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Awesome Women of History

Kethry, Teen Contributor

The Night Witches

A few months ago in my English class, we were discussing how individual cultures and societies change history based on their views and social structures. It made me think, what history has been "hidden" from people because of a cultures views? In addition to this thought process, I've always had a fascination with the relatively unknown facets of history (mainly women since they are so underrepresented in history). And thus, when my friend told me about the Night Witches I went and did some more research.

Now, these ladies weren’t muttering over cauldrons and turning princes into frogs. They were a group of Soviet bombers during WWII. Already a remarkable aviatrix, Marina Raskova was called upon in 1941 to organize a regiment of female pilots to run night harassment bombing missions. This regiment became the 588th regiment.

The women of the 588th regiment were a motley assortment that flew thousands of missions. They were assigned Polikarpov Po-2 wooden bi-planes that were primarily used for training. These planes could only carry two bombs and were extremely obsolete. Basically, they got the terrible planes and missions.

Many of their targets were places such as supply depots, camps, or rear bases. They never targeted civilians or cities. So, during harassment missions the Night Witches would turn off their engines and glide over the target. After they released their bombs, they would climb out onto the wings and restart the engines. The only warning the enemy had of their approach was the sound of the wind bracing wires vibrating in the wind. And by that point, it was too late. The bombs had already been dropped. 

To avoid enemy airships the Night Witches flew low to the ground and developed team tactics. The planes’ outdated technology actually helped the Witches remain invisible to radar and heat seeking detection. The canvas of the Po-2 was unreflective thus radar didn’t work and the small engines gave off very little heat causing heat seeking to be useless. But the Night Witches were not undetetcable. 

Their planes could be tracked and located with search lights. These search lights and guns surrounding the search lights caused many problems for the women. As such, they developed a strategy for the search lights. Usually, pilots flew in pairs and search lights came in pairs. Since the Po-2s had a low top speed, they were often gunned down when within the range of the search lights. The Night Witches ended up flying in threes. Two of the Witches would fly into the beams of the search lights and distract the operators while the third would fly between the search lights and drop her bombs. She would then switch with one of the other pilots and the other pilot proceeded to drop her bombs. It continued like this until all three had dropped their bombs.

These women were such remarkable pilots that German pilots would be awarded an Iron Cross for bringing down one of the Night Witches’ planes. 

If you are like Kethry and enjoy exploring history you might like to check out  Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--The World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin, or Women in War by Ann Kramer.