Who were the Night Witches in World War II?

“I think that during the war, when the fate of our country was being decided, the bringing in of women into aviation was justified. But in peacetime a woman can only fly for sport…otherwise how can one combine a career with a family and with maternal happiness?”

So goes the statement made by Irina Rakobolskaya, a pilot with the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, also known as the Night Witches. The Night Witches were female aviators who served as Soviet bomber pilots, conducting daring night missions during World War II.

Who were the Night Witches?

Summary

The Night Witches were a remarkable group of female aviators who defied gender norms and played a significant role in World War II. Formed as part of the Soviet Air Forces in 1941, these courageous women flew night bombing missions against German positions.

Despite flying outdated Po-2 biplanes, the Night Witches faced immense challenges head on, including dangerous conditions and enemy fire. Through their stealth, skill, and determination, they successfully disrupted German supply lines and contributed to the Soviet war effort.

Undoubtedly their bravery and heroism earned them respect and recognition, becoming symbols of female empowerment and the crucial role of women in wartime.

Formation and Origin of their name

Following the Russian Revolution in the late 1910s, it was declared that women would have the same level of equality as men under the law. This meant that women were allowed to enter the military. Russia, therefore, became the first country in Europe to do this. However, in practice, there were still quite a lot barrier to women entering the military.

The above explains why Major Marina Raskova had to leverage her extensive contacts in the top brass of Russian military in order to get approval for the formation of the Night Witches in October 1941. It’s said that the renowned female pilot, who was nicknamed the “Russian Amelia Earhart”, had contacts all the way to Stalin himself.

Raskova’s all-female combat unit received the interest of many female pilots in Russia, with some of them desiring nothing that to defend their country, which at the time was being invaded by Nazi Germany. Aside from the benefits of the additional troops, Stalin and his generals saw the all-female aviators as a way to enhance Russia’s reputation abroad.

Notable missions of the Night Witches in WWII

Their green light came on October 8, 1941, when they were one of three women’s air-force units ordered to deploy.

Going by the official name the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, the Night Witches embarked on a number of very important operations, mostly on the Southern Front. Examples of some of the operations they were involved in were:

  • In the Battle of the Caucasus, which raged between 25 July 1942 and 12 May 1944, the Night Witches distinguished themselves by defending Vladikavkaz (formerly known as Ordzhonikidze), a city in the North Ossetia. In that period, they also carried out attacks against Nazi forces in places like Prokhladnaya Digora.
  • Between March and September 1943, the all-female regiment helped in weakening the Kuban Bridgehead, the German military position on the Taman Peninsula. They were also involved in the famous liberation of Russian city of Novorossiysk, which is on the Black Sea. For their heroics in the former, they came to be called the 46th “Taman” Guards Night Bomber Regiment.
  • From November 1943 to May 1944, the Night Witches provided air support to Soviet troops in the Kerch-Eltigen Operation. The entire operation was crucial in securing victory during the Crimean Offensive (also known as the Battle of the Crimea), which took place between April 8 and May 12, 1944.
  • In August 1944, the all-female combat unit were deployed to force German troops out of Polish cities like Warsaw and Augustów.

Aircraft and tactics used by them

On this type of aircraft, the Night Witches flew more than 23,000 sorties. Image: A damaged and abandoned Po-2 forced to land in Ukraine, and subsequently captured by German troops, 1941.

They came to be known for primarily flying the Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, which were outdated and made of plywood.

Designed by Nikolai Polikarpov, the Po-2 was a light utility biplane aircraft developed in the Soviet Union. It first flew in 1927 and remained in production until the early 1950s. Initially intended as a trainer and agricultural aircraft, it found diverse applications during its operational life.

The aircraft had a fabric-covered wooden frame, which made it lightweight and relatively simple to manufacture. It featured an open cockpit, accommodating a pilot and sometimes a passenger or observer.

The downside to the Pro-2 was that it had a modest maximum speed of around 94 miles per hour (152 kilometers per hour) and a range of approximately 250 miles (400 kilometers). However, its slow speed and ability to glide silently made it effective for certain missions, such as night operations

When it came to tactics, they utilized the cover of darkness to conduct harassment bombing missions against German positions, dropping bombs on enemy targets and conducting reconnaissance.

Rationale for not carrying parachutes

The Night Witches, the female aviators of the Soviet Union during World War II, did not carry parachutes due to a combination of practical and strategic reasons.

First of all, the Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes flown by the Night Witches had limited carrying capacity. Carrying parachutes for each pilot would have added weight and reduced the payload capacity for bombs, fuel, or other essential supplies. Given the strategic focus on carrying out bombing missions, the decision was made to prioritize the aircraft’s operational capabilities.

The Night Witches primarily flew their missions at low altitudes, often just a few hundred feet above the ground. At such low altitudes, the chances of safely bailing out and deploying a parachute were significantly reduced. This influenced the decision to exclude parachutes from their standard equipment.

The Night Witches relied on the element of surprise and stealth during their nighttime bombing operations. Carrying parachutes would have added extra bulk, potentially hindering their ability to navigate and maneuver silently. By eliminating parachutes, they could better maintain the lightweight and agile nature of their aircraft.

The Night Witches conducted multiple missions in a single night, often with short distances between targets. This meant their flights were relatively short, leaving little time or distance for parachute deployment in case of emergencies. The emphasis was on completing the mission and returning swiftly to the base.

Composition

The Night Witches exhibited a strong sense of camaraderie and selflessness.

The Night Witches consisted entirely of women volunteers, with an average age of around 20. They underwent rigorous training in flight schools before being assigned to their units.

This all-female regiment remained in operation until the end of the war. It reached a size of 40 two-person crews. And in the period that it operated, it flew over 22,500 sorties and dropped more than 2800 tons of bombs and over 25,000 incendiary shells. For example in the Battle of the Caucasus (25 July 1942 – 12 May 1944), the Night Witches carried out over 2,900 sorties. And in the Novorossiysk-Taman operations and Poland offensive they carried out more than 4,600 and 5,400 sorties, respectively.

Without a shred of doubt, the Night Withes was the most decorated all-female regiment of the Soviet Union in World War II.

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Heroism

The Night Witches faced numerous challenges, including flying in dangerous conditions, evading enemy fire, and operating with limited resources. Despite these difficulties, they displayed exceptional courage, skill, and determination in their missions.

Operating with limited resources and outdated aircraft, this all-female pilots of the Soviet Union relied on their ingenuity and resourcefulness. They modified their planes with additional fuel tanks and sometimes used flares instead of parachutes for weight-saving measures.

They broke gender barriers in military aviation and became symbols of female heroism and empowerment. They inspired future generations of women aviators and served as a testament to the vital contributions of women in wartime.

Pilots of the regiment were some of the most revered heroines of the Soviet Union.

Honors and decorations

The Night Witches earned recognition for their bravery and accomplishments. Many received prestigious military awards and decorations, including Orders of the Red Banner and Medals for Valor.

Their audacity, resourcefulness, and unwavering dedication made them a formidable force, inspiring admiration and respect both during the war and in subsequent years.

More than 20 female pilots of the the Night Witches received the Hero of the Soviet Union title.

Questions & Answers about the Night Witches

The all-women pilots of Russia’s 588th Night Bomber Aviation Regiment

These questions below cover various aspects of the Night Witches’ history, accomplishments, and impact during World War II, providing insights into their role as female aviators and their contributions to the war effort.

What was the official name of the Night Witches in World War II?

The official name of the Night Witches in World War II was the 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Air Forces. They were initially formed as the 588th Night Bomber Aviation Regiment and later received the official designation of the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment.

In some cases, they were also called the 46th “Taman” Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment.

What planes did they usually fly?

The Night Witches conducted nighttime bombing missions using outdated and noise-prone Po-2 biplanes.

The Po-2, also known as the U-2, was a lightweight, open-cockpit aircraft made mostly of wood and fabric. It was originally designed as a trainer and utility aircraft but was later adapted for various roles, including nighttime harassment bombing.

While the Po-2 was slow and outdated compared to the more advanced aircraft of the time, its low speed and maneuverability proved advantageous for the Night Witches’ night bombing operations. The quiet engine and the ability to glide silently allowed them to surprise their targets and evade detection by enemy radar.

Flying at low altitudes, the all-female pilots of the Soviets relied on stealth, turning off engines and gliding to their targets to avoid detection by enemy radar.

How long did the Night Witches operate?

Formed in October 1941, the Night Witches served diligently throughout the War, until 1945.

The Night Witches were formed in 1941 as part of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Air Forces.

There were even some female pilots of the unit that flew over 850 missions by the time the war ended. For example Soviet pilot Irina Fyodorovna Sebrova flew more than a 1,000 sorties, earning her the honor Hero of the Soviet Union in February 1945.

Officially, the regiment was disbanded on October 15, 1945.

What did the Night Witches do during World War II?

Despite challenging conditions, the Night Witches carried out thousands of bombing sorties, attacking German positions, supply depots, and communication lines. They caused significant disruption to the enemy’s operations and morale.

How effective were the Night Witches in their bombing missions?

The Night Witches employed innovative tactics to evade German defenses. They would drop bombs, then quickly maneuver away in a zigzag pattern, making it difficult for enemy anti-aircraft guns to target them effectively.

The relentless bombing campaigns by the Night Witches had a significant psychological impact on the enemy. The constant harassment, even with relatively small bombs, disrupted German operations, eroded morale, and caused fear and frustration among enemy troops.

They targeted logistics hubs, railroads, roads, and depots, causing damage and disruption to critical infrastructure, impeding the flow of supplies and reinforcements.

How did the Night Witches get their name?

The Night Witches received their name from their German adversaries during World War II. The Germans called them “Die Nachthexen,” which translates to “The Night Witches” in English.

The name was inspired by the stealthy and effective night bombing tactics employed by the female aviators. The Germans were impressed by the ability of these female pilots to conduct their missions under the cover of darkness, often with the engines of their small, outdated aircraft turned off to minimize noise.

The whooshing sound made by their planes reminded the German soldiers of broomsticks, leading to the association with witches. While the name initially carried a derogatory connotation, the Night Witches embraced it, turning it into a symbol of their courage and resilience.

Why didn’t the Night Witches carry parachutes?

The decision not to carry parachutes until 1944 was made within the context of the specific operational conditions and strategic considerations of the Night Witches. While it introduced risks, it allowed them to prioritize their primary objectives of carrying out effective bombing runs and operating with greater agility.

Who were some of the notable figures of the Night Witches?

The Night Witches, the female aviators of the Soviet Union during World War II, included several notable figures who played significant roles in the regiment. Here are a few of them:

  • Marina Mikhaylovna Raskova (1912-1943) was a renowned Soviet aviator and navigator during World War II. Raskova had a remarkable aviation career and played a significant role in the establishment of women’s aviation units in the Soviet Union. She was one of the first female pilots in the country and made significant contributions to the advancement of aviation. Raskova’s efforts led to the creation of the three women’s aviation regiments: the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment, the 587th Bomber Aviation Regiment, and the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, also known as the Night Witches. Raskova’s efforts led to the creation of the three women’s aviation regiments: the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment, the 587th Bomber Aviation Regiment, and the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, also known as the Night Witches.
Marina Raskova

1938 photo of Marina Raskova, Hero of the Soviet Union and founder of the Night Witches

  • Nadezhda Popova (1921 – 2013) was one of the most prominent members of the Night Witches. She flew over 850 missions and became one of the highest-scoring pilots of the regiment. After the war, she continued her aviation career and held various positions within the Soviet Air Forces.
  • Yevdokiya Nosal (1918 – 1943), a valiant member of the regiment, was posthumously granted the prestigious title of Hero of the Soviet Union. Her remarkable achievement marked a significant milestone as she became the first member of the regiment and the first woman pilot to receive this esteemed title during the war.

Yevdokiya Bershanskaya, the only woman awarded the Order of Suvorov.

  • Major Yevdokiya Bershanskaya (1913 – 1982) was a skilled pilot and officer in the Soviet Air Forces. She actively participated in the Night Witches’ nighttime bombing missions, demonstrating exceptional aviation skills and contributing to the unit’s objectives. She was the only female pilot to receive the Order of Suvorov.
  • Irina Sebrova (1914 – 2000) served as a flight commander in the Regiment in the war. It’s estimated she flew over 1,000 sorties by the end of the war.

Did the Night Witches face discrimination or opposition due to their gender?

Yes, the Night Witches faced both discrimination and opposition due to their gender. As female aviators in a predominantly male-dominated field, they encountered various challenges and biases.

When the Night Witches were first formed, many male officers and pilots within the Soviet Air Forces doubted their capabilities and believed that women were unfit for combat roles. They faced resistance and skepticism from some within their own ranks.

The Night Witches often received outdated and inadequate equipment compared to their male counterparts. They flew obsolete aircraft like the Po-2 biplanes, which were not originally designed for combat operations. These limitations placed them at a disadvantage.

Some male pilots and soldiers held negative attitudes toward the Night Witches, viewing them as inferior or incapable due to their gender. They faced derogatory comments, belittlement, and doubts about their skills and competence.

Female aviators were subjected to stricter expectations and double standards compared to their male counterparts. They had to prove themselves repeatedly and were held to higher standards, facing scrutiny and criticism that male pilots often did not experience.

Despite their significant contributions and accomplishments, the Night Witches received relatively limited recognition during the war. Their achievements were often overshadowed or downplayed in official records and historical accounts.

What is the legacy of the Night Witches and their significance in World War II?

The Night Witches shattered gender barriers and defied societal expectations by proving that women could excel in combat roles. Their remarkable achievements paved the way for future generations of women in military aviation, inspiring them to pursue their dreams and overcome gender-based limitations.

They became a symbol of female empowerment and resilience. Their courage, determination, and skill showcased the capabilities of women in challenging and male-dominated fields, challenging traditional gender norms and empowering women worldwide.

Their impact on gender roles in aviation, their significant contributions to the war effort, and their enduring inspirational value make them a powerful symbol of women’s capabilities and a testament to the strength of the human spirit.

Facts and Figures

  • In the time that the regiment operated, they carried out more than 23,000 sorties, including 6,410 sorties in the Crimean Offensive (8 April – 12 May 1944).
  • There were some female pilots of the unit that flew over 750 missions by the time the war ended. Perhaps the most distinguished of those pilots was Irina Sebrova, who flew more than a 1000 sorties.
  • The total number of hours flown by the regiment was in the region of 28,000 flight hours.
  • It’s estimated that they dropped more than 2900 tons of bombs and over 25,000 incendiary shells.
  • More than 20 female pilots of the unit received the Hero of the Soviet Union title.
  • They often hit their targets with precision, inflicting damage on enemy infrastructure and troops. In total, they damaged more than 15 river crossings, two railway stations, nine railways, and 26 warehouses. They also laid to waste about a dozen fuel depots, more than 170 armored cars, and close to 90 firing pints.
  • The total number of female pilots that served as Night Witches was around 260.
  • In total, 32 members of the regiment lost their lives during the war. Also, the regiment lost about 27 aircraft.
  • The Po-2 plane that the Night Witches primarily used allowed weights of not more than 350 kilograms (770 Ib) of bombs. What this meant was that some pilots had to embark on more than 7 missions in a night.
  • Compared to the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and the Focke-Wulf Fw 190, the Po-2’s stalling speed was lower. As a result, they could not easily be brought down by enemy fighters.

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