World War II was a titanic struggle of ideologies, one of the darkest times in human history. While most Americans are fairly well aware of America’s role in the massive conflict, few are as aware of the nature of the struggle between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. This is perhaps because, soon after the war ended, the iron curtain fell and the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union began.
The fight between the two totalitarian states was not merely a war–it was an existential struggle between ideologies, driven by mutual hatred and the massive egos of their iron-fisted rulers. This fight would eventually encompass soldiers and civilians alike, both men and women. This was especially true of Soviet Russia, who suffered horrifically during the Nazi invasion. The strain was so great that, unlike other combatants, the Soviets called upon women to fight on the front lines of the war. The most feared of these women warriors were the pilots of the 588th Bomber regiment, who became known among Nazi troops by a fearsome moniker–the Night Witches.
Russia’s Darkest Hour
In 1941, Hitler ordered his Wehrmacht to launch Operation Barbarossa, the full scale invasion of the Soviet Union. Technologically inferior and caught by surprise, the Red Army was shoved back on all fronts, suffering horrific losses.
The slaughter continued into 1942, when Radio Moscow made a strange and surprising announcement, calling for young female pilots from all over the Soviet empire to come do their part against the onslaught. Women from the far reaches of the Soviet Union made their way across vast distances, craving revenge against the German aggressor. Most of them were pilots from local flying clubs with no combat experience. These raw troops were as ill-equipped as any other Soviet unit. They given hand-me-down uniforms from male soldiers and expected to fly slow, rickety, wood and canvas biplanes–PO-2s, crop dusters outfitted with light machine guns and racks for bombs–against the most advanced army in the world.
Flight of the Night Witches
While on the surface this seemed a move of utmost desperation, there was a cunning reason to use PO-2 cropdusters as weapons–their top speed was slower than the stall speed of the German Messerschmidts, making them extremely difficult for fighter squadrons to shoot down. The planes could be fitted with noise dampeners to make their approach nearly silent, perfect for the night raids the Night Witches–so named because the sound of their wings resembled the sound of a witch’s broom to Wehrmacht soldiers–were expected to conduct against Nazi positions.
There was a distinct downside to the light planes, however–tracer rounds from anti-aircraft fire could easily light them on fire, meaning almost certain death to the pilots, who were provided no safety gear whatsoever. Despite these limitations, the pilots were expected to continually harass the Wehrmacht, flying an average of eight missions a night over four years of war. The women of the 588th flew in three groups; two using their light maneuverable planes to draw enemy fire, while the third dropped their bombs. When the raid concluded, the surviving flyers returned to base, refuel and rearm, and then return to battle.
The Night Witches in their work, the Luftwaffe promised an Iron Cross to any fighter pilot who managed to shoot down one of them. They gave no respite to their hated enemies throughout the remainder of the war, earning a place among the greatest warriors in history. It is a shame, then, that their contributions to the war have been largely overlooked outside of Russia.
Fitzgerald, Nora. “Night witches: Russian women pilots the Nazis feared.” telegraph.co.uk. July 1, 2011. The Telegraph. April 26, 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sponsored/rbth/features/8610709/Russian-women-pilots-the-Nazis-feared.html
Martin, Douglas. “Nadezhda Popova, WWII ‘Night Witch,’ Dies at 91.” nytimes.com. July 14, 2013. The New York Times. April 26, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/15/world/europe/nadezhda-popova-ww-ii-night-witch-dies-at-91.html?_r=0
Noggle, Anne and White, Christine A. “A Dance With Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II.” Texas A&M University Press, 2001. pgs 18-23