Monday, April 25, 2016

U is for Unknown Pilots - The Night Witches: Pioneer Women in Aviation A-Z Challenge

The 588th Night Bomber Regiment: The Night Witches
They flew at night. A soft swooshing noise in the air that sounded like a witch's broomstick signaled their arrival. The Nazis feared them, called them Nachthexen -- the Night Witches, and any pilot able to shoot one down was honored with Nazi Germany's coveted Iron Cross. 

The Night Witches were Russia's all female 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Air Force during World War II. They were the world's first female fighter pilots.

In 1941, Nadia Popova experienced the death of her brother and witnessed women and children fleeing in the streets during the German invasion. Her home became a Gestapo station. Leningrad was soon under siege and three million of her people were taken as prisoners. Now the German troops were 19 miles away from Moscow and the Soviet Air Force was powerless. Marina Raskova, Russia's record-breaking female aviator, began recruiting women pilots in 1942 to fly bombing missions. Nadia didn't hesitate to volunteer. She had been a member of a flying club since the age of 15 and was a flight instructor. She was 21.

Three Bomber Regiments were formed: the 586th (Yak-1 fighters), the 587th (twin engine dive bombers), and the 588th (night bombers--the Night Witches). Only the 588th would remain an all female regiment, which meant they were the pilots, navigators, and maintenance and ground crews. The new recruits ranged from age 17 to 26. Their hair was cut short and they were issued ill-fitting uniforms meant for the men. The men insulted them, calling them "a bunch of girlies" instead of soldiers, which they very much were. One young woman later recalled, "We didn't recognize ourselves in the mirror---we saw boys there." So they painted flowers on the sides of their planes and used navigation pencils to color their lips.




Nadia Popova, Deputy Commander. In 2010, she said: 

““I sometimes stare into the blackness and close my eyes.
I can still imagine myself as a young girl,
up there in my little bomber. I ask myself,
‘Nadia, how did you do it?’”
Nadia Popova later said it was a miracle any of them survived. Their planes were the slowest in the Air Force and they came back "riddled in bullets." They flew in Polikarpov Po2 biplanes, planes more suited for crop dusting and training, than bombing. Made with plywood and canvas, tracer bullets (the kind that exploded) could easily ignite a plane. But the Po2 had some advantages. It could take off and land just about anywhere, and being slow meant it could make tighter turns, below the stall speed of a German fighter (which had to make wider turns and circle back). The Po2 could travel low to the ground too, unlike the German fighters. Some German pilots were said to have given up out of frustration. The Night Witches thought smart. Another tactic was to fly in close to the target, cut the engine, glide in real slow (that broom stick swooshing noise), drop their bombs (six per plane), and then restart the engine. 

The Polikarpov Po2 biplane

Nevertheless, danger was always at their door. Because they flew low, parachutes were not carried on board. Cockpits were wide open, which meant freezing conditions, frostbite, and zero protection from stray bullets. They had no radar and could only rely on maps and compasses. Missions were long and tedious---two pilots to a plane, eight flight missions a night (as many as 18), which meant traveling back and forth to rearm with bombs. Commenting on the German's claim that the Soviets must have given the women pills, because of their night ("cat") vision, she said:

"This was nonsense, of course. What we did have were
 clever, educated, very talented girls."

Each pilot in the 588th Night Bomber Regiment flew over 800 missions by the end of the war, flying thousands of missions overall, as many as 18 missions a night for four years. In the end they had helped chased the Germans back to Berlin, but 30 would die in combat. Twenty-three would live to tell their stories and receive the Hero of the Soviet Union title, their nation's highest honor.




Source:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_Witches; http://www.seizethesky.com/nwitches/nitewtch.html
http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/07/night-witches-the-female-fighter-pilots-of-world-war-ii/277779/;
http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/flight-of-the-night-witches-wwii-s-all-female-fighting-force
https://02varvara.wordpress.com/2013/08/30/nadezhda-popova-world-war-ii-night-witch-dies-at-91/



19 comments:

  1. Wow, this is a piece of history I knew nothing about. Thanks for enlightening me!

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    1. I loved discovering these women!! Thank you for stopping to comment.

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  2. I didn't know about them, either. Women's history should be required for all students! This is great! Thanks for sharing. Have fun finishing up the A to Z!

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    1. Now there's a topic to discuss. Women's history is optional in college (let alone high school), at least the last time I attended. The world history classes that were required were always from a male perspective, with a bone or two about women's contribution to history. I don't mean to say that wasn't important, but girls need to know their sisters in the past did a lot more than they've been told. Girls in my family grew up with low self-esteem, so this is very important to me! Thanks for visiting, Amy.

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  3. How did they do it, indeed! Isn't it amazing how people rise to meet such challenges. You'd never think these young girls could do something so brave, and yet they did. I think I've enjoyed your theme more than any on this Challenge. I've learned so much and been inspired by the stories you've shared.

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    1. I was smiling the whole time I wrote this piece. Over the weekend I realized my 'U' choice wasn't going to work and I didn't have a clue what I was going to do. I typed 'unknown women pilots' (and variations) and went hunting. Then I saw the Night Witches. Absolutely incredible. I couldn't believe I'd discovered them. Thank you Lee!!

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  4. Love these stories about women pilots. I had never heard of these Russian women. Thank you!

    Mary Montague Sikes
    Notes Along the Way
    The Artful Way

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    1. You and me both!! I'm so happy to include these ladies in the series. What a find. Thanks Mary.

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  5. Oh my gosh. I never heard of these women. Fascinating. And how brave.

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    1. That was my reaction too. Could not believe I'd found such a treasure. These woman really have a story to tell. Hollywood, 'where for art thou?'

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  6. How amazing that they survived all of that! And I suppose they "night witches" was a reference to witches that fly on their brooms?

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    1. Oh, I'm sure of it. One source said they were pretty proud of their nickname.

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  7. A great piece of history here Sharon, Thanks for sharing this.
    Yvonne.

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    1. Pretty different from the other posts, Had no idea they existed. Thanks for reading Yvonne!

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  8. Those ladies were a special kinda brave! We have nothing to compare to these early aviators who took it a step further and exposed themselves to great risks.

    Sharon, you have done a wonderful job on your theme. ;-)

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    1. They were so young too. Hard to imagine. I would love to see a movie made about them. Thanks Cherdo!

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  9. These are brave ladies and should be world renown. They had to fight their own countrymen because they were women and then go up in those flimsy planes. That is courage in my book.

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    1. I can't begin express how much I enjoyed reading about these young women. I really hope someone makes a movie someday. The photo of the five girls really got to me. They could have been my daughter's girlfriends at that age. It bothers me that (outside of war) our youth (and I mean both sexes)are often devalued in society as too young or inexperienced to be of worth on the job. It's almost as if we don't want them to grow up, when they are truly capable of doing a lot, as these girls proved!

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  10. I don't rememebr where, I read abotu these women before. They were very brave and motivated. It wasn't easy to fly like that.

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