When Witches Bombed The Nazis In WWII
The scariest pilots of the second World War didn’t fly for the United States and they weren’t men. They were the first female fighter pilots of any war, but they weren’t even flying fighter planes.
The Germans called them Witches because of the sound they made when flying overhead. Apparently, gliding inferior biplanes into key bombing positions sounds like a witch’s broom flying overhead.
Started in 1941, the Night Witches of the Soviet Union flew against all odds, building a reputation and a brigade of pilots nothing like what anyone had ever seen before, but yeah, they were women flying in a man’s world [read: badasses].
That was the year Hitler invaded the U.S.S.R. The attacks on the Soviet Union would prove the most deadly of WWII. More Soviets would die during WWII than any other group, but not without putting up a fight.
That same year, the Soviets asked a woman named Marina Raskova to organize a regiment of pilots to fight the Germans. They would be an all-female regiment, the 588th, something not yet witnessed by the world.
Raskova was the perfect choice to lead, an accomplished pilot herself. In 1938 she’d set a world record flying a twin-engine, with two other women, about 3,800 miles passing over Siberia.
During that flight, Raskova was such a badass, she bailed out over Siberia to lighten the load so they could complete the mission.
It was her unwitting determination that swayed Stalin to back her as the leader of the 588th.
Made up of women who were barely adults, under 20 most of them, the women started training the following year in 1942. The farm biplanes the 588th flew were not equipped for war, made of wood.
They were crop dusters or training planes, but those biplanes could carry two bombs and a pilot, which was enough. They were slow too, but that also didn’t matter for their strategy.
Raskova trained the 588th to fly in as close as possible, then kill their engines, switching to a glide. They could then drop their bombs in near-silence.
The sound, German soldiers would later attest, was a whoosh, like the sound of a witch’s broom overhead. They saw nothing, heard nothing, until the bombs went off.
The 588th flew their first mission on June 8, 1942, attacking a German headquarters. There were only three planes for the attack, and they lost one of the three planes, but it was otherwise successful.
After that mission they flew thousands more, performing as well as their male counterparts The 588th performed so well, the Soviets formed two more regiments, the 586th, and the 587th. They weren’t officially a brigade, but darn close.
There was no chance the biplanes flown by these regiments could survive a straight dogfight. Instead, they flew what they called “harassment bombing” missions.
Their targets were camps and supply houses for the Nazis. The goal was not only to cripple the enemy but drive down their morale, make them feel insecure.
With no warning, just the sound of a witch flying overhead, the tactic worked. They would fly in so low that they evaded radar too. The only thing they had to dodge were German searchlights, something they strategized.
The Witches figured out the Germans were looking for pairs of planes flying in a straight line, an assumed attack formation. The solution was to fly in groups of three, two to lure the German’s attention, and one to bomb them.
The two would split in separate directions leveraging what talents they had to evade pursuit, then the third would attack. It worked well, and they usually got away.
The planes flown by the Night Witches weren’t completely worthless. They were slower than anything else in the air, but they were more maneuverable than the German planes. They could make turns that would stall out the enemy planes, losing them in the dark by the time the German pilots could circle back.
Life for these women was not all roses. They came under the expected scrutiny of their male counterparts on the ground.
Back in the real world, they suffered all the same sexist biases faced by all women of that era, but for a time, in flight, they were feared and they were fearless.