Night Witches – Soviet women pilots
The Second World War was the largest military conflict in history. The rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany in the late 1930s brought unimaginable suffering to millions of people. Hitler was defeated in 1945 but, without doubt, Russia and the whole of the Soviet Union paid the highest price for the victory. Developments in military technology, like the world-famous Katyusha rocket launcher and Shturmovik bomber, were important. But without the extraordinary courage, determination and endurance of Soviet people, the victory would hardly have been possible.
The Soviet Union was the only country in the world where women not only took care of fields and factories but also fought shoulder to shoulder with men as front line soldiers. It was also the only country where women could become fighter pilots. In 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Major Marina Raskova, a famous Soviet pilot, went to Stalin to convince him to set up three women’s fighter and bomber regiments. Stalin agreed and a special training center for women was set up in Engels, a small town not far from Stalingrad.
All the girls were volunteers and most of them were about 20 years old. Some of them, like Marina Raskova, had been pilots before the war, but many had to learn from scratch. However, in a few months, the women were taught what it takes most men four years to learn.
The girls often flew old Po-2 planes known as ‘kukuruzniks’ and men pilots often laughed at them.
“Our planes were the slowest in the air force. They often came back riddled with bullets, but they kept flying,” recalled one of the girls.
The girls’ regiments fought at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-43 and in every battle including the Battle for Berlin
Being a fighter pilot was a tough job. Ground temperatures ranged from 40°C in summer and -50°C in winter. Some parts of the aircraft were so cold that they ripped the skin off if you touched them. All the women were excellent skiers and many learned to take off and land their aircraft on ice and snow.
As the women pilots became more experienced, their missions became more complicated. It was the women’s regiments that learned to fly at night with their engines switched off and attack the enemy unexpectedly. The Germans feared them and called them the ‘night witches’.
Maria Smirnova, one of the ‘night witches’ of the 588th Bomber Regiment, flew 3,260 missions – that is about two missions for every day of the war! One day in 1944, her squadron, led by 19-year-old Nadya Popova, flew 18 missions. But the girls didn’t think of themselves as heroes or as something special, they were just doing what they felt was needed to bring victory a bit closer.
Years after the war, Nadya Popova said, “At night sometimes, I look up into the dark sky, close my eyes and picture myself as a girl at the controls of my bomber and I think, “Nadya, how on earth did you do it?’”
However, the death rate for pilots was very high. Serafima Tamsova-Teranenko, a former fighter pilot, recollected: “To fly a combat mission is not a trip under the moon. Every attack, every bombing is a dance with death.”
The regiments’ highest-scoring ace, Lilya Litvak was awarded a Gold Star of a Hero of the Soviet Union and nicknamed the White Rose of Stalingrad for her courage and skills as a fighter pilot. She once shot down an experienced
Knight’s Cross German ace (20 kills). When the German pilot realized that he had been hit by what he thought was a ‘schoolgirl’, he tore off his decorations and threw them out of the cockpit. Lilya was only 21 but she had already shot down 10 enemy planes. She was so short that she couldn’t reach the pedals in her plane when she first started flying. Her mechanic, also a woman, had to adjust them for her. Nobody knows exactly how she died but, according to witnesses, Lilya was last seen being chased by eight (!) enemy aircraft.
After the war, the three women’s regiments were broken up. Some of the former ‘night witches’ carried on flying civilian aircraft for airlines such as Aeroflot, while others went back to more ordinary professions. Every year there are fewer and fewer of them left to tell their story. People say that without the past, there can’t be any future, so it is important to remember and appreciate what those amazing women did for Russian people.
From: Speak Out 2\2005
Stamp of Russia, 100th birth anniversary of the Soviet female pilot, navigator, Hero of Soviet Union Marina Raskova