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Soviet 'Night Witches' Pilots

Мы стремимся российских специалистов, чтобы подготовить рассказы о русской / советской летных экипажей. Пожалуйста, свяжитесь с нами, если вы заинтересованы.

'Night Witches' is the English translation of Nachthexen, a World War II German nickname (Russian Ночные ведьмы, Nochnye Vedmy) for the female military aviators of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, known later as the 46th "Taman" Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, of the Soviet Air Forces. The regiment was formed by Colonel Marina Raskova and led by Major Yevdokia Bershanskaya.

Soviet Air Force officers, Rufina Gasheva (848 night combat missions: IWM RUS5179) and Nataly Meklin (980 night combat missions) decorated as 'Heroes of the Soviet Union' for their service with the famed 'Night Witches' unit during World War II. They stand in front of their Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes. (Colourisation and research by Olga Shirnina from Russia)

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 800 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 six 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. An attack 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. German soldiers likened the sound to broomsticks and named the pilots "Night Witches." Due to the weight of the bombs and the low altitude of flight, the pilots carried no parachutes.

From June 1942, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment was within the 4th Air Army. In February 1943 the regiment was honored with a reorganization into the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment and in October 1943 it became the 46th "Taman" Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment. "Taman" referred to the unit's involvement in two celebrated Soviet victories on the Taman Peninsula during 1943. (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Night Witches pilots

The women of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, with their aircraft in the background

The following is from an article in The Atlantic. It was the spring of 1943, at the height of World War II. Two pilots, members of the Soviet Air Force, were flying their planes -- Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, built mainly of plywood and canvas -- over a Soviet railway junction. Their passage was on its way to being a routine patrol ... until the pilots found themselves confronted by a collection of German bombers. Forty-two of them.

The pilots did what anyone piloting a plane made of plywood would do when confronted with enemy craft and enemy fire: they ducked. They sent their planes into dives, returning fire directly into the center of the German formation. The tiny planes' flimsiness was in some ways an asset: their maximum speed was lower than the stall speed of the Nazi planes, meaning that the pilots could maneuver their craft with much more agility than their attackers. The outnumbered Soviets downed two Nazi planes before one of their own lost its wing to enemy fire. The pilot bailed out, landing, finally, in a field.

The people on the ground, who had witnessed the skirmish, rushed over to help the stranded pilot. They offered alcohol. But the offer was refused. As the pilot would later recall, "Nobody could understand why the brave lad who had taken on a Nazi squadron wouldn't drink vodka."

The brave lad had refused the vodka, it turned out, because the brave lad was not a lad at all. It was Tamara Pamyatnykh, one of the members of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Air Forces. The 588th was the most highly decorated female unit in that force, flying 30,000 missions over the course of four years -- and dropping, in total, 23,000 tons of bombs on invading German armies. 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.

Major Evdokiia

(Right: Major Evdokiia "Dina" Nikulina. Pilot, 588th/46th GvBAP, 760/774 sorties. courtesy Klimbin Art)

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 Night Witches were largely unique among the female combatants -- and even the female flyers -- of World War II. Other countries, the U.S. among them, may have allowed women to fly as members of their early air forces; those women, however, served largely in support and transport roles. The Soviet Union was the first nation to allow women to fly combat missions -- to be able, essentially, to return fire when it was delivered. These ladies flew planes; they also dropped bombs.

In July 2013, one of the most famous of the Night Witches -- Nadezhda Popova, a commander of the squad who flew, in total, 852 of its missions -- passed away. She was 91. And the obituaries that resulted, celebrations of a life and a legacy largely unknown to many of us here in the U.S., serve as a reminder of the great things the female flyers accomplished. Things made even more remarkable considering the limited technology the woman had at their disposal. The Witches (they took the German epithet as a badge of honor) flew only in the dark. Because of the weight of the bombs they carried and the low altitudes at which they flew, they carried no parachutes. They had no radar to navigate their paths through the night skies -- only maps and compasses. If hit by tracer bullets, their craft would ignite like the paper planes they resembled. Which was not a small concern: "Almost every time," Popova once recalled, "we had to sail through a wall of enemy fire."

1943 Russian military photograph of Nadia Popova with her Po2 biplane (via the book Night Witches)

Their missions were dangerous; they were also, as a secondary challenge, unpleasant. Each night, in general, 40 planes -- each crewed by two women, a pilot and a navigator -- would fly eight or more more missions. Popova herself once flew 18 in a single night. (The multiple nightly sorties were necessary because the modified crop-dusters were capable of carrying only two bombs at a time.) The women's uniforms were hand-me-downs from male pilots. And their planes had open cockpits, leaving the women's faces to freeze in the chilly night air. "When the wind was strong it would toss the plane," Popova noted. "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."

Once, after a successful flight -- which is to say, a flight she survived -- Popova counted 42 bullet holes studding her little plane. There were also holes in her map. And in her helmet. "Katya, my dear," the pilot told her navigator, "we will live long."

Despite all this bravado, however, the female fighter pilots initially struggled to earn the respect of their brothers in arms. The Night Bomber Regiment was one of three female fighter pilot units created by Stalin at the urging of Marina Raskova -- an aviation celebrity who was, essentially, "the Soviet Amelia Earhart." Raskova trained her recruits as pilots and navigators, and also as members of maintenance and ground crews. She also prepared them for an environment that preferred to treat women as bombshells rather than bombers. One general, male, initially complained about being sent a "a bunch of girlies" instead of soldiers. But the women and their flimsy little crop-dusters and their ill-fitting uniforms and their 23,000 tons of ammunition soon proved him wrong. And they did all that while decorating their planes with flowers and using their navigation pencils as lipcolor.

A ceremony on the event of the 60th anniversary of Victory and of International Women’s Day, took place at an air force officers’ club in the village of Zarya near Moscow.

“The nine brave – that’s how our colleagues called us. And the Germany called us ‘night witches.’ We flew on night bombing missions in plywood slow-moving U-2 (Po2) airplanes,” said a participant of the festivities, retired Lieutenant Colonel Rufina Gasheva.

Sixty years ago, Marshal Konstantin Rokossovskiy awarded Hero of the Soviet Union stars to nine female flyers of the 46th Night Short-Range Bombing Regiment of the 4th Air Army, including to Lieutenant Gasheva. Among those awarded also was the commander of her crew, Nadezhda Popova. “And the title was conferred posthumously to my former commander, Ol’ga Safinrova, by the same decree. On the night of 30 April – 1 May 1943, our U-2 was shot down after returning from a mission. We bailed out and managed to get back to our side one-by-one. As the infantrymen reported to me, Ol’ga was blown up on a mine,” Lieutenant Colonel Gasheva recalls.

By March 1945, Rufina Gasheva had 823 night sorties, and 848 for the whole of the war.

(Source: Roy's Russian Aircraft Resource)

Rufina Gasheva (10/14/1921 - 01/05/2012)

Passed away on May 1 in Moscow, Russia, of natural causes at 90 years old, the Heroine of the Soviet Union, Major Rufina Sergeyevna Gasheva.

Born in the village of Verhnechusovskie in the province of Perm, Gasheva was the daughter of a teacher. In 1922 his family moved to the Gorky region, but the following year, with his father's death, she went with her mother to the Urals. In 1930 her mother took her to the capital, where she later joined the Federal University of Moscow, studying mechanics and mathematics. With the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Gasheva joined the Red Air Force in October 1941, and sent for night air navigation training in Engels. Completing the training in March 1942, she was sent to the front line.

Gasheva was assigned to the 46th Aviation Regiment Night Bomber Guard, a female unit known by the Germans as "The Night Witches". Flying slow biplanes Polikarpov Po-2, Gasheva quickly showed one noticed talent for night navigation, mounting a successful partnership with pilot Captain Olga Sanfirova. The missions were often bombing of German troop concentrations, then the aviators constantly entered the reach of enemy flak.

In May 1943, while flying a mission in the Kuban region of southern USSR, her aircraft received heavy anti-aircraft fire and fell to the ground. She recalled: "At night, it is difficult to drive in the soil, but we were rescued ... by frogs! The land was flat and there was no place to hide. The Germans had seen our fall, and began to open fire on us. Where to hide? Suddenly we heard the spring frogs croak - there was a swamp there! Our salvation! We hid there for two days. Since then, this has been a comforting sound to me: the croak of frogs. "

During Operation Bagration she bombed concentrations of German troops in Pron, Dnieper, Mogilev, Minsk and Grodno, with great success. Having participated in the liberation of the North Caucasus, Kuban, Crimea, Belarus, Poland and the battles in Germany, she reached the mark of 823 combat missions in late 1944, inflicting great damage to the enemy in the field. Thus, on February 23, 1945 the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet granted Lieutenant Senior Rufina Gasheva the Golden Star Heroine of the Soviet Union.

After the war, Gasheva graduated from the Military Institute of Foreign Languages in 1952, becoming an English teacher at Armored Military Academy. She went to the reserve in 1956 in the rank of Major. After that, she also worked as editor in chief of the Defense Ministry of the Soviet Union publications, retiring permanently in 1972.

Natalya Meklin

Natalya Fyodorovna Meklin née Kravtsova (born September 8th 1922 Lubny Ukraine, died June 5th 2005 , Moscow)

Decorations: Order of Lenin , Order of the Red Banner , Order of the Red Star , Order of the Patriotic War

See Obituary on Nadia Popova here

The New York Times commissioned an animated short documentary on Nadia Popova. See it here

Reference Books

Night Witches: Untold Story of Soviet Women in Combat

Flying for Her Country: The American and Soviet Women Military Pilots of World War II

A Dance with Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II

The White Rose of Stalingrad: The Real-life Adventure of Lidiya Vladimirovna Litvyak, the Highest Scoring Female Air Ace of All Time (General Military)

Soviet Airwomen

Wings, Women, and War: Soviet Airwomen in World War II Combat (Modern War Studies)

For material on other women flyers:

SY July 2015. Update Nov 2015

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Last Modified: 26 May 2016, 22:39