Written By Pratichi Satpathy (Grade 8)
Six years, eight countries and almost sixty million deaths – that’s World War II for you. When one thinks of the Second World War, there are many things that come to mind, such as ‘fighter pilots’. You would be lying if you said that you didn’t just picture a man in a uniform on a plane as you read that phrase. Although this narrative is correct in a way, I am here to put a twist to the tale and tell you about the deadliest, all female regiment of the Soviet army – The Night Witches.
The Night Witches were the all-female crew of the 588th Night Bomber Aviation Regiment of the Soviet army during the Second World War. Of course, the WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots) in America participated in the war effort by testing and ferrying planes, but the Night Witches were the first women pilots in the military, who directly combated with the enemy. Not only the pilots, but also all the ground crew, navigators, and support staff were women.
Flying was a popular sport among women of Russia in the 1930’s – scores of women were part of flying clubs! However, they were not allowed in the Air Force, though they fought in the front lines of the army. Colonel Marina Raskova, the ‘Russian Amelia Earhart’ was ready to change that for the better. From the initial days of the conflict, courageous and patriotic women had been contacting her to fight the prohibition of women in the Air Force and find ways for them to use their skills in serving their country. Raskova was enthusiastic about the idea and worked hard to make this a reality. Finally, on 8 October, 1941, the Soviet government formed three air squads, the 586th, 587th, 588th Regiments, out of which the 588th was the only one with an exclusively female crew.
The women, all aged 17-26, filed into the small town of Engels to begin training to be a part of the war effort. They were greeted by Raskova in a brief manner and immediately handed size 42 boots and baggy military uniforms, originally made for their muscular male counterparts. To hold their shoes firmly on their feet, several pilots even mentioned having to shove ripped-apart bedding into their shoes.
The pilots’ struggles started way before they even set foot in the cockpit! For instance, they had to fly the obsolete (even for that age) Polikarpov Po-2 airplanes, made of a flimsy frame of plywood, with canvas stretched over them. The Polikarpov Po-2 was light as a feather, slow as a snail and provided as little protection as a blanket from ghosts at night. The pilot and navigator, who attacked Nazi troops in the middle of the night, were hit with freezing cold wind that often gave them painful frostbites. The planes were quite vulnerable to being engulfed in flames, if shot at by the enemy. Every night was uncertain, and the women were unsure if they would live to see the sun rays pouring out in streaks from behind the endless horizon the next morning. The Polikarpov Po-2 could only carry two bombs, one under each wing, meaning the women had to take multiple trips from the base to the site of bombing in one night, which was exhausting for the pilots, navigators and ground crew alike. Their work was conducted in the hours of darkness, leaving them with very little time to rest during the day. To add to that, the planes flew dangerously low, easily spotted by the enemy troops, putting the women at a significant risk. The women were not provided with modern equipment, having to do with old-school material, like compasses and maps.
Of course, the coin has two sides and the slow speeds of the small planes made it nearly impossible for the German aircrafts to take aim and shoot. Furthermore, being made of wood, they did not show up on the infrared detectors of the Nazi troops, which helped them fly undetected. The planes could conveniently take off and land anywhere, which was essential, since the 588th regiment flew very close to the ground. The nightly raids of the Night Witches took a mental and physical toll on the German soldiers, and decreased their morale.
Each trip to enemy ground was perilous, so much so that the valiant pilots and navigators saved the last bullet in their guns for themselves, so that they would not be captured alive. Those women were the epitome of courage, and were willing to sacrifice themselves and the life ahead of them for the sake of their country. The Germans had set up huge concentric circles of search lights to spot the easily detectable biplanes. However, the 588th had found a way to deceive the Germans once again. They flew in groups of 3, which led the searchlights to follow the two planes on the extreme sides, while the one in the middle swooped low, turned off the engine and unleashed the bombs. The pilot would then, hopefully, be able to turn on the engine and fly back up. This cycle continued until all six bombs had been dropped, after which the 588th flew back for another sortie. The ground crew, all a part of the Night Witches, repaired, refueled and loaded the planes. The terrified German army dubbed them the ‘Nachthexen’ (Night Witches) as an insult, but the 588th Night Bomber Aviation Regiment took upon this ‘nickname’ with great pride.
Even though these heroic, valourous women played a vital role in defending their country, they were still discriminated against by the men in the Air Force, and were treated with little respect. To add salt to the wound, they also did not have access to the modern tools used by the men at the time. From June 1942 to October 1945, the Night Witches flew about 23,672 combat sorties, logged 28,676 hours of flight, and dropped over 3,000 tons of bombs and 26,000 incendiary shells, and only then were they given their due respect by all those who scorned them.
The regiment lost 30 gallant pilots during the time of World War II, and 23 of them received the coveted title of ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’. Although the war ended in 1945, the squadron remained and was changed to the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, and till this date continues to fight for their country.
The Night Witches did not have black magic, cauldrons or flying broomsticks by their side, they had passion, perseverance and prowess, and that was what truly made a difference in the end.
Featured Image Courtesy – Vanity Fair