The Night Witches – Russia’s Girl Power

They always came at night, swooping down low on their terrorised targets under the cover of darkness.  They were called Night Witches, and they were highly effective at what they did, even though the wooden craft from which they attacked was far more primitive than anything belonging to their enemy.

So who were these Night Witches?  They were the members of the Soviet Union’s all-woman 588th bomber regiment that bedeviled the Nazis during World War II.  The group’s main mission was to harass and strike fear into the Nazis by bombing enemy targets at night, which it did with such success that the Germans nicknamed them the Nachthexen, the Night Witches.   Although these “witches” didn’t actually fly on broomsticks, the Polikarpov PO-2 biplanes they flew were hardly much better.  These antiquated biplanes were made of wood and were excruciatingly slow.

The first women to become Night Witches did so in answer to a call put out by Radio Moscow in 1941, announcing that the country, which had already suffered devastating military personnel and equipment losses to the Nazis, was “seeking women who wanted to be combat pilots just like the men.”  Women, who were mostly in their twenties, came from all over the Soviet Union in hopes that they would be selected to help their country beat back the Nazi threat.  Not only were the pilots of the 588th Regiment all women, so were its mechanics and bomb loaders.   There were also two other less famous all-women Soviet Union regiments, the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment and the 587th Bomber Aviation Regiment.

In 1942, three of the 588th planes took off on the regiment’s first mission.  Although the Night Witches would unfortunately lose one plane that night, they were successful in their mission of bombing the headquarters of a German division.  From that time onwards, the Night Witches would fly over 24,000 sorties, sometimes completing as many as 15 to 18 missions in a night.  The 588th would also drop approximately 3,000 tons of bombs.  Twenty-three of the Night Witches would be awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal and a number of them would also be awarded Orders of the Red Banner.  Thirty of these brave women would unfortunately be killed in action.

Although the PO-2 planes these women flew were very slow, with a top speed of only approximately 94 miles per hour, they were very maneuverable, so the women were able to elude the faster, but less agile German fighter planes.   The old wooden PO-2 planes also had a canvas covering that made it slightly less visible to radar, and the heat created by its small engine would often go unnoticed by the enemy’s infrared detection devices.

The Night Witches were skilled pilots who could actually, if necessary, fly their planes low enough to be hidden by hedgerows.  These talented women pilots would also sometimes cut their engines as they approached a target in the dark for a silent but deadly attack, dropping bombs on the unsuspecting enemy before they could react, and then restarting their engines to make their escape.

Another tactic employed by the Night Witches was to send two planes in to draw the attention of the Germans, who would then aim their searchlights and flak guns at the biplanes.  A third plane would then sneak up on the preoccupied Germans and take them out with bombs.  The frustrated German High Command eventually began offering an Iron Cross to any of its pilots that were able to shoot down a Night Witch.

Most people would say that it takes balls to fly a plane as antiquated and slow as a PO-2 into combat again and again, especially when the aircrafts often came back shredded with bullet holes.  Well, those people would obviously be wrong.  It takes more than balls.  It takes a Night Witch.

Alex Browne studied History at Kings College London and is an Assistant Editor at Made From History. He specializes in post-war history in the USA and Central America.