The Night Witches were seemingly indefatigable as they flew thousands of missions during the war right until the conclusion of the conflict. At its strongest, the 588th contained approximately 40 planes (two women per craft), and on their busiest nights, they would complete up to 18 missions! The Polikarpov Po-2 planes were only capable of holding six bombs at a time, so when the load was dropped, the pilots returned for more bombs and got back to work.
Accurately quantifying the bravery of these women is difficult. Their planes needed to fly at low altitudes which meant they were easy to spot and the pilots had no parachutes. Also, they navigated by reading maps and compasses as they didn’t have radar. Therefore, the Witches could only fly at night under cover of darkness and use their incredible navigation prowess to arrive at their destinations. Once they reached their target, the pilots killed their engines and glided over the drop site to ensure they were not seen. The 588th was so successful that some Nazis believed the women used special pills to give them the night vision of a cat!
It was normal for the planes to return riddled with bullets, so it was remarkable that the 588th didn’t suffer more losses. Nadezhda Popova is one of the most famous Night Witches; she flew an estimated 852 missions. On one occasion, Popova returned from a mission with 42 bullet holes in her plane. There were even holes in her helmet and map, yet miraculously the pilot wasn’t hit nor did her flimsy plane fall apart.
One of the biggest problems to face Russian pilots was the German searchlight and flak gun combination. They placed both around likely targets in a concentric circle so when two planes flew across the perimeter in a straight line, they were destroyed. To combat this issue, the Witches flew in groups of three. Two of the planes would fly through the trap only to suddenly veer away once the searchlights were pointed at them. The third plane came out of the darkness and hit the target. The three planes switched positions until all their bombs were dropped.
- Internal Conflict
Despite their bravery and success, the 588th faced resistance from within their ranks. Even after clearly demonstrating their prowess, the Night Witches were dismissed by their male counterparts in the Russian military. One general complained because he was sent a ‘bunch of girlies’ when he asked for soldiers. This lack of respect only served to increase the determination of the pilots who embraced their identity as women. Some of the crew used navigational pencils to paint their lips and they drew flowers on the side of their planes.
The Night Witches were involved in approximately 30,000 missions, and despite their low-quality aircraft that were little more than sitting ducks on some occasions, the regiment lost just 30 pilots in total. Popova and 22 other Witches received the title Hero of the Soviet Union. The squadron wasn’t disbanded at the end of the war. Instead, it was renamed the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment and continued to fly missions for the Soviets.