The Night Witches: World War II’s Fiercest All-Female Force
The 588th Regiment of the Soviet Air Force flew more than 24,000 missions in the war.
As Hollywood stands in solidarity for the Time’s Up movement, black gowns dominating the Golden Globe’s carpet this year, and Iceland becomes the first country to legalize equal pay, it seems the world is beginning to creak like an old wooden ship with change. Good change. Change that marks not only an end to harassment but a beginning to acknowledgment. Acknowledgment of equal value, equal contributions, equal marks in the history books. An awareness that this Real-Life Lara Croft series is meant to reflect. A clear understanding that women, since the beginning of time, have been making significant additions to the world we live in. Not just as mothers and homemakers and wives, but also as athletes, explorers, dreamers and doers and glass-ceiling shatterers. Women who had raised their hands when it was necessary and stepped into men’s shoes when it was required. Women like the Night Witches, Russia’s indomitable female pilots who gave the Nazis such a run for their money that history … well, forgot about them.
In August 2017, Russia announced that it would accept female fighter pilots into its Air Force for the first time since World War II. In October, a handful of women began training at the Krasnodar Military Aviation School. The legacy they step into is one of sheer determination, staring down the odds and making that proverbial lemonade when you’re handed a bag of vitamin C. C is for crap.
In 1941 the idea of an all-female fighting squadron was presented to Stalin by the already decorated pilot Marina Raskova, the “Soviet Amelia Earhart.” Since the start of the war, she had received countless letters from women wanting to join the air force. Women who had lost loved ones. Women who wanted to fight for their country. Women who had seen their homes devastated by war. They had sent in applications. Those applications had been denied. Like a tree house with the sign hanging over the door that shamelessly states “No girls allowed,” the Soviet Air Force was a boys club through and through.
As a famous pilot, navigator, air academy instructor and long distance flight record holder Marina’s celebrity status and a dire shortage of skirmish pilots became the persuasion Stalin needed. The Soviet Union became the first nation to allow female pilots to fly in combat, to fire when fired upon and to carry and drop bombs.
Out of thousands of applicants, Marina selected a few hundred women ranging in age from 17-26. One of these groups became the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. Their education would be flying by the seat of their pants. There was no time for proper training. In a matter of months, that would normally take years, the recruits were trained as pilots, mechanics, ground crews, officers and navigators.
The new aviators arrived in dirty barracks infested with rats. There were no uniforms for women, so they were offered hand me downs from male pilots … along with their shoes. The women were undeterred. They sat down and sewed their jumpsuits and stuffed their shoes with bedsheets.
The military also wasn’t inclined to dedicate funds in their direction. They lacked much of the equipment male fliers considered standard. They didn’t have parachutes, radars or radios. Instead, they made due with rulers, paper maps and handheld compasses.
Their planes weren’t much better. The regiment was given fire prone wood-and-canvas Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes. Planes generally used for crop dusting. Their nickname was “mules.” Stubborn. Difficult. Effective.
In addition to outdated equipment, the women faced sexual harassment, resentment, suspicion and lack of respect from male peers and superiors. They were mocked for attempting to participate in what was considered a man’s game. These women were forced to earn their stripes … and they did.
The 588th Regiment flew more than 24,000 missions and dropped 23,000 tons of bombs in their flimsy planes and with their second-hand gear. The small planes had one major advantage. Their maximum speed was slower than the stall speed of the German aircraft allowing them to duck and cover in dogfights. They did most of their bombing missions at night. The technique was to stall the engine and glide in low and quite to the target where they would drop the bombs. The only sound was the whooshing noise of the planes as they vanished back into the night. That sound terrified the Germans so much that they dubbed the women Nachthexen, “Night Witches.”
The idea of female pilots being so deadly mystified the Germans. Clearly, these couldn’t just be ordinary women. Rumors swirled that they had received secret medical enhancements that gave them night vision. They were so feared that any German pilot who shot down a Night Witch was given an Iron Cross.
They were also still girls. They wanted to be pretty. They didn’t want to cut their hair, they wore scarves and lipstick, used navigation pencils as eyeliner, painted flowers on their planes … and bombed the hell out of the Germans.
By the end of the war, the women of the 588th Regiment had shown their metal. Yet even though they were the most highly decorated unit in the Soviet Air Force during the war, they weren’t invited to the victory day parade. Within a year of war’s end, the 588th Regiment was retired.
Meanwhile, in the US, it was only in 2016 that President Obama signed a bill reinstating that female military pilots, the women who flew noncombat missions during World War II, were allowed to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
So reread those accounts of history folks because often, hiding in the margins of those grand tales, are stories worth telling of women who deserve as much celebrated recognition as their male counterparts.
A lot of this material is sourced from a book I love, Night Witches: The Amazing Story Of Russia’s Women Pilots in World War II by Bruce Myles. It’s a great read with wonderful insights into the trials and tribulations, victories and losses, heartbreaks and love stories of the 588th Regiment.
These were not cartoonish, bombshell femme fatales. These were actual females who were fatal not only to the Nazis but also to any stereotypes of girly girls who couldn’t handle themselves on the frontlines of war … dropping bombs with red lips and flowers in their hair.