This Women’s History Month, let’s take some time to learn about a group of the most badass ladies to ever walk this earth: the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, aka the Night Witches. I wouldn’t be surprised if you hadn’t heard of them before—our history books love to skip straight over women, and even their own country left them out of the victory day parade. But these heroines flew over 30,000 missions and were so feared by Nazis that any German airman who took one out was automatically awarded the prestigious Iron Cross medal. The Night Witches dropped over 23,000 tons of bombs on Nazi targets. They deserve to be remembered.
All over the Soviet Union, women had been fighting for a chance to have more than just a support role in World War II. Following Adolf Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 Marina Raskova (pictured above), the first female navigator in the Soviet Air Force, as well as a setter of multiple long-distance flight records, petitioned Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin for permission to form an all-female squadron. On Oct. 8, 1941, Stalin ordered three all-female air force units. Out of them, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment is the only one reported to have stayed exclusively female.
Raskova led the charge, choosing roughly 400 women out of 2,000, ranging in age from 17 to 26. The women trained at the Engels School of Aviation where they learned in mere months what soldiers were typically granted years to grasp. Each woman learned how to be on the ground crew, maintenance, be a navigator and be a pilot. But that was only a fraction of the obstacles they faced; they were looked down upon by men who believed they had no place fighting in the war, were equipped with horrific planes and given fewer supplies than their male counterparts. Their planes were 1920s crop-dusters, the Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, which had previously only been used for training. They were made of plywood with canvas pulled over, had open cockpits and limited weight capacity. Planes hit with tracer bullets (which have a pyrotechnic charge) burst into flames. Lack of shielding forced the pilots to endure freezing temperatures, frostbite and any elements thrown at them. The weight limit plus a lack of funding meant they weren’t granted parachutes, radar, guns or radios. Instead, the women used rulers, stopwatches, flashlights, pencils, maps and compasses. There were a few upsides though: the planes had a maximum speed that was slower than the Nazi planes’ stall speed meaning that they were able to maneuver more quickly than their enemy. And the women refused to bow to the expectations of the men around them. They danced, did needlework, used their navigational pencils as makeup and decorated their planes with flowers.
The Night Witches’ first mission was on June 28, 1942, to bomb the headquarters of the invading Nazi forces. They were successful! They hadn’t earned their name yet, though. That came from the whooshing sound their planes would make as they glided over their targets. The Germans thought it sounded like the sound made by a sweeping broom and so nicknamed them the Nachthexen or “Night witches.” It was the only warning the planes gave as they were too small to show up on radar and the women wore the name with pride. The Night Witches flew in formations of three planes, carrying a bomb under each wing. The first two planes would attract German attention before veering off in opposite directions, having to duck to avoid enemy attacks. The third plane cut its engine and glided through the darkness to release one of its bombs. To make sure they had an impact, 40 crews containing a pilot and a navigator were sent out each night. They would execute between eight and 18 missions during that time, re-arming between runs. Having to fly at low altitudes because of the weight of the bombs, they flew in the darkness of night.
The Night Witches’ last flight was on May 4, 1945, within roughly 37 miles of Berlin. Germany officially surrendered three days later. They lost 30 pilots total and 24 of the flyers received the Hero of the Soviet Union title. Raskova had died on Jan. 4, 1943, after being sent to the front line. Her plane never made it, but the accomplishment of leading women from fighting for a chance on a squadron to being sent to the front lines will live on forever. She received the first state funeral of World War II with her ashes being buried in the Kremlin.
After the war, the squadron was converted into the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment and continued to fight for the Soviet Union. Despite their significance in the battles, the victory-day parade in Moscow excluded them, reasoning that their planes were too slow. But they are women who deserve to be celebrated every day. They were given plywood planes and rudimentary supplies, yet they became so feared by Nazis that superhuman rumors were spread about them. They flew planes in the dark of the night, in freezing temperatures, gliding without their engines on to deploy bombs and sailed through hails of gunfire. They were all extraordinary women.
This month celebrate the women throughout history who have fought for you. We may not know all their stories, but every one of us owes our lives to them.