Writing is enjoyable to me for a variety of reasons. It’s a creative outlet, for one. It is also a means for me to share some insight or knowledge that could be beneficial or entertaining to someone. This particular subject is fascinating to me, as a female pilot. My love of history, aviation, and creativity were blended together in this recent article written for The Dispatch. The Dispatch is a magazine distributed by the Commemorative Air Force. The CAF is a fun, gratifying organization to be a part of. The organization’s love of aviation and history is witnessed in a variety of ways throughout the country. I hope you enjoy reading and learning about the brave, Russian female pilots of World War II. It was a pleasure to educate myself more on these amazing, heroic women of history!
Do you know who the first female combat pilots were? Meet the Russian Night Witches.
Night Witches: First Female Combat Pilots
Our appreciation for the strength and bravery of the Allied Troops during World War II hopefully, will never be lost. It cannot be denied that the freedoms many enjoy today may never have existed without the numerous men who participated in the battles on the ground and in the sky against the Axis powers. Millions sacrificed themselves for the greater good of the world.
There were some women of various nationalities making a difference during this war as well. Their stories haven’t been commonly shared, until recently. The history and stories of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) are at last being more widely recognized. These civilian service members were also known as the Women’s Army Service Pilots and/or Women’s Auxiliary Service Pilots. These females trained pilots and were used as test pilots and aircraft ferry pilots. Because they were able to take on these responsibilities, the men were available and able to fight in combat.
The original group(s) of female pilots were organized in 1942. They carried out remarkable feats and proved their abilities in the cockpit. Combined, they flew over sixty million miles. They exhibited determination, hard work, and bravery. However, they were never used during this time to actually fly in combat. In simple terms, it was considered “unladylike.” Although their service may not have been fully recognized at the time, they were pioneers that set the stage for many great female flying careers.
Bring On The Women
In 1941, under the order of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Air Forces formed and deployed three women’s air force units, that served as technicians, navigators, and pilots. All in all, by 1944, women comprised between one and two million of the active-duty Red Army service members. These three air force regiments were made up of young female volunteers, ages ranging from the late teens to their early twenties. These citizens were essentially the first women combat pilots ever used. The Russian female pilots were flying missions in one of three established regiments. Not only did these all-female units drop bombs on the enemy, but they would also drop supplies to their own soldiers. The 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment flew Yak fighters. The 587th Bomber Aviation Regiment flew the twin-engine Petlyakov Pe-2 Dive Bomber. Finally, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, came to be known by the Germans as the “Night Witches.” They flew the wood and canvas biplane Polikarpov Po-2 as their war machine. By the end of the war, the 588th regiment, which later became the 46th “Taman” Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, was the only regiment that remained entirely comprised of women.
Many Soviets, including females, were trained at an early age as glider pilots. Women were not given special treatment and they were expected to pull their weight, regardless of sex, for their country. Flying clubs were quite popular in the Soviet Union before the war. There were as many as 150 of these clubs at one time. One-quarter of the pilots trained at these clubs were females. The overall view of the government was that all citizens should contribute to all ways of life in the Soviet Union. The Komsomol (All-Union Leninist Young Communist League) was instrumental in recruiting women and elevating them to a level of equality with men. One must have been a member of the Komsomol to have access to many opportunities. The country was also aware that the West was advancing in technology and they needed to keep up. Therefore, there were many opportunities for females in that country before many other countries adopted the philosophy to include women. Flying lessons most often began with glider training. Many went on to careers in aviation after obtaining their pilot’s license, mostly as instructors.
Although Russia did not initially allow females to participate in combat, that all changed after Germany launched the massive invasion into the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa. The Soviet Red Army was suffering tremendous losses and needed to pull together all of their resources. By war’s end, authorities estimated a loss of 26 million Russians alone, as a result of either death during the war or loss of potential life because of the war. The devastation was obvious early on. The Soviets thought fondly of their country, or “Motherland,” even when they didn’t agree entirely with their leaders. The land itself was cherished by its citizens. Everyone wanted to help protect their homeland, including women. Many women were emblazoned with fury towards the Nazis. They’d watched these fascists destroy their homes and gun down their families. They wanted to fight and defeat the Germans as much as anyone.
Night Witch Commandment #1: Be Proud You Are A Woman!
It was a female Soviet celebrity pilot who started the charge that enabled women to enter the war as combatants. Marina Raskova was known as the “Soviet Amelia Earhart.” She served as the first female navigator in the Soviet Air Force and set many long-distance flight records. One in which she and her female crew had to bail out of their airplane before crashing over the large and desolate Siberian landscape. After covering miles on foot to their eventual rescue, their celebrity status was sealed. Many Soviets looked up to these women, who had demonstrated skill and determination. They were heroes.
Raskova personally petitioned Stalin to allow females to enter combat, to which he agreed. Three all-female air force units were formed. Raskova took the charge to build the combat teams. More than two-thousand women applied, of which around four hundred were selected. The condensed training curriculum had the recruits trained in six months versus what would normally have taken at least two years. Each recruit had to train and perform various roles, including pilot, navigator, maintenance, and ground crew. The training was rigorous and often included up to fourteen hours a day of flying and classwork. The women drilled and marched every morning just as their male counterparts.
These women worked hard and fought tirelessly under extreme conditions for their “Motherland.” Their femininity was often forgotten or disregarded. As they began their military careers, the men’s uniforms they were provided proved to be very challenging to work in. Because of their adaptability and home-making skills, they altered their clothing as best they could for maneuverability. The huge soldier’s boots they were given had to be stuffed with rags or other items so that they wouldn’t slip off their feet inadvertently. Belts were typically wrapped around their waists at least twice to keep the large men’s trousers they were wearing from falling off. The women were typically shorter than the male pilots and impromptu airplane seat cushions had to be devised for viewing from the cockpit. The rudder pedals were adjusted by adding blocks of wood for reachability. At one time, the women were ordered to cut their long hair off into short, military-style crew cuts. Even though they didn’t want or expect any exceptions as soldiers, removing their long locks was a tearful event for most.
Nature often took over and these pilots would use their creativity to express and celebrate their womanhood. Some would sew flowers onto their uniforms or paint them on their airplanes, only to be instructed to remove them later by their superiors. There was often at least one special dress and a small amount of makeup reserved for spontaneous celebrations. Their pencils would serve double-duty as eyeliner. During their wartime duties, there was little bickering and they each developed a lifelong sisterhood with one another. They united over a common purpose. At the end of the night’s missions, these pilots would anguish over the safe return of each airplane and its crew. By war’s end, approximately thirty female pilots were killed fighting against the Nazis for their country. Twenty-four of the flyers were eventually awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union, a very high honor.
The Germans gave the female combat pilots of the 588th regiment the title of Nachthexen, or “Night Witches.” This title was bestowed on them because of the noise their wooden airplanes made as they cut their engines and swooped down on the enemy, releasing their bombs. It was not uncommon for one of the crew to climb out onto the wing to dislodge a bomb or pull the release wire of the bombs. Their bravery had no bounds. They harassed the Nazis with their constant barrage of night bombing missions, hoping to destroy their equipment while also diminishing their morale and sanity. It was believed by the enemy that these women were either criminals or were given special drugs by the Soviet government that provided them with special, super-human strengths, including superior feline night vision! They were so disliked by the Germans that if any of these women were downed in enemy territory, the soldiers were automatically bestowed with the esteemed Iron Cross medal.
After flying a sortie and returning to their provisional bases, the aviatrixes were typically allotted 3 ounces of vodka, along with their daily food ration, which was frequently a simple piece of bread and/or bowl of watered-down soup. They endured sexual harassment, grueling conditions, including extreme cold and subpar living conditions. During the harsh Soviet winters, many acquired frostbite or lost skin from simply touching a freezing cold airplane. The severe winter temperatures often dipped to thirty or forty degrees below zero. They were equipped with rudimentary tools and equipment such as rulers, stopwatches, flashlights, pencils, maps, and compasses. While their male counterparts had radar, parachutes, guns, and radios. Their female status included one known perk. They were allotted more cleansing soap than their male counterparts.
The “Night Witches” flew flimsy antiquated open-cockpit airplanes made of plywood and canvas. These airplanes were originally used as trainers and 1920’s crop-dusters. The women formed attachments to these 100-horsepower airplanes even if they were rudimentary and unsophisticated. The top speed of the Po-2 war machine was 94 mph, without bombs. There were a few disadvantages of these airplanes that the Soviets used to their benefit. They were too small to show up on radar or infrared locators. Because they didn’t use radios, radio locators could not locate them either. By the time the enemy heard their “swooshing” sound, it was too late for a defensive response. They could easily take off and land almost anywhere, including short fields. Maybe most importantly, their maximum speed was slower than the stall speed of the Nazi planes. This meant, much to German frustration, they could outmaneuver their opponents.
Each plane would carry two bombs under each wing. This meant that each crew would return to their “base” time and time again each night to rearm and refuel in order to be most effective. Because of the weight of the bombs, the airplanes had to fly at lower altitudes, which made them an easier target, hence their night-only missions. If they were unfortunately hit by tracers, the plane would burst into flames and burn like a sheet of paper.
The two-person airplanes rarely carried defensive ammunition. Their nightly attacks were typically carried out in packs of three. The first two airplanes to arrive at the target would release flares to light the target and be used as bait to attract the German spotlights, which also provided additional lighting. They would then separate and travel in different directions to confuse the ground troops and avoid the antiaircraft guns. While the Germans on the ground were focused on the decoys, the last plane would glide in and release its bombs. They would then switch roles until each airplane had dropped its bomb load. These were extremely successful tactics and very irritating to the Germans. The female Russian pilots knew how much the Nazis loathed them. There was an agreement among most that they would rather crash and die intentionally then be captured by the Germans, who would likely induce torturous tactics on them.
Their first mission was on June 28, 1942. Their last flight took place just outside of Berlin on May 4, 1945. Germany surrendered three days later. All in all, each crew flew eight to eighteen missions a night. They flew more than 23,000 sorties during the war. Each pilot was said to have flown over eight hundred missions by wars end. It is reported that they released more than 20,000 tons of bombs on Nazi targets. These women contributed significantly to the Red Army and helped clinch a victory over German forces. After the war, most of the women went back to normal lives as homemakers and began families. They rarely spoke of their contributions publicly. They did not seek recognition and regarded their positions simply as a job that had to be done. Some went on to amazing careers, including several in aerospace. They were each bonded together for life after their experiences and often got together for reunions. After all these years, the public is becoming more and more aware of the historical impact women have had, as well as men, for their countries. The opportunity to learn more about history and how each person can contribute is awe-inspiring. Bravery comes in all shapes and sizes.