Written by: Peter Anderson
The debate concerning women in combat roles flares up from time to time when the news cycle has slowed. Women’s effectiveness in combat is called into question – generally considered ‘too physically weak for battle.’ (The flip side to that argument might be that ‘PMS would make any woman much more terrifying in battle).’
One way or the other, the debate rages on, and nothing gets done. However, during World War 2, a division of all-female bomber pilots made the German lines tremble in fear. So much so that any German that shot down one of these planes was awarded an Iron Cross.
They were known to the Germans as Nachthexen, or the Night Witches, for the only warning they gave was the whooshing sound, reminiscent of witches’ brooms flying, before the bombs fell. It was a name that became more apt upon discovery that this uniquely deadly payload had been delivered by women ranging from 17 to 26 years old.
The pilots, mechanics, and other members of the 588th-night bomber regiment, consisted entirely of women. Colonel Marina Rakova had petitioned Stalin himself to form this unit after receiving letters from hundreds of women who’d lost husbands and boyfriends during Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union.
Stalin relented, and the 588th was formed. However, he didn’t see fit to equip these new soldiers with the same modern equipment the men had. Male pilots received radios, closed cockpits and planes with the latest technology. The women were given flashlights, maps, pencils, compasses, rulers, and men’s uniforms, which were much too big for them.
A great deal of discrimination was delivered by the rest of the male soldiers, but the ‘witches’ embraced it. They were known for drawing large flowers on their planes and using navigation pencils as eyeliner.
The planes flown by the 588th, the Polikarpov Po-2 biplane, were repurposed canvas and plywood crop dusters from the 1920s. The Po-2 could not fly as high or as fast as the German aircraft at the time, and if hit, could easily burst into flames. However, one advantage of the Polikarpov was that it flew too slow for the German planes, which would cause the enemy aircraft to stall. The crop dusters also had much more maneuvering capability.
The Polikarpov could only carry two to four bombs simultaneously, which meant flying between eight and 18 missions per night. One of the most successful and well-known techniques used by the Night Witches was to cut their engines as they got close to the German lines. Next, one or two planes would drop flares or get caught by German spotlights, while the others would hone in on their targets and then release the payload.
By the end of the war, the 588th had flown 30,000 raids and dropped over 23,000 tons on enemy lines. With numbers like that, no one can say that women do not belong in combat. This all-female regiment of pilots struck fear into the hearts of their enemies and were integral in bringing WW2 to a close.
During their tenure, the Night Witches only lost 30 pilots during raids, and 23 of them received the Hero of the Soviet Union Award. Following the war, the 588th continued to serve in Soviet forces, converting into the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment.