Historical Fiction, Military Fiction,

The Hive, Red Moon, Star Pirates, and Das Bell

The Night Witches, The Women Combat Pilots of the Red Air Force in World War 2


 This night’s bombing mission of the 46th Guards Regiment was horrific.  It was a truly a nightmare for the two surviving crews flying Soviet built Po-2s that returned to land on a grass field lit only by kerosene lanterns.  Thirty minutes earlier, six of the biplanes, each laden with 200 kilograms of bombs, struggled up and into the warm air of a July night. The wood and cloth covered Polikarpov aircraft, looking more like a relic of the First World War than a modern attack aircraft, had a top speed of barely ninety miles per hour.  These planes, some unarmed and some fitted only with a single 7.62 mm rear machine gun, fired by the plane’s navigator, flew into the maelstrom of combat.  Instead of veteran Soviet airmen at the controls, young girls, eighteen, nineteen and twenty years of age, were hurling themselves into jaws of battle to deliver their vengeance upon the Nazi invaders.  Now, only half an hour later, just two of the Po-2s, both showing extensive damage, returned to a grassy meadow, used as a landing field.  The others fell burning from the night sky, victims of a new tactic by the Nazis of employing night fighters against the slow flying biplanes.

            The two Po-2s finally rolled to a stop.  At the controls were Larissa Razanova and her navigator and friend, Nadia Studilina, along with nineteen year old Natalia Meklin in the cockpit of the second fragile bomber. The other four aircraft along with eight young women had fallen from the skies over the Kuban River carrying their friends to their deaths. Yet, as Larissa would report, both she and Nadia, armed only with a pistol, maneuvered to out-fly the Messerschmitt fighter and its pilot that had taken their comrades’ lives, and avenged their fallen sisters, striking and destroying their target, and sending the invaders to their deaths.  On the flight back, tears clouded both Nadia and Larissa’s eyes as they grieved for their friends. Once on the ground, Larissa stated, “mission accomplished,” to her commanding officer, Major Bershanskaya, and the women walked silently back to their barracks, and to the sight of the eight empty beds that would have held their comrades, filling them with an overwhelming sorrow and deepening their mourning.

            These were the young women of the 588th night bombing regiment that had been elevated to the 46th Guards Regiment in January of 1943, flying antiquated Po-2 biplanes, powered by five cylinder one hundred-fifteen horsepower motors affording them a cruising speed of only one hundred kilometers per hour (sixty-two mph) and no protection from enemy fire.  The 46th Guards Regiment had the distinction of being the highest decorated night bombing squadron of the entire Red Air Force with twenty-three of its pilots having been awarded the title, “Hero of the Soviet Union.”

           The 46th Guards flew more missions, with its pilots averaging five hundred and more combat missions, and more sorties per night, in the case of one pilot, eighteen from dusk until dawn, than any other similarly equipped regiment in the Red Air Force. This regiment had one other singular distinction above and beyond other Red Air Force bomber regiments: the 46th Taman Guards were all women, from the pilots and navigators, to the mechanics and armorers, and even commanding officers.  Their skill, bravery and determination, were unmatched in the efforts of the USSR in driving back the Nazi invaders, completing more bombing missions, over twenty-five hundred, with greater accuracy and destroying more of the enemy and his supplies than any other night bombing unit.  History records their achievements and there is no question of what these women accomplished, both from firsthand accounts and the recollections of their commanding offices as well as official Soviet archives. 

 For far too long, the achievements of women in combat have been either minimized or ignored all together.  There are a number of reasons for this, the first being cultural and social in a desire to keep women apart from the horrors of combat.  This is probably even more of a biological imperative than social in that without the women for child bearing, raising of children and gathering of foods in Ice Age clans or tribes, the clan would certainly perish.  As women, through child bearing would insure the survival of the clan with a new generation, it would be foolish to place the women in harm’s way.

The second obvious reason that women were not seen as warriors is their physical strength as compared to men.  Men have far more upper body strength for things like sword wielding, firing arrows and holding and fighting with heavy shields.  It was not until the twentieth century, where technological and mechanized warfare made this difference in physical strength more or less irrelevant.  During the modernization of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, many women found work in areas that were formally the province of men, engineering, construction, drafting and electronics.  Many women, having been exposed to technical fields, joined flying clubs and became pilots.  On the eve of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, there were some three thousand qualified women pilots. Technology became the great equalizer.  In an aircraft it no longer was a contest of physical strength but of skill and courage, something the women pilots of the Soviet Union certainly did not lack.

        The military readiness of the Soviet Union the evening of June 21st 1941 was an invitation to disaster.  A series of events that included the Stalinist purges of the 1930s that denuded the ranks of the Red Army officer corps, the long delayed transition in Soviet military aircraft from obsolete designs, such as the Polikarpov, I-16 (in Russian pronunciation this is “E”-16) to more modern fighter aircraft, grouping large numbers of fighters at forward air bases near the Soviet borders and limited fighter production in favor of bombers, insured that during Operation Barbarossa, the Luftwaffe would achieve air superiority.  Compounding this recipe for disaster was Josef Stalin’s refusal to seriously consider the ominous warnings that vast amounts of German troops, armor and aircraft were massing on the Soviet border.  When the attack came at 0300 hours on June the 22nd, 1941, the Soviet Union was unprepared and unable to stop the crushing air and ground assault by the Nazis.

 It was aviator Marina Raskova, who, through her personal contacts and friendship with Joseph Stalin, who organized two thousand of these women volunteers into three air regiments to fight back against the Nazi invaders. Marina Raskova, a Russian Amelia Earhart, whose stunning achievements included her long distance flight as the navigator of a converted bomber and her survival in the Siberian wilderness after an air crash, inspired Soviet would-be women aviators.  Her accomplishments earned her notoriety, and the title “Hero of the Soviet Union,” and the ear of Stalin.  When war came in the form of the German invasion, thousands of licensed women pilots contacted Raskova and begged to become combat pilots, with some traveling hundreds of miles over several days to personally petition her to seek military appointments for them.  Raskova’s close personal ties with Josef Stalin led to the creation of three female air regiments which incorporated the 586th fighter regiment, flying the La-5 and YAK-1, along with some flying American lend-lease P-39 fighters later in the war.  Not only were these groups to be staffed by women pilots, but woman mechanics, ground support personnel and commanding officers, totaling over three thousand female personnel.  In addition, some of the women were destined to serve in mixed male-female regiments. One of these women was Anna Yegorova, a decorated combat pilot, flying the Illusyin Il-2 ground attack aircraft (the Shtrumovik).  Yegorova, who survived the war despite severe wounds suffered when her aircraft was shot down over Warsaw, with Yegorova herself captured by the Germans, has provided considerable first hand accounts in her biography of being the only female pilot flying with an all male regiment. 


Of particular interest were the women of the 588th night bomber group, later elevated to the status of the 46th Guards Regiment, flying obsolete Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes (also designated as the U-2 but pronounced in Russian as: ooh dva), that featured canvas covering over a wooden airframe and a simple 115 horsepower five cylinder engine giving the Po-2 a maximum speed of barely ninety miles per hour.  This aircraft, the Po-2, was used as a training plane and was one of the aircraft that saw extensive service in civilian flying schools before the war.  Many Soviet pilots couldn’t believe it was being used as a combat aircraft.  However, in some ways, the unarmored biplane had its advantages. Bullets and even antiaircraft shells would harmlessly pass through the fabric covered fuselage and wings with one pilot, Nina Raspopova, having a shell explode below her cockpit and then looking down to see the ground as the entire floor of the cockpit missing.  In an all metal aircraft, this type of explosion would have crumpled and twisted the fuselage: instead, the wood and canvas biplane just kept on flying minus the lower section of its fuselage.

The Po-2 flew at night and carried a mere two hundred kilograms of bombs, yet this primitive aircraft inflicted considerable material as well as psychological damage on the Germans in stealthy night bombing raids. These women were the scourge of the Nazi forces at the front lines who called them the “Night Witches,” for their uncanny ability to strike almost silently and with deadly accuracy. One incredibility dangerous mission by the women Po-2 pilots was to locate and re-supply trapped Soviet troops, army and navy, on a spit of land known as Malaya Zemlya (Little Land) near Novorossiysk harbor on the Black Sea. Nadia Popova and Katya Ryabova had to drop supplies to these troops with pin point accuracy at night.  The margin of error was about a dozen meters (forty feet).  Flying between and around the remaining buildings that the two women used as landmarks and guided by a soldier’s flashlight from the ground, they dropped supplies to the beleaguered troops at an altitude of less than one hundred meters.  The drop was on target.  Both women returned to base but in escaping from horrific ground fire from both German troops and navy ships, Nadia was wounded in her hand. Despite her injuries, she and Katya unerringly found their way back to the airbase, landing by the light of bonfires built along the edge of the landing field.

        In all, the Women pilots of the 588th Regiment far exceeded the number of missions completed, and amount of bombs dropped upon the enemy than any of the male piloted regiments in the Red Air Force.  In most regiments flying the PO-2 biplane, there would be perhaps one or two pilots who received the honor of being awarded “Hero of the Soviet Union.” In the all female 588th, no less than twenty-three women achieved that honor.

 After the end of the war, the Soviet government did a great disservice to these brave women.  They were shunted off to obscurity with the women of the 588th not even being permitted to fly above the capital, Moscow in the victory celebration after Germany’s surrender.  It is only recently that the true story of these incredibly brave women, just 18, 19, and 20 years old has been shown the light of day.  Women in aerial combat can equal and exceed the capability of men.  These women warriors must never be forgotten.



FilmClip of THE NIGHT WITCHES: Soviet film from the 1980s





It is with great regret that I must add the sad note that night bomber pilot Nadia Popova passed away on July the 8th, 2013 at the age of 91. May this incredibly brave woman who went to war as a young girl, rest in peace. 



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