Friday, June 20, 2014

The Friday Flyby - 20 June

Welcome to the (better late than never) Friday Flyby. As we continue our "series within a series", I've been running through some suggestions submitted by you, Our Loyal Subjects (oops, I mean) My Loyal Readers. Today's topic is the "Night Witches."
"Night Witches" is the English translation of Nachthexen, a World War II German nickname (Russian Ночные ведьмы), for the female military aviators of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, known later as the 46th "Taman" Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, of the Soviet Air Forces. The regiment was formed by Colonel Marina Raskova and led by Major Yevdokia Bershanskaya.

The regiment flew harassment bombing and precision bombing missions against the German military from 1942 to the end of the war. At its largest size, it had 40 two-person crews. It flew over 23,000 sorties and is said to have dropped 23,000 tons of bombs. It was the most highly-decorated female unit in the Soviet Air Force, each pilot having flown over 800 missions by the end of the war and twenty-three having been awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union title. Thirty of its members died in combat. - Wikipedia
As many of you may know, my daughter, The WSO, is a back-seater in the F/A-18F Super Hornet. So females in aviation is not a foreign topic to me. I'm not going to get into the whole "women in the military" thing in this post. Let's just say that I served with a number of ladies during my time on active duty, there were good ones and there were bad ones. The good ones far outnumbered the bad. Just like the men with whom I served.

My opinion is and has always been, if you can do the job, welcome aboard. If you're here for reasons other than contributing towards mission success - there's the door, don't let it hit you in the ass on the way out. Enough of that, let's talk about aircraft and the women who flew them.

The Polikarpov Po-2

The Night Witches flew the Polikarpov, Po-2, a wooden and canvas biplane which would not look out of place during the First World War.
The regiment flew in wood and canvas Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, a 1928 design intended for use as training aircraft and for crop-dusting, and to this day the most-produced biplane in all of aviation history. The planes could carry only six bombs at a time, so multiple missions per night were necessary. Although the aircraft were obsolete and slow, the pilots made daring use of their exceptional maneuverability; they had the advantage of having a maximum speed that was lower than the stall speed of both the Messerschmitt Bf-109 and the Focke-Wulf Fw-190, and as a result, the German pilots found them very difficult to shoot down. An attack technique of the night bombers was to idle the engine near the target and glide to the bomb release point, with only wind noise to reveal their location. German soldiers likened the sound to broomsticks and named the pilots "Night Witches." Due to the weight of the bombs and the low altitude of flight, the pilots carried no parachutes. - Wikipedia
I can attest (in a simulated kind of way) the difficulty involved in trying to shoot one of those sum-bitches down. I mentioned some time ago that I am an aficionado of air combat simulations.

Now in one of those simulations I found myself boring holes in the sunny skies of the Crimea in my trusty Me-109 G6. There was broken cloud at 3,000 meters but all in all it was a fine and sunny day in my little simulated world.

Me-109 G6

Suddenly I see, off to the right and some distance away, two specks in the sky. (Well, okay there were two dark pixels against a field of light blue pixels, but that is far less dramatic, innit?) To make a long story short, they were two Po-2s flying in formation and apparently unaware of my presence. So, I jumped them.

Holy crap are those things maneuverable and holy crap are they slow!

Why is my air-frame shuddering and banging? Oh yeah, that's a stall buffet! Drop the nose, increase speed and come around again. Those bloody Po-2s are flitting all around the sky and their two gunners are spitting tracers at me. How dare they!

I splashed one, the other one got away (I swear I could hear the bastard laughing!)

At any rate, they are very hard to shoot down.

On the 8th of October, 1941 (in other words, a little over three months into the German invasion) the Soviets issued Order Number 0099, establishing not one, not two, but three all female aviation units. Pilots, ground crew the whole lot were women.

  • the 586th Regiment flew Yak-1 fighters
  • the 587th Regiment flew twin engine dive bombers
  • the 588th Regiment flew the Po-2 (The Night Witches themselves)

One of the Night Witches, a lady by the name of Nadezhda Popova had a career which anyone could envy. Anyone who has ever yearned to fly, then followed that passion would find this lady a kindred spirit.

Nadezhda Popova

Popova was born in Shabanovka (now Dolgoye), Ukraine, on December 27, 1921. Daughter of a railwayman, she grew up near the Donetsk coal fields in Ukraine. As an adolescent, she loved music, song, and dance, taking part in amateur plays and musicals, dreaming of becoming an actress. The Economist reported that she was a "wild spirit, easily bored; she loved to tango, foxtrot, sing along to jazz. It made her feel free." When a small aircraft landed near her village, she became enamored with aviation, enrolling in a gliding school at the age of 15 without telling her parents. "Walking towards a plane, every time, she would get a knot in her stomach; every time she took off, she was thrilled all over again."

In 1937, she made both her first parachute jump and her first solo flight at the age of sixteen. Despite her parents' opposition, she pursued her new passion and obtained her flying license. - Wikipedia
That "thrilled all over again" feeling on walking to the aircraft. I get that, as would anyone who loves to fly.

She died in 2013 at the age of 91. I'll bet she was a real pistol.

Nadezhda Popova in her later years.
She still has that sparkle in her eye!

Here's a toast to the ladies of the 588th.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Night Witches!

Well done ladies, well done.


My old buddy Russ asked a question about the Po-2's bomb load. The aircraft could carry up to six 50 kilogram bombs on six racks mounted under the lower wing.

U-2LNB (variant of the Po-2) night attack aircraft of the Polish 2nd Night
Bomber Regiment "Kraków" in the Polish Aviation Museum.
Note the under-wing bomb racks, this example has two dummy (I hope) bombs loaded.


  1. Excellent Friday Flyby! I had never read or heard anything about these units. I assume they carried the bombs in the cockpit and dropped them by hand?

    1. Actually six bomb racks can be mounted underneath the lower wing. Each rack can hold a single 50 kilogram bomb.

      I've updated the post with a photo to show that.

    2. Yah, I figured that. I guess sometimes my humor is just a little too dry.

    3. And I am sometimes a little slow on the uptake.


  2. As always, a most excellent Flyby. Thanks.

    1. Thanks Juvat. Another of your excellent ideas!

  3. Given Stalin's habits and the documentation of same, one wonders how many of these women wound up in the Gulag (or worse) after the war. Not many, one would hope.

    1. I know. Many of them were still celebrated heroes years later. So I guess some made it through okay.

  4. There is a two volume 70s study composed of interviews of all then living WW II female Soviet pilots & aircrew in WW II that is fascinating reading. Can't recall name, publisher or author, but it is avail in Tulane's Hilton library and should be available if one inquires.

  5. I never knew that...I find myself saying that a lot when i read your posts. I gotta say these women had a lot of...courage!

    1. Readers suggest things, after doing the research I realize that there is much I don't know.

      Learning wasn't this much fun back in high school!

  6. The Night Witches feature prominently in David Robbins' Last Citadel

    1. The Battle of Kursk! Okay, another book I want to get.

      Thanks Chris!


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