deploy gas against the Russian army.

Chemical weapons quickly became a mainstay of warfare, public condemnation notwithstanding. They were employed by the militaries of Italy, Russia, Spain, and Japan, among others.

Timeline: chemical weapons use

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis

During the Cold War, the United States and the U.S.S.R. made major advances in chemical-weapons technology. Their breakthroughs were accompanied by innovations in nuclear-weapons technology. It was during this period that the third generation of chemical weapons was invented: nerve agents.

Within a century of their devastating debut at Ypres, chemical weapons have increased in lethality a thousandfold.

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis

Use in Syria’s Civil War

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis

Sources

  • Organization For The Prohibition Of Chemical Weapons (background, locations, types of weapons, stockpiles, number of weapons destroyed)
  • United Nations Human Rights Council (Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic)
  • National Institutes Of Health (effects, history, and lethality)
  • Smithsonian Institute (history)
  • Violations Documentation Center in Syria (fatalities)
  • Human Rights Watch (types of weapons, attack locations)
  • U.S. Defense Department (types of weapons)

This article originally appeared on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Follow @RFERL on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How Washington spent thousands on alcohol in a single (crazy) night

America was built on alcohol. Many of the founding fathers distilled or brewed their own booze because the ingredients needed to make it flourished perfectly in the soil of the newly formed United States. Remember, Samuel Adams isn’t just some fictional mascot made up to publicize a brewing company and Budweiser’s “George Washington recipe” is actually historically accurate.


Also, the terrible road conditions of the time made transporting grains the traditional way, you know, in bread and stuff, a true hardship. It was much easier to just turn whatever you grew into alcohol — which would net an even better profit.

All of this is key to understanding that the founding fathers would more than likely drink any modern military barracks under the table. No single moment best exemplifies this than the time George Washington and his Army buddies celebrated the signing of the Constitution by drinking enough booze to rack up a tab worth roughly $17,253 in today’s currency.

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis

The tavern still exists and there’s still a bar. What could be more American than getting wasted where Washington and his boys drank?

(Photo by Lisa Andres)

It was the night of September 15, 1787, and George Washington had many reasons to celebrate. A few months earlier, in May, he was elected president at the Constitutional Convention. The United States Constitution had just been finalized and debates were finally settling as the momentous document cruised towards its eventual signing, just two days later. This night was also the farewell dinner for Washington before he set off to do bigger and better things.

Washington’s friends in the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry, along with several other framers of the Constitution, decided to throw a celebration at the City Tavern in Philadelphia.

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis

All in all, a good night (This painting is actually from a different night at the Fraunces Tavern in New York. Celebrating with his troops was kind of his thing).

The party had roughly 55 guests, which included troops, politicians, friends, and family — along with 16 more people who were working that night, including musicians, servers, and hosts. The details of the night are hazy but the receipt for the night was saved in the First Troop Cavalry archives.

By the end of the night, Washington’s party drank: 54 bottle of Madeira wine, 60 bottle of Bordeaux wine, 8 bottles of old stock whiskey, 22 bottles of porter ale, 8 bottles of hard cider, 12 jugs of beer, and 7 large bowls of punch. The staff and musicians also drank 16 bottles of Bordeaux wine, 5 bottles of Madeira wine, and seven bowls of punch.

The bill also includes a tab for many broken glasses, which, adjusted for inflation, equals about 0 worth of reimbursements. The final bill came out to £89 and 4 schillings — or roughly ,253 in 2018 dollars.

The impressive part of this story isn’t that they drank it all — or the fact that drinks back then tended to be more potent than their modern counterparts — but the fact that Washington was functional enough just two days later to see the Constitution signed.

So, drink up! Enjoy the Constitution by celebrating its eventual 21st amendment!

H/T to We Are The Mighty reader Eric Carson for his comment that inspired for this article. Thank you very much! You’re awesome.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How Armistice Day became Veterans Day

Growing up, learning about World War I usually involved learning about three things: trench foot, poison gas, and bloody stalemate. Right before the history teacher moves on to World War II, we learn the old mnemonic device — on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, ‘The War to End All Wars’ ended with an armistice.


Then, there was one kickass, worldwide party.

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis
And then…u00a0the sequel.

Obviously, glossing over one of the deadliest, most expensive, and most avoidable wars in American history does the Doughboys of the American Expeditionary Force an injustice. We need to remember that World War I was more than just a prelude to World War II. The horrors of WWI led to the annual recognition of those the who had to fight it. The day The Great War ended came to be remembered thereafter as Armistice Day.

But, when the 11th day of the 11 month rolls around, we all celebrate Veterans Day. What happened?

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis

This is what Armistice Day 1938 looked like in Omaha, Nebraska.

The first public celebration of Armistice Day came in November, 1920. Much like how we celebrate Veterans Day today, the occasion was marked by speeches, parades, and exchange of drinks and stories between veterans of the war. The exception came when that 11th hour rolled around. For a moment, there was a pause in all activities across the country.

In that moment, mere years ago, millions of armed men stopped butchering each other over control of several yards of No Man’s Land.

In 1926, Congress made Armistice Day official, resolving that the “recurring anniversary of November 11, 1918, should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace between nations.” In 1938, Armistice Day became a Federal Holiday.

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis

Literally.

As we all know, the “War to End All Wars” didn’t actually end all wars — or any wars. It actually led very directly to the next war, World War II. Which led to the next war, the Korean War, which was part of a greater war, the Cold War. You get the point. By the time the Korean War ended, there was a whole new generation of war veterans who felt deserving of recognition for a job well done.

Veterans of those war lobbied Congress to change Armistice Day to Veterans Day in 1954, in order to honor veterans of every war. Congress agreed and President Eisenhower signed on to it, too.

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis

Gerald Ford, the voice of reason.

In 1968, Congress acted again. This time, they wanted to give federal employees a couple of three-day weekends throughout the year, so they changed the dates of some major holidays to fall on certain Mondays. Columbus Day, Memorial Day, and Washington’s Birthday were all given Mondays. And Veterans Day was moved from the historic date of November 11 to “the fourth Monday in October.”

The states rightly thought that was a stupid idea and refused to recognize the movement of Veterans Day until President Ford changed it back in 1975.

Veterans Day is currently celebrated nationally on November 11, as it has been for decades. When the day was originally changed to Veterans Day in 1954, it was just in time for then-104-year old Albert Woolson, the last surviving veteran of the Civil War, to celebrate it. With him were two veterans of the Plains Wars, veterans of the Spanish-American War, and vets from the Philippines War.

States, local municipalities, and other governments have declared their own Veterans Days, some dating as far back as the end of World War II, recognizing the courage and sacrifices of every U.S. citizen who answered the country’s call to arms.

MIGHTY HISTORY

A brief history of high stakes US-Russia summits

When U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in July 2018, they’ll shake hands in a city with a history of high-profile negotiations between Moscow and Washington.

The July 16, 2018 talks will mark the fourth time that Helsinki has hosted negotiations between the leaders of the two nuclear powers, continuing Finland’s legacy as neutral territory for the former Cold War foes to hash out their differences.

Finland fought Soviet forces during World War II and signed a cooperation deal with Moscow in 1948. Wary of its massive Soviet neighbor, Finland allowed significant Soviet influence on its domestic and foreign policy while formally retaining its independence.



That approach — which spawned the term Finlandization — continued for decades as the Finnish government sought to maintain a deft balance between the two Cold War superpowers, both of which used the Nordic country as a platform for intelligence-gathering operations.

Offering Helsinki as a forum for negotiations between the Soviets and the West became a prominent strategy by Finland, which joined neither NATO nor the Warsaw Pact, to demonstrate its bona fides as a neutral geopolitical player.

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis

From treaties limiting nuclear weapons to the Helsinki Accords, U.S. – Russia summits have earned quite the legacy.

“From the Finnish perspective, it was part of our active policy of neutrality,” Finnish historian Mikko Majander told RFE/RL. “Finland was between the blocs, East and West, and, by offering good services to international diplomacy, kind of strengthened its position.”

‘Recognition from East and West’

The Finnish capital’s most famous Cold War-era security summit came in 1975 and resulted in the signing of the Helsinki Accords, spelling out the guiding principles — including territorial integrity and respect for human rights — of relations between the United States, the Soviet Union, and 33 European states.

U.S. President Gerald Ford and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev both signed the accords for their respective governments in Helsinki and held arms-control talks there that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger described as “very useful.”

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis

Chancellor of Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) Helmut Schmidt, Chairman of the State Council of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) Erich Honecker, US president Gerald Ford and Austrian chancellor Bruno Kreisky

Speaking to Ford outside the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Helsinki, Brezhnev told Ford that the Soviets backed the Republican’s upcoming election bid — which he would ultimately lose to Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter — and “for our part will do everything we can to make that happen.”

Ford responded that he expected to be elected and expressed support for “the cause of strengthening detente,” according to a Soviet memorandum of the private conversation that, according to the White House, was “reconstructed from scraps of paper retrieved from Brezhnev’s ashtray” at the Helsinki hall where the 1975 summit was held.

Hosting the 1975 summit where the Helsinki Accords were signed was a “major goal of Finnish diplomacy in the early 1970s,” Jussi Hanhimaki, a Finnish historian with the Graduate Institute of Geneva, told RFE/RL.

“This was a way of getting sort of recognition from both the East and the West that yes, the neutrality was for real,” Hanhimaki added.

Bush, Gorbachev, Clinton, Yeltsin

The next meeting of U.S. and Soviet leaders in Helsinki was held in September 1990 between U.S. President George Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Those talks were devoted almost exclusively to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

Two years earlier, Bush’s predecessor, Ronald Reagan, had stopped in Helsinki on his way to Moscow for a summit with Gorbachev. Reagan used his three-day sojourn in the Finnish capital to deliver a speech in which he said “there is no true international security without respect for human rights.”

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev meeting with Ronald Reagan and President-elect George H. W. Bush in New York City in December 1988

The most recent Helsinki-hosted summit between the two sides was held in 1997, when U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin addressed a range of issues, including Moscow’s staunch opposition to NATO expansion into countries of the former Soviet bloc.

According to the White House, the talks nonetheless yielded agreement “on the importance of crafting a cooperative relationship between NATO and Russia.”

Two months later, Russia and NATO signed a historic road map for cooperation known as the NATO-Russia Founding Act. That agreement, however, has been mired in mistrust and mutual accusations of violations following Russia’s 2014 seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea territory and backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine.

‘Bridge-building’

The July 16, 2018 Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki comes amid battered relations between Washington and Moscow over a range of issues, including the Ukraine conflict, Russia’s backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and U.S. accusations of Russian election meddling.

Finland joined the European Union following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It has not joined NATO but did join the alliance’s Partnership For Peace program, and Finnish troops have participated in NATO peacekeeping missions.

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto has maintained contacts with Putin despite the tensions between Moscow and the West and has also met Trump in the White House.

Hanhimaki said Finnish leaders “like to see Finland as very firmly” part of the West, “despite not being a NATO member yet.”

He added that there is some concern in the country “about the meeting giving too much legitimacy to Russia and Russia’s foreign policy.”

“But I think that’s still being overweighed by the fact that…the only way to increase Finland’s international standing today is by acting as a kind of a host,” Hanhimaki said.

Majander told RFE/RL that “from a Finnish perspective, it’s very well that we still can be kind of a bridge-building place.”

“We don’t have our own agenda here, but, of course, we, as a neighbor of…Russia, we want detente relations between the West and the East. And if we can do any service on that, it’s good for us as well,” Majander added.

This article originally appeared on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Follow @RFERL on Twitter.

Articles

This is how you move a World War I railway howitzer to a museum

In World War I, there was a need to hit targets either pretty far off, or which were very hard to destroy.


At the time, aircraft weren’t much of an option – in fact, they really had a hard time carrying big bombs. Often, an aircrewman would drop mortar rounds from a cockpit. So, how does one take out a hard target? They used naval guns mounted on railway cars.

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis
‘Boche-Buster’, a 250-ton 18-inch railway gun, Catterick, 12 December 1940. The gun later travelled down to Kent to take up position at Bishopsbourne on the Elham to Canterbury Line, taken over by the Army for the duration. (Imperial War Museum photo)

Many of these guns came from obsolete armored cruisers – the most common of the rail guns was the BL 12-inch railway Howitzer. The British pressed 81 of these guns into service, and many lasted into World War II. These guns are obsolete now, rendered useless by the development of better aircraft for tactical strikes, from World War II’s P-47 Thunderbolt to today’s A-10 Thunderbolt II, as well as tactical missile and rocket systems like the ATACMS, Scud, and MGM-52 Lance.

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis
An ATACMS being launched by a M270. | Wikimedia Commons

The gun the British were moving didn’t actually serve in World War I. According to a release by the British Ministry of Defence, the BL 18-inch howitzer just missed the Great War, but it did serve in World War II as a coastal defense gun – albeit it never fired a shot in anger, since the Nazis never were able to pull off Operation Sea Lion. The gun was used for RD purposes until 1959, when it was retired and sent to the Royal Artillery headquarters.

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis
BL 18 inch Railway Howitzer, seen in Spoorwegmuseum, Utrecht in the Netherlands. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In 2013, it was briefly loaded to the Dutch railway museum. Later that year, it went to the Royal Armouries artillery museum. It is one of 12 railway guns that survive. The video below from the Smithsonian channel shows how the British Army – with the help of some contractors – moved this gigantic gun.

MIGHTY HISTORY

5 terrifying things US troops faced in Vietnam’s jungles

Anyone who’s ever deployed can tell you there’s more to worry about in the field than just the enemy. While of course the North Vietnamese were the primary concern of American troops in the Vietnam War, just being in the jungle presented an entirely unexpected series of its own challenges – like giant centipedes.


Rumors persisted about things like fragging, rampant drug use, and even the appearance of Bigfoot in Vietnam. But when US troops weren’t earning the Medal of Honor while completely stoned, they were fighting off things that only previously appeared in their nightmares.

Related: This is the story of US troops who think they saw Bigfoot in Vietnam

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis

Bring on the flamethrower.

Giant insects

As seen in the cover photo of this post, the creepy crawlers of the jungle have the space and the food necessary to grow to an insane level. That guy in the photo is Scolopendra subspinipes, also known as the Vietnamese centipede, Chinese redhead, or Jungle Centipede. It’s extremely aggressive, and its venomous bite hurts like hell, sources say. But the fun doesn’t stop with centipedes, giant scorpions were also known to bother American troops in bivouac.

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis

Weaver ants

Imagine you’re in some kind of tank or armored vehicle, busting down trees in the jungle when suddenly, you bust down the wrong tree, one filled with a nest of red ants. These buggers were reportedly immune to the issued bug spray and, given the choice between NVA small arms fire and dealing with red ants in the tank, tank crews would either bail on the tank or man the vehicle completely naked. They were often referred to as “communist ants” because they were red in color and never seemed to attack the Vietnamese.

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis

Very pretty, but also what the KGB used to kill dissidents.

Debilitating plants

Troops in Vietnam were sometimes lifted right up out of troop carriers and other vehicles by low-hanging vines that seemed innocent at first, but as soon as they were touched, constricted around an unsuspecting driver, grabbing them by the arms or neck. They became known as the “wait-a-minute” vines. But that’s just the beginning.

Vietnam’s most beautiful trees and flowers are also its deadliest. Heartbreak Grass, Flame Lillies, Twisted Cord Flowers, and Bark Cloth Trees are all powerful enough to kill a human or cause blindness upon contact or accidental ingestion, which is more common than one might think.

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis

Bring that flamethrower back over here.

Venomous snakes

You know what kinds of animals love a hot, humid place with lots of shade? Reptiles and amphibians, both of which Vietnam has in droves. Vietnam has so many snakes, American troops were advised to just assume they were all deadly – because most of them are. The country is filled with Cobras, Kraits, Vipers, and more. The snakes that weren’t venomous were all giant constrictors, still very capable of murdering you in your jungle sleep.

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis

Yes, troops were mauled by tigers.

Large wildlife

Since we’re talking about giant jungle snakes, we should discuss the other giant creatures that inhabit the wilds of Vietnam. Southeast Asia is also home to aggressive tiger species, leopards, and bears. Those are just the traditional predators. There are also elephants, water buffaloes, and gaurs, giant cows, who will go on a murder rampage that an M-16 isn’t likely to stop.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Here is how World War II rationing worked

One of the most notable parts of being on the home front of World War II was rationing. A lot of stuff was rationed – stuff we take for granted, like gas, sugar, coffee, and food. Part of this was because Axis advances cut off the supplies of some materials, like rubber (the Ames Historical Society notes that 90 percent of America’s rubber came from the Dutch East Indies). But a big part was the fact that the scale of the American build-up required a major shift in using America’s industry.


Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis
USS Arizona after being struck by Japanese in Pearl Harbor.

So, how did it work in the United States? Well, there was a government agency, the Office of Price Administration, that handled the rationing. The rationing didn’t hit right away. Tires were rapidly restricted, simply because what rubber was available was needed for military vehicles and aircraft. Gas rationing, in fact, was intended to help conserve tires, and started in some states in May 1942. This was a month after the Doolittle Raid. Even though the Untied States had turned the tide in the Pacific by December, the gas rationing was extended nationwide.

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis
A ration book for gasoline in the United States. Ironically, the purpose was to conserve tires. (Wikimedia Commons)

The real day-to-day impact came with the food rationing. In 1943, the United States began to ration the canned foods. Part of this was to ensure the military had plenty of the canned food (which formed the basis of the C-ration). But it also cut down on metal consumption – after all, you need a lot of metal to build a Navy that would have almost 6,800 ships by Aug. 14, 1945.

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis
The back of a ration book issued during World War II. (Wikimedia Commons)

When Japan’s surrender was announced on Aug. 15, 1945, the rationing ended. You can see a video showing how the system was explained to Americans in 1943, using a cartoon by Chuck Jones (famous for drawing Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck) below.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FH4yuW2xcLU
MIGHTY HISTORY

5 spies that creatively destroyed the enemy

Spies sacrifice a normal life to provide their country with actionable intelligence. Their patriotism comes at the cost of risking life and limb, imprisonment, and public damnation. Often, they have to think outside the box to accomplish the mission at all costs. The skills earned through the crucible of training combined with a mastery of language and culture make them an exceptional force on (and off) the battlefield.

Intelligence officers aren’t usually recognized (for obvious reasons) for their work in clandestine operations, but their technique, brilliance, and sex appeal has captured the imagination of the masses for generations. When the Government demands secrecy and surgical destruction, they send the best of the best.

Listed below, in no particular order, are five times that spies broke the mold to make the impossible possible.


This OSS Agent Turned Dinner Rolls into Bombs

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Frank Gleason used dinner rolls to transport explosives

Frank Gleason was an officer in the Army’s Engineer Corps during World War II that commanded the most devastatingly brilliant sabotage missions against the Japanese occupation of China. Leveraging small unit leadership and training from Camp X, he lead attacks on bridges, rail lines, and communication systems.

He later served as a supply officer at Cam Ranh Bay in the South China Sea, sending supplies to troops in Vietnam. Gleason was presented the Congressional Gold Medal, America’s highest civilian award, on March 21, 2018.

Virginia Hall’s critical role as an American spy

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Virginia Hall smuggled documents inside her fake leg

Virginia Hall had a hunting accident early on in life that left her with an amputated leg. It was her prosthetic limb (which she named “Cuthbert”) that ended her career aspirations of becoming a diplomat. During World War II, she joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and spent 15 months supporting the French Underground.

She also worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) by relaying information of German activity and disrupting their logistics whenever possible. She smuggled documents in her prosthetic leg and evaded detection with forged French documents. The Germans called her “the most dangerous of all Allied spies.”

The Grave of the Man Who Never Was: Operation Mincemeat

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Major William Martin was a corpse

Glyndwr Michael wasn’t a spy, and nor was Major William Martin, but the deception here was a monumental success of intelligence operations. Glyndwr Michael was a homeless man who died from eating rat poison. His corpse, however, was destined for greater things. The body was drafted and promoted into the Royal Marines. British Intelligence created a backstory for the corpse, complete with a picture of a fiancee, two love letters, a diamond ring with receipt, a furious letter from his disapproving father, and a notice of overdraft from the bank. The body was dressed according to its rank and sent to float off the coast of Spain, attached to a briefcase that contained a (phony) letter, outlining allied war plans. The Germans discovered these plans, adjusted their strategy accordingly, and, in turn, left a key landing spot without important defenses.

The story of love-struck, ID-losing, overdrafting Royal Marine who was marrying a girl his father didn’t approve of was convincing enough to the Germans. You know, as a veteran, I feel personally attacked by the fact that they believed this without question…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lNUNSp0dG30
The Death of the Rainbow Warrior

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 Louis-Pierre Dillais disguised himself as a hippie

Operation Satanic (originally Operation Satanique) was an attack on the Rainbow Warrior on July 10, 1985, ship was owned and operated by GreenPeace and docked in Port Auckland, New Zealand. The crew was on a mission to protest a planned nuclear test in Moruroa by the French.

Louis-Pierre Dillais and Jean-Luc Kister joined the protesters under the ruse that they shared their ideologies. When they believed the crew had disembarked, they attached explosives to the hull of the ship. However, some of the crew returned earlier than anticipated, and the detonation that sunk the ship also killed a crew member.

Meet the KGB Spies Who Invented Fake News | NYT Opinion

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Gorbachev ordered the KGB to lie about AIDS

In the 1980s, the former Soviet Union created a disinformation campaign to convince the world that the United States created the AIDS/HIV virus in Fort Detrick, Maryland, to kill off African-Americans and the LGBT community. The Soviets made their move, and with frightening efficiency, the world believed that the U.S. would do such a thing without evidence. Eventually, we forced the Soviet Union to its knees in 1991, but they fought dirty the whole way down.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Why the Queen of England took a member of Parliament hostage

They do things a little differently over in Britain. They say the U.S. and the UK are two nations separated by a common language — but we’re also separated by food quality and bizarre traditions. Just as the English might be a little concerned when the Leader of the Free World pardons a turkey every year, we’re a little leery when we see Queen Elizabeth II holding a member of Member of Parliament hostage — as she does every year.


It’s now more a Parliamentary tradition more than the political necessity it once was, but every year, the English monarch does take a member of Parliament hostage.

While this may seem like a strange tradition for one of the world’s top ten powers, remember that the United States purposely keeps a lower-ranking member of the Presidential Cabinet away from the State of the Union Address just in case everyone in that room dies somehow.

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis

For example, this would have been your President if something like that happened at the 2018 State of the Union Address. If you know who that is without looking it up, you are 70 percent more ‘Murica than everyone else.

Related: What a ‘designated survivor’ does during the State of the Union

At the opening of Parliament every year, the reigning monarch delivers a speech from the throne. It’s just one part of a grand tradition that really showcases a lot of British governmental history. But before she gets to the throne, a number of fascinating events take place. They first ensure there aren’t any Guy Fawkes impersonators loading gunpowder in the cellar, then the members (called “Peers”) assemble. Then, before the monarch leaves the palace, one of the members of the body is taken hostage to ensure the safe return of the Queen.

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis

“Let us all be prepared to ruuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuumble.”

(Crown photo)

The reason for this was that Parliament hasn’t always been a welcoming place for the monarch. In fact, a very long war resulted from this division that left Britain under the rule of a de-facto military dictatorship for a few years. King Charles I was actually beheaded in 1649 as part of that Civil War.

Nowadays, Parliament keeps Charles’ execution warrant displayed in the monarch’s dressing room as a reminder of what can happen if the Queen oversteps her authority.

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis

Savage.

Once the monarch’s crown and regalia arrives and the Hostage MP is under guard, the Queen departs Buckingham Palace to the Palace of Westminster (where Parliament meets). The Commons are called to assemble in the Lords chamber, where the monarch will deliver her speech.

The sitting monarch has not entered the Commons chamber since Charles I burst in, trying to arrest five members of Parliament whom he believed were using a Scottish invasion as a pretext to rally the people of London to rise against him. We already covered where this took the English Monarchy and Charles I personally.

Savage.

Once assembled in the House of Lords’ Chamber, the Queen will give a speech, written by the Prime Minister and the cabinet, outlining the body’s agenda for the coming year. The whole procession is then done in reverse, with the monarch departing Westminster for Buckingham Palace.

Once the Queen has safely returned to the Palace the Hostage MP is released, presumably unharmed.

Articles

Young Chesty Puller dreamed of being a soldier

That’s right, Marine Corps legend and one of America’s greatest fighters from any branch Lt. Gen. Lewis “Chesty” Puller, a true American Iron Man, spent his childhood dreaming of being a soldier.


Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis
Yeah, this guy was almost a soldier. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps)

Army guys, before you go too nuts with this information, keep in mind that Puller ended up joining the Marine Corps because he was inspired by the Marines’ legendary performance at the Battle of Belleau Wood and because the Corps gave him a chance at leading troops in World War I before it was over.

Yeah, Chesty changed his service branch preferences for the most Puller reason ever: he thought the Marines would let him draw more blood, sooner.

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis
There was a lot of blood to be had in Belleau Wood. (U.S. Marine Corps museum)

Puller grew up as a tough kid and the descendant of soldiers who fought in the Civil War. His grandfather and many other relatives fought for the Confederacy while a great uncle commanded a Union division.

His grandfather was a major who had died riding with Jeb Stuart at Kelly’s Ford. Confederate Maj. John W. Puller had been riding with Maj. Gen. Tomas Rosser when a cannon ball took much of his abdomen out. He continued riding a short distance despite his wounds but died on the battlefield.

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis
A Harper’s Weekly illustration of the Battle of Kelly’s Ford where Maj. John Puller was killed by cannon fire. (Illustration: Public Domain)

The young Lewis Puller grew up on the stories of his grandfather and other prominent Confederate soldiers in the town, and it fueled a deep interest in the military for him. At the time, the Marine Corps was a smaller branch that had fulfilled mostly minor roles on both sides of the Civil War, meaning that there were few war stories from them for Puller to hear.

He even tried to join the Richmond Blues, a light infantry militia, during the U.S. expedition to capture Pancho Villa, but was turned away due to his age.

Those stories and Puller’s love of the outdoors naturally led him to the Virginia Military Institute, a college which, at the time, sent most of its candidates to Army service (now, cadets can choose from any of the four Department of Defense branches).

At the institute, Puller was disappointed by the nature of training. He wanted more time in the woods and working with weapons, but the school’s rifles had been taken by the Army for use in World War I. After only a year of training, Puller told his cousin Col. George Derbyshire, the commandant of cadets of the school, that he would not be returning to VMI the following year.

As Burke Davis relates in his book Marine! The Life of Chesty Puller, Derbyshire tried to get Puller to stay but Puller was thirsty for combat:

“I hope you’re coming back next year, Lewis.”

“No, sir. I’m going to enlist in the Marines.”

“Why?”

“Well, I’m not old enough to get a commission in the Army, and I can get one in the Marines right away. I don’t want the war to end without me. I’m going with the rifles. If they need them, they need me, too.”

His decision came as the Battle of Belleau Wood was wrapping up, a fight which greatly enhanced the Marine Corps’ reputation in the military world. Puller went to Richmond, Virginia, and enlisted in the Marine Corps on June 27, 1918, the day after his 20th birthday and the end of the Battle of Belleau Wood.

Unfortunately for him, he wouldn’t make it to Europe in time for World War I. Instead, he was assigned to train other Marines and achieved his commission as a second lieutenant just before the Marine Corps drew down to a peacetime force, putting many commissioned officers on the inactive list, including Puller.

Night Witches: The female pilots who struck fear into the Nazis
Puller being award a Navy Cross by Gen. Oliver PP. Smith in Nicaragua, ca. 1931. (Photo: Public Domain)

But Puller resigned his commission to return to active service and went to Haiti and Nicaragua where he performed well enough to regain his butterbar and claw his way up the ranks, allowing him to make his outsized impact on World War II and the Korean War.

Many of the details from this story come from Marine! The Life of Chesty Puller by Burke Davis. It’s available in print or as an ebook.