It was 1941 and the Third Reich seemed unstoppable in its roll across Europe. Hitler and Stalin had a non-aggression pact, but Hitler threw that in the trash and turned his eyes east and invaded the Soviet Union. By November, the German Army was 19 miles from Moscow and the city of Leningrad was under siege. Three million Russians had been taken prisoner and the Soviet Air Force was grounded. Things looked bleak.
In desperation, record breaking aviatrix Marina Raskova created an all female regiment to run harassment bombing runs on the Germans. Harassment bombing targets encampments, supply depots and rear base areas. Their constant raids made rest for the troops difficult and left them feeling very insecure. What became the 588th regiment was staffed by all women- pilots, mechanics, navigators and officers. Most of the women involved in the regiment were barely 20 years old when they began training. They only had three planes, obsolete Polikarpov Po-2 wooden biplanes that were otherwise used as trainers. The small planes could only hold two bombs, so they made multiple runs a night. Most of the women who survived the war had, by the end, flown almost a thousand missions each. The Po-2 were slower than even other planes from World War I, so they were very vulnerable to enemy fighters. However, the Po-2 were extremely maneuverable, which gave them an advantage. When a German fighters in Messerschmitt Bf 109s and Focke-Wulf Fw 190s tried to shoot down the Po-2, the women would go into a tight turn at an airspeed below the stalling speed of the German plane. They used this tactic over and over again until the Germans would give up.
Because the planes they were flying were old, they had to use some creative techniques to complete their runs. They would fly close to their targets then cut the engine and glide in. Because their engines were cut, the targets never heard them coming until the bombs were dropped. Then the women would restart their engines and try to get away. Sometimes the dog fights took them so low they skimmed the hedge rows. Because of their ability to slip in and out of the darkness, the Germans called them the Nachthexen or Night Witches.
Despite the risky maneuvers and poor equipment, a surprisingly small number of witches were lost.
One of the Witches, Nadya Popova, commented that it was a miracle they didn’t suffer more losses as their planes came back riddled with bullets. However, they kept flying. They had to to keep their homeland out of the hands of the enemy. The 588th was such a success, the Soviets quickly formed the 586th. However, there was still much mistrust of female pilots and the Witches suffered sexual harassment at the hands of their male counterparts. Through this and absolute exhaustion from their grueling schedule, they kept flying. They never gave up.
The 588th were assigned to bomb Stalingrad and had to develop new tactics as the Germans evolved their spotlight techniques into what was called the “flak circus”. This was where the guns and lights were positioned in concentric circles around targets. Pairs of planes flying in a straight line were destroyed by the guns. So the Witches of the 588th flew in groups of three- one plane drew the fire of the guns, leaving the other two free to flying in opposite directions to drop their payloads. It took nerves of steel and a heaping helping of courage to be the decoy, but these women did just that every night.
The Witches were so effective that the Germans offered their pilots an Iron Cross for anyone who could shoot one down. The accomplishments of the women were nothing short of miraculous. Many years later, Nadya Popova commented that she used to sometimes look up into the dark night sky, remembering when she was a young girl crouched at the controls of her bomber, and she would say to herself, “Nadya, how did you do it?” She did it because her country needed her, and I salute her and her fellow pilots.
Sources available on request