I’m still talking about some of the research I did for writing Sky Knights, which is being released on March 25th.
My last post didn’t really touch on the actions of the Night Witches, because I wanted to save it all for this one.
Let me tell you about the Night Witches, or the Nachthexen, as they were known in German. The Germans named them such, because their planes coming in for a bombing run sounded like the whooshing of a broomstick. The Germans were terrified by these nightly assaults, as well they should be.
The 588th Night Bomber Regiment was one of three all-female air regiments in the Soviet Union’s 4th Air Army. All three regiments were created because of Marina Raskova, who used her influence with Stalin to convince him to allow their creation. The formation commander was Major Yevdokia Bershanskaya, an experienced pilot.
In October of 1943, the 588th was renamed the 46th Taman Guard Night Bombers Aviation Regiment, in recognition of their victories over the Taman peninsula.
Pilots in front of the Polikarpov PO2 biplane
The Nightwitches flew tiny little wooden biplanes that were meant to be used as crop-dusters or for training. They were very slow, but had a few very notable advantages. One of which was that the highest speed of the Polikarpov PO-2 was still slower than the stalling speed of both the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and the Focke-Wulf Fw 190, the two German planes in most use. Another was that they could absorb quite a large amount of damage before going down.
There were a couple downsides. One, the plane could only carry two people, and the cockpit was open. Another was that the Polikarpov PO-2 didn’t have any navigation equipment, radar, radio, or even parachutes. It could only hold six bombs at a time.
The Nightwitches used a certain tactic against the Germans that was not only very effective in hitting bombing targets, but also in terrifying their enemies. This tactic was to cut or idle the engines of their plane, swoop in without the sound of their engine to give them away, drop their bombs, and then restart their engines in mid-flight. So the only warning that the Germans would get of their enemy’s incoming bombs was a swooshing noise before incendiary death came down upon them.
One of the most highly decorated members of the Nightwitches was Nadezhda Popova, the leader of the 2nd Women’s Regiment, who was given the distinction of the Hero of the Soviet Union, the Gold Star medal, the Order of Lenin, and three Orders of the Red Star. She made a total of 852 sorties over the course of the war. She was shot down three times, but was never badly wounded. Once, she made a supply run to drop food, water, and medical supplies to trapped forces and nearly didn’t make it back. On her return, she found her plane riddled with bullets, including her helmet, and her map! She survived the war, and lived to the ripe old age of 91.
Another of the Nightwitches was a navigator named Yevgeniya Rudneva, who was also decorated with the Hero of the Soviet Union. She was a third year university student studying mechanics and mathematics at Moscow State University when the war broke out. She was also a member of the Astronomical-Geodesical Society and Head of the Solar Department. She wrote to the head of the Astronomy department to tell him she was defending the honour of the university, as the Germans had dropped bombs on the university faculty building. She and her pilot were taken down by flak on her 645th combat mission.
These are just two examples of members of the Nightwitches, one pilot and one navigator, just like my characters Dounia and Ira.
I found out while researching that in 2001, there were plans to make a movie about the Nightwitches that fell through because American studios didn’t think it was feasible to market a movie in which the Nazi advance was halted by a bunch of teenage girls. It’s no wonder that women’s history is mostly forgotten if their stories aren’t told alongside men’s.
But I’m here to tell you that it did happen, and those ladies were pretty heroic.
My upcoming release of Sky Knights, starring my lesbian aviators Ira and Dounia, is to be released in just a few days. You can still preorder and save 15%.