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As the war raged on the Eastern Front, the Soviet Union was in dire need of pilots to combat the relentless advance of the German forces. In response, Marina Raskova, herself a pioneering aviator, proposed the formation of female combat air regiments. Thus, in October 1941, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment was born, later to be known as the "Night Witches" by their German adversaries.

What set these women apart was not just their gender but their method of operation. Flying outdated Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, these wooden-framed, canvas-covered relics were dubbed "crop dusters" by the Germans, hardly a match for the formidable Luftwaffe. However, it was precisely this underestimation that became their greatest advantage.

Operating under the cover of darkness, the Night Witches struck terror into the hearts of the enemy. Flying low and slow, their Po-2s emitted a distinctive whooshing sound, resembling a witch's broomstick, hence their ominous moniker. With no parachutes and minimal defensive armament, they navigated through the night skies, dropping their payloads of bombs on unsuspecting German encampments and supply lines.

Under cover of darkness, the Night Witches would fly low and slow to drop bombs on enemy targets with remarkable precision. These pilots managed to drop bombs often completely undetected, as they would turn off their engines, allowing them to glide silently over enemy targets. Turning off the engines also made the planes less visible to searchlights, giving the pilots an advantage in evading enemy fire.

The Night Witch’s success was in part due to their stealth tactics. These pilots would fly their Polikarpov Po-2 planes in groups of three. As the women approached their targets, two planes would veer off in different directions. These planes drew the searchlights and flack guns away from the third plane, which would fly alone toward the target. Inside the third plane was a navigator who identified when the time was right and a pilot who would turn off her engine after receiving a tap on the shoulder. Then, drifting towards the target silently, the third plane would “woosh” over the target, with the navigator dropping her bombs. This routine continued until all three planes had dropped their loads.

 

Originally named the U-2, the Polikarpov Po-2 was renamed after its inventor Nikolai N. Polikarpov, following his death in 1944, by Enzo Angelucci, 1980, via Women in History

But it wasn't just their skill in piloting that made them formidable; it was their unwavering courage in the face of relentless danger. Subjected to intense anti-aircraft fire and the constant threat of enemy fighters, these women displayed a resilience that defied all odds. They flew countless missions, often enduring freezing temperatures, mechanical failures, and the loss of comrades, yet they never wavered in their commitment to the cause.

The witches were forced to wear old uniforms and boots discarded by their male counterparts. Their planes were rickety biplane crop-dusters — “a coffin with wings,” as another writer told the History Channel.

But none of that mattered to the Night Witches. 

“It’s quite astounding when you’re looking at a picture of this Russian babushka,” Quinn said, “and she’s saying something about ‘Oh yes, you know, when the bomb gets stuck on the rack you just climb out on the wing at a thousand meters and, you know, you just lay flat and you give it a push.’”

“You women are crazy. You’re incredibly brave, but my god you’re crazy.”

The bonds between the female bomber pilots resembled the bonds formed between men in the trenches. They’d sing and dance on the airfield while waiting for the sun to set. They’d help each other with laundry. They’d complain to one another about the misery of wearing men’s underwear.

And then, as darkness descended, they became killing machines.

Their impact on the war effort was profound. The Night Witches disrupted German operations, hampered supply lines, and struck fear into the hearts of the enemy. 

The Women of the Soviet Air Force by Nikolai Ignatiev, via Women in History

So who were these amazing women? 

It was back in the 1930s, with the black clouds of war gathering over the skies of Europe once more, that the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin pushed to demonstrate its technical prowess to the rest of the world, particularly in the air, where the Soviets established a number of endurance records for aircraft.  

Often credited as the Soviet Union’s Amelia Earhart, Marina Raskova was the first woman to qualify as a navigator in the Soviet Air Force in 1933 and was part of a record-breaking attempt for female aviators that saw her crew fly over 4,000 miles in a converted DB-2 long range bomber.

This earned her celebrity status in the Soviet Union and crucially, influence over Stalin himself. For when war would finally break out between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, Raskova would come to Stalin with a plan for women to join the men in the fight against fascist tyranny. This plan would result in one of the most famous flying units of World War II – the Night Witches.

Marina Raskova was a trailblazing figure in Soviet aviation history, renowned for her pioneering spirit, exceptional skill as a pilot, and unwavering dedication to the advancement of women in aviation.

Born on March 28, 1912, in the village of Moscow Oblast, Russia, Raskova exhibited a passion for flying from a young age. Despite facing societal barriers to women in aviation, she pursued her dreams relentlessly. In 1931, she enrolled in the Zhukovsky Air Force Academy, becoming one of the first female navigators in the Soviet Union.

Raskova's talent and determination quickly propelled her to prominence in the male-dominated field of aviation. She set numerous aviation records, including long-distance flights and altitude records, earning her widespread acclaim and recognition.

A piece of trivia for you..... when Popova was shot down in action over the North Caucasus in 1942, she joined a retreating Soviet infantry unit, and met a male Soviet pilot, Semyon Kharlamov, who also had been shot down. The two pilots, who both were awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal in 1945, fell in love and married, and were together until Kharlamov's death in 1990.

German soldiers could automatically earn an Iron Cross Medal if they shot down a single Night Witch plane out of the sky. Night Witch pilots were trained to fly in complete darkness and relied on the light of the moon and stars to guide them.

In their three years of operation, from 1942 to 1945, the regiment logged 28,676 flight hours, dropped over 3,000 tons of bombs and 26,000 incendiary shells, and conducted over 30,000 combat missions. These women also managed to damage or destroy several vital landmarks, including 17 river crossings, nine railways, two railway stations, 26 warehouses, 12 fuel depots, 176 armored cars, 86 prepared firing positions, and 11 searchlights.

My conclusion? Being a hero has nothing to do with gender. It is about Patriotism. Guts. Passion. Determination. Skill. Bravery. I have to wonder how many people today can attest to those attributes? 

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