|The 588th Night Bomber Regiment: The Night Witches|
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?’”
|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.