During WW2, an all-female Soviet regiment rapidly gained attention. Compensating antiquated flying material by unprecedented bravery, the ‘Night Witches’ terrified Nazi artillery… And ultimately proved that women could fight alongside men on the battlefield.
Since it affected everyone — men, women and children alike, World War II undermined the certainty that war was a man’s duty. Women, specifically, took on ‘munitionnettes’ jobs, tended to wounded soldiers, became political activists, replaced their husbands in the fields, or secretly enlisted in Resistance.
However, despite their nationwide involvement in war-related positions, very few women actually ever carried a weapon. More than 350,000 women enlisted in the U.S. Army, but Congress never approved sending them to the battlefield (the fear of public disapproval was too great). Still, many British women joined anti-aircraft crews, or French ones enrolled in the ‘Résistance’. Only in USSR did all-female military battalions emerge.
Not quite the Russian dolls
Soviet women took on military roles as soon as 1917. Two thousand of them made up the famous ‘Battalion of Death’ which was sent to WW1 trenches. Another all-female unit guarded the Winter Palace of Saint Petersburg, while others opened in Kiev or Petrograd. The ground work for women to take up arms throughout WW2 had been laid. This time they weren’t restricted to auxiliary roles: some were snipers, tank drivers, officers, or fighter pilots.
The 588th Night Bomber Regiment was undoubtedly one of the most unusual military units throughout WW2. Formed in October 1941 with the help of Marina Raskova, USSR’s first female navigator, this Soviet battalion was only made up of women. Marina, skillful pilot and feminist precursor, pushed for more of them to be integrated within USSR army — ultimately asking Stalin to take his responsibilities.
Unsurprisingly, the 400 women who enrolled in this revolutionary regiment were not treated as equals by their hierarchy or male counterparts. Following a quick training on mechanical and flying basics (that usually takes years to assimilate), they were given loose uniforms and male-sized boots (that they promptly stuffed with torn pieces of bedsheets). On top of that, their colleagues’ mocking and macho attitude illustrated that forerunner Soviet feminism was not shared by everyone…
Flying aboard crop dusters
What about their planes, then? The female aviators used Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, which were initially designed for reconnaissance missions… as well as crop dusting. Needless to say, this aircraft was decades late in comparison to the Luftwaffe or Royal Air Force machines. It did not even feature any radar, radio, machine gun, or parachute!
What’s more, those fragile planes had to be lightened for two heavy bombs to be carried without risks. The open cockpit also meant that external elements – freezing cold, strong winds or severe weather – could disturb the pilots’ sense of direction, which was already quite rudimentary, betting on maps with a compass ruler.
But the female fighters were determined to make the most of this difficult situation. They painted flowers on their planes. By the end of 1942, the 588th regiment finally flew into battle, targeting fuel depots, rail junctions, warehouses and bridges — everything that was likely to contribute to the German war effort. Obviously, the mission was risky: as they approached the drop zone, the pilots were ordered to shut down their engine, for their presence not to be suspected by anti-aircraft artillery – the deadly-precise German ‘flak’. This meant they had to reach the drop zone while gliding!
This highly-risked approach maneuver was the source of the legendary battalion’s nickname. German soldiers, who could not hear anything from the night sky apart from the wind whistling around Soviet biplanes, assimilated this sound as witches riding broomsticks… So began the story of ‘die Nachthexen’ – the Night Witches. Without a doubt, this nickname also indicated the soldiers’ apprehension towards encountering the witches. Indeed, Luftwaffe pilots who successfully shot down any of them were immediately awarded the Iron Cross — one of the most prestigious military distinctions in Nazi Germany!
The Battle of the Caucasus, at the end of 1942, was the occasion chosen by the Witches to make a name for themselves. Sure enough, they were not expected to be amazingly successful, especially considering their old-fashioned aircraft equipment… But their bravery made up for it. Yevdokiya Bershanskaya, the Regimental Commander, even witnessed one of the pilots delivering seven round-trips on a single night, only stopping to have the tank refilled and new bombs loaded. The Witches’ military exploits then expanded to Crimea, Belarus, Poland and Nazi Germany.
Making the dust fly
The Night Witches’ odyssey was that of underequipped and underestimated women, who were trained in just a few weeks on how to fly a crop duster into war. Thanks to their bravery and solidarity, they succeeded. By the end of WW2, the 588th accumulated about 24,000 sorties and 30,000 flying hours, and lost 32 pilots in the course of the war. Thirty-three female fighters were eventually awarded the title ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’.
Neither did those awards nor the Witches’ bravery reverse the ratio of power. Let’s face it, WW2 was not really the last bastion of gender equity. This was the time of Japanese ‘comfort women’, of Soviet large-scale rapes, and as the conflict was brought to an end, most women went back to their pre-war responsibilities. But the seeds of change had been planted by a group of Witches, who did not need any wands to challenge stereotypes.
- Anne Noggle, A Dance With Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II (1994), Texas A&M University Press.
- Claude Quétel, Femmes dans la guerre 1939-1945 (2004), Larousse/Le Mémorial de Caen.
- D’Ann Campbell, “Women in Combat: The World War II Experience in the United States, Great Britain, Germany, and the Soviet Union”, The Journal of Military History, Vol. 57, No. 2 (Apr. 1993), pp. 301-323.
- Brynn Holland, “Meet the Night Witches, the Daring Female Pilots Who Bombed Nazis By Night”, History.com, July 7, 2017.
- Gisely Ruiz, “The Night Witches: The All-Female World War II Squadron That Terrified The Nazis”, All That’s Interesting, March 17, 2019.
- Michael S. Rosenwald, “Fierce, feared and female: The WWII pilots known as the ‘Night Witches'”, The Washington Post, March 1st, 2019.
- Amandine Regamey, “Les femmes en guerre dans l’Armée Rouge”, Politika, June 7, 2017.