Night Witches: How the USSR’s Female Flying Aces Took the Fight to Berlin

Nadezhda ‘Nadia’ Popova was just shy of her 20th birthday when her brother was killed, and the Gestapo ejected her family from their home near Donetsk in Ukraine, smashed the windows and chopped down the cherry trees. A member of one of the Soviet Union’s numerous flying clubs – aviation was one of the many symbols of modernity and dynamism that gripped the imagination of communist society – since she was 15 years-old (she hadn’t told her parents), Nadia had completed her first solo flight and her first parachute jump aged 16. As soon as war was declared she abandoned the dress she was ironing and rushed to the airfield to enlist, but it would only be October 1941 – four months of heartbreak later – that her offer would be accepted.

She would become part of a unit – a squadron leader, no less – that flew up to 30,000 missions and dropped an estimated 23,000 tons of bombs, outfoxed the growling Messerschmitt fighters of the Luftwaffe with the most primitive of planes and struck fear into the hearts of the most feared fighting force of the 20th Century. She lost 30 comrades in action, and would be one of the 23 women of her regiment awarded the nation’s highest honour – the gold star and red ribbon of the Hero of the Soviet Union, along with the Order of Lenin and three Orders of the Patriotic War. By 1945, this incredible young woman from the coal fields of eastern Ukraine would write her name in pencil on the wall of Reichstag in Berlin, the red flag of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics fluttering victoriously through the smoke and booming artillery as Hitler’s empire finally died.

Nadezhda Popova was a Night Witch, and institutionalised disdain was as implacable an opponent as the Nazi aggressors she lined up in her sights.
In June 1941 the Wehrmacht ground a murderous trail across the vast unprepared expanse of the Soviet Union; Operation Barbarossa was well underway. Hitler’s plan to seize vast swathes of fertile Belorusian farmland, Ukrainian oil fields and Russian industrial centres had taken Soviet despot Joseph Stalin by surprise. Stalin had absolute faith in 1939’s Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which defined the spheres of influence between the obviously incompatible superpowers.

Wehrmacht troops cross the borders of the Soviet Union, June 22, 1941
Wehrmacht troops cross the borders of the Soviet Union, June 22, 1941

Germany’s Nazi regime nursed a pathological hatred of communists, Jews and Eastern Europe’s Slavic peoples which they believed to be racially inferior to Germanic ‘Aryans’, and millions of Slavs were to be murdered or deported to make way for German settlers. More than a war of conquest, this was, in the Fuhrer’s own words, a “war of annihilation” that transformed Europe’s eastern fringe into a great and terrible charnel house.

Steeling the will of his commanders in March 1941, Hitler reminded them in a secret briefing:

“This struggle is one of ideologies and racial differences and will have to be conducted with unprecedented, unmerciful, and unrelenting harshness.”

The unprepared Red Army was overrun, and by October 1941 the swastika was flying over Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, and Ukraine.  Even Stalin himself later admitted:

“Lenin left us a great estate and we made shit out of it.”

Despite the number of women prepared to fight or fly to defend their homeland and avenge their loved ones, and the supposed egalitarianism of communist society, women were refused combat roles. One young woman, eager to serve, recalled a recruiting officer telling her:

“Things may be bad but we’re not so desperate that we’re going to put little girls like you up in the skies. Go home and help your mother.”

Marina Raskova (first right) and her co-pilots in 1938, right before their record breaking flight to Kosomolsk
Marina Raskova (first right) and her co-pilots in 1938, right before their record breaking flight to Kosomolsk

It would take a personal plea to Stalin from Marina Raskova – “Russia’s Amelia Earhart,” according to the international press – for the situation to change. Raskova, who was 29 when war broke out, was one of the Soviet Union’s most famous aviators. In 1933 she became the first female navigator in the Soviet Air Force, became the first woman to teach at Zhukovsky Air Academy in 1934 – instructing male navigators who were initially sceptical of her abilities – and achieved celebrity status in 1938 when the 26 year-old Raskova, along with two other women, broke the record for a women’s straight-line flight, travelling non-stop for over 5,900 kilometers for Moscow to Komsomolsk in the Soviet Far East – bailing out with her parachute when they couldn’t find the landing strip, Raskova spent ten days lost in the dense swampy taiga with no food, survival equipment or water. Unsurprisingly, they were proclaimed Heroes of the Soviet Union on their return and toasted by Stalin who declared that:

“Today these three women have avenged the heavy centuries of oppression of women.”

How could he resist her after that? Speaking after the war her her future comrades-in-arms, Yevgeniya Zhigulenko recalled:

“She said to Stalin, ‘You know, they are running away to the front all the same. It will be worse, you understand, if they steal airplanes to go…’”

With Stalin’s blessing Raskova formed and trained the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment, flying Yakovlev Yak-1, Yak-7B and Yak-9 fighters, Raskova’s own 125th Guards Bomber Aviation Regiment which flew state-of-the-art Petlyakov Pe-2 dive bombers, much to the envy of male bomber regiments, and arguably the most famous of the lot – the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. Later renamed 46th ‘Taman’ Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, it would become better known by the name given to it by its German enemies – die Nachthexen, or the Night Witches, as they would idle the engines and drop through the clouds at a glide to bomb German units in near-silence, with only a broomstick-like rustling of the canvas body to give them away. Specialists in precision bombing of supply depots and command centres, and ‘harassment bombing’, in which the Night Witches’ role was to keep the enemy on edge, unable to sleep or rest without fear of death from the skies at any time.

The Night Witches receiving their orders on the Belorusian Front in 1944
The Night Witches receiving their orders on the Belorusian Front in 1944

Nadia Popova described these terrifying sorties in a 2009 interview for PRI’s The World:

“We flew in sequence. One after another, and during the night we never let them rest so they called us ‘Night Witches.’ And the Germans made up stories. They spread the rumour that we had been injected with some unknown chemicals that enabled us to see so clearly at night.”

Galina Brok-Beltsova, who flew with the Night Witches’ sister regiment the 125th, explained in a 1996 issue of FAA Aviation News:

“They would have to run out into the night in their underwear, and they were probably saying, ‘Oh, those night witches!’ Or maybe they called us something worse. We, of course, would have preferred to have been called ‘night beauties,’ but, whichever, we did our job.”

So unnerved were the enemy that many refused to smoke at night, lest the glow of their cigarettes reveal their positions, and an Iron Cross – the highest military honour awarded to German soldiers – would be issued to anyone who brought down a Night Witch.

They used wood-frame Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes – mockingly referred to as ‘sewing machines’ – that first saw service in 1928 and had since been relegated to crop-dusting and training. The Po-2’s open cockpit exposed the pilot and navigator to frostbite, the small carrying capacity meant their two bombs were at the expense of even a radio and often a light machine gun, and so to keep up constant pressure on the Nazis were forced to fly over and over again – Popova’s record was 18 gruelling sorties in one night. With an all-female ground crew as well as pilots, they moved from airbases behind Soviet lines to temporary airfields closer to the front and, as night fell, they deployed on their seemingly neverending missions from Popova’s native Donetsk Basin to the besieged Crimea, to Belarus and Poland, and eventually even Germany itself, with planes landing and taking off three minutes apart. Always on the move and always in action, each Night Witch would fly around 1,000 missions by the end of the war when the average for a British bomber crew was 30.

All this discomfort was nothing compared to the incredible dangers posed by their obsolete biplanes which flew too low to bail out of, and would burst into to flames with sickening ease when hit by tracer shells from the ‘circus of flak’ – the rings of wicked 37mm anti-aircraft guns pointed skyward, guided by searchlights whose touch often meant death. To combat the searchlights the Night Witches developed a strategy that tested their already beleaguered nerves, flying in groups of three, the first two planes would deliberately probe the circus until they had the attention of the searchlights and their accompanying symphony of gunfire, allowing the third plane to dip in and deliver its payload.

Squadron commanders of the Soviet 588th light night bomber regiment during a briefing on the Caucasian Front, 1942.
Squadron commanders of the Soviet 588th light night bomber regiment during a briefing on the Caucasian Front, 1942. A Po-2 is visible behind them.

Popova recalled:

“We were flying without parachutes. We were not able to bail out. The whole crew which was shot during the night flight was burning alive, and it was awful. It was an absolutely unbearable sight. This was the most tragic part.”

Mariya Smirnova, one of the unit’s most decorated pilots, spoke frankly about the conditions:

“You shouldn’t misinterpret my words and think we faced death openly and bravely – it is not true. We never became accustomed to fear. Before each mission and as we approached the target, I became a concentration of nerves and tension. My whole body was swept by fear of being killed.”

With a top speed of around 151 kilometres per hour (94 miles per hour) when fully loaded, this was well below the speed at which the engines of the Luftwaffe’s infamous Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighters would stall, making the Polikarpov Po-2 too slow and nimbly manoeuvrable to effectively engage in air combat – often dropping out of sight in the darkness by the time the German fighters had turned back around. Eventually the Germans were forced to start deploying their own mothballed biplanes to counter them. As advantages go, having a plane too clunky to dogfight was scarcely a fair trade for their vulnerability or the punishing frequency of their deployment, nor to the standard by which they were held by male airmen when they first deployed. Though the Night Witches were eventually awarded the coveted ‘Guards Regiment’ status, along with the variety of battle honours and medals they had rightfully earned, the prejudices that kept women out of combat until Operation Barbarossa reached its height weren’t easily dispelled.

Clad in poorly fitting second-hand uniforms cast aside by male pilots, oversized boots stuffed with newspaper and given two years’ training in only six months, Comrade Stalin may have held Marina Raskova in some regard, but to many male airmen and officers, these 20-somethings were nothing more than the ‘skirt regiment.’ Some male pilots refused to let their planes be maintained by female ground crews, and officers made disparaging reports of airwomen colouring in their lips with navigation pencil used to mark routes on maps, dancing on the airfield and keeping kittens in their barrack.

Popova and some of her fellow flyers at rest
Popova and some of her fellow flyers at rest

One official report reads:

“What an exceptional case! A regiment composed solely of girls! And what’s more, these girls were eager to fight! But, after all, they were bound to become scared and cry! Besides – the crux of the matter was – could they fight?”

They could and they did, and amazingly the Soviet Union’s female flyers managed this without sacrificing their femininity. While well aware that they were being held to the same – if not higher – standards of male pilots, the motto of the 588th was:

“You are a woman, and you should be proud of that.”

Nobody exemplifies this better than the ‘White Rose of Stalingrad’, Lydia Litvyak, a pilot with one of the Night Witches’ sister regiments. The world’s first female fighter ace – a title awarded for a certain number of enemy kills, usually around five – she was reported to have painted a white rose on the nose of her Yak-1 fighter and kept bouquets of wildflowers in the cockpit, dyed her hair with peroxide obtained from the nearest hospital and would make scarves out of parachute material.

Nadia Popova similarly never forgot the motto of the 588th – despite the rigours of war, she would fluff up her hair – pressed flat by the leather flying cap – in a tortoiseshell mirror after each flight, and would eventually meet her future husband – pilot Semyon Kharlamov – in a convoy, after being shot down and separated from her unit. When Popova ended the war in the ruins of the Reichstag, Semyon was by her side, and they wrote their names together on the crumbling walls.

Lydia Litvyak, the White Rose of Stalingrad, before a mission
Lydia Litvyak, the White Rose of Stalingrad, before a mission

Like so many of Popova’s contemporaries, Marina Raskova and Lydia Litvyak died in combat – Raskova in 1943, crashing into the banks of the Volga river in a violent snow-storm, and Litvyak later the same year, ambushed by Messerschmitts while she attacked a German bomber. She was only 21.

Popova survived, married, and returned to her home town a hero, greeted by crowds throwing flowers and a marching band – a more triumphant and provincial echo of Marina Raskova’s state funeral in Moscow; the first the Soviet Union had given in wartime and a tribute to her status.

Despite the glory and the tragedy, the 588th and its sister regiments would be sadly disbanded and, much like in Britain and America, the role of women who had served their country every bit as faithfully and bravely as their husbands, fathers and brothers was expected to return to its pre-war setting. While many of them were forced to return home and become housewives – their deeds largely unremarked upon until the Eighties when the old authoritarian Soviet regime began to crumble and the Europe bequeathed by Joseph Stalin was finally dismantled – Nadia Popova continued to work as a flight instructor, and when she died on 8 July 2013, aged 91, her death was mourned not just in her native Russia, but around the world.

History provides few enough examples of women being able to endure the same terrible hardships and perform the same incredible feats as men, and fewer still exist where they were allowed to accomplish these things on their own terms – as women. These 20-something girls from collective farms and steel towns defied society once when they became pilots, and then defied it again when they abandoned their ironing and took to the skies in war, and their example in an era when the idea of women in combat roles is still contested defies it once more. Throughout it all they never forgo:

“You are a woman, and you should be proud of that.”

Popova said poignantly:

“At night sometimes I look up into the dark sky, close my eyes and picture myself as a girl at the controls of my bomber and I think, ‘Nadia, how on earth did you do it?’”

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