Herstory

The Night Witches

In 1941, Nazi Germany began its invasion of the Soviet Union. While many Soviet women had supporting positions in the war effort, they were unable to enlist in combat. Colonel Marina Roskova, a record-breaking Soviet aviatrix, petitioned Joseph Stalin for women bomber squadrons after receiving countless letters from impassioned women wishing to join the front lines. Consisting entirely of female mechanics, navigators, pilots, and commanders – the 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Air Forces was called to action.

The female pilots flew in 2-seater plywood open cockpit planes not equipped with radios or guns. Instead, they were given a map, a compass, rulers, stopwatches, flashlights and pencils as their tools. The Soviet Army gave them hand me down men’s uniforms and boots, which were much too large. Being resourceful women, they stuffed their boots with ripped bedding sheets so they’d fit. Their aircrafts had a strict weight capacity and could only hold two bombs and the pilot herself (no parachute.) The only measure of safety…executing missions in the frigid night, with crews of three pilots. Two would fly ahead to draw attention from enemy searchlights and maneuver through gunfire, while the third would cut off her engine, glide over her target in darkness and drop the bombs. They’d repeat this pattern until all their weapons were released, then they’d return to base, reload and go again – as many as 18 runs in a night.

The Nazi soldiers were terrified of the squadron, nicknaming them Nachthexen (“The Night Witches”) due to the swooshing sound the plywood planes made while gliding overhead, similar to a sweeping broom. The night bombers were crucial to the success of the allied forces, eventually expanding into three squadrons, and flying up to 30,000 raids in their three years. Though many of these women received a “Hero of the Soviet Union” medal of honor, they were excused from marching in the Victory Parade with the Soviet Army.

Hot for more?

READ: Night Witches: The Amazing Story Of Russia’s Women Pilots in World War II

LISTEN: Stuff You Missed In History Class: The Night Witches

WATCH: Night Witches: The Female Pilots Who Terrified The Nazis

Featured Photo by Nikolai Ignatiev / Alamy

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