The Russians were the only women in the world who engaged in aerial combat during World War Two. These daring young women, some of them just teenagers, flew lightweight aircraft that dodged and darted and dropped bombs on the enemy under cover of darkness. So feared were they that the Germans called them The Night Witches.
Regular readers will know about my fondness for women in uniform – but these Russian girls were in a class of their own! While Allied women were not allowed to fill combat roles, Russian women were flying, fighting and dying. Thank goodness they were on our side.
(Note: This week’s post is written by Suzy Henderson, who lives in the lovely Lake District of England. We became acquainted online through our mutual passions for military history and writing. Read more about Suzy at the end of this fascinating article.)
By Suzy Henderson
It’s April 1942. Pilots stand by their aircraft, preparing for a bombing mission. The air is cool, and their breath leaves silvery vapour in the still of the night. Banter flows but there is an edge of seriousness, a feeling of uncertainty mixed with strong emotion.
This is no ordinary sight, no ordinary squadron. This is Russia. And the pilots – are women. Women, prepared to die for their country, in their own battle against the Luftwaffe and Germany’s advancing armies.
Russia’s story stands out simply because it was the first country, and indeed the only country, to have women pilots flying in battle during World War Two. And the women who served with the Soviet Air Force had the hearts of lions, especially if you consider what they were flying. Their aircraft was outdated, inferior to the German, British and American aircraft, and flimsy in construction.
Yet these women warriors of the sky defied all the odds. They had a very high success rate and were greatly feared by the Germans. Indeed, it was the Luftwaffe who gave these women their name, The Night Witches.
Marina Raskova is often regarded as the Russian Amelia Earhart. She was born in 1912 and became the first female navigator with the Soviet Air Force in 1933. A year later she was teaching at the Zhukovskii Air Academy, the first woman ever to have achieved this level.
Before the war Raskova, along with two women co-pilots, made a record-breaking non-stop flight from Moscow to the Far East of Russia. When war broke out, she and many other female pilots volunteered, but their applications were blocked.
However, there was a radical turnabout in 1942, when Hitler’s army invaded the Soviet Union. Three million Russians became prisoners of war and the Soviet Air Force was badly in need of recruits.
Raskova took her chance. Supposedly she spoke with Stalin, convincing him of the merits of a greater fighter force – an all-women air force, to assist the war effort. She got what she wanted.
The 588th Fighter Aviation Regiment began operations in 1942. In February 1943 it was reorganized into the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, known unofficially as “Stalin’s Falcons.”
The third unit, the 125th Guards Bomber Aviation Regiment, was commanded by Marina Raskova until she crashed her aircraft on landing and died in 1943. She was just thirty years old.
Marina Raskova was given a state funeral and laid to rest in Red Square, Moscow, the city of her birth.
Altogether eighty women flew with the Russian air force. From 1942 to 1945 the three female regiments flew a combined total of more than 30,000 sorties, dropping bombs upon the German army until they retreated back to Berlin.
Mostly in their late teens and early twenties when they joined up, these women became heroes during the war, but are now largely forgotten.
Two of the women were fighter aces, and twenty-three others were awarded the title, “Hero of the Soviet Union.” By the end of the war, thirty women had given their lives in battle, including Raskova.
The pilot pictured below is Mariya Dolina. Born in Siberia, she moved to Ukraine with her parents and took flying lessons as a teenager. She joined the air force and became one of the best pilots of Raskova’s 125th Regiment. She described herself as being “impulsive and excessively restless,” but flew seventy-two successful missions. She died in 2010.
Another of the pilots was Hiuaz Dospanova, born in Kazakhstan in May 1922, the only female pilot from her country to serve with the Russian Air Force.
Dospanova demonstrated immense spirit and determination in 1941 when she rushed to the front to protect her country against the advancing Germans. But she wanted to fly. Aware that Raskova commanded the women’s air force, Dospanova went to see her and was immediately accepted.
Following Raskova’s death in 1943, Dospanova became the head of communications of the 46th Guards. Flying more than 300 missions, she fractured both legs during a night landing in blackout conditions. But within three months she returned to her regiment to continue the fight.
Hiuaz Dospanova received the Order of the Red Star. In 2004, by the decree of the President of Kazakhstan, Dospanova was awarded the title of National Hero. She died in 2008.
(Photo Credit: History of Kazakhstan)
Natalya Kravtsova was born in the Ukraine. In 1940 she joined the glider school at Kiev and two years later, at the age of nineteen, she became one of The Night Witches, flying with the 588th Regiment. By the end of the war, Natalya Kravtsova had flown 980 night missions.
Nadia Popova, one of the first volunteer pilots, was motivated both by patriotism and revenge. She was once quoted as saying that she could see “the smiling faces of the Nazi pilots” as they strafed women and children in the streets as they fled from their Luftwaffe attackers.
Popova’s own brother was killed after the Germans invaded. Her family home was commandeered by the Germans to use as a Gestapo police station, when they smashed the windows and cut down the long-established cherry trees.
This photo shows Nadia Popova, right, and her co-pilot Katya Ryabova. They were members of the legendary 46th Night Bombing Regiment.
(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The bomber pilots flew in pairs — a pilot and a navigator. The lightweight planes were capable of carrying just two small bombs strapped beneath their wings, so it was standard practice to fly multiple sorties in one night. At times they found themselves flying up to eighteen sorties in one stretch.
The small biplane had a top speed that was less than the stall speed of the German planes, and highly manoeuvrable. This meant that the Russian could turn away from a German fighter, and by the time the German pilot performed his turn, he would have travelled a fair distance away, and the Russian pilot would be executing another turn. Thus it was difficult for the German pilot to hit the Russian with cannon fire.
Not everyone escaped. Prone to attacks by night fighters, the flammable little aircraft often returned to base bullet-ridden and burning like paper.
The aircraft, the Polikarpov Po-2, looks very fragile in this illustration.
Here three of the Night Witches prepare to board their aircraft.
(Photo Credit: Ria Novosti via The Image Works)
The women flew their little planes quite low to the ground, often at hedge height, for cover. Their flimsy construction also made them highly flammable, so night flying was preferable for protection. They had the ability to fly low and effectively sneak in upon the enemy, undetected by radar.
The planes were also rather noisy, so in order to retain an element of surprise, they would cut the engines, glide down to the German positions, drop their bombs and then re-start their engines and fly away.
The reason for the name, The Night Witches, was due to the sound the wind made against the wires on their wings, a whooshing sound which some of the Germans said it was how they imagined a witch’s broom to sound!
They flew so low that they were able to see the flare of a match as a German lit his cigarette in the trenches. No wonder the German soldiers were nervous.
Sometimes, their obsolete aircraft would stall mid-way through a mission, and they would clamber out onto the wings mid-flight to restart the props. Can you imagine doing this!
Such was their skill and reputation that the Luftwaffe pilots were promised the Iron Cross for every Night Witch they shot down.
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
Nadia Popova explained in an interview several years ago that they flew without radar, guns and radio. They simply had maps and a compass. To save weight, they also flew without parachutes, so if you were downed, that was it.
She went on to say: “When you looked out to see the target better, you got frostbite. Our feet froze in our boots, but we continued flying. There was no time to give way to emotions. Those who gave in were gunned down and they were burned alive in their aircraft, as they had no parachutes.”
Here a group of women receives their orders before a raid in 1944.
(Photo Credit: Getty Image)
The women were often the target of scathing ridicule from the men, but they enjoyed a strong bond of companionship. Not only did all three units have women pilots, but the engineers and ground crew were also women.
Here’s a photo of Nadia Popova standing, with her fellow Night Witches during down time. (Photo Credit: Ria Novosti)
Like other girls, they also indulged their femininity. They decorated their flimsy bi-planes with flowers, and used navigation pencils for lip colour.
Popva herself flew 852 missions. Between missions, she would fluff up her hair, with her tortoise shell compact mirror in hand. She wore her oversized uniform cinched in at the waist with a belt, adding a dash of Hollywood glamour to her appearance. By her bedside she kept a silk blouse and scarf, just in case she ever had need to wear something smart.
Popova is shown here second from right, with some other pilots, reading a fashion magazine. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
On her very first mission, Popova witnessed the death of two friends when their plane was shot down, but she continued her sortie and dropped bombs on the lights below.
In an interview with Russian Life magazine in 2003, she said: “I was ordered to fly another mission immediately. It was the best thing to keep me from thinking about it.”
Their planes flew in formations of three. Two acted as decoys, attracting the searchlights before parting and flying away in opposite directions, diving, darting and twisting to avoid the antiaircraft fire.
The third plane would continue to the target through the darkness. Once the bomb was released, they would then switch places and repeat the tactic until all three planes had released their bombs.
Their skill was so great that the Germans began to speculate that the Russian women were given injections and pills “to give us a feline’s perfect vision at night,” Nadia said. “This, of course, was nonsense.”
On one occasion, after being downed, she found herself amid retreating Russian troops. Among them was a wounded fighter pilot reading a novel. They began chatting, and she read him some poetry. They met several times during the war and eventually married when the war ended.
Nadia Popova was named Hero of the Soviet Union, the nation’s highest honour; and was also awarded the Gold Star, the Order of Lenin and the Order of the Red Star.
“I sometimes stare into the blackness and close my eyes,” Popova said in an interview in 2010. “I can still imagine myself as a young girl, up there in my little bomber. And I ask myself, ‘Nadia, how did you do it?’”
Nadia Popova, the last of the Night Witches, died in 2013, aged 91 years.
(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Thanks very much to Suzy Henderson for this fascinating glimpse into a little-known aspect of women in wartime.
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About Suzy Henderson
I was born and raised in the north of England, and grew up longing for the countryside. Moving away to rural Somerset some twenty-one years later, I began my uncertain career in health care, specialising in Midwifery.
Later, when family commitments forced me to leave, I decided to embark upon a degree in English Literature with The Open University. It seems that whilst I loved bringing babies into the world, it was not the life I was destined for. My Literature studies soon showed me that I was more likely destined for bringing books into the world.
It was an old black and white photograph of my grandmother that captured my imagination many years ago. Her premature death in 1980 denied me the chance to hear her tales of war. It was only when I decided to research her war service in the WAAF that things spiralled from there.
So many stories came to light that are not widely known and it’s the discovery of such heroic, compassionate and unbelievable real stories that inspires my writing. I find that I’m often compelled to grant a voice to those long, lost people and give them a chance to redefine history.
I’ve always loved historical fiction, and during my University studies I was introduced to the fabulous Pat Barker and the Regeneration Trilogy. It was a revelatory moment for me and she has been a huge influence on my writing ever since.
A new life journey beckoned and I began rekindling my love of writing and my passion for history. Specialising in military and aviation history, I began to write and sometime later discovered a story that was so utterly consuming and compelling and that story formed the bones of my manuscript.
Suzy Henderson’s debut novel is based on the true story of burned airmen who underwent experimental surgery and became known as The Guinea Pig Club. You may read more by clicking on the title: The Beauty Shop.
If you’d like to get in touch with Suzy Henderson, you are most welcome. You can visit her blog here: Lowfell Writers Place.