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  • James Houser

June 12, 1942 - The Night Witches

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

June 12, 1942. Night. German convoys cross the Mius River, destined for Stalingrad and the Caucasus Mountains. Without warning, bombs fall among them, the only sign of their attacker being the sudden grind of a biplane engine overhead in the darkness. It is the first time the Wehrmacht has met the all-female “Night Witches” bomber squadron – but it will not be the last.

Especially since I spent yesterday talking about what an Orwellian hell-state the Soviet Union was, it seems strange that of all the nations of World War II, the Soviet Union was the only state to use large numbers of women in combat operations. This is not because Stalin’s regime had particularly progressive views, even given their leftist leanings, but more because of a profound sense of desperation and a need to *appear* progressive.

In the 1910s and 1920s, women had played an active and prominent role in most socialist and Communist organizations within Russia, but they were almost always secondary to men. Russia was a literal patriarchal society, and as the idealism of the Revolution’s initial wave receded, the old prejudices and societal repression came rolling back. Joseph Stalin was the opposite of “woke,” being a committed Marxist but also obsessed with order, control, and a “proper” ordering of society. This meant that while the Soviet Union would happily promote “model” women for public consumption, the vast majority of women were once again relegated to second-class status despite the official Party line.

Some women, though, were able to use their propaganda “model” status as a means to gain access to authority and try to open the way for other women to break through the glass ceiling. One of these women was Marina Raskova – the Russian Amelia Earhart.

Raskova was born in 1912, to a comfortable middle-class family. At first she wanted to be an opera singer, but illness and the harsh conditions of the Russian Revolution and Civil War killed that dream. She instead studied chemistry and engineering, got married and had a daughter, and eventually found herself using her engineering skills in the aeronautics division of the Soviet Air Force Academy. It was there that she discovered her true passion: flight. Despite her gender, Raskova’s commanding presence and ambitious personality managed to get her in the navigator’s seat of a plane.

From 1933 onward, Raskova became the first female navigator in the Soviet Air Force, then a navigation and pilot instructor at the Air Academy. She was part of the three-woman crew that set an international women’s record for straight-line flight across the Eurasian landmass, from Moscow to the Siberian town of Komsomolsk. It took Raskova and her crew 26 hours 29 minutes to fly the distance of 3,695 miles. She and the other two crewmen were the first women to receive the official “Hero of the Soviet Union” award, and the only ones to receive it before World War II.

This was how Marina Raskova managed to network in the highest circles of Stalin’s regime. She was a brand new hero during the height of the Great Purge, and must have become painfully aware that she and her fellow women aviators were fig leaves of national pride, mainly useful as propaganda to conceal the terror of the NKVD. The most famous female aviator in the Soviet Union, she officially joined the Communist Party in 1940, and was constantly on the road giving propaganda speeches for the Soviet government. This may have been morally questionable, but it was probably necessary for survival in Stalin’s Russia.

Either way, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 a wave of patriotic fervor swept across the land. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many Soviet women petitioned the government to do their part, pointing to the official Party line that forbade discrimination based on gender. Of course, the Communist Party sponsored women’s equality in form but never in fact. Raskova began receiving letters from young women all over Russia, asking for her to intervene on their behalf: they wanted to join the Soviet war effort as more than just laborers or girlfriends. They wanted, like her, to fly.

Marina Raskova used her personal connections with the Politburo to lobby Stalin himself for the creation of an all-women’s air squadron that would fight the Nazis. She carried a suitcase full of letters from patriotic women to his desk, and her position as Hero of the Soviet Union and her international fame probably tipped the scale. This led, of course, to misogynistic rumors that she was Stalin’s lover. (Stalin was largely uninterested in sex, and this is based on the insulting notion that a woman’s influence and access rested on the use of her body.) Raskova told Stalin that if women were not allowed to fight, they would just run away to the front and do it anyway – as they were already doing.

Stalin finally gave his approval – probably as much for the propaganda purposes as for military ones. He probably intended for the female air regiments to be another example of the “propaganda model,” a few women flying a handful of planes to show how patriotic and inclusive the Soviet Union while never really buying into the idea of equality. Marina Raskova, though, was determined to break the model and the glass ceiling. Rather than being a showcase unit, she wanted to transform her female regiments into genuine warriors.

So in October 1941, Stalin made Colonel Marina Raskova the commander of the all-female regiment. There was just one problem: there were so many female volunteers that, even with the most stringent limitations, there were far too many for one regiment. Eventually, there would be three: the 586th Fighter Regiment, the 587th Bomber Regiment, and one of the most famous air units in history – the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. While Marina would command the 587th, it would be the 588th that would go down in history as the “Night Witches.” It was also the only regiment that would remain all-female until the end of the war.

The female pilots arrived at the Engels Military Aviation School in late 1941, but were not welcomed by their male colleagues. They were seen as inferior by their fellow students, who felt insulted by the presence of over a thousand young college girls, ranging in age from 17 to their mid-20s. They were trained personally by the charismatic and famous Raskova, but poorly equipped – mostly with ill-fitting men’s uniforms. They were trained in open cabs in extreme weather, -50 degrees in the Russian winter.

Raskova’s first commandment to her women pilots was: be proud you’re a woman. Paint your plane with flowers, wear lipstick, don’t pretend to be masculine and unfeminine in order to fight – but you’d better fight. She ordered all their braids cut, as they would get in the way of the pilot’s headgear, and had their dresses confiscated and burned when her girls spent more time comparing outfits than studying their manuals. Her training was harsh, but effective, and her women looked at her as both mother and idol. By May 1942, all three regiments were ready for action.

The 588th Night Bomber Regiment was not a unit Soviet commanders placed much confidence in. It had the least experienced cadre of pilots from the three female regiments, as well as the most obsolete equipment. In 1942, the Po-2 biplane was an antique, which one of the 588th’s pilots described as “plywood covered with cheesecloth…one direct hit and it burned like a match.” The Po-2 was slow, fragile, and helpless in a dogfight. It only carried two bombs, and had originally been a crop-dusting plane before the war. The Soviets weren’t about to waste good planes on Stalin’s showgirls.

Raskova chose Yevdokia Bershanskaya, one of the few experienced Soviet female pilots before the war, as the commander of the 588th. Bershanskaya faced the challenge of figuring out what exactly she and her ladies could even *do* with the obsolete Po-2s they were issued. They soon worked out that the Po-2’s slow speed could actually be an advantage: it was so slow that it was 1. actually more difficult for German pilots to shoot down in their faster planes, and 2. able to turn on a dime, giving it an easy out if a German fighter was ever on their tail.

Finally, the Po-2’s light airframe forced the 588th’s pilots to develop their unique night attack method. When they had selected a target, the pilots would set themselves on a course with their foes. Then, they would turn off the engine. The plane would glide noiselessly over the unsuspecting enemy until they released their bombs directly overhead; then the pilot would restart the engine and make their escape. This method was dangerous, almost daredevil-like, but it was also uniquely terrifying to the German soldiers that would soon come to know it.

The 588th Night Bomber Regiment had its baptism of fire on June 12, 1942, when it was thrown into battle earlier than expected. The Germans had launched their summer offensive of 1942, designed to take the Soviet oil fields in the Caucasus and the key industrial city of Stalingrad. The first sortie of the 588th targeted German forces crossing the Mius River on their way to Stalingrad; the sudden attack proved remarkably successful, and Soviet commanders immediately began revising their opinion of the “girl pilots.”

Through the rest of 1942 and 1943, the 588th became the menace of Nazi soldiers in the Caucasus and Crimea. A German could never know when his camp or his convoy, relaxing or driving by night, would suddenly be torn apart by the sudden blasts of bombs and an almost mocking growl as the biplane’s engine kicked back on and the little plane scampered off into the night. The squadron was soon known and feared for their accuracy and gutsiness, as well as the sheer terror and paranoia they engendered in any troops in their sector. No one is exactly sure when the Germans found out it was women doing all the damage – none of the pilots was ever taken alive – but, however they learned, every German soldier in southern Russia knew about the Nachtaxen - “Night Witches.” They were so hated and feared that any German who shot one down was automatically awarded the Iron Cross.

As the Night Witches became famous, they gained experience and creativity in their tactics. Soon they operated in trios, with two planes causing a ruckus and diverting attention from antiair batteries while the third used the “night witch” tactic to swoop in and drop its deadly payload. To save weight and carry more bombs, the 588th’s pilots stopped carrying radios, machine guns and even parachutes; they often flew multiple missions a night, to the point that by the end of the war all the Night Witches had flown over 800 missions apiece.

As the other two of Raskova’s mostly female regiments eventually came to be commanded by men, only the 588th Night Bomber Regiment stayed all-female until the end of the war. In mid-1943, it was redesignated the 46th “Taman” Guards Night Bomber Regiment for its deadly support of the Taman Peninsula campaign near the Crimea. The 588th had no radar and no infrared, its pilots often flew while suffering frostbite, and by the climax of the Taman Campaign they were flying 18 missions a night.

It was here that they also met their greatest threat: the German fighter ace Josef Kociok, who shot down four of the Night Witches on July 31, 1943 after he made it his personal mission to hunt them down. A midair collision in September killed the Night Witch nemesis – the “Hexenjager,” or “Witch Hunter.” The German aces viewed the witches as formidable adversaries. Another ace said “we simply couldn’t grasp that the Soviet Airmen that caused us the greatest trouble were in fact, women. These women feared nothing. They came night after night in their very slow biplanes, and for some periods they wouldn’t give us any peace at all.”

Even though this was the Night Witches’ moment of triumph, their creator would not live to see it. Marina Raskova had perished en route to the front, flying in low visibility to get back to her unit. With the Soviet Amelia Earhart dead on January 4, 1943, it was a body blow to the women who had followed her to fight for their country. She had recently visited the Night Witches to share how proud she was of them and gave them an inspiring speech, reminding them, “We can do anything.” They never saw her again, but for most of them she remained an icon for the rest of their lives. She was the one who told them that they could fly, they could fight, and they could still be women while doing it – a refutation of misogynistic ideas that still linger today.

Marina Raskova was given the first Soviet state funeral of World War II, with her ashes interred in the wall of the Kremlin and her eulogy broadcast throughout the Soviet Union. Until the last Night Witch died in 2017, the survivors would reunite every year to make a pilgrimage and place wreathes on Raskova’s bier.

Even without their founder, the war went on for the Night Witches. They fought across southern Russia, Belorussia, and into the heart of Germany. Throughout the course of the war, they flew 23,672 sorties in combat, accounting for countless bridges, railways, warehouses, depots, and at least 176 armored vehicles. Of the 231 female pilots that flew for the 588th Regiment, 32 lost their lives, and 23 were awarded the title “Hero of the Soviet Union”. They had proven themselves to be far more than a show unit; instead, they had become one of the most decorated units in Stalin’s Russia.

Alas…it was still Stalin’s Russia. By 1944, with the crisis over, the Stalinist regime was already reimposing old sexist standards and practices on the Soviet armed forces. Women volunteers were no longer accepted, the other two of Raskova’s regiments became co-ed, and by Stalin’s secret order women in all services began to be phased out of frontline duty. Though the Night Witches remained on the frontline until the end of the war – mainly because they were too famous to get rid of – the unit would not survive the end of the war. After World War II ended, the Stalinist regime formally ended female service in combat formations. The dead hand of sexism had crept back into play.

Even this could not take away from their fame. Even if the Soviets tried to forget, the Germans who had feared them could not – and neither could the women themselves. They remained close comrades long after the war, holding annual reunions and sharing old stories, including of their founder – Marina Raskova.

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