The Night Witches – The WWII, All-female Bomber Regiment

More WWII History? Sure. Night Witches: The Female Fighter Pilots of World War II. The Germans came to call them Nachthexen – Night Witches. Why? Keep reading.

Officially, they were the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, though that designation changed over time as they accumulated honors. It was the only regiment that remained all female during the war. (Or at anytime since.) Pilots, navigators, mechanics, the CO… They were ALL women.

The Atlantic calls them fighter pilots, but it is hard to characterize the planes they flew as “fighter planes” by WWII standards. They flew wood and canvas biplanes originally designed for training, and then pressed into service for crop dusting. Low and slow doesn’t begin to cover it. The image at the right is of a Polikarpov Po-2, the plane used by the regiment. (Click to enlarge.)

Its members, who ranged in age from 17 to 26, flew primarily at night, making do with planes that were—per their plywood-and-canvas construction—generally reserved for training and crop-dusting. They often operated in stealth mode, idling their engines as they neared their targets and then gliding their way to their bomb release points. As a result, their planes made little more than soft “whooshing” noises as they flew by.

Those noises reminded the Germans, apparently, of the sound of a witch’s broomstick. So the Nazis began calling the female fighter pilots Nachthexen: “night witches.” They were loathed. And they were feared. Any German pilot who downed a “witch” was automatically awarded an Iron Cross.

The old biplanes had a maximum speed that was slower than the stall speed of most of the German planes of the day. This made them fairly difficult to shoot down in a dog fight. Difficult, but not impossible.

And tracer fire was especially a problem. Wood and painted canvas don’t react well to incendiary fire. They were flying very slow by the standards of the day, and even if their planes didn’t make a lot of noise, the Germans did learn to identify the noise they did make.

As you can imagine, they didn’t get a lot of respect at the beginning of their service. Aside from the substandard planes, they had hand-me-down uniforms, and senior officers who were upset at being sent a bunch of “girlies.” That changed as they proved that women really can fly planes. They were one of the first aviation regiments to be elevated to “guard status.”

They dropped 3,000 tons of bombs on the Germans over the course of the war. They also dropped food and ammunition to Soviet troops.

While I was trying to find a decent video on this subject, I ran across this one from NBC. They managed to get part of an interview with one of the last survivors of the regiment, from the Russian Archives. (I can’t embed it here, so just a link.) It isn’t as entertaining as the one below, but it is good, and it isn’t an hour long. (It’s a bit over 5 minutes.) And it is in English.

This video from “We are the Mighty” is pretty good – it has a lot of info – even if it is a bit over the top. (They get points for a Monty Python reference.)

There is an all-female Black Sabbath tribute band named Nightwitches, (I can’t recommend them) and there is also a Sabaton song (Heavy Metal) that is a tribute to the Soviet regiment. I also can’t recommend it. YMMV

If you have the stamina for English subtitles on a Russian film, there is a 2008 film by Gunilla Bresky (available on YouTube in several parts) that includes quite few interviews with the Natten Haxor (Night Witches in Russian) who were still alive at the time. As well as letters they sent, and film from the time. While it won’t give Ken Burns a run for his money, it isn’t bad, even if it is in fairly low resolution. There is supposed to be a feature film from the 1980s, but I haven’t had time to look that up just yet. There is also a Russian series The Night Swallows, but with the English subtitles, and the soap-opera nature of the show, I haven’t been able to watch much of it.

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5 thoughts on “The Night Witches – The WWII, All-female Bomber Regiment

  1. For those who are not WWII buffs, our “allies,” the soviets, gave a heads-up to the japanese about the upcoming operation (in October, 1944) in the Philippines a month ahead of the Leyte Gulf landings. They hadn’t declared war against Japan, only Germany. The soviets didn’t want the USA to win the war in the Pacific before they had a chance to grab some territory for themselves.

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    • “The enemy of my enemy, is my enemy’s enemy. Nothing more” (one of the 70 Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries) We were allies not friends. And do you think we weren’t (or aren’t) spying on everyone? And maybe playing one party against another?

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  2. And stalin had a spy inside the Manhattan Project that kept him informed of the advances being made in nuclear physics. And that FDR sent tons of uranium to the USSR before the war ended.

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    • I never said the Soviet Union was a great place. Never. I know people who escaped from the Soviet Union. But that doesn’t take away from the bravery of the female aviators or the female snipers they deployed during the war.

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      • It is also interesting – in view of the “women can’t be in combat” arguments people make about women in the US military – to consider where women have been in combat.

        Changing the subject and arguing about something I never said is one of the logical fallacies that usually get comments deleted. But making it clear that I never, ever defended the Soviet Union is worth it to me to leave it be. This time.

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