This week we’re taking a break from our exploration of full wars to focus in on one specific group of women from World War II. This incredible group is known as the Night Witches, they were the female aviators of the 588th 588th Night Bomber Regiment, known later as the 46th “Taman” Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, of the Soviet Air Forces. The 588th was the most highly decorated female unit in that force, flying 30,000 missions over the course of four years and dropping, in total, 23,000 tons of bombs on invading German armies.
The Night Witches were largely unique among the female combatants — and even the female flyers — of World War II. Other countries, the U.S. among them, may have allowed women to fly as members of their early air forces; those women, however, served largely in support and transport roles. The Soviet Union was the first nation to allow women to fly combat missions.
At its largest, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment was made up of 40 two-person crews, all between the ages of 17 and 26. The women flew repurposed 1920s biplanes, made of canvas-draped plywood, that were previously used mostly for crop dusting. Because of the weight of the bombs they carried and the low altitudes at which they flew, they carried no parachutes. If their planes were hit by tracer rounds the aircraft would easily ignite and burn up. The primitive planes lacked many basic instruments, including radios—navigation was done with a compass and a map. Additionally they only flew at night and each crew would fly at least 8 missions a night, Nadia Popova, a commander of the 2nd Women’s Regiment, who flew in total 852 missions, once flew 18 missions in one night. Popover, like many of her fellow witches, was highly decorated with awards including the title “Hero of the Soviet Union”, the Gold Star Medal, the Order of Lenin, and three Orders of the Red Star in Second World War.
The Night Witches practiced what is known as harassment bombing. Their targets were encampments, supply depots, rear base areas, etc. Their constant raids made rest for the troops difficult and left them feeling very insecure. The top speed of the Po-2 biplane was 94 mph ((82 knots). This is slower than even most World War I fighters and left them very vulnerable to enemy night fighters. But the Night Witches learned their craft well. The Po-2 was very slow, but it was also extremely maneuverable. When a German Messerschmitt Bf 109 (Me-109) tried to intercept it, the Night Witches would throw their Po-2 biplanes into a tight turn at an airspeed that was below the stalling speed of the Me-109. This forced the German pilot to make a wider circle and come back for another try, only to be met by the same tactic, time after time.
The mysterious bombers were so feared by the Germans that supposedly any German who shot one down was automatically awarded an Iron Cross. The Iron Cross was a medal given to German soldiers for bravery during wartime. The award was created by King Frederick William III of Prussia. It was first given out on 10 March 1813. The Iron Cross was awarded during the Napoleonic Wars, the Franco-Prussian War, the First World War, and the Second World War.
The “witches” faced harsh opposition on the home front, as well. Despite their harrowing missions and unquestionable bravery, the witches’ abilities were often doubted by their male counterparts. A male general once complained about being sent “a bunch of girlies” instead of soldiers; needless to say, the doubters were soon silenced.