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Female pilots of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. Wikimedia Commons

By- Khushi Bisht

‘The Night Witches’ were the all-female pilots of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment of Russia. Joseph Stalin ordered the deployment of three all-female air-force units, including the 588th Regiment, on October 8, 1941. This regiment was equipped to attack targets behind German lines. In the twentieth century, they became the first female military pilots to actively challenge an opponent in action. Including the navigators, field crews, and support personnel, the 588th was entirely led by women.

Since their planes made a whooshing noise like a broom, the Germans called them the Nachthexen, or “Night Witches.” The Nazis feared and despised them so much that any German airman who shot one down earned the reputable Iron Cross medal. Over 23,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped on Nazi targets by the all-female 588th Night Bomber Regiment. Their bombs were wired to the wings of the planes made of wood with no radar. However, they were converted into death machines by Soviet women. As a result, they were a key Soviet weapon in the victory of World War II.

Their hair was cut short. Wikimedia Commons

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‘The Night Witches’ was led by Marina Raskova, a prominent female Russian pilot who was dubbed “Russian Amelia Earhart”. Following Germany’s invasion of Russia, she was the only one who persuaded Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to employ female bomber pilots. The Soviet Union was the very first country to permit women to participate in war.

In 1942, the 588th regiment started to fill up, with young ladies aged 17 to 26 commuting to the small village of Engels to begin pilot training. These women spent a year of rigorous training, learning not only how to fly, but also to handle and manage the plane. After the training, the “least trained” pilots were allocated to the 588th Night Bomber Aviation Regiment. However, in an unusual turn of events, the least skilled became the most revered and well-known.

1938 photo of Marina Raskova, Hero of the Soviet Union and founder of the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment. Wikimedia Commons

Even before they started to fight, the women had to overcome major hurdles. They were issued old men’s uniforms because the Soviet Air Force had no women up to that point. Clothing was always too oversized and droopy. And the boots were also so big that women ripped up their bedsheets and packed them in their boots to make them fit properly. They even encountered cynicism from certain male military officers who thought they were of no use in war.

On June 28, 1942, the 588th launched its first mission, which targeted the occupying Nazi troops’ headquarters and was successful. The Night Witches flew ten to eighteen bombing sorties in a single night when their planes could only hold two bombs. Each sortie was 30 to 50 minutes long. They carried out thousands of bold bombing attacks using only wooden planes and the cover of darkness.

They had to fly Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, which were two-seat, open-cockpit planes. Wikimedia Commons

The Night Witches flew so close to the land and didn’t carry any parachutes. They lacked modern instruments and relied on compasses, maps, and flashlights to get to their destination. They would sometimes return with bullet-riddled jets. They had to fly Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, which were two-seat, open-cockpit planes. The pilot and navigator were vulnerable to the elements, like rain and cold wind, since the cockpits were open. The planes were so cold during the brutal Soviet winters that placing the bare hand on them would tear off the skin. These pilots faced very low temperatures, snow, and frostbite while flying at night.

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This, however, did not deter the women of the 588th. The Night Witches flew within 60 kilometers of Berlin on May 4, 1945, which was also their last flight. Germany formally surrendered three days later. In all, these fearless female pilots flew over 30,000 missions.

Female officers of the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, 325th Night Bomber Division, 4th Air Army: Evdokia Bershanskaya (left), Maria Smirnova (standing), and Polina Gelman. Wikimedia Commons

The Night Witches even had pistols with them in case they collided, but they must save the last bullet for themselves to avoid being caught alive. But this regiment was dissolved six months after World War II ended. They were left out of the major victory-day parade because their planes were deemed too slow. Despite their fearsome aerial abilities, the Night Witches have been largely forgotten by history.

In that awful, long battle, they were among the bravest warriors…


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