The 588th Soviet night bomber regiment of World War II completed over 30,000 missions over the course of four years, dropped 23,000 tons of bombs, and became so feared by Nazi forces that anyone who managed the difficult feat of taking down a pilot in the squadron would be automatically awarded an Iron Cross (the highest Nazi military honor)… the 588th regiment was also made up entirely of badass women.
The Night Witches owe their awesome nickname to the Nazis themselves, and proudly claimed the title as their own. After all, who wouldn’t want “Night Witches” as the name of your Nazi-fighting girl gang? The name supposedly came from the whooshing sound created when the women would idle their engines to fly stealthily over their targets before dropping bombs; the sound apparently brought to mind the whooshing of a witch’s broomstick while the planes glided overhead in the dead of night, and the Nazis began calling the deadly women Nachthexen, or Night Witches. An appropriate name for a squadron of renegade Soviet women who dropped bombs out of flying death machines decorated tastefully with flowers.
The Night Witches were among the first female fighter pilots to emerge in any nation’s military at the time. While female pilots did exist in other Allied nations during the Second World War, most were limited to delivering cargo or carrying messages. This was not the case with the Night Witches, who were revered for their military prowess and their general ability to screw with the Nazis while still rocking lipstick and a really good 1940s hairdo. Their path to honor and glory was, as is the case with many women then and now, not without obstacle, however.
The ladies of the 588th squadron were often looked down upon and belittled by their male counterparts and superiors in the Soviet military. How could a woman, like, fight Nazis when she had ovaries?? Wouldn’t she dissolve into a puddle of feminine tears or something?? Many believed it to be laughable that women should want to fight at all; soon, however, the women proved that their skills in the air were no laughing matter.
The women were forced to work with obsolete equipment and ill-fitting uniforms that were made for men. They dealt with over-sized boots by stuffing socks and bits of fabric into the toes of their shoes. They flew outdated planes made from plywood and canvas with open cockpits, oftentimes getting frostbite in the bitter night air as they dropped bombs on Nazi armies.
They were also assigned more undesirable missions, flying under the cover of night to complete extremely dangerous tasks. After one mission the regiment’s most decorated night bomber, Nadezha Popova, counted 42 bullet holes in her plane, map and helmet. “Katya, my dear,” she reportedly remarked to her navigator, “we will live long.” If that is not the very definition of badass, then I don’t know what is. Popova flew in 852 missions and earned the title of Hero in the Soviet Union.
These ladies serve as examples of trailblazers for modern women, and represent some of the incredible women whose broad shoulders we stand on today. I could think of no better way to start off a women’s history blog than to discuss a squadron of deft ladies who struck fear into the hearts of those who wished to spread oppression and hatred.