Meet the Night Witches, the Daring Female Pilots Who Bombed Nazis By Night

Jul 15, 2017
Credit: Nikolai Ignatiev/Alamy Stock Photo

Credit: Nikolai Ignatiev/Alamy Stock Photo

Story by Brynn Holland – History.com

They flew under the cover of darkness in bare-bones plywood biplanes. They braved bullets and frostbite in the air, while battling skepticism and sexual harassment on the ground. They were feared and hated so much by the Nazisthat any German airman who downed one was automatically awarded the prestigious Iron Cross medal.

All told, the pioneering all-female 588th Night Bomber Regiment dropped more than 23,000 tons of bombs on Nazi targets. And in doing so, they became a crucial Soviet asset in winning World War II.

The Germans nicknamed them the Nachthexen, or “night witches,” because the whooshing noise their wooden planes made resembled that of a sweeping broom. “This sound was the only warning the Germans had. The planes were too small to show up on radar… [or] on infrared locators,” said Steve Prowse, author of the screenplay The Night Witches, a nonfiction account of the little-known female squadron. “They never used radios, so radio locators couldn’t pick them up either. They were basically ghosts.”

Women pilots of the "Night Witches" receiving orders for an up-coming raid. (Credit: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)
Women pilots of the “Night Witches” receiving orders for an up-coming raid. (Credit: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)

Using female bombardiers wasn’t a first choice. While women had been previously barred from combat, the pressure of an encroaching enemy gave Soviet leaders a reason to rethink the policy. Adolf Hitler had launched Operation Barbarossa, his massive invasion of the Soviet Union, in June 1941. By the fall the Germans were pressing on Moscow, Leningrad was under siege and the Red Army was struggling. The Soviets were desperate.

The 588th’s first mission, on June 28, 1942, took aim—successfully—at the headquarters of the invading Nazi forces.

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