The Night Witches of World War II

During World War II, Russia had the first all-female military bombing regiment -- in fact, they actually had three units. In the United States, women were not trained in flight combat until 1993.

The Russian units consisted of young women in their late teens to their early twenties. 261 women served in the regiment, and only 32 of them died during the war. Originally, the units were barred from combat, until Major Marina Raskova was able to gain permission from Joseph Stalin to allow them into active combat. Many of the male regiments did not believe that women could do the job of a bomber, and the women were constantly underestimated. The women were given planes that were made of wood, originally designed for training and watering crops. The lack of good planes did not prevent the women from becoming the highest decorated regiment in the army throughout the war.

Though the aircraft were inferior to the planes the male regiments used,  the women were able to make use of their plane's high maneuverability. Each plane could only carry one or two bombs, but this made it easier to outmaneuver the German airforce.

Each crew might run several missions at night. In order to get in closer to the German barracks in the dark, the woman would shut off their engines and glide over the base. Then they would release their bombs, and turn the engine back on to escape. Sometimes their plane’s engine would die mid-flight, resulting in the women climbing out of the plane and manually turning it back on as they descended. As they were not taken seriously, the women were given all the hand-me-downs from the male regiments. Since their planes were so light, they were unable to carry parachutes, radios, radar, or guns. They would instead use maps to locate their bombing targets during the night.  

Their nickname, Night Witches, came from the only warning the Germans had before the bombings -- a whooshing sound as the planes glided over them after the engine was turned off. The Germans called them “Nachthexen.”

The regiment flew over 23,000 missions, and almost every member had flown over 800 missions themselves. By the end of the war, the regiment had only lost 32 members. 23 women were awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union.