Night Witches: The Russian female pilots the Nazis feared

This book recounts something I know is generally considered a man’s domain: Wartime, aircraft, bombing, destruction, disruption, and fighter attack. To all of you who might think this of little or no interest, please stop and consider:

Night Witches, by Bruce Myles is the story of Russian women who flew combat missions against the German invader from 1941 to 1945

Many countries, especially Britain and the US, had women pilots flying in non-combat roles during World War 2.  They served an important function as couriers, delivery pilots, pilots flying general staff to important meetings, as test pilots flying aircraft repaired after crash or battle damage, and many other functions that freed up men for combat duties. Neither country had women in combat.

Russia, on the other hand, had a women’s air force, established in the early days of Operation Barbarossa, the German advance on Russia, which started in June 1941. This little-known air force fought to war’s end with telling attacks on the German homeland. I have recently read Night Witches, which provides a well-researched account of girls and young women, already civilian pilots or well into their training, drafted into the war effort. They were aged between 17 and 26.

Some had the opportunity to join fighter regiments and flew what was a modern design for its time, the Yak-1 (similar to the Hurricane). Others flew Petlyakov Pe-2 twin-engined, two-seater fighter-bombers (similar to the Messerschmitt Bf-110).  Many brave women flew these types. Their stories are told in the book.

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Other women flew what was basically a wood and canvas trainer, the Polikarpov Po-2. Powered by a puny five-cylinder Shvestov radial engine, it had a cruising speed of barely 100kmh. Modified with a bomb rack under each wing, the small, open, two-seater could carry up to 360kg of bombs, albeit at the expense of the crew’s parachutes.

Its Shvestov engine had a distinctive ‘popping’ sound in flight, due to its exhaust arrangement. Two cylinders shared an exhaust, as did the next two, with the fifth cylinder exhausting alone. That single exhaust caused the engine’s popping note.

Thousands of sorties were flown in these tiny aircraft, mostly at night. Nearing the target, the pilot would shut off the engine and glide in, only throttling up again as the bomb load was dropped. Troops and defenders on the ground had no idea they were present until the popping of the exhaust alerted them and the bombs exploded among them – but too late! This antic caused the Germans to nickname them Nachthexen (Night Witches).

An army needs its men to get what rest they can when they can. At night, when not fighting, sleep is of the essence. Soldiers learn to sleep under almost any circumstance, but not so when the Night Witches were around. Whether their bombs caused casualties or not, the German infantry grew to detest the popping of those Shvestov engines because, once opened up and running at full power, it was impossible to sleep!

I knew little of the Night Witches until a couple of years ago when I saw an SBS news item about one of their number. Nadezhda Popova who died in Moscow on 8 July 2013. Deputy leader of the Russian 588th Night Bomber Regiment (who flew the Po-2 aircraft), she was named Hero of the Soviet Union and received many awards for her leadership and bravery. I went on to find articles and read about the girls and young women who flew in the wartime skies of Russia and Eastern Europe.

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I found this a nicely written and worthy history of brave aerial pioneers. Myles has done his job well; it is an excellent read. You may find this book a little difficult to find, but it is worth the effort.

Night Witches, The Untold Story of Soviet Women in Combat, Bruce Myles available to purchase at Dymocks


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