The Untold, True Tale of the Night Witches

This Stealth Squadron of Fearless, Female-Fighter Pilots Got the Nazis to Surrender to the Soviets During WWII

Virtually unrecognized until recently, these small-town, gallant gals are finally being hailed as heroines.  Meet the bold, badass legion of ladies who bravely besieged the merciless Nazi party, ultimately winning the war for the Soviets – and all by flying through the ominous darkness in plywood planes!

    No, it’s not an urban legend.  These war-winning women, dubbed “The Night Witches,” were so hated by the Nazi army that if any German soldier successfully downed any one of their plywood bi-planes, they were dutifully awarded the coveted Iron Cross medal. The pioneering pack of formidable females – the 588th Night Bomber Regiment – reportedly dropped more than 23,000 tons of bombs on Nazi targets, becoming a revered Soviet asset in winning World War II. Nicknamed Nachthexan, “Night Witches” by the Germans because of the “whooshing” noise that emanated from their clandestine wooden planes that eerily resembled a wicked witch’s broom, these indomitable dames courageously dodged bullets in the air and battled unbidden, sexual harassment on the ground. With the planes too tiny to be detected by radar, the distinct sound was the German’s only warning of the encroaching women – the foreboding Boogey- women of the deep, dark, nighttime skies!

    Unsurprisingly, an all-women squadron was not the first choice of the Soviets. But, with the Nazis perilously advancing, the Soviet leaders re-visited their war relations policy. Becoming increasingly desperate, especially with Hitler’s launch of Operation Barbarossa on the Soviet territory and the Red Army under siege, the Soviets had no other choice. And, so the 588th first mission on June 28th, 1942 successfully took aim at the headquarters of the invading Nazi forces.

A Leading Lady

    The surreptitious squadron was the brainchild of Marina Raskova, the Amelia Earhart of the Soviets, who was not only the first female navigator in the Soviet Air Force but a decorated, long-distance flyer. At the behest of fellow females wanting to join the war efforts as flyers and gunners, especially after losing their husbands, sweethearts, and brothers and witnessing the devastation of their villages and homes by the ruthless Nazis, Raskova petitioned Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to let her form the all-female fighting battalion. On October 8th, 1941, Stalin acquiesced, ordering the deployment of three, all women air force units. Not only would the women fly the planes and launch bomb attacks on the Nazi targets, they would RETURN fire – an unprecedented achievement for the Soviets and the first nation to allow women to engage in combat.

    Selecting 400 women from over 20,000 applications, Raskova was able to fill each of the three allotted units. Mostly students ranging from 17-26 years of age, the women swiftly relocated to Engels, a small town north of Stalingrad, where they would rigorously train to become pilots, navigators, and maintenance and ground crew all in a few short months. Historically, male soldiers trained for several years to comprehend what these eager women did in a fraction of the time. And, naturally, their male counterparts were intimidated, often sexually harassing the women or belittling their expertise.

Second-hand Sundries and Other Stuff

    Unprepared for the first-ever, female-fighting crew, the women were forced to make-do with not- so-female-friendly relics and resources, i.e, oversized uniforms, too-big boots, rudimentary supplies, and antiquated aircraft. Constructed of flimsy plywood of canvas, the lightweight, 2- seater, open cockpit biplanes were never intended for combat or bullets. Offering virtually zero protection from the elements while in flight, the ladies valiantly risked their lives with every mission they “wo-manned.” If their plane happened to be hit by a tracer bullet, which, incidentally, carried a pyrotechnic charge, the plane would instantly burst into an inferno, lighting up the nighttime sky.

    However, there was an upside to these seemingly precarious planes. Due to the planes’ lightweight, they were able to reach maximum speeds that could exceed those of their more sophisticated aircraft counterparts, making them hard-to-target for the unsuspecting enemy. Fun facts: during their downtime, the ladies often partook in needlework, dancing, dining, and employing their navigation pencils as smoky eyeliner. Talk about double-duty beauty! These inventive, revolutionary women were definitely ahead of their time. Today’s barrage of Instagram influencers have nothing on these brawny beauties!

The Nazis’ Nocturnal Nemesis

    With the substantial weight of the bombs, the planes were only able to fly the Night Witches at lower altitudes, hence the nighttime-only missions. Flying in packs of two, the first plane would enter enemy territory as “bait,” alerting the Germans’ artillery spotlights and providing much-needed illumination for the Night Witches. The partnered plane would then go in for the kill, creating the chilling, signature “witch’s broom” sound. The Night Witches’ final mission took place on May 4th, 1945 after flying within 37 miles of Berlin, Germany. The Germans officially surrendered three days later.

    With the substantial weight of the bombs, the planes were only able to fly the Night Witches at lower altitudes, hence the nighttime-only missions. Flying in packs of two, the first plane would enter enemy territory as “bait,” alerting the Germans’ artillery spotlights and providing much-needed illumination for the Night Witches. The partnered plane would then go in for the kill, creating the chilling, signature “witch’s broom” sound. The Night Witches’ final mission took place on May 4th, 1945 after flying within 37 miles of Berlin, Germany. The Germans officially surrendered three days later.

    The Germans deduced the Night Witches’ success to either one of two, inane theories:  they were crafty criminals who mastered the art of thievery and were being forced into fighting a war as atonement for their misdemeanors OR they endured a series of innovative injections that bestowed upon them magical powers to see in the night!

    Though their unrelenting feat was highly revered by the Soviet Air Force, the Night Witches battalion was disbanded six months following the end of World War II. Regrettably, the Night Witches were excluded from partaking in the victory parade in Moscow because their little wooden planes were deemed “too slow.”

 

We commend you, gallant GoGirls.  May you forever fly amongst the stars.