Nachtehexen: The Night Witches
By Athena Ives
In June 1941, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa and the Red Army was struggling. Women were banned from serving in combat but the Soviets rethought their rules (Holland, 2019). Mariana Raskova was born in Russia to a family of musicians and she dreamed of being an opera singer. After damage to her hearing from illness, Raskova pursued a career in chemistry and aviation. In 1933, she became the first Russian woman aviation navigator. She also became the first female pilot instructor for the Zhurouski Air Academy (Pennington, 2001).
Raskova started receiving letters from women all over the Soviet Union asking how they could help fight the Nazis. After creating a petition to form a women’s fighting squadron to Stalin, they were granted permission on October 8, 1941. Over 2,000 women applied. Most of them were students ranging from ages 17 to 26. 400 were chosen and they began their intense training. What took most male pilots several years, these women were forced to complete their training in months (Pennington, 2001).
Not only did these women face extreme training requirements, but they were also sexually harassed, told they weren’t needed, and they received hand-me-down gear that rarely fit or worked properly. They were also outdated Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes that were used as crop-dusters. These biplanes had an open-cockpit and were never created for combat. These brave women endured freezing Russian temperatures, no parachutes (they were too heavy and bulky to fit), no radar, guns, or radios, and relied on flashlights, maps, compasses, and courage (Holland, 2019).
The all-female 558th Night Bomber Regiment conducted 30,000 missions (800 per pilot), dropped 23,000 tons of bombs on Nazi targets, lost only 30 pilots and 24 received the title of “Hero of the Soviet Union” (Holland, 2019). These women received the nickname Nachtehexen (Night Witches) from the Germans. Not only did their planes make a wooshing sound, they swooped in without any radar warning because of their small size. The Nazis hated the Night Witches so much that anyone that shot one of them down was awarded the prestigious Iron Cross.
“Despite being the most highly decorated unit in the Soviet Air Force during the war, the Night Witches regiment was disbanded six months after the end of World War II. And when it came to the big victory-day parade in Moscow, they weren’t included—because, it was decided, their planes were too slow” (Holland, 2019).
Holland, B. (2019). Meet the Night Witches, the Daring Female Pilots Who Bombed Nazis By Night. History. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/news/meet-the-night-witches-the-daring-female-pilots-who-bombed-nazis-by-night
Pennington, R. (2001). Wings, Women & War: Soviet Airwomen in World War II Combat. University Press of Kansas