They decorated their planes with flowers, painted their lips with navigational pencils, and flew under cover of darkness in bare-borne plywood biplanes, then struck fear into the hearts of Nazis’ soldiers.
The 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Air Forces, also known as the Night Witches, was formed after women grew tired of watching men go off to the front lines while they stayed home during World War II.
Many wanted to get involved in direct combat, instead of contributing through behind-the-scene ways. And one of them was Colonel Marina Raskova (the “Soviet Amelia Earhart”).
Colonel Marina Raskova
When Colonel Marina learned of other women with similar desires, she petitioned for the right to organize regimes of female troupes. She even lobbied for Soviet women to be included in the draft.
Once her request was granted by Joseph Stalin in October 1941, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Air Forces was born. And every member of the trope was a female, from pilots to plane mechanics.
The 400 women were all aged 17-26, were given oversized uniforms and boots that had to be stuffed with bedding to fit in and crop-duster planes that weren’t meant for war.
They Flew to Battle with Crop Dusters Planes Called “Polikarpov P0-2”
These planes had no seats, no radar, no machinery weapon, no radio and no parachutes. They only had a map, a compass, rules, stopwatches, flashlights and pencils on board.
The women endured sub-zero temperatures, freezing winds, and the risk of frostbite. During harsh Soviet winters, just touching the freezing plane carried the risk of having your skin torn right off.
Despite the lack of right war weapons, these women flew over 30,000 bombing raids and dropped more than 23,000 tons of munitions on Nazi targets during their 4-year tenure.
And in doing so, the all-female 588th Night Bomber Regiment became a crucial Soviet asset in winning World War II.
The Awe-Inspiring Night Witches
German soldiers nicknamed them Nachthexen, or “night witches,” because the whooshing noise their planes made resembled that of a sweeping broom.
Steve Prowse, the author of the screenplay The Night Witches (a nonfiction account of the little-known female squadron) says:
“This sound was the only warning the Germans had. The planes were too small to show up on radar… [or] on infrared locators.”
“They never used radios, so radio locators couldn’t pick them up either. They were basically ghosts.”
No Magic Required
Though their planes had disadvantages, the small and primitive construction made them hard to spot on radar, allowing them to glide, engine-less, on their targets.
The pilots could also cut engine power and glide at half speed, which left the unsuspecting German army with “little-to-no warning that a bomb was about to come crashing down.”
During their service, 32 Night Witches died, including Colonel Raskova, who was celebrated with the first state funeral of WWII and buried in the Kremlin. 23 other pilots were awarded the title “Hero of the Soviet Union.”