German soldiers stand watch, fighting the cold temperatures of the Russian winter. They can hear the planes before they can see them, the sound of the propellers indicating an attack. Taking the bait laid out in front of them, the soldiers shine the spotlights up to the sky, unwittingly giving the Russian pilots a better view of their camp.
The pilots in the front of the pack light flares, illuminating the targets for the planes behind them. The planes in the back idle their engines, and gracefully fly down to drop the bombs on their target. The whooshing of the wooden planes was compared to the sound of a witch’s broom flying through the night.
Operating almost entirely under the cover of darkness, the Night Witches were one of the most feared squadrons during World War II. The all-female regiment flew over 30,000 missions and were seen as such a threat to the Nazi forces that shooting one down would automatically grant a soldier the Iron Cross medal.
Women across the world pressed to be included in the fighting effort during World War II. Almost half of all doctors, surgeons, and paramedics in the Soviet Armed Forces were women, while 100 percent of all nurses were women. But they wanted to do more.
Marina Raskova was the first female navigator in the Soviet Air Forces and is seen as the mother of the Night Witches movement. She received letters from women all across the Soviet Union wanting to participate in the war effort against the Nazi’s.
On June 22, 1941, Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbossa, German invasion of the Soviet Union. The operation was bloody on both sides, and Soviet forces experienced high qualities as the German’s pressed forward.
Raskova saw the Soviet need for more forces and petitioned Josef Stalin to create the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. On October 8th, 1941, the order was given from Stalin himself, ordering the creation of three all women air force units. Raskova received over 2,000 applications and selected 400 of the best candidates for the three units.
Nothing is ever easy for a woman, especially not in 1941 Soviet Union. The women began training and were expected to learn years’ worth of training in a couple months. The pilots received hand me down uniforms from male soldiers that were far too large. The planes the units used were Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, crop dusters from the 1920’s that had been strictly used for training.
The planes were made out of plywood and canvas. In the Russian winter temperatures during the day can get as low as −10 °C (14 °F), and the 588th conducted their missions at night. The plywood planes provided almost no protection against the elements.
To the average viewer, it seems the Night Witches were set up to fail, but they took these planes that no Russian man would dare fly into combat, and they turned it into an advantage. The planes were slower than the stall speed of German planes, making it easier to evade the German fighters.
What happened when the Night Witches came under fire? They ducked. The planes had almost no defensive ammunition and if they were hit by a tracer bullet their planes would catch on fire. So, the women would dive and duck the bullets.
The planes also could only carry a limited weight. Each plane would have two women, a pilot and a navigator. The planes could carry two bombs but could not carry much else in weight. Because of this they could not carry parachutes, radar, guns, or radio. They used traditional maps, compasses, pencils, stopwatches, and flashlights to navigate their missions.
Marina Raskova was killed January 4, 1943. In total the Night Witches lost 30 pilots. 24 of the pilots were awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union. Raskova was given a state funeral and is buried in the Kremlin.
The Night Witches were disbanded six months after the end of the war and couldn’t fly in the victory parade due to their planes being too slow. They went back to being wives and mothers, but they’re heroics in defeating the Nazi regime live on.