Relatively few people outside the former Soviet Union have heard of the so-called ‘Night Witches‘, a Soviet air regiment during World War II comprising all-female pilots and aircrew. Wikipedia says of them:
The regiment flew harassment bombing and precision bombing missions against the German military from 1942 to the end of the war. At its largest size, it had 40 two-person crews. It flew over 23,000 sorties and is said to have dropped 3,000 tons of bombs. It was the most highly-decorated female unit in the Soviet Air Force, each pilot having flown over 1,000 missions by the end of the war and twenty-three having been awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union title. Thirty of its members died in combat.
The regiment flew in wood and canvas Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, a 1928 design intended for use as training aircraft and for crop-dusting, and to this day the most-produced biplane in all of aviation history. The planes could carry only two bombs at a time, so multiple missions per night were necessary. Although the aircraft were obsolete and slow, the pilots made daring use of their exceptional maneuverability; they had the advantage of having a maximum speed that was lower than the stall speed of both the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and the Focke-Wulf Fw 190, and as a result, the German pilots found them very difficult to shoot down. A stealth technique of the night bombers was to idle the engine near the target and glide to the bomb release point, with only wind noise to reveal their location. Because of the weight of the bombs and the low altitude of flight the pilots carried no parachutes.
Nadezhda Popova, who has died aged 91, was a member of an elite corps of Soviet women — known as the “Night Witches” — who fought as bomber pilots in the air war against Germany, and the only one to win three Orders of the Patriotic War for bravery.
In late 1941 Stalin signed an order to establish three all-women Air Force units to be grouped into separate fighter, dive bomber and night bomber regiments. Over the next four years these regiments flew a combined total of more than 30,000 combat sorties and dropped 23,000 tons of bombs. Nadezhda Popova, then aged 19, was one of the first to join the best-known of the three units, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment (later renamed the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment).
The 588th was not well equipped. Wearing hand-me-down uniforms from male pilots, the women flew 1920s-vintage Polikarpov PO-2 two-seater biplanes, which consisted of fabric strung over a plywood frame, and lacked all but the most rudimentary instruments.
There was no radio; navigation was done with a stopwatch and a map. The planes carried no guns, no parachutes and had only enough weight allowance to take two bombs, forcing the pilots to make multiple sorties (Nadezhda Popova once flew 18 in a single night), returning to base each time to collect more bombs, which were released with a wire cable jury-rigged to the wings.
Because they were so vulnerable, the 588th flew only at night, and was mainly involved in harassment bombing of German military encampments, rear area bases and supply depots. The strategic importance of the targets was seldom high, but the psychological effect of the raids was considerable.
Because the PO-2s were flimsy and flew near the ground, they could often pass undetected by radar. The pilots’ tactic was to fly to within a certain distance of the target, and cut their engines. They would then glide in silently, release their bombs, then restart their engines and fly home. The Germans called them the “Nachthexen” (the Night Witches) due to the whooshing sound they made — “like a witch’s broomstick in the night’’ — as they flew past. There was, supposedly, a promise to award an Iron Cross to any Luftwaffe pilot who actually managed to bring down a Night Witch.
To escape the German ground defences, the 588th flew in formations of three. Two would go in as decoys to attract the attention of the searchlights, then separate in opposite directions and twist and turn wildly to avoid the flak guns. As the searchlights scrambled to follow them, the third bomber would sneak in along the darkened path made by her two comrades and hit the target unopposed. She would then get out and rejoin the other two; they would then switch places until all three had delivered their payloads. It took nerves of steel to be a decoy, but as Nadezhda Popova recalled: “It worked.”
It was the cold that she recalled more than anything else: “When the wind was strong it would toss the plane. In winter when you’d look out to see your target better, you got frostbite, our feet froze in our boots, but we carried on flying.” There was no time for fear: “You had to focus on the target and think how you could hit it. There was no time to give way to emotions… Those who gave in were gunned down and they were burned alive in their craft as they had no parachutes.”
She recalled one particularly gruelling mission when, after bombing an ammunition dump, she found herself caught in the searchlights: “I manoeuvred and suddenly I saw them switch to another plane that flew after me. Enemy planes took off and shot it down, it caught fire and fell. That was one. Then I turned my head and saw a second plane go down in flames and then a third one lit up the sky like a falling torch. By the time I got back, four of our planes had perished with eight girls in them burned alive … What a nightmare, poor girls, my friends, only yesterday we had slept in the bunks together.”
Nadezhda Popova, who was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel, was one of the best of the 588th pilots — and one of the luckiest. She flew 852 missions, serving in Ukraine, Rostov-on-Don, the North Caucasus near Grozny, Novorossiysk, Sevastopol, Minsk, Warsaw and Berlin. Though shot down or forced to land several times, she always emerged unharmed — and on one occasion she found romance too.
Shot down in July 1942 in the North Caucasus, she joined a retreating infantry column and, on the way back to her unit, met another pilot, Semyon Kharlamov, who had also been shot down. Only his eyes were visible through his bandages, but he charmed her with his jokes. They met a number of times again during the war and became Heroes of the Soviet Union by the same decree in February 1945. When they reached Berlin at the end of the war, they scribbled their names together on the walls of the Reichstag.
Shortly afterwards they married and remained together until Semyon’s death in 1990.
There’s more at the link.
Sounds like quite a lady . . . and a heroine indeed! I don’t know of any pilot for any of the Western allies who came close to flying 852 combat missions – or half, or even a third, of that total!
For those who don’t know it, here’s a short video clip of a restored Polikarpov Po-2 biplane. This one is operated by the Shuttleworth Collection in England.
With a 100-125hp engine (depending on whose figures you believe) and a top speed of less than 100 mph, it must have been a hair-raising experience to go to war in such a machine!