Valor Friday

| June 11, 2021 | 6 Comments

Soviet airwomen receiving a pre-mission brief

The conditions on the Eastern Front during World War II were bad for soldiers on both sides. Massive air and ground battles from Poland to the Crimea, stretching across the whole of the European continent. The battles involved millions of men on both sides and led to the deaths of 13-15 million military dead and 18-24 million civilian casualties. It was, by a large margin, the bloodiest campaign in any war in human history.

Even single battles were incomprehensibly large. The Battle of Kursk for example, was the largest tank battle in history. It involved 6,000 tanks, 2 million men, and 4,000 aircraft. It only lasted a month and a half in the summer of 1943.

With all that going on around them, what is it that kept the Nazi Germany Wehrmacht troops awake at night? It wasn’t artillery barrages, though I’m sure those did for a different reason. What scared them more than virtually anything else was the whistle of a small, light bi-plane in the still of the night as the air flew over the plane’s rigging wires.

Po-2

The Soviet Polikarpov Po-2, a wood and canvas bi-plane, was a dated design long before the start of World War II. It was a simple, low-cost aircraft that was easy to fly, maintain, and produce. These characteristics made it excellent as a basic training aircraft as well as for aerial observation, liaison, and, as the war turned worse for the Soviets, a light attack aircraft.

First introduced in 1929, the Po-2 is the most produced bi-plane in history with between 20,000 and 30,000 being produced in several variants. Production didn’t cease until 1959. Many are still airworthy to this day.

During World War II, the Po-2 was used by the Soviets, but also saw service with the Germans (who utilized captured aircraft) and the Free French Forces. Post-war, Po-2s saw service with virtually all the Communist Bloc countries. The Soviets nicknamed it Kukuruznik (literally meaning “maize duster”, more accurately translated perhaps as “crop duster”). Post-war the NATO reporting name was “Mule”.

The five cylinder engine used on the Po-2 had a unique hit-and-miss staccato, leading the plane’s foes to give it nicknames like Nähmaschine from the German Wehrmacht (meaning “sewing machine”) and Hermosaha from the Finnish (meaning “nerve saw”).

The Po-2 flew so slowly that it was difficult to intercept. The top speed of a Po-2 was below the stall speed for the German fighters like the Bf-109 and Fw-190, meaning the Luftwaffe pilots had very little time on target to shoot the bi-plane.

All of these characteristics blended in spectacular fashion for the Soviets when they used the Po-2 as a night bomber. The low flying, quiet aircraft with its distinctive engine sound became a potent psychological weapon.

The typical tactic employed was for the Po-2 pilot to throttle the engine back as they made their attack run. This left only an eerie whistling sound to mark the impending attack as the wing bracing sliced through the air. The surprise attacks in the middle of the night kept the Nazi troops from sleeping. The tactic was so successful that the Germans organized their own squadrons to mimic the tactics utilizing obsolete pre-war bi-planes as well.

The famous Stuka dive-bomber of the Luftwaffe employed a similar psychological tactic with its wing-mounted whistles. The whistle, which is the characteristic sound used in virtually every movie and television show to indicate a plane is in a dive, was highly effective. It forced ground troops into cover and away from any defensive guns. The downside for the Germans was it was loud and constantly howling once airborne, so many Stuka crews removed them for their own sanity. Russia’s latest fifth-generation fighter, the Su-57, appears set to employ the tactic as well;

Back on topic, the most famous unit of Po-2 pilots was a daring bunch of Soviet pilots who earned a special appellation from their German enemy. The 588th Night Bomber Regiment later earned the 46th “Taman” Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment. A “Guards” unit in the Soviet military is a distinction a unit receives for combat excellence, most directly akin to an American Presidential Unit Citation. The 588th Night Bomber Regiment earned the greatest nickname of all time from their German foes, “The Night Witches.”

In the early days of World War II (called The Great Patriotic War in the Soviet Union and its successor states), just a few months after Germany had invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa (a surprise move that put the Soviets heavily on the defensive), a female Soviet Air Force navigator, Maria Raskova, used her celebrity as a distinguished Air Force officer and personal connections to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to persuade him to allow the raising of all-female air units. Not only would the pilots and aircrews be female but so would the ground support and maintenance personnel. Raskova has been called the “Soviet Amelia Earheart”, as she was a pioneer and set many aviation records before the war.

The first unit formed by Colonel Raskova was the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment, who would be the first of the female units to see combat in April 1942. They flew the Yakolov Yak-1, Yak-7B, and Yak-9  fighters and logged more than 4,400 sorties with 38 enemy aircraft destroyed in aerial combat.

The second unit Raskova formed, and the one she personally commanded until her death in 1943, was the 587th Bomber Aviation Regiment. Flying the state-of-the-art Petlyakov Pe-2 twin-engine dive bomber. The unit would log more than 1,100 missions, drop more than 980 tons of bombs, and produced five Heroes of the Soviet Union (the country’s highest honor and akin to our Medal of Honor or Presidential Medal of Freedom) including Raskova herself. After her death, Raskova was the first person during the war to receive a state funeral.

The third unit Raskova raised was the legendary 588th Night Bomber Regiment. The nickname they received from the Germans was two-fold. You see, the women flying the Po-2 as night bombers undertook the most daring, low-level operations. They were known for being fearless. The German ground troops who heard that mid-night whistling of the Po-2’s wings portending a precision strike incoming thought the sound was like a flying broom. Once the Germans found out their most feared nightmares were women, they christened them “die Nachthexen” (“The Night Witches”).

The bravery of the 588th pilots cannot be understated. Since they flew low altitude and carried heavy bomb loads, they didn’t carry parachutes to save weight. Their aircraft had no defensive armor, so ground fire even from small arms could be deadly, which given their close proximity to the enemy could also be delivered accurately. Their attack procedure was also unforgiving. They would dive bomb the enemy, while idling their engine. The technique requires steel nerves, perfect timing, and zero fear.

Before they’d earn their epic nom de guerre, the 588th was organized and placed in the command of Lieutenant Colonel Yevdokiya Bershanskaya. Just months after their formation, the 588th arrived at the Eastern Front in June 1942.

Their male comrades did not welcome the ladies with open arms. Not only were they flying an old, obsolete, inferior aircraft, but they wore hand-me-down male uniforms and other second rate gear and equipment. They stuffed socks into the over-sized toes of their boots. They spent their downtime reminding themselves they were women first and sang, danced, and did needlework.

The Soviet women soon earned the respect of the men they flew alongside. They earned so much respect that in 1943 the Night Witches earned the Guards appellation, designating them as an elite unit. The enemy noticed too. The Germans placed a bounty on the Night Witches. Any aviator who shot one down immediately received the coveted Iron Cross.

To avoid radio detection by the enemy, the Witches never used radios. They’d usually fly in formations of three aircraft, using hand signs to communicate between planes. To find their targets without radio communication, the Night Witches would send two planes over a suspected enemy position. These two aircraft would be decoys, the Germans using their powerful searchlights to target the planes. The decoys would fly off in opposite directions and use the superior maneuverability of their planes to dance around to avoid anti-aircraft fire.

Once the decoys had confirmed the enemy location, the third plane went in for the kill. Cloaked in darkness, engine throttled back, she’d dive her plane towards the enemy in what could probably be considered the first “stealth fighter.” They were like ghosts over the battlefield. The only sight or sound that marked their approach was the faint whistle of the wind over the wings and spars.

The German troops developed their own theories for why the nachthexen were so effective. They were either convicted thieves sent to the front as penance for their crimes or the Soviets were injecting them with special drugs to give them cat-like night vision.

By war’s end, four years after they joined the fight, 261 women had served with the Night Witches and only 32 died of all causes (including combat deaths, accidents, and illnesses). This is an incredible survival rate during a war that saw hundreds of thousands of airmen go down in combat. It’s especially impressive considering the number of missions the Witches conducted.

By war’s end, the Witches had flown nearly 24,000 (not a typo, twenty-four thousand!) combat sorties in virtually all the major battles from the Battle of the Caucasus (1942), through the Crimea (1943), Belarussia (1944), Poland (1944), and into East Prussia (1945) and then onto Berlin (1945). They would fly their uninsulated, unheated aircraft throughout the notoriously brutal Russian winters, many of these ladies flying hundreds of sorties.

To generate that many sorties, upwards of 40 aircraft (each with a pilot and a navigator) would go up every night. They’d return, rearm, refuel, and go back out for another mission. Eight a night was common, with some crews completing 18 sorties in a single night.

The regiment collectively logged nearly 29,000 flight hours, dropped 3,000 tons of bombs, and 26,000 incendiary shells. They took out a variety of enemy resources, including 17 river crossings, nine railways, two railway stations, 26 warehouses, 12 fuel depots, 176 armored cars, 86 firing points, and 11 searchlights. In addition to their bombing missions, the unit performed 155 supply drops of food and ammunition to embattled Soviet forces.

Soviet Guards Badge – would be worn on the right of a recipient’s uniformThe women of the regiment received numerous individual honors as well as the collective “Guards” designation. Their commander, Colonel Bershanskaya received the Order of the Red Banner twice.

Order of the Red Banner

During The Great Patriotic War, the Order of the Red Banner was the second highest military-only award. Ranking behind the Order of Lenin (which could be awarded for meritorious service) it was considered more prestigious because it could only be awarded for combat bravery. In context, with Hero of the Soviet Union being the top-level award during the war for combat bravery and leadership under fire, the Order of the Red Banner is most akin to an American Distinguished Service Cross or Navy Cross.

Order of Suvorov 3rd Class

Bershanskaya also became the only woman ever to receive the Order of Suvorov. The Order of Suvorov is a military decoration awarded to commanders for exceptional leadership during combat operations. Awarded in three classes depending on the size of the unit commanded, Bershanskaya received the Order of Suvorov Third Class. The third class award was to regimental commanders for “outstanding leadership leading to a combat victory.” It therefore would rank similarly to an American Distinguished Service Medal (at the 1st and 2nd class) or a Legion of Merit (at the 3rd class).

Some highlights from the Night Witches personnel roster;

  • Senior Lieutenant Irina Sebrova flew more than 1,000 combat sorties, more than any other female pilot. She received Hero of the Soviet Union (co-awarded with the Order of Lenin, which was the practice at the time), three Orders of the Red Banner, the Order of the Patriotic War (for heroic deeds during the Great Patriotic War) and the Order of the Red Star (awarded for for personal courage and bravery in battle or for courage and valour displayed during the performance of military duties, or, in circumstances involving a risk to life). In context, the Order of the Patriotic War might be considered similar to a Silver Star and the Order of the Red Star as analogous to a Bronze Star Medal w/ “V”.
  • Major Raisa Aronova flew 914 combat missions. She received the Hero of the Soviet Union (with Order of Lenin), two Orders of the Red Banner, and one Order of the Red Star.
  • Major Polina Gelman flew 857 combat sorties. For her wartime service, she received the title Hero of the Soviet Union (and Order of Lenin), and Order of the Red Banner, an Order of the Patriotic War 1st Class, and an Order of the Red Star.
  • Then-Lieutenant (later Major) Natalya Meklin flew 840 sorties when she was awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union (and Order of Lenin). She was estimated to have completed 980 sorties by the end of the war. She became something of a celebrity in the Soviet Union.
  • Senior Lieutenant Zoya Parfyonova earned the Hero of the Soviet Union after flying 815 sorties. She’s credited, among many other enemy forces and equipment destroyed, for forcing five enemy artillery batteries to retreat. THAT’S how terrifying these women were in their silent little planes. Parfyonova also received two Orders of the Red Banner, and Order of the Patriotic War 1st Class, and an Order of the Red Star for her wartime accomplishments.
  • Colonel Nadezhda Popova earned the Hero of the Soviet Union for flying 737 sorties. By war’s end she’d flown 852. She enlisted partly out of patriotism, but also out of spiteful revenge. Her brother had been killed during the opening salvos of the war and her family home had been annexed by the Nazi Gestapo. Popova was shot down multiple times in her three years of wartime service. In August 1942, just a month or so after the 588th joined the war, she was forced down by fire from an enemy fighter. Trying to rejoin her unit, she joined a Soviet mechanized infantry unit. While riding back she met her future husband, a fellow downed aviator hitching a ride back to his unit. She received three Orders of the Red Banner and the Order of the Patriotic War 1st Class and 2nd Class during the war.

Gold Star of the Hero of the Soviet  Union

In total, 23 Night Witches received the Hero of the Soviet Union (five posthumously). Two would, decades after the war, receive the successor honor Hero of the Russian Federation and one would receive Kazakhstan’s successor honor Hero of Kazakhstan. That means fully ten percent of the women assigned to the 588th Night Bomber Regiment received their country’s highest honor (in context, equivalent to our Medal of Honor).

Throughout the Soviet Union’s history, 12,777 people received the title Hero of the Soviet Union. Of that number, only 95 were women (49 posthumously). That means nearly one-quarter of all the female Heroes of the Soviet Union were Night Witches.

Despite the Night Witches being the most decorated Soviet unit of the war, it was disbanded six months after the war’s end. At the massive Victory Day Parade in Moscow in June 1945 to celebrate the end of the European Theater of the war, which involved tens of thousands of troops and nearly 2,000 vehicles, the Witches were conspicuously absent. Their aircraft were just too slow to keep up with the others.

In a 2010 interview Colonel Popova said, “I sometimes stare into the blackness and close my eyes. I can still imagine myself as a young girl, up there in my little bomber. And I ask myself, ‘Nadia, how did you do it?’ ”

Category: Air Force, Historical, Real Soldiers, Valor, We Remember

Comments (6)

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  1. STSC(SW/SS) says:

    In a 2010 interview Colonel Popova said, “I sometimes stare into the blackness and close my eyes. I can still imagine myself as a young girl, up there in my little bomber. And I ask myself, ‘Nadia, how did you do it?’ ”

    Because you were a bad ass.

    I salute you Colonel.

  2. President Elect Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH Neanderthal B Woodman Domestic Violent Extremist SuperStraight says:

    Honorable foe.

  3. KoB says:

    Big, brass, clanking, ovaries? Fighting to defend their Country. I guess when you see, up close and personal, what an invading enemy can and will do to you, not hard to get mad dog mean. We can all take lessons from them.

    Salute to these Warriors!

    Great story Mason, didn’t know a lot of these details. Thanks!

  4. ninja says:

    Wow, Mason…What a story…Thank You for sharing all the details!

    In 1981, a movie was made about the Night Witches:

    https://www.amazon.com/Flight-Witches-Nochnye-Russian-Language/dp/B07Y7K6KCK

    Here is the Trailer:

    https://youtu.be/Os7T0mO7eS4

    Every Friday, the ninja family always learns something new about Military History…and we owe it all to our very own Mason…

    Thank You Again for doing the research and the writeup…Time for Mason to write a book!

    😉😎

  5. 11B-Mailclerk says:

    I do not take seriously anything published by the USSR about its exploits. Most of what they declared was utter rubbish. What truth they did tell was either meant to deceive, or was an accidental slip.

    They routinely lied when the truth would have better served them.

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