There’s been a lot of talk recently about Russia and all of the horrible things their government has done whether it be their involvement in the U.S. election or the sports-doping scandal or literally anything that has to do with Putin. And while I’m not trying to say that all of that isn’t terrible and awful, I’m coming at you with something that we can actually thank Russia for: they were the first nation to officially allow women to engage in combat.
They didn’t really want to but they didn’t really have a choice. In June 1941, during World War II, Hitler began his huge invasion into the Soviet Union, called Operation Barbarossa. Within a few months, the Red Army was barely holding it together as Germans seized Leningrad and closed in on Moscow.
Women, worldwide, had been banned from combat and were allowed to fly planes for military purposes only if they were transferring them or ammunition. But everything was going so terribly, the general consensus was basically, “well, crap, we literally have nothing to lose so, sure, why not, let’s let women fight.” And so the “Night Witches” were born.
The group was started by Marina Raskova who was the first female navigator in the Soviet Air Force and the holder of several long-distance flight records. She implored Stalin to allow her to form a fighting squadron comprised entirely of women and he said yes and ordered the deployment of three female air force units on October 8, 1941.
Marina received over 2,000 applications from women all over the Soviet Union, many of whom had lost family members or partners or their homes because of the destruction by the Germans. From these applications, Marina chose around 400 for each unit and directed them to Engels to train at the aviation school there.
What should have been a couple years worth of training was crammed into a couple months. The women, predominately students ranging from 17 to 26, had to be able to perform satisfactorily in all four sectors of aviation: piloting, navigating, maintenance and ground crew operations. Most men only had to have command of one of these.
On top of the lack of time, the women had a severe lack of resources. Most of the male military personnel didn’t take them seriously and didn’t think they added much value to the war effort. Because of this, they didn’t go out of their way to make sure the women had the proper supplies. The women were given the men’s old, outworn uniforms, including their boots. In order to get the shoes to fit, the women had to tear up their bedding and stuff it in the toes.
The most severe lack of resources was the planes themselves. The only machines available and worthless enough to entrust to female hands were old Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes. These were predominantly used as training vehicles and considered disposable in case a student accidentally crashed one. Their original function was cropdusting in the 1920s. They had two seats and an open cockpit, not really what you’d want if you were flying into a shower of bullets. Some have described them as “a coffin with wings.” Coincidentally, “a coffin with wheels” is how my driving instructor described Smart Cars.
Not only were the planes not meant for combat but they weren’t meant for prolonged high-altitude flights, especially in the frigid Soviet winters. Flying at night in the open cockpit left many fliers subject to frostbite from the wind. Sometimes the planes would grow so cold that if you were to even touch the plane, your skin could rip off.
The lighter frame also meant that the weight capacity was far lower than that needed for combat. The women could not bring aboard parachutes, guns, radios or radar. Instead, they could only use compasses, maps, stopwatches, pencils and flashlights for navigation. This means these women were performing all of their navigation calculation by hand, at night, in the middle of combat in an open cockpit which probably sent many of the supplies flying away in the cold wind.
If they were under enemy fire, to protect themselves, they had to dive in order to duck the bullets. This was especially important because of the threat of tracer bullets, which could have easily sent the plane up in flames because of their pyrotechnic charge.
However, there were a couple of advantages to their lowest of the low-tech planes. They could maneuver faster than the Nazis because their maximum speed was slower than the stall speed of the German planes. This also allowed them to take off and land nearly anywhere. They were incredibly difficult to target or track because the canvas did not reflect the same way that metal did and the commonly used infrared heat seekers couldn’t pick up the small heat emission from the rudimentary planes. Because they didn’t use radios, no radio locator could pick them up.
The German strategy at Stalingrad was to set up what was known as “flak circuses.” These were comprised of concentric circles of flak guns and searchlights stationed around suspected targets. Because the majority of Soviet air force units flew in pairs, their planes had to quickly switch from offense to defense to avoid getting ripped to shreds. But these were clever, clever women and, despite everything going against them, they figured out the best way to actually defeat the Germans instead of just dodging their guns.
They flew in groups of three instead of pairs. Two would go in first and attract German attention and, once all searchlights were focused on them, they would split, encouraging the spotlights to follow them. Then, the third plane, flying in a cloak of darkness created by the absence of the spotlights now wildly chasing the others, would cut its engine, drop its two bombs on the target visible by the origin of the spotlights and glide away. They would switch and repeat until all of them had dropped their bombs and then rearm, repeating the same mission eight to 18 times per night.
It was the sound of the stalling engine, the light “whoosh” of the wood, that made the Germans think of a sweeping broom and inspired them to call the women the Nachthexen or “Night Witches.” The Nazis were so afraid of them and despised them so much that they awarded the prestigious Iron Cross medal to any German who took a Night Witch down. However, the Germans only thought that the Night Witches had been successful because they either were a team of masterful criminals who had been sent to fight as a punishment or that they had been injected with a drug that gave them the night vision of cats. As was the case with Cleopatra, their enemies figured women couldn’t be smart or powerful naturally, that it had to come from drugs, evil or magic.
One of pilots, Nadya Popova, responded to their theories by saying, “This was nonsense, of course. What we did have were clever, educated, very talented girls.”
These very talented girls dropped over 23,000 tons of bombs on the Germans over the course of 30,000 missions. Their last flight was on May 4, 1945 when they flew within 37 miles of Berlin, three days before the Germans officially surrendered. 24 women were awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal and became the very first female recipients. Marina, who died on January 4, 1943, was given the very first state funeral of the war and was buried in the Kremlin. Quickly, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment became the most highly decorated unit in the Soviet Air Force during the war.
However, that didn’t keep them from getting disbanded six months after the war ended or from being excluded from participating in the victory parade in Moscow because “their planes were too slow.”
As frustrating as this is, it was unfortunately white noise for the women, who had faced hostility and harassment on the ground. Marina, early on, created a set of 12 commandments for the women, some of which were predominantly used for strategy during combat but others were meant to empower them, such as “be proud you are a woman.” She never wanted any of them to apologize for being women or to take pity on themselves for the treatment they were going to receive. They had a mission to do and that was to be their only focus.
However, after they got the job done, she did allow them to decorate their planes with flowers just to stick it to the guys.
As a bit of a tangent, I found this old training video about how to supervise women in the workforce during World War II in History’s Flashback Videos. It’s going to make you mad, I’m not going to lie, but it’s one thing to hear about the way people thought about women back then and it’s another to actually experience evidence.
Also, since I might as well continue this hodge podge of an ending, thanks for your patience with the website. I’m hoping we are back in business and that this new theme will treat us both well!
So go forth into the world and be proud that you are you!