There’s a saying which goes ‘Give a woman a single cell and she’ll give you a baby. Give a woman flour and she’ll give you bread, etc’. What happens when World War 2 is raging and you give 80 women the shittiest biplanes you have? They gave us the Night Witches.
In 1941 the German army was dangerously close to Moscow and Marina Raskova, already an accomplished military pilot, was asked to create a female only aviation regiment. She created the 588th regiment, and from the mechanics to the pilots, everyone was female. Their purpose was to conduct ‘harassment’ attacks, bombing German factories and pissing them off in general. There were a few problems, however. Though women were allowed to be pilots, they did not have access to the same equipment as the male pilots, and the women of the 588th had to make do with Polikarpov Po-2s. These biplanes made of wood and canvas, out of date since the first world war and mainly used for crop dusting. Even worse, these were not planes designed for carrying much. They could only hold six bombs. That its, they could only hold six bombs if the pilot and her co-pilot didn’t wear parachutes.
This didn’t deter the enlistees, most of them in their late teens or early twenties. Training began in Engels, just north of Stalingrad, and on June 8th, 1942, they flew their first mission. Their target: the headquarter of a German division. Though one plane was lost in the attacked, the pilot and co-pilot assumed dead, the raid was successful. Nadezhda Popova, who enrolled in an aviation school at just fifteen, recalls that it was a miracle the Night Witches hadn’t suffered more casualties. After the war, said she looked at the night sky sometimes and remembers her harrowing missions, asking aloud “Nadezhda, how did you do it?”
They did it through death defying arial acts. Their biplanes were far too noisy for stealth missions, so the Night Witches had to stall their engines midair to coast down to their targets. When the Germans tried to shoot them down, they would use their slow stalling speeds to their advantage. They could slow their planes far more than their enemies could, forcing the Germans to fly past them, turn around, and try to take another shot, only to be met with the same tactic. That wasn’t the only trick they thad, though. They could fly their planes so low to the ground, they would be concealed by hedge rows and trees. Their wood and canvass planes made them almost impossible to detect by heat seekers and radar. In fact, only the noise of the wind flying through the canvas of their planes alerted the Germans to their presence, but by then it would be too late. It was this noise, likened to the sound of broomsticks sweeping a wood floor, that gave the 588th regiment their nickname. Nachthexen, in German, translated into English as ‘Night Witches’.
By the end of the war the Night Witches had flown over 23,000 missions and dropped over 3,000 tons of bombs.