Night Witches



I’m sorry to say that this post isn’t about nocturnal witches, but it does have a connection to folklore and it quite interesting.  It demonstrates the power witches have over regular people even if it’s by accident and without intention.  This piece is also a testament to the strength and power of womanhood, and how in the face of insurmountable odds, a group of Russian women proved they had what it takes.  The story takes place during World War II, when German soldiers who were occupiers of which was then the Soviet Union allowed their very real fear of witches to get the best of them.  These weren’t your garden variety of witches – they were the Nachthexen, or the Night Witches.

The Night Witches were an all-female squadron of pilots who flew thousands of daring bombing raids during the war with only the cover of darkness to hide them.  As the proud men of the Russian army struggled to hold their lines against the invading Axis forces numbering over 4 million, Russian women made it clear that they wanted to help defend their nation.  With atrocities committed against Russian citizens and the potential for German victory always looming, Colonel Marina Raskova, a female Russian pilot often compared to Amelia Earhart lobbied the high command to find ways in which women could participate in the war effort.  Her efforts paid off with Josef Stalin himself giving the order for her to establish three all-female squadrons, with one the 588th regiment being 100% female all the way down to the mechanics who worked on the aircraft.

Patriotic Russian women came in significant numbers and Raskova saw to their training herself.  Because of the shortage of equipment, these women had to train on antiquated Polikarpov PO-2 open-cockpit bi-planes, many with plywood frames and canvas sidewalls.  These planes had no armor, but could take off and land from almost anywhere and were difficult to target by the German fighter planes.  What might have been considered an impossibility in the eyes of many due to numerous challenges did not deter the Night Witches. Starting on June 8th, 1942 these amazing women harassed German forces on overnight bombing runs until the end of the war.  The women often came back from the missions with frostbite due to the open cockpits and cold weather but it did not break their will.

The PO-2, an open cockpit bi-plane flown by the Night Witches
The PO-2, an open cockpit bi-plane flown by the Night Witches


The tactics employed by the women pilots is how the term Night Witches came to be; flying planes that were vulnerable to any return fire meant some of the pilots would use themselves as bait to draw enemy fire from those making the attack run.  The bombers would kill their engines and glide into their drop zones creating a strange whooshing sound which the Germans developed a fear of and began calling them Nachthexen, a name which the ladies of the 588th adopted immediately.  Rumors about the powers of the Night Witches gave them even more strength.  German troops thought them to have night vision, cat-like skills, and other talents that were historically reserved for Witches.  The Night Witches were so feared that any German soldier who succeeded in shooting a Night Witch down was automatically awarded the Iron Cross, a prestigious military honor.

Rufina Gasheva (848 missions) & Nataly Meklin (980 missions)
Rufina Gasheva (848 missions) & Nataly Meklin (980 missions) – decorated pilots as “Heroes of the Soviet Union” for their service as members of the Night Witches Regiment

By the end of the war, the Night Witches numbers were impressive, flying over 30,000 bombing runs, delivering 23,000 tons of munitions, and most of all keeping the German troops afraid and off balance.  23 of the 53 women survived the war.  The 588th was later converted into the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment which continued as a regular mixed-gender Soviet force.


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