Throughout the 1930s pilots around the world were continually trying to push the limits of anything that had been done before in the air. While the likes of Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart are more familiar names in the Western World, the Soviets had their own equivalents such as Mikhail Gromov who, in 1937 along with his two man crew, managed to break the world distance record for non-stop flight, flying 6,306 miles from Moscow to California via a rather dangerous North Pole route. Hailed as heroes upon their return, Premier Joseph Stalin decided the Soviet Union should follow this up in 1938 by having a group of women pilots attempt to set the distance record for non-stop flight for a female crew. The selected trio, who each already held one or more world records for female aviators, were Polina Osipenko, Valentina Grizodubova, and Marina Raskova.
And so it was that on Sept. 24, 1938 the three ladies took off from an airfield in Shchcyolkovo near Moscow, in a Tupolev ANT-37, which normally had a range of about 5,000 km or 3,100 miles. Their destination was Komsomolsk-on-Amur over 3600 miles away. Unfortunately for them almost immediately upon departing they encountered a number of issues including a thick layer of clouds and icing conditions which forced them to climb above said clouds, in the process losing all sight of the ground for the duration. Not long after this, their radio stopped working. Without a clear view of the ground for almost the entire flight, Raskova used the stars, a compass, and their airspeed to roughly determine their position as they flew. When the clouds finally broke, they found themselves flying over Tugur Bay in the Sea of Okhotsk, about 500 km or 300 miles directly north of their intended destination.
1938 photo of Marina Raskova.
Low on fuel, they desperately attempted to find an alternate place to land, but the engines died first. With some form of a crash landing inevitable and a navigator no longer having anything to do, Grizodubova ordered Raskova to parachute out of the plane from about 6,500 feet with the hope that it would increase her odds of survival. Of course, decreasing her odds slightly, she chose to leave her emergency survival kit for the other two women, reportedly only taking two chocolate bars with her for rations to trek through Siberia with. When Raskova safely hit the ground, she noted the direction the plane was gliding and began hiking after it.
As for the pilot and co-pilot still aboard, they were forced to make a gear up, dead-stick landing in a frozen swamp near the upper part of the Amgun River, in the end successfully executing what is termed in pilot-speak as a “good landing”- in that all occupants survived and were able to walk away from the wreckage.
As for Raskova, she hiked for a full ten days before finally locating the downed aircraft and her comrades. Not long before she arrived, a search crew located the plane. While this was a good thing for the women, unfortunately two of the search planes collided overhead and killed all 15 aboard as the horrified pilots watched from below. A few days later, the women were picked up via boat.
When they arrived back in Moscow, their harrowing journey, which managed 3,671.44 miles in 26 hours and 29 minutes (though in truth they had flown some 6,450 km or 4,007 miles total), had indeed set the distance record for a straight line, non-stop all-woman crew. That, along with how they handled themselves in such adverse conditions saw them lauded as heroes across the Union, including quite literally being given the “Hero of the Soviet Union” award, among other honors.
Fast-forwarding about three years later in June of 1941, Germany decided to invade. During Operation Barbarossa, almost 4 million troops were thrown at the Soviet Union, and in one fell swoop the Axis managed to destroy approximately 66 airfields and about 80% of the military aircraft in the Soviet Union at the time.
German troops at the Soviet state border marker, June 22, 1941.
With an abundance of pilots and few planes, you might think this was not exactly an ideal environment for female pilots of the era to be given a job- especially not in combat- but two factors saw Stalin convinced establishing all female squadrons was something they should do. First, Raskova wouldn’t stop berating Stalin about it, noting both in the air and on the ground that forgoing using half your populace when the enemy was almost at the doorsteps of Moscow was foolish. Another factor was that among the planes still available were a large number of Polikarpov Po-2’s- an open cockpit two seat 1928 biplane made of wood and fabric, mostly meant for flight training and crop dusting.
Slow and plodding, the Polikarpov cruised along at a breakneck pace of about 68 mph (109 km/hr) and a never exceed if you don’t want your wings to fall off speed of 94 mph (151 km/hr). Combine that with a maximum climb rate of a mere 500 feet per minute (152 meters) while traveling at a speed not that much faster than Usian Bolt while ascending, and these weren’t exactly planes male pilots were itching to fly to the front in…
For reference here, the Luftwaffe were flying such planes as the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 Würger, which had an engine possessing about 25 times the horsepower as the Polikarpov, cruised along at 280 mph (450 km/hr), with maximum speeds of 426 mph (685 km/hr), and could climb in excess of 3,000 ft/min. That’s not to mention this plane came equipped with dual 13 mm MG 131 machine guns. The pilots of the Polikarpov Po-2’s, on the other hand, were given hand pistols as their air to air combat weapon… No doubt when in a dog fight, they also were instructed to make “pew pew pew” sounds to increase the effectiveness of their arsenal.
If all that wasn’t bad enough, should one get shot down or the fabric of the aircraft catch fire, which occasionally happened when tracer bullets ripped through them, as weight was at a premium, the pilots weren’t given parachutes… On top of that, the planes themselves did not come equipped with radios or any other such equipment. A map, a compass, a pistol, and their wits were what the stick and rudder Po-2 pilots brought with them on their combat missions.
A damaged and abandoned Po-2 forced to land in Ukraine, and subsequently captured by German troops, 1941.
Now, you might at this point be wondering what possible use these pilots could serve flying these planes into combat other than reducing the Soviet population by a couple hundred pilots. Well, the one marginally potent weapon the planes did come equipped with was bombs- up to six of them, weighing approximately 110 lbs each (50 kg).
Planes few wanted to fly sitting on the ground and Raskova refusing to shut up about it, Stalin ordered her to form three all female squadrons, though the 588th Bomber Regiment, who would come to use the Polikarpov Po-2’s, was the only one to remain exclusively staffed by women throughout the war.
As for the young ladies who volunteered to fly in these death traps, they ranged from about 17 years old to their early 20s. And while you might think the name they’d soon be given would be something along the lines of “Target Practice”, their incredible effectiveness and near non-stop bombardment of the Germans at the front starting on June 8, 1942 and continuing all the way to Berlin, earned them another nickname — The Night Witches.
So just how effective were they? For the approximately four years they were active, they flew close to an astounding 30,000 missions, with an average of about 250 missions each. To put this in perspective, airmen aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress in 1944 had a 1 in 4 chance of surviving to the 25 mission mark for their rotation. But in the case of the Night Witch bombers, some flew near or greater that number in under a week. One, who we’ll discuss shortly, almost managed that number of missions in a single night. Despite the incredible number of missions they flew, over the course of the war, of the 261 women that flew in the 588th, only 32 died, and a handful of those not from combat, but tuberculosis.
A Polikarpov Po-2, the aircraft type used by the regiment.
This bring us to Nadezhda Popova, who managed the record of 18 missions in a single night when she helped chase the Axis as they retreated from Poland. Popova, who started flying at aged 15, was a flight instructor by 18, and decided to join up not long after her brother, Leonid, was killed in the early stages of the conflict. She states, “I saw the German aircraft flying along our roads filled with people who were leaving their homes, firing at them with their machine guns. Seeing this gave me feelings inside that made me want to fight them.”
The Nazis would soon come to regret making an enemy of Popova, who shortly was about to go all John Wick on them for killing her brother. But before that, unfortunately for her, when she tried to enlist, she was turned away, with Popova later stating of this, “No one in the armed services wanted to give women the freedom to die.”
Nevertheless, given her credentials, when the 588th was formed when she was 19 years old, they had a place for her. She would go on to fly an incredible 852 missions during the war, despite, as she stated in an interview in 2009, “Almost every time, we had to sail through a wall of enemy fire. 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…. It was a miracle we didn’t lose more aircraft. Our planes were the slowest in the air force. They often came back riddled with bullets…”
On that note, after returning from one mission where she was tasked with dropping supplies to ground troops who were bottled up in Malaya Zemlya, she found 42 bullet holes in her plane, one in her helmet, and a couple in her map. It was then that she joked with her navigator, “Katya, my dear, we will live long!”
In truth, Popova, who became a squadron commander, survived the war, among other honors receiving the Hero of the Soviet Union, the Order of Lenin, and was a three time Order of the Red Banner recipient (awarded for extreme heroism and courage demonstrated in battle), twice awarded the Order of the Patriotic War 1st class… and the list goes on and on- badass. She was a badass basically.
As for her life after, she married an airmen, Semyon Kharlamov, who she met after the two had separately been shot down on Aug. 2, 1942. While she couldn’t see his face as it was covered in bandages, they hit it off as they joked around together during their trek back to safety. They got hitched almost immediately on war’s end. For work after, she continued her pre-war career as a flight instructor, ultimately living to the ripe old age of 91 years old, dying on July 8, 2013.
Going back to the squadron as a whole, given their extreme vulnerability in the air, you might at this point be wondering how these women not only almost all survived, but proved to be so incredibly effective?
Well, given their slow speed, the fact that in a dogfight they’d quickly be made into Swiss cheese by enemy planes, and the fact that they needed to deploy their paltry payloads at extremely low altitudes to actually accurately hit a target, meaning ground based crew could likewise easily turn the pilots of these craft into wreckage riders, flying missions in daylight with any regularity wasn’t really an option if one liked to keep breathing.
Thus, in an era before incredibly accurate terrain mapping and GPS systems to help avoid said terrain, these women voluntarily hopped inside their antiquated pieces of equipment and ascended to the heavens in darkness- the darker the better.
Stealth was their only way of surviving, and they used it to their advantage at every opportunity. Navigating in darkness towards their assigned enemy targets, usually hugging the ground as much as possible until getting close to their targets to avoid being spotted by enemy aircraft, once they located their targets, the women would employ a number of strategies to actually get close enough to deliver their deadly payloads. These included doing things like flying in groups and intentionally having one or two of the planes up high attract the attention and fire from those on the ground, while others would idle their engine and try to slip in closely undetected. Another strategy was to do what is generally considered in aviation 101 as a great way to die, especially in the often frigid environments these women were flying in- cut their engines completely in flight and at relatively low altitudes.
They’d then silently descend onto their targets until almost literally right over the heads of the enemy and finally drop their bombs, kick the engine back to life (hopefully) and get back to base as fast as possible to be loaded back up and sent out again and again to the front line.
Describing this, the chief of staff for the 588th, Irina Rakobolskaya, noted, “One girl managed to fly seven times to the front line and back in her plane. She would return, shaking, and they would hang new bombs, refuel her plane, and she’d go off to bomb the target again.”
Popova would state of this strategy, “We flew in sequence, one after another, and during the night, we never let them rest… the Germans made up stories. They spread the rumor that we had been injected with some unknown chemicals that enabled us to see so clearly at night…. This was nonsense, of course. What we did have were clever, educated, very talented girls…”
Popova with Russian president Medvedev in 2009.
Effective, one German soldier would later state in an interview after the war of the Night Witches, they were “precise, merciless and came from nowhere.”
Dedicated to delivering their payloads no matter what, one former 588th member stated that occasionally the bombs would get stuck when trying to drop them just over the target. The solution was simply to have one of the two women in the plane scramble out on the wing and kick it loose, often while under heavy enemy fire- all leading author Kate Quin to note, “You women are crazy. You’re incredibly brave, but my god you’re crazy.”
A sentiment Popova would later echo in her waning years, stating, “I sometimes stare into the blackness and close my eyes. 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?”
Moving on to the nickname the Germans gave them and which they would so proudly embrace once they learned of it, it is widely speculated that this was because of the wooshing sound the planes made as they glided down through the air, like the sound a witch flying on her broomstick. However, there is no primary documentation backing this speculation up at all, despite it being almost universally repeated. And, for our part, we’re just guessing not a single German soldier ever actually had heard the wooshing sound of a witch flying on a broomstick to compare. So allow us to suggest our own alternate hypothesis- that it wasn’t so much the sound that was the inspiration, but, instead, the name “The Night Witches” was actually because these were women, flying at night, on aircraft made of wood, not unlike a witch flying on a broomstick.
Whatever the case, in the end, for their heroism, almost 1 in 10 of the women of the 588th were honored with the Hero of the Soviet Union award. For reference here, while that award was given out almost 13,000 times over the entire life of the Soviet Union, the badass ladies of the 588th accounted for approximately 1/4 of all women who ever received it.
This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.
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