The Night Witches

Who Are The Night Witches?

Besides having what just might be the coolest name in aviation history, the Night Witches were a tough bunch of women pilots and navigators who stood their own against the male-dominated Soviet military ranks. Their sacrifices earned them national acclaim and their accomplishments were a result of the Soviet Union’s desperate need to expand and modernize. Women were tasked with building railroads, hammering nails, and laying brick alongside their male counterparts eventually, they also joined the military. Although the story of the Night Witches isn’t well-known in the United States, it is a fascinating illustration of how women aviators left their mark on World War Two history.

Yes They Can

By the time the Second World War broke out, Soviet women outpaced American women in terms of work experience. During the 1920s, women worked to expand and modernize the Soviet Union a few were even hired by various aviation bureaus to build and fly airplanes.

In 1941, as Nazi forces were marching through the Soviet Union, these women pilots showed up in droves at recruitment centers, but they were all turned away because the military would not accept women aviators in combat roles. In their frustration, these women wrote letters to their national hero, the pilot and navigator Marina Raskova, who broke records in the 1930s with her exploits flying planes for thousands of miles.

Raskova, sympathizing with the plight of these women aviators, demanded a meeting with the Premier, Joseph Stalin (who also happened to be a big fan of hers). Raskova presented him with all the letters she received and convinced him that women pilots would be of value to the Soviet cause.

By October 1941, women aviators were accepted for military training, and Raskova was named Colonel of the three all-women units. However, most Soviet women aircrews were integrated into mixed-gender regiments, flying alongside men.

Making the Grade

During their year of training, the women aviators were sorted by ability levels to form the three all-female regiments:the 586 Fighter Aviation Regiment, the 587 Bomber Aviation Regiment, and the 588 Night Bomber Aviation Regiment. The most-skilled aviators became fighter pilots and, to the ire of their male counterparts, were issued brand-new Yakovlev Yak-1s. The middle-tier pilots were assigned to the bomber regiment, and the lowest- scoring pilots were assigned to fly night bombers, and were issued a plane that no one else wanted to fly: the Polikarpov Po-2, a 1928 trainer constructed from wood and canvas with no heat, an open cockpit, and a 100-horsepower engine. The plane (pictured below) was outfitted with three bombs under each wing.

It was in this modest trainer that the women of the 588 th Regiment would make history.

Air-combat Tactics

The women of the 588 th f aced a daunting mission: flying low over German front lines and dropping bombs during the night. The objective was to disrupt the Germans as much as possible—causing their forces to lose sleep, and possibly killing or injuring a few in the process.

After the 558 th Regiment’s women slept during the day, they were briefed about their nightly mission and taxied out to the makeshift “runway” to await nightfall. The pilots would take off in pitch darkness towards the German front lines at tree top level, flying over an area plotted by the navigator (who doubled as the bombardier). Then, the navigator/bombardier would drop the plane’s six bombs and the crew would head back toward a runway cleared that very day and lit with torches.

The Night Witches flew multiple sorties every night, prolonging the attacks as long as possible, to deprive the Germans of sleep. It worked: the incessant attacks turned the Germans into virtual zombies. The Germans were incensed when they discovered that the pilots were women and started to anticipate the nighttime bombing tactics.

So, the women aviators revised their approach: they ascended while turning, slowly climbing in a wide circle until coming to a point designated by the navigator. Then, the navigator would tap the pilot on the shoulder as a signal to turn off the engine, at which point the plane would glide silently. Then, the crew would drop the bombs and hope that the engine would start up again.

This risky endeavor was usually successful but if it wasn’t, the pilots were armed with pistols and the last bullet was always for themselves. The pilots would rather commit suicide than be taken prisonerby the Germans.

Earning Their Name

Although the engine couldn’t be heard while the pilots were executing this new tactic, the plane still made some sound. The wind whistling through the struts could be heard by the German soldiers below, and some commented that it sounded like the screeching of a witch on her broom. The derisive nickname “Night Witch” gained popularity and eventually became a badge of honor. “Night Witches” is a verbatim translation of the German term, “Nachthexen.” The Germans dismissed the Night Witches’ Po-2s as “Nähmaschinen” -- “Sewing Machines,” because of their relative lack of sound (compared to 1,100-horsepower fighters).

By the end of the war, there were approximately 500,000 women serving in the Soviet military combat roles alongside men. The women were found to be excellent snipers they also operated antiaircraft artillery, and some even became tank commanders.

But it’s the Night Witches, gliding in their rickety trainers under the cloak of darkness, who garnered the most acclaim of any single group. Over 200,000 women were awarded medals for bravery during service, and 89 earned the highest honor Hero of the Soviet Union. And out of those 89, 22 were Night Witches of the 588 th Night Bomber Aviation Regiment.

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The Night Witches - HISTORY

By George Tipton Wilson

Ignoring a nonaggression pact between Hitler and Stalin, Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, an invasion of the Soviet Union, on June 22, 1941. The Soviet Air Force was caught on the ground and nearly annihilated.

By November the German Army had fought its way to within 19 miles of Moscow. Leningrad was under siege. Three million Russians had been taken prisoner. A large part of the Red Army had been wiped out.
[text_ad] Marina Raskova.

Immediately after the devastating attack began, the Soviet Union formed three regiments of female combatants at the behest of Marina Raskova, the Amelia Earhart of the Soviet Union. Raskova, already a heroine in aviation circles, had the ear of Soviet Premier Josef Stalin and convinced the wily dictator that women needed to be involved in the desperate fight.

It was a decision that many historians are convinced helped turn the tide of the war. By the close of World War II, nearly 1,000 Russian women had flown combat in every type of Soviet aircraft. Their participation has been called the best kept Russian secret of World War II. Even before the war, the Soviet government had encouraged women to participate in activities that earlier had only been the province of men. Women were to be the equal of their male counterparts in everything from being deck hands to flying airplanes.

One-Third of Soviet Pilots

As a result, women in the Soviet Union who wanted to learn to fly or work with airplanes were not discouraged or frozen out the way they were in America and to a lesser extent in Europe. The United States had its Jacqueline Cochran, its Nancy Harkness Love, its Amelia Earhart, and its Phoebe Omlie, but their fame was mainly relegated to “powderpuff derbies.” In the Soviet Union, it was not “healthy” to discriminate openly. Thus, by 1940, fully one-third of the trained pilots in the Soviet Union were women, and the Russian women pilots had set more flight records than the women of any other country.

One of the records was set on a nonstop flight from Moscow to the Manchurian border made in September 1938 by three women—Valentina Grizoduboya, Captain Polina Osipenko, and Lieutenant Marina Raskova—who were destined to take a leadership role in bringing women into aerial combat in the war against the Nazis. Raskova was the publicly acclaimed heroine among heroines because she selflessly parachuted from the plane during the last stages of the flight in a blinding snowstorm to lighten the plane’s load and assure a record-setting, nonstop distance. The aircraft subsequently crash-landed in a swamp near the border, and Raskova had to wander several days without food before she was able to rejoin her colleagues.

The three record-setting women were lionized throughout Russia, but Raskova’s fame far outlasted that of the other two. At the time of the flight, she was the navigator, but she went on to train and achieve excellent marks as a pilot. Her fame enabled her to grow close to Stalin, a position that could be tenuous at times, but one that augured well for the author of any project receiving his blessing.

The Rodina is checked out by mechanics some time before its celebrated flight to the Manchurian border.

Eleven months after the flight, in August 1939, an unthinkable diplomatic event occurred. Hitler and Stalin signed the non-aggression pact and became co-conspirators in the partition of Poland. Hitler subsequently stabbed Stalin in the back and launched the brutal, surprise attack on Russia in June 1941.

It was then that Martina Raskova joined the throng of would-be bureaucrats imploring the government to implement their plan to save the nation. With her connection to Stalin and the nation’s desperate need for military air personnel of all skills, it was a simple matter to get approval for women to join the Air Force and actively fight the German invaders. In fact, a few women pilots already were flying in the service, but they were highly dispersed and hardly visible to the general public. When Raskova called for volunteers to serve in all-women flying units in the summer of 1941, literally thousands responded. Distaff pilots, navigators, even mechanics rushed to lend their skills to help repel the invaders.

Training the “Summer Patriots”

By October, Raskova had personally interviewed them all and winnowed out the “Summer Patriots.” As the successful applicants were approved, they were billeted around Moscow. Finally, on October 15, the women of the 122nd Composite Air Group left for the training camp at Engles, a small town on the Volga River just a few hundred miles northeast of Stalingrad. There they received the same instruction and training given to all Soviet air units.

Shortly after the women arrived, they were reformed into three regiments, the 586th, the 587th, and the 588th Air Regiments. Nothing in the Russian records indicates these units were treated differently in any way, and the Soviet Army Air Force History of World War II accords them the same treatment as any Soviet Air Regiment. Training days were long and intense, lasting 14 to 16 hours. Much of the time was spent flying—on-the-job training for pilots and navigators. Ground mechanics worked equally hard to keep the training planes flying. Instant recognition of all types of German planes was a primary classroom subject. But the body of knowledge that was so important to each recruit was so huge and the time to master it so short that the women were constantly pressed. Yet they persevered.

Working on the engine of a U-2 biplane, a trio of female mechanics prepares this Red Air Force relic for a nightly harassment mission against the invading Germans.

The 856th Fighter Regiment was the first to end training and move into combat. Its commander was Major Tamara Kazarinova. Unfortunately, her health failed soon after the regiment moved into its operational headquarters at Saratove. She was replaced by a man, Lt. Col. A.V. Gridnev, who commanded the regiment until the end of the war. The regiment flew the Yak-l, a Soviet fighter designed by the Yakovlev Bureau and comparable the German Messerschmitt and British Spitfire. The unit was used primarily to guard specific targets, fending off German bombing and strafing sorties. Since its mission was defense, it did not rack up huge numbers of kills, but was equal to every assigned task.

Two Women Fighter Aces: Lilya Litvyak and Katya Budanova

Eight of the regiment’s exceptionally skilled pilots transferred to a previously all-male regiment in September 1941. Instead of defense, this regiment was employed in seeking and destroying German planes anywhere in its operational area. As a result, two of the women, Lilya Litvyak and Katya Budanova, earned the right to the coveted title of “ace” while flying as “Lone Wolf” fighters. Litvyak had 12 kills and three partials, while Budanova was reputed to have more, although no reliable record seems to exist.

Litvyak’s life as a Soviet pilot was the stuff of which movies are made. Apparently, she possessed the necessary physical and mental skills a successful pilot has always required, whether in the early days of aviation or in today’s supersonic jets—exceptional hand-eye coordination, marvelously quick reflexes, keen intellect, lightning-fast decision-making capacity, and indomitable courage. She was a shy, retiring, curvaceous blonde beauty out of the cockpit in it she was a roaring exhibitionist.

Lilya’s daredevil moves were the envy of every pilot with whom she came into contact. If the pilot was a man, he promptly fell in love with her. As word of her feats spread through the Red Air Force, her ability to execute others more numerous and daring seemed to grow also. She survived two serious wounds in combat and each time returned to her relentless pursuit of the German invaders much too soon for her own good health. But Lilya was eternally sanguine about her capacity as a fighter pilot. Many of her peers had already included her in the international ranks of legendary pilots.

The mechanic who serviced Lilya’s aircraft, Sergeant Inna Pasportnikova, decribed Lilya’s insouciant ways to Anne Noggle, whose book A Dance with Death is the definitive work on women’s contribution to the Soviet Air Force in World War II. “When Lilya approached the airdrome after a victory, it was impossible to watch her she would fly at a very low altitude and start doing acrobatics over the field. Her regimental commander would say, ‘I will destroy her for what she is doing. I will teach her a lesson!’ After she landed and taxied over to our position, she would ask me, ‘Did our father shout at me?’ And he had shouted at her, and then he admired what she had done.

“She flew so low over the field covers of the aircraft would flap and fly around, she created such a wind! When she was shot down the first time, she received a new Yak-1. Men tried to stop her from flying because they wanted to save her, but it was impossible.”

Finding Lilya Litvak

Lilya’s vibrant personality went well with her blonde hair and fair features. The whole package was a young man’s dream, and plenty of Soviet airmen of that day dreamed of wooing and winning her. However, she fell for only one. He was Alexei Salamon, her squadron commander. Their romance lit up the sky almost as brightly as their aerobatics between September 1942 and May 1943. Then, on a beautiful, late spring day, Alexei was in the sky flying a routine training session, showing a recruit how to perform aerobatics. His plane malfunctioned, and he was killed in the ensuing crash.

The accident was almost more than Lilya could bear. Not only was her lover Alexei dead, but the crack pilot died in a mundane accident that had nothing to do with his ability as a pilot. The irony seemed to goad Lilya into more furious aerial activities. She flew relentlessly, spending almost every waking moment in the air.

The determined glare of fighter pilot Raisa Surnachevskaya is testament to the commitment of the Night Witches to the ultimate victory over the Nazis. Surnachevskaya flew with the 586th Regiment.

About three months after Alexei’s tragic accident, Lilya and her wingman ran afoul of German fighters while escorting bombers on a mission. The date was August 1, 1943, and it marked the end of Lilya’s aerial panegyrics. She crash-landed her plane near a village and was apparently killed by the impact. However, her body was not found in the wreckage. Her commander pressed hard to have her awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union, but the authorities refused because no trace of her body could be found. They speculated that she might have been captured by the Germans. The mystery was added to the Litvyak legacy of skill and daring, and the puzzle remained unsolved for many years.

Inna Pasportnikova told how she, her husband, and grandchildren searched for the remains of Lilya’s body for more than three years. They used metal detectors over an extensive area in the vicinity of the crash site but found no trace of it. For decades, rumors of Lilya sightings popped up across the Soviet Union. There were even comments about the gross exaggeration of her death, but Lilya never showed up in the flesh.

Finally, in the late 1980s, two boys playing in a field in Belorussia started enlarging a hole that they had seen a snake enter. They did not find the snake, but they did uncover some human bones. After extensive investigation and evaluation by forensic experts, the mystery of Lilya Litvak’s demise was solved. Apparently, the inhabitants of the nearby village had buried her immediately after her crash to deny the Germans any opportunity of desecrating her remains.

The year 1990 saw the end of the long, winding Lilya Litvyka trail. President Mikhail Gorbachev proclaimed her posthumously a Hero of the Soviet Union. Although official recognition of her skill and daring was 47 years in coming, the inspiration Lilya provided her peers in the Red Air Force was a palpable factor in molding the airwomen into effective defenders of their country.

The “Night Witches” and their PO-2s

The origin of the sobriquet “Night Witches” (the Nazi term was Nachthexen) lay with the 588th Air Regiment. It was the only one of the three to remain under the control of a woman, Major Yedokia Bershanskaya, throughout the war. Its objective was twofold. First, of course, was the destruction of German military installations, but it also extracted a growing psychological toll on German soldiers as the struggle continued. The “pop, pop, pop” of the engines in the Polikarpov PO-2 aircraft they flew was so distinctive that when German troops heard them, they automatically began to dive for cover from bombs, conditioned to jump at the sound.

Since the regiment’s pilots flew virtually all night long every night, it is easy to imagine the emotional trauma they wreaked on the tiring German soldiers. MacBeth’s witches chanted, “Hover through the fog and filthy air.” Perhaps the ranks of the Wehrmacht that surrounded Stalingrad contained a Shakespearean scholar or two who remembered that line, and thus thought it appropriate to dub their tormenting Russian women Night Witches. In any event, the nickname stuck, and soon spread to all Russian airwomen.

The PO-2 was virtually a flying anachronism. It was designed in 1927, but new production had almost ceased by 1941. It was made of wood and covered with fabric, hardly cutting- edge technology even for 1941. Presumably, even the lethargic Soviet production facilities could be counted on to make them quickly and in sufficient quantity to be hustled into the breach against Germany.

The cockpit of the plane was open, and its cruising speed was an agonizingly slow 60 miles per hour. The slightest brush with antiaircraft fire or tracer bullets set the aircraft ablaze. The crews were not even provided with parachutes until 1944. So, for three years every mission was fraught with great peril.

After a pre-mission briefing, members of the 586th Regiment head for their aircraft and another confrontation with the Luftwaffe in the skies above the Eastern Front.

Primeval living conditions, primitive equipment, long hours on duty without sleep, and abject danger were bad enough, but the women often were subject to the political stresses placed on Soviet citizens during those times. Lieutenant Mariya Tepikina-Popova told of her experience in joining the regiment: “While I was being interviewed at headquarters a personnel officer saw my last name and asked if I was related to the political officer of the same name, who was assigned to the same training school where I had been a pilot.

“I knew this officer with the same name had been arrested and imprisoned as an enemy of the republic in 1937. I thought quickly how I would best answer, because I was not related to him. In these times you had to deny any knowledge of him, or the consequences could be quite unpredictable and include prison. So I answered that I kept my distance from the command and staff of the school and didn’t know him. The personnel officer understood my evasion and replied, ‘Oh, since he was my best friend and you are a Tepikina too, I’ll let you join the 46th Regiment.’”

24,000 Combat Missions, 1,100 Nights

During the war, the regiment flew 1,100 nights of combat, just about every single night from the time it entered combat in 1941 to the end of the war in 1945. It flew 24,000 combat missions. Twenty-three of its women were recognized as Heroes of the Soviet Union, five posthumously. The unit was designated an elite or “Guards Regiment” in 1943 and thereafter was known as the 46th Tamar Guards Bomber Regiment. It fought in the Caucasus, Crimea, and Belorussia.

The 587th Bomber Regiment was the third unit to be formed from of Marina Raskova’s 122nd Composite Air Group. Instead of the antiquated PO-2, it flew the Petlyakov PE-2. This was a modern twin-engine dive-bomber with a maximum speed of more than 330 miles per hour. With its twin fuselage configuration, it was one of the Red Air Force’s most difficult planes to fly and was just coming into production in the spring of 1942.

Thus, while the other two regiments were training in the planes they would fly in combat, the 587th could only work in classroom training, using service manuals and other instructive material. Finally, the PE-2s began to arrive at Engles in late August and early September 1942. Training consumed the rest of the year, and in January Raskova led her unit to an airfield on the Volga River near Stalingrad.

Soviet PE-2 bombers in flight.

Then fate struck Marina Raskova a cruel blow. She, whose aerial career had been fawned on by fortune for years, suddenly saw her good luck spin out of control. On a routine flight to the regiment’s new base, bad weather struck. As she flew closer to the base, the weather grew worse. When she tried to land, her plane crashed into an embankment on the other side of the river. She and her crew were killed instantly. Marina Raskova had never flown a combat mission.

However, her regiment certainly did. The first combat mission of the 587th was in February 1943, and the regiment was under the command of a man, Major Valentin Markov. He maintained command of the unit throughout the remainder of the war, despite his initial skepticism about female pilots flying combat missions. As he expressed it in a 1992 interview, “I couldn’t visualize how I could command women during war, flying bombers. I knew the aircraft and knew how difficult it was even for men to fly. I didn’t know how women could manage it.”

The skepticism was mutual. A navigator, Captain Valentina Kravcheno, spoke for the entire regiment when she said, “We wouldn’t even hear of a man coming to command our regiment.”

Discipline and devotion to duty won out, and the regiment served with distinction. In the fall of 1943, it was honored with the designation of a Guards Regiment and was renamed the 125th Guards Bomber Regiment.

“Almost All of Them Were Shot Down”

Markov ended his career as a lieutenant general in the Soviet Air Force. During the 1992 interview, he went on to elaborate on the complete metamorphosis of his views on women pilots flying in combat. “It’s hard to fancy how difficult the conditions were for these women,” he reflected. “Almost all of them were shot down and, after hospitalization, they came back and flew bravely.

“The women in my regiment were self-disciplined, careful and obedient to orders they respected the truth and fair treatment to them. They never complained and were very courageous. If I compare my experience of commanding the male and female regiments to some extent at the end of the war, it was easier to command this female regiment. They had the strong spirit of a collective unit.”

Between 1943 and the war’s end, the 125th Guards Bomber Regiment moved its operations as the front moved westward through Belorussia, the Baltic area and eastern Prussia it was based in German territory when the Third Reich surrendered. Its members flew up to three sorties a day, dropping 980,000 kilograms of bombs, attacking enemy positions, and harassing troop concentrations. Five of its pilots were named Hero of the Soviet Union. In contrast, 23 of the 46th Regiment’s flyers received that award.

Of that disparity Markov commented, “From the present viewpoint I can see that very few of my girls were awarded the highest title. If I could turn time back, I would have promoted more of them for that award. Now I have a grave sentiment about that, because many of them deserved it.”

Pilots of PE-2 bombers in the 125th Guards Day Bomber Regiment relax between missions as they await orders to take to the air once again.

By the end of World War II as many as 18 percent of the personnel in the Red Air Force were women. Even before Marina Raskova’s legendary call for female volunteers in 1941, women were serving in various parts of the Red Air Force. Her organization of the three women’s regiments and their outstanding performance lured even more women to serve. They came asking only to serve the country they loved. Month after month they faced tremendous danger. They endured the harsh demands of combat service, survived disasters and life-threatening sorties, and suffered sickness and wounds. Yet they always remained to perform their duties in service to their country.

Socrates explained to Crito about his obligation to obey the call of the state: “This is the voice I hear in my ears, like the sound of the flute in the ears of the mystic. Its humming prevents me from hearing any other.” That same voice must have hummed in the ears of those heroic women whom the Nazis disdainfully called Night Witches, but in the end contributed so much to toppling the Nazi dictator who had envisioned conquering the Soviet Union.

George Tipton Wilson is a resident of Memphis, Tennessee. A veteran of World War II, he received the highest possible intelligence clearance while working as a cryptographer at the Pentagon and on the staff of General Douglas MacArthur in Australia.

Just history.

Two of the Night Witches- Photo Credit-

It was 1941 and the Third Reich seemed unstoppable in its roll across Europe. Hitler and Stalin had a non-aggression pact, but Hitler threw that in the trash and turned his eyes east and invaded the Soviet Union. By November, the German Army was 19 miles from Moscow and the city of Leningrad was under siege. Three million Russians had been taken prisoner and the Soviet Air Force was grounded. Things looked bleak.

In desperation, record breaking aviatrix Marina Raskova created an all female regiment to run harassment bombing runs on the Germans. Harassment bombing targets encampments, supply depots and rear base areas. Their constant raids made rest for the troops difficult and left them feeling very insecure. What became the 588th regiment was staffed by all women- pilots, mechanics, navigators and officers. Most of the women involved in the regiment were barely 20 years old when they began training. They only had three planes, obsolete Polikarpov Po-2 wooden biplanes that were otherwise used as trainers. The small planes could only hold two bombs, so they made multiple runs a night. Most of the women who survived the war had, by the end, flown almost a thousand missions each. The Po-2 were slower than even other planes from World War I, so they were very vulnerable to enemy fighters. However, the Po-2 were extremely maneuverable, which gave them an advantage. When a German fighters in Messerschmitt Bf 109s and Focke-Wulf Fw 190s tried to shoot down the Po-2, the women would go into a tight turn at an airspeed below the stalling speed of the German plane. They used this tactic over and over again until the Germans would give up.

Because the planes they were flying were old, they had to use some creative techniques to complete their runs. They would fly close to their targets then cut the engine and glide in. Because their engines were cut, the targets never heard them coming until the bombs were dropped. Then the women would restart their engines and try to get away. Sometimes the dog fights took them so low they skimmed the hedge rows. Because of their ability to slip in and out of the darkness, the Germans called them the Nachthexen or Night Witches.

Despite the risky maneuvers and poor equipment, a surprisingly small number of witches were lost.

A Polikarpov Po-2, similar to the aircraft operated by the Night Witches Photo Credit- Douzeff

One of the Witches, Nadya Popova, commented that it was a miracle they didn’t suffer more losses as their planes came back riddled with bullets. However, they kept flying. They had to to keep their homeland out of the hands of the enemy. The 588th was such a success, the Soviets quickly formed the 586th. However, there was still much mistrust of female pilots and the Witches suffered sexual harassment at the hands of their male counterparts. Through this and absolute exhaustion from their grueling schedule, they kept flying. They never gave up.

The 588th were assigned to bomb Stalingrad and had to develop new tactics as the Germans evolved their spotlight techniques into what was called the “flak circus”. This was where the guns and lights were positioned in concentric circles around targets. Pairs of planes flying in a straight line were destroyed by the guns. So the Witches of the 588th flew in groups of three- one plane drew the fire of the guns, leaving the other two free to flying in opposite directions to drop their payloads. It took nerves of steel and a heaping helping of courage to be the decoy, but these women did just that every night.

The Witches were so effective that the Germans offered their pilots an Iron Cross for anyone who could shoot one down. The accomplishments of the women were nothing short of miraculous. Many years later, Nadya Popova commented that she used to sometimes look up into the dark night sky, remembering when she was a young girl crouched at the controls of her bomber, and she would say to herself, “Nadya, how did you do it?” She did it because her country needed her, and I salute her and her fellow pilots.

The first Women Sniper of WW2

Tania Chernova

What the red army was in a low supply of at that time (1940) were aviators. Many women have started to take a shot at the aviation project that had great success as the planes used were still more towards the WW1 era so they were easy to fly. a good example of such a plane and the most used plane by the ‘Night Witches’ were Polikarpov Po-2.

This aircraft has entered service in 1930 and to no surprise it was very much ahead of its time, showing once again that it wasn’t only about German engineering in the Second World War. As a normal biplane at the time with a machinery watching 6 o’clock it has been given the nickname ‘Mule: by NATO, this was because it had no frontal armament so what they would do is try to attract enemy planes making them think the plane is only for aerial reconnaissance and when they came behind for the kill blast them with that notorious 7.62x54mm ShKAS machine gun.

In rare occasions, the biplane would be used also as a bomber which was able to drop 6x 50kg bombs. The plane weighed approximately 800kg (without the bomb load) and was able to catch a top speed of 152Km/h as well as able to reach an altitude of 650m high. These stats may not sound so appealing but, you must remember that we are talking about a plane that was built in 1929. The only downside to this plane was that its slow speed would make it a very vulnerable target for anti-aircraft defences.

Most of these night witches have been assigned to the 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Air Force. Their record was quite good and as low-level bombers, they also made the German tanks afraid to get out of the thick forests.


The festival of Walpurgis Night is named after the English Christian missionary Saint Walpurga (c. 710–777/9). The daughter of Saint Richard the Pilgrim and sister of Saint Willibald, Saint Walpurga (also known as Saint Walpurgis or Walburga) was born in Devon, England in A.D. 710. [14] Born into a prominent Anglo-Saxon family, Saint Walpurga studied medicine and became a Christian missionary to Germany, where she founded a double monastery in Heidenheim. [15] As such, Christian artwork often depicts her holding bandages in her hand. [15] As a result of Saint Walpurga's evangelism in Germany, the people there converted to Christianity from heathenism. [16] [17] In addition, "the monastery became an education center and 'soon became famous as a center of culture'". [18] Saint Walpurga was also known to repel the effects of witchcraft. [10] [9] Saint Walpurga died on 25 February 777 (some sources say 778 or 779) and her tomb, to this day, produces holy oil (known as Saint Walburga's oil), which is said to heal sickness Benedictine nuns distribute this oil in vials to Christian pilgrims who visit Saint Walpurga's tomb. [13] [19]

The canonization of Walpurga and the movement of her relics to Eichstätt occurred on 1 May in the year 870, thus leading to the Feast of Saint Walpurga and its eve, Walpurgis Night, being popularly observed on this date. [7] She quickly became one of the most popular saints in England, Germany, and France. When the bishop had Saint Walpurga's relics moved to Eichstätt, "miraculous cures were reported as her remains traveled along the route". [14] Miracle cures were later reported from ailing people who anointed themselves with a fluid known as Walburga's oil that drained from the rock at her shrine at Eichstatt. [14]

The date of her canonization came to be known as Sankt Walpurgisnacht ("Saint Walpurga's night") in the German language. [6] [1] [12] The shortened name of the holiday is Walpurgisnacht in German, Valborgsmässoafton ("Valborg's Mass Eve") in Swedish, Vappen in Finland Swedish, Vappu in Finnish, Volbriöö in Estonian, Valpurgijos naktis in Lithuanian, Valpurģu nakts or Valpurģi in Latvian, čarodějnice and Valpuržina noc in Czech. In English, it is known as Saint Walpurga's Night, Saint Walburga's Night, Walpurgis Night, Saint Walpurga's Eve, Saint Walburga's Eve, the Feast of Saint Walpurga or the Feast of Saint Walburga. [13] [20] The Germanic term Walpurgisnacht is recorded in 1668 by Johannes Praetorius [21] as S. Walpurgis Nacht or S. Walpurgis Abend. An earlier mention of Walpurgis and S. Walpurgis Abend is in the 1603 edition of the Calendarium perpetuum of Johann Coler, [22] who also refers to the following day, 1 May, as Jacobi Philippi, feast day of the apostles James the Less and Philip in the Western Christian calendar of saints.

In modern times, many Christians continue to make religious pilgrimages to Saint Walburga's tomb in Eichstätt on Saint Walburga's Day in the 19th century, the number of pilgrims travelling to the Church of St. Walpurgis was described as "many thousand". [2] Due to 1 May the date of Saint Walpurga's feast, it has become associated with other May Day celebrations and regional traditions, [23] especially in Finland and Sweden. [24] Given that the intercession of Saint Walpurga was believed to be efficacious against evil magic, medieval and Renaissance tradition held that, during Walpurgis Night, witches celebrated a sabbath and evil powers were at their strongest. In German folklore, Walpurgis Night was believed to be the night of a witches' meeting on the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains, a range of wooded hills in central Germany. [25] To ward off evil and protect themselves and their livestock, people would traditionally light fires on the hillsides, [10] [9] [1] a tradition that continues in some regions today. [12] In Bavaria, the feast day is sometimes called Hexennacht (Dutch: heksennacht), literally "Witches' Night", on which revelers dress as witches and demons, set off fireworks, dance and play loud music, which is said to drive the witches and winter spirits away. [25]

Czech Republic Edit

30 April is Pálení čarodějnic ('Burning of the witches') or čarodějnice ('The witches') in the Czech Republic. Huge bonfires up to 8 metres (26 ft) tall with a witch figure are built and burnt in the evening, preferably on top of hills. Young people gather around. Sudden black and dense smoke formations are cheered as "a witch flying away". An effigy of a witch is held up and thrown into a bonfire to burn. [1]

In some places, it is customary to burn a puppet representing a witch on the border. It is still a widespread feast in the Czech Republic, practiced since the pagan times.

As evening advances to midnight and fire is on the wane, it is time to go search for a cherry tree in blossom. This is another feast, connected with the 1st of May. Young women should be kissed past midnight (and during the following day) under a blossoming cherry (or if unavailable, another blossoming) tree. They "will not dry up" for an entire year. The First of May is celebrated then as "the day of those in love", in reference to the famous incipit of the poem Máj by Karel Hynek Mácha (Byl pozdní večer – první máj – / večerní máj – byl lásky čas "Late evening, on the first of May— / The twilit May—the time of love", translation by Edith Pargeter)

England Edit

In Lincolnshire Walpurgis Night was observed in rural communities until the second half of the 20th century, with a tradition of hanging cowslips to ward off evil. [26]

Estonia Edit

In Estonia, Volbriöö is celebrated throughout the night of 30 April and into the early hours of 1 May, where 1 May is a public holiday called "Spring Day" (Kevadpüha). Volbriöö is an important and widespread celebration of the arrival of spring in the country. Influenced by German culture, the night originally stood for the gathering and meeting of witches. Modern people still dress up as witches to wander the streets in a carnival-like mood.

The Volbriöö celebrations are especially vigorous in Tartu, the university town in southern Estonia. For Estonian students in student corporations (Estonian fraternities and sororities), the night starts with a traditional procession through the streets of Tartu, followed by visiting each other's corporation houses throughout the night.

Finland Edit

In Finland, Walpurgis night (Vappu) ("Vappen") is one of the four biggest holidays along with Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, and Midsummer (Juhannus - Midsommar). [5] Walpurgis witnesses the biggest carnival-style festival held in Finland's cities and towns. The celebration, which begins on the evening of 30 April and continue on 1 May, typically centre on the consumption of sima, sparkling wine and other alcoholic beverages. Student traditions, particularly those of engineering students, are one of the main characteristics of Vappu. Since the end of the 19th century, this traditional upper-class feast has been appropriated by university students. Many high school alumni wear the black and white student cap and many higher education students wear student coveralls. One tradition is to drink sima, a home-made low-alcohol mead, along with freshly cooked tippaleipä, funnel cakes in English.

In the capital, Helsinki, and its surrounding region, fixtures include the capping (on 30 April at 6 pm) of Havis Amanda, a nude female statue in Helsinki, and the biennially alternating publications of ribald matter called Äpy and Julkku, by engineering students of Aalto University. Both are sophomoric but while Julkku is a standard magazine, Äpy is always a gimmick. Classic forms have included an Äpy printed on toilet paper and a bedsheet. Often, Äpy has been stuffed inside standard industrial packages, such as sardine cans and milk cartons. For most university students, Vappu starts a week before the day of celebration. The festivities also include a picnic on 1 May, which is sometimes prepared in a lavish manner, particularly in Ullanlinnanmäki in central Helsinki. In Turku, it has become a tradition to cap the Posankka statue.

Vappu coincides with the socialist May Day parade. Expanding from the parties of the left, the whole of the Finnish political scene has adopted Vappu as the day to go out on stumps and agitate. This is not limited only to political activists many institutions, such as the Lutheran Church of Finland, have followed suit, marching and making speeches. Left-wing activists of the 1970s still party on May Day. Carnivals are arranged, and many radio stations play leftist songs, such as The Internationale.

Traditionally, 1 May is celebrated by the way of a picnic in a park. For most, the picnic is enjoyed with friends on a blanket with food and sparkling wine. Some people arrange extremely lavish picnics with pavilions, white tablecloths, silver candelabras, classical music and extravagant food. The picnic usually starts early in the morning, where some of the previous night's party-goers continue their celebrations from the previous night.

Some student organisations reserve areas where they traditionally camp every year. Student caps, mead, streamers and balloons have their role in the picnic and the celebration as a whole.

Germany Edit

On the Feast of Saint Walburga, "many thousand" people have made Christian pilgrimages to Saint Walburga's tomb in Eichstätt on the Feast of Saint Walburga, often obtaining vials of Saint Walburga's oil. [2] [13]

In Germany, Hexennacht ('Witches' Night'), the night from 30 April to 1 May, is the night when witches are reputed to hold a large celebration on the Brocken and await the arrival of spring and is held on the same night as Saint Walpurgis Night (Sankt Walpurgisnacht).

Walpurgisnacht Night (in German folklore) the night of 30 April (May Day's eve), when witches meet on the Brocken mountain and hold revels with the Devil.

Brocken is the highest of the Harz Mountains of north central Germany. It is noted for the phenomenon of the Brocken spectre and for witches' revels which reputedly took place there on Walpurgis night.

The Brocken Spectre is a magnified shadow of an observer, typically surrounded by rainbow-like bands, thrown onto a bank of cloud in high mountain areas when the sun is low. The phenomenon was first reported on the Brocken. [27] [ incomplete short citation ]

A scene in Goethe's Faust Part One is called "Walpurgisnacht," and one in Faust Part Two is called "Classical Walpurgisnacht." The last chapter of book five in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain is also called "Walpurgisnacht." In Edward Albee's 1962 play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Act Two is entitled "Walpurgisnacht."

From Bram Stoker's short story, Dracula's Guest, an Englishman (whose name is never mentioned) is on a visit to Munich before leaving for Transylvania. It is Walpurgis Night, and in spite of the hotelier's warning not to be late coming back, the young man later leaves his carriage and wanders toward the direction of an abandoned "unholy" village. As the carriage departs with the frightened and superstitious driver, a tall and thin stranger scares the horses at the crest of a hill.

In some parts of northern coastal regions of Germany, the custom of lighting huge fires is still kept alive to celebrate the coming of May, while most parts of Germany have a derived Christianized custom around Easter called "Easter fires" (Osterfeuer).

In rural parts of southern Germany, it is part of popular youth culture to play pranks such as tampering with neighbours' gardens, hiding possessions, or spraying graffiti on private property.

In Berlin, traditional leftist May Day riots usually start at Walpurgis Night in the Mauerpark in Prenzlauer Berg. There is a similar tradition in the Schanzenviertel district of Hamburg, though in both cases, the situation has significantly calmed down in the past few years.

The Netherlands Edit

As in all Germanic countries, Sankt Walpurgisnacht was celebrated in areas of what is now the Netherlands. [28] It has not been celebrated recently due to the national Koninginnedag (Queen's Day) falling on the same date, though the new koningsdag (King's Day) is on 27 April. The island of Texel celebrates a festival known as the 'Meierblis [nl] ' (roughly translated as 'May-Blaze') on that same day, where bonfires are lit near nightfall, just as on Walpurgis, but with the meaning to drive away the remaining cold of winter and welcome spring. [ citation needed ] Occasional mentions to the ritual occur, and at least once a feminist called group co-opted the name to call for attention to the position of women (following the example of German women's organizations [29] ), a variety of the Take Back the Night phenomenon. [30]

Still, in recent years a renewed interest in pre-Christian religion and culture has led to renewed interest in Heksennacht (Witch's Night) as well. [31] In 1999, suspicions were raised among local Reformed party members in Putten, Gelderland of a Heksennacht festival celebrated by Satanists. The party called for a ban. That such a festival even existed, however, and that it was 'Satanic' was rejected by most others. [32] The local Church in Dokkum, Friesland organized a Service in 2003 to pray for the Holy Spirit to, according to the church, counter the Satanic action. [33]

Sweden Edit

While the name Walpurgis is taken from the eighth-century British Dumnonian Christian missionary Saint Walburga, Valborg, as it is called in Swedish, also marks the arrival of spring. [5] The forms of celebration vary in different parts of the country and between different cities. Walpurgis celebrations are not a family occasion but rather a public event, and local groups often take responsibility for organising them to encourage community spirit in the village or neighbourhood. Celebrations normally include lighting the bonfire, choral singing and a speech to honour the arrival of the spring season, often held by a local celebrity.

In the Middle Ages, the administrative year ended on 30 April. Accordingly, this was a day of festivity among the merchants and craftsmen of the town, with trick-or-treat, dancing and singing in preparation for the forthcoming celebration of spring. Sir James George Frazer in The Golden Bough writes, "The first of May is a great popular festival in the more midland and southern parts of Sweden. On the eve of the festival, huge bonfires, which should be lighted by striking two flints together, blaze on all the hills and knolls." [34]

Walpurgis bonfires are part of a Swedish tradition dating back to the early 18th century. At Walpurgis (Valborg), farm animals were let out to graze and bonfires (majbrasor, kasar) lit to scare away predators. In Southern Sweden, an older tradition, no longer practiced, was for the younger people to collect greenery and branches from the woods at twilight. These were used to adorn the houses of the village. The expected reward for this task was to be paid in eggs.

Choral singing is a popular pastime in Sweden, and on Walpurgis Eve virtually every choir in the country is busy. Singing traditional songs of spring is widespread throughout the country. The songs are mostly from the 19th century and were spread by students' spring festivities. The strongest and most traditional spring festivities are also found in the old university cities, such as Uppsala and Lund, where undergraduates, graduates, and alumni gather at events that last most of the day from early morning to late night on April 30, or siste april ("The Last Day of April") as it is called in Lund, or sista april as it is called in Uppsala. For students, Walpurgis Eve heralds freedom. Traditionally the exams were over and only the odd lecture remained before term ends. On the last day of April, the students don their characteristic white caps and sing songs of welcome to spring, to the budding greenery and to a brighter future.

More modern Valborg celebrations, particularly among Uppsala students, often consist of enjoying a breakfast including champagne and strawberries. During the day, people gather in parks, drink considerable amounts of alcoholic beverages, barbecue, and generally enjoy the weather, if it happens to be favorable.

In Uppsala, since 1975, students honor spring by rafting on Fyris river through the center of town with rickety, homemade, in fact quite easily wreckable, and often humorously decorated rafts. Several nations also hold "Champagne Races" (Swedish: Champagnegalopp), where students go to drink and spray champagne or sparkling wine on each other. The walls and floors of the old nation buildings are covered in plastic for this occasion, as the champagne is poured around recklessly and sometimes spilled enough to wade in. Spraying champagne is, however, a fairly recent addition to the Champagne Race. The name derives from the students running down the slope from the Carolina Rediviva library, toward the Student Nations, to drink champagne.

In Linköping many students and former students begin the day at the park Trädgårdföreningen, in the field below Belvederen where the city laws permit alcohol, to drink champagne breakfast in a similar way to Uppsala. Later, at three o'clock, the students and public gather at the courtyard of Linköping Castle. Spring songs are sung by the Linköping University Male Voice Choir, and speeches are made by representatives of the students and the university professors.

In Gothenburg, the carnival parade, The Cortège, which has been held since 1909 by the students at Chalmers University of Technology, is an important part of the celebration. It is seen by around 250,000 people each year. Another major event is the gathering of students in Garden Society of Gothenburg to listen to student choirs, orchestras, and speeches. An important part of the gathering is the ceremonial donning of the student cap, which stems from the time when students wore their caps daily and switched from black winter cap to white summer cap.

In Umeå, there is an old tradition of having local bonfires. During recent years, however, there has also been a tradition of celebrating Walpurgis at the Umeå University campus. The university organizes student choir singing, as well as other types of entertainment and a speech by the president of the university. Different stalls sell hot dogs, candy, soft drinks, etc.

United States Edit

The Church of Satan was founded on Sankt Walpurgisnacht in 1966. [35] [36] Founder Anton Szandor LaVey states in The Satanic Bible that besides one's own birthday, Walpurgisnacht ranks as an important Satanic holiday, noting the Eve of May has been memorialized as "symbolizing the fruition of the spring equinox", [37] and chose the date well aware of the date's traditional association with witchcraft. [38]

Additionally, The Satanic Temple celebrates Hexennacht as "a solemn holiday to honor those who were victimized by superstition". [39]

Pagan Festival

Čarodějnice originates in ancient times as it was believed that on April 30, covens of witches met on mountain tops. Bonfires were lit to ward off the witches’ spells and the smoke was thought to keep the witches away from communities. At large gatherings ‘an effigy such as a broom in old clothes or large rag doll is placed in the center of a stack of logs, and people gather around to watch it burn’ according to Expat. cz . This was believed to protect people from evil spirits for the following year. When an effigy goes up in a burst of flame and soot, people cheer as it signals that a witch has ‘just gone up in smoke’ stated Atlas Obscura .

Burning effigies of witches on Witches Night in the Czech Republic. ( Public Domain )

Witches Night is now more about having fun, drinking beer and eating great food, than any fear of evil spirits and black magic . A common misconception about the celebrations is that they are re-enactments of witch trials, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent people in Early Modern Europe. According to Atlas Obscura , ‘Čarodějnice is Czechia’s version of Walpurgis Night celebrated across Northern and Central Europe’. This is a festival that is a mixture of pagan and Christian practices, which sought to keep people safe from witches’ spells.

The Little-Known Story of the Night Witches, an All-Female Force in WWII

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In the Nazi-occupied Soviet Union, German soldiers had a very real fear of witches.

Namely, the “Night Witches,” an all-female squadron of bomber pilots who ran thousands of daring bombing raids with little more than wooden planes and the cover of night—and should be as celebrated as their male counterparts.

This month marks the 73rd anniversary of the start of their pioneering service. In June of 1941, the Axis powers pushed into the Soviet Union using the largest invading force in the history of warfare. The infamous Operation Barbarossa saw about four million troops wade into Russia from the west, establishing a line that threatened to overtake Moscow itself. The offensive was one of the most violent and terrible military actions in World War II, with countless atrocities committed against the Russian people. The battle-hardened male soldiers of the Soviet Union held the front lines against the Axis forces, keeping the invasion from overtaking the capital.

From the start of the war, Colonel Marina Raskova, a Soviet pilot who was known as the “Russian Amelia Earhart,” began receiving letters from women across Russia wanting to join the war effort in any way they could. Many women served support roles at the time, but it was difficult to make it to the front. Raskova lobbied to finds ways for women to take a more active role in the war, and was highly successful in her efforts, leading to women being eligible for the draft and even convincing the military to establish all-female units.

In October of 1941 the order came down from Joseph Stalin that Raskova was to establish a trio of all-female air squads. The only one reported to have remained exclusively female was the team of night bombers, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, where everyone from the pilots, to the commanders, to the mechanics were women.

The regiment began filling out in 1942, with young women ranging in age from 17 to 26 transferring to the small town of Engels to begin flight training. The future pilots were greeted by Raskova herself with a no-nonsense, military manner. The women were issued size 42 boots, outfitted with ill-fitting military uniforms made for bulkier male soldiers. Their hair was cut short. As one of the pilots would recall in a later interview, “We didn’t recognize ourselves in the mirror—we saw boys there.”

The women faced significant obstacles even before they began engaging in combat—namely, with the equipment. They had to fly Polikarpov Po-2 aircraft—two-seated, open-cockpit biplanes that were obsolete even by the standards of the day. Made of plywood frames with canvas stretched over them, the craft were light, slow, and provided absolutely no armor. The benefit of the planes was that they had a slower stall speed than the standard German fighters, making them hard to target, and they could take off and land just about anywhere. However, this came as literal cold comfort to the aviators who had to fly the ships through walls of enemy fire in the dead of night, with the freezing wind whipping around and through the exposed cockpits, often giving the pilots frostbite.

But this did little to discourage the women of the 588th. Starting with an initial bombing run on June 8, 1942, the all-female squadron would harry Nazi forces with overnight bombing runs all the way until the end of the war. At the peak of the regiment’s strength, it had as many as 40 two-person crews, flying multiple bombing runs as soon as the sky darkened, taking part in as many as 18 in a single night. The light planes could only carry six bombs at a time, so as soon as one run was complete the pilots would be re-armed and sent back out for another run. Of course this tightly controlled weight limit also meant the women could not bring parachutes and also had to fly at lower, more easily spotted, altitudes.

Using such vulnerable craft to make their bombing runs, the cover of night was crucial to their success and survival. Three planes would leave simultaneously, with two of the airplanes drawing searchlights and gunfire, and the third sticking to the darkness, to drop the bombs. In order to remain hidden, the pilots would also kill their engines when they got near their target, and simply glide over it, deploying their payload.

As the silenced bombers sailed over the Nazi forces, making a light “whooshing” sound, German soldiers began referring to them as “Nachthexen,” or “Night Witches,” a name the pilots of the 588th quickly took on with pride. Rumors began to spread among the Germans that the Soviets were giving the women pills and treatments that gave them the night vision of a cat. One of the most famous of the Night Witches, Nadezhda Popova, who herself flew 852 missions, earning her multiple medals and the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, described the situation a bit more accurately in Albert Axell’s book Greatest Russian War Stories: 1941–1945, saying, “This was nonsense, of course. What we did have were clever, educated, very talented girls.”

Unfortunately, not everyone was so impressed with the 588th regiment’s fortitude and military prowess. Many in the Soviet military still found the idea of women flying in combat to be laughable, despite their clear ability. Undeterred by the lack of faith from many of their male counterparts, the women embraced their identities, and are said to have painted their lips with navigational pencils and to have drawn flowers on the side of their aircrafts.

By the end of the war, the Night Witches had flown somewhere in the vicinity of 30,000 bombing raids, delivering around 23,000 tons of munitions right to Nazi’s. The 588th lost 30 pilots during the fighting, and 23 pilots, including Popova, were awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. The squadron was never disbanded, but was instead converted into the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, which continued to fight for the Soviet Union.

The Night Witches didn’t have great planes, or superior bombs, or even very much support for their unit, but they nonetheless became one of the most remarkable fighting forces of World War II. No sorcery needed.

Night Witches: The Amazing Story of Russia's Women Pilots in WWII

On 22, June, 1941, German bombers destroyed squadron after squadron of fighters and bombers, as Russia slept. These attacks gave Germany almost complete air control, but the Poliburo in Moscow, still thought they could reading with Hitler and get him to call off further airstrikes. The Soviet military was totally unprepared. With most of their sir power destroyed, and many Soviet bombers shot down, Russia suffered great losses. With not enough trained pilots left, those in power had no recourse On 22, June, 1941, German bombers destroyed squadron after squadron of fighters and bombers, as Russia slept. These attacks gave Germany almost complete air control, but the Poliburo in Moscow, still thought they could reading with Hitler and get him to call off further airstrikes. The Soviet military was totally unprepared. With most of their sir power destroyed, and many Soviet bombers shot down, Russia suffered great losses. With not enough trained pilots left, those in power had no recourse but to call for the women pilots in their country to come and serve their nation. This call was heeded by a thousand women, many who had never left home before, but would now train the men to fly, but also to fly bombers and fighters.

I first heard about these women in a fictional book The HuntressThe Huntress. This book is one of female empowerment, women, many still in their teens, showed and willingness and bravery that was awe inspiring. As well as the history involved, the political situation, we come to know many of these women. Distinct personalities, manners of dress, comportment, their hopes and dreams made them personal to me. There is some humor, as when all the uniforms and boots, made for men, were way to large for these smaller bodies. They managed, showing their own individuality in the way they turned less than ideal situations to their benefit, using their own styles. They shared, became friends, fought together, so amazing these young women were. There were of course deaths, but their were many triumphs as well.

In a postscript the author updates her information by talking to some of the women who made it through. At the time of this writing, many were in their sixties. Kept a secret for do long, they were no longer. . more

There was an amazing obituary of Russian flyer Nadia Popova in a recent Economist. She was one of the "night witches" and just died at age 91. See the obit at .

There was an amazing obituary of Russian flyer Nadia Popova in a recent Economist. She was one of the "night witches" and just died at age 91. See the obit at .

Bruce Myles has done a wonderful job weaving all of the interviews he conducted together to make a gripping portrait of WWII Russia.

Before coming across this work, I never knew women flew for Russia during the second war! It is a historically important story and should be more commonly known!

Here is another book that I love about flying because it is about a little-known group of Russian women pilots. Unlike the WASPs (for whom I have an enormous amount of respect, and many of these women lost their lives pulling live targets behind their planes for military student pilots to shoot at) these women flew combat missions. They were deemed more "expendable" than their male counterparts so were relegated to flying night missions. The enemy named them the "Night Witches", so good were the Here is another book that I love about flying because it is about a little-known group of Russian women pilots. Unlike the WASPs (for whom I have an enormous amount of respect, and many of these women lost their lives pulling live targets behind their planes for military student pilots to shoot at) these women flew combat missions. They were deemed more "expendable" than their male counterparts so were relegated to flying night missions. The enemy named them the "Night Witches", so good were they at striking terror into the hearts of their enemies on the ground. Two squadrons of fighter pilots and one squadron of bomber pilots.
I had the pleasure of meeting one of these women at a Ninety Nines gathering many years ago.

This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. Available at BBC Radio 4.

Lucy Ash tells the extraordinary but little-known tale of Russia&aposs three all-female regiments that flew more than 30,000 missions on the Eastern Front during Second World War. At home they were celebrated as Stalin&aposs Falcons, but terrified German troops called them the Night Witches.

Lucy travels to Moscow and Rostov-on-Don to meet a number of these formidable women, who are now grandmothers in their 80s and 90s. She discovers that their bravery has inspired aerobatic cha Available at BBC Radio 4.

Lucy Ash tells the extraordinary but little-known tale of Russia's three all-female regiments that flew more than 30,000 missions on the Eastern Front during Second World War. At home they were celebrated as Stalin's Falcons, but terrified German troops called them the Night Witches.

Lucy travels to Moscow and Rostov-on-Don to meet a number of these formidable women, who are now grandmothers in their 80s and 90s. She discovers that their bravery has inspired aerobatic champions, comic book artists and even a Dutch heavy metal band. . more

Book 38 of my #2017readingchallenge is Bruce Myles&apos Night Witches: The Amazing Story of Russia&aposs Women Pilots in World War II. It is incredibly powerful, emotional, terrifying and fucking badass. These young women enlisted after learning to fly at their hometown clubs, and they became national heroes. And when I say young I mean 17, 18, 20 year olds, fighting Nazis midair. They are SO inspirational.

This book was written in 1981 and is written by a man, so parts are a little sexist, but the crux Book 38 of my #2017readingchallenge is Bruce Myles' Night Witches: The Amazing Story of Russia's Women Pilots in World War II. It is incredibly powerful, emotional, terrifying and fucking badass. These young women enlisted after learning to fly at their hometown clubs, and they became national heroes. And when I say young I mean 17, 18, 20 year olds, fighting Nazis midair. They are SO inspirational.

This book was written in 1981 and is written by a man, so parts are a little sexist, but the crux of the book is how in awe the author is of these really strong women. Some of the injuries are nauseating, some of the stories made me cry in public on the bus, not everybody lives. Holy shit war is hell. And I'm glad this book goes into all the awful of it - ALL the awful of being a woman in war.

At some point, somewhere along the line, I’d come to the arrogant assumption that there wasn’t much more in the modern history bracket that could interest me. There had been various brushes with WWII history in secondary school, specifically looking at Britain and the rise of Nazi Germany, which I’d happily researched around when particular areas caught my attention… Then my nonfiction historical reading skipped off to the distant past as I fell in love with archaeology and the Upper Palaeolithi At some point, somewhere along the line, I’d come to the arrogant assumption that there wasn’t much more in the modern history bracket that could interest me. There had been various brushes with WWII history in secondary school, specifically looking at Britain and the rise of Nazi Germany, which I’d happily researched around when particular areas caught my attention… Then my nonfiction historical reading skipped off to the distant past as I fell in love with archaeology and the Upper Palaeolithic.

So, when reading the sci-fi/fantasy novel Night Witches, I couldn’t believe that the afterword talked about the real-life inspiration for the book. I hadn’t come across these women, not even a whisper, even though I’d done spades of extra-curricular reading back in the day, in an all-girl environment no less, and had done a year of the Russian language to boot. Yes, I knew of female aviators in a general way, Amelia Earhart is a household name. But Lily Litvak meant nothing to me, never mind any other pilots from, or even the existence of, the three squadrons of female soviet fighter pilots. It’s the equivalent of going into your favourite childhood bookshop and only just discovering there was an upstairs!

A little bit of online searching gave me a shortlist of three books, but I eventually narrowed it down to this one… Bruce Myles is a journalist, his writing very readable (check) and this makes it a great starting place to sink your teeth into (check). He’s clearly done a great deal of research, including interviews with some of the survivors, allowing for the personal touches that really makes the book what it is.

It is bittersweet, at times funny (such as the ill-fitting uniforms, a poor mouse nesting in the wrong boot and the brief adoption of a non-orphan wolf cub) and at others exceptionally heart-breaking. It is, at its core, an oddly empowering read. These women were essentially girls when they went to fight for their country, they express how it didn’t feel quite real at first, how they faced their male counterparts who initially failed to respect them, the extreme cold, the fear, the loss… They tackled everything with an awe-inspiring strength of character.

All in, this is a beautiful book to curl up with. After hitting the photographs included in the centre, conscious I’d finish it within a day, I had to limit myself to just a few pages at a time to make it last. I honestly wish I had encountered this when I was younger, brimming with positive confident and entirely human role models. If any more girls spring up in the family, they’ll be finding a copy placed in their hands, and maybe they’ll pass on the false idols of reality TV (I can hope, anyway) … But first, I have a friend who will love this it’ll be under her tree this Christmas and I know she’ll thank me.
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Russia’s Night Witches: As Deadly as Men

The Night Witches was the brainchild of the well-known Soviet navigator Marina Raskova. She became driven to assemble three regiments made entirely of women in 1941 as the German troops were advancing towards Moscow. These three regiments were long-distance bombers, night bombers and fighters.

Raskova was a USSR heroine, a celebrated aviatrix after her record-breaking flight which ended up in her crashing into the Siberian taiga resulting to her surviving on a bar of chocolate for ten days. However, in a harsh Soviet twist, Raskova turned out to be a member of the Secret Police and she sent many to their deaths just months before the outbreak of the Second World War. Countless members of the Soviet Air Force as well as the other armed units were quashed in 1940. This was one of the reasons why the German Wehrmacht made fast progress in their advancement.

When Raskova made her plea for volunteers, many young women all over USSR immediately responded. After all, she was a female idol in the said country. many of these women already underwent training as dozens of factories had flying clubs attached to them giving even the poorest the chance to learn how to fly.

One such example was one of the best known pilots of the Second World War, Katya Budanova. She was just a mere village girl who had to work at the very young age of nine.

Aside from being pilots, the women who signed up were also assigned to be navigators, armorers and even mechanics.

Fighting to be Equal

Vinogradova, in her book Defending the Motherland: The Soviet Women who Fought Hitler’s Aces, wrote how during those times, all occupations were opened to women and how Soviet ladies welcomed it with pride by proving they could do as well as their male counterparts when it came to working in various construction sites, in the tunnels of the new metro in Moscow and even when it came to conquering the skies.

Nevertheless, how these women were treated did not keep in line with the state’s ideology. The Night Witches as well as the other regiments established by famous Soviet aviatrix were given the moniker “Raskova’s dollies” were mocked and teased especially the first time they were fitted in ill-fitting uniforms that belonged to the USSR’s male soldiers. Example, in one comic picture, it was cited how a political officer – which, by the way, was a much hated snoop at that time who was attached to a certain regiment – complained about how difficult it was to indoctrinate women after a girl, exhausted and sick of his propaganda talk, invited him instead to just have “a nip under her blanket”.

Even female pilots, who were already hardened by the war’s battles, found themselves grounded just because their commanding officers deemed the situation too risky for women. Katya Budanova and her friend, Lilya Litvyak, had to fight off this shared notion of feminine weakness prevalent among their male counterparts by refusing to be fussed over as well as declining every act of consideration extended their way.

These new female recruits, a number of them being flying instructors before the outbreak of WWII, had little difficulty piloting the mercurial Pe-2 dive bombers or even the Yak-2 fighters. As a matter of fact, many female pilots of the USSR downed dozens of the German’s Messerschmitts using the latter.

Extraordinary Night Witches

But possibly, the most extraordinary war feats of female pilots during the Second World War were those executed by the Russian female night bombers whom the Germans called Night Witches.

The night witches used the frail and little U-2 planes built using plywood and percale linen and ran by 100-horsepower engines. These female night bombers would go across the front line with their planes’ engines off then glide silently while their enemies sleep. The navigator, who had a flare bomb on her lap all along, would toss that overboard serving as the light to illuminate their target. Seeing their intended destinations through that flare bomb, the Night Witches would then drop off their payload.

The planes of the Night Witches only carried enough fuel for an hour’s flight. Doing four sorties a night, these female night bombers would repeatedly land to refuel before taking off again. What was more, they used rudimentary night-flight equipment. Through these all, the damage caused by the Night Witches against the Nazis in terms of the their positions and their soldiers’ morale was considerably great.

The Night Witches and the other female regiments Raskova formed, of course, brought propaganda advantage to USSR. After all, femme fatales were rare in a mainly male-fought conflict. For one, Lilya Litvyak, who became known as the White Rose of Stalingrad, became a celebrity in 1943.

The Downfall

However, with 1943 came change in the Soviet air force. It achieved a measure superiority in the air against the Germans though it was not without great losses. Eventually, the female regiments, including the Night Witches, that Raskova brought to life went down.

And perhaps, the most cruel fate happened to the White Rose, Lilya Litvyak. Not only was her body never been found, her family also suffered for decades to come over the ludicrous rumor of her defection.