Adventures in Feministory: The Night Witches

By now, if you’ve read any of my posts, you probably know that I’m a little bit of a Russophile. So when it was my turn to write this week’s Adventures in Feministory, there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to talk about the Soviet Union’s 588th Night Bomber Regiment during World War Two.

This particular regiment (along with 2 others) was pioneered by pilot, Major Marina Mikhailovna
Raskova (above, right), and was composed entirely of women—from the pilots to the mechanics and from the officers to the bomb loaders. The women of the 588th were feared greatly enough on the western front that they were dubbed ‘The Night Witches’ (Nachthexen) by the Germans who suffered their attacks.

The 588th, was the most highly-decorated unit in the Soviet Air Force—each pilot flew over 1,000 missions, twenty-three were awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union title. Thirty-one of its members died in combat.

As you can imagine, they didn’t have the greatest support from their male colleagues, one of whom was quoted as saying:  ‘Wow! You even have political officers! Just like in a real unit?’. Lovely—they put their lives on the line for their country just as their male counerparts, and that’s the support they got.


But back to the missions! The 588th flew obsolete Polikarpov (Po-2) planes (that were wooden—hence the ‘Night Witch’ title) that were generally used for training, and which only had the capacity to carry 2 bombs. While their planes were slow, they were thankfully very maneuverable. The pilots learned to drive their enemies crazy with their harassment bombing—hitting areas where soldiers are trying to rest after longs days of fighting—causing a general feeling of insecurity and restlessness with the enemy. When they were involved in direct air combat, the maneuverability of their planes made them nearly impossible to hit and the German pilots usually gave up.

One former pilot, Dr. Galina Beltsova, (below, right) spoke recently about the name ‘Night Witches’—and it’s not all that different to a discussion about the reappropriation of the word ‘bitch’, don’t ya think? Have a look:

“We slept in anything we could find—holes in the ground, tents, caves—but the Germans had to have their barracks, you know. They are very precise. So their barracks were built, all in a neat row, and we would come at night, after they were asleep, and bomb them. Of course, they would have to run out into the night in their underwear, and they were probably saying,—Oh, those night witches!’ Or maybe they called us something worse. We, of course, would have preferred to have been called ‘night beauties,’ but, whichever, we did our job.”

So why is this so amazing? Well, if you consider that American women pilots, while they have a long history of involvement with military aviation, weren’t trained for combat missions until 1993—you can’t help but see the significance of this. Sure, it happened during a desperate time of war—it was a time when American women were experiencing the chance to go to work for the war effort (no small feat), but Soviet women were given the chance to actually fight the war on the front! And to that I say хорошo!

Katya Ryabova and Nadya Popova: In a single night they made 18 bombings into enemy territory


586th Regiment

Pilot, Natalya Meklin




by Briar Levit
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13 Comments Have Been Posted

Baaaaaaad ass!!

is that what хорошo! means?

Pretty much...

Xорошo means 'good job'...


How is "Xорошo" pronounced?

Thanks for posting and spreading the word! We were not taught about the 588th in WWII courses.

Xорошo pronuciation

<p>Xорошo is pronounced: Hara-sho. If you've read <i>A Clockwork Orange</i>, it might sound familiar because the preferred slang word of Alex, the main character, is 'Horror Show'. The author, Anthony Burgess, took real Russian words and reworked them slightly for use in the book.</p><p>&nbsp;</p>

really badass

there's one thing you can give the communists. At least they were moving (slightly more) forward for gender equality. Not much else though.

Still these women were so badass. I wish we had learned about them in all my classes that covered WWII. (There were alot of them.)

Wow, so now I have a really

Wow, so now I have a really good historical example of undeniably successful female military bravado to counter all the "women shouldn't be in the military" BS. Thanks!

Spasebo, Tovaritch!

Synchronicities are funny things – I’ve just been discovering the history of the Night Witches myself, intrigued by a passing reference in a book. The story of these amazing women is both inspiring and heartbreaking. The tragedy of war is that it bends the best in us into service of the worst in us. For further reading, I recommend:<p>Battlefields: Night Witches #1-3. A comic book mini-series by Garth Ennis and Russ Braun. Yes, a comic book, but a powerful and unflinching portrait. Published by Dynamite Entertainment, 2008.<p>“A Dance With Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II”, by Anne Noggle, and “Night Witches: The Amazing Story of Russia's Women Pilots in World War II” by Bruce Myles. Both are excellent reads, Noggle’s book exceptionally well-researched and Myles’ virtually the first to bring these women to light in the US.<p>For an American “counterpart”, check out the history of the WASPs- the Women Airforce Service Pilots. From 1943-44, WASPs flew multiple vital non-combat missions (test-flying and delivering new fighters and bombers), with 38 women pilots giving their lives in the service. Denied recognition by the US government, it wasn’t until 1977 that surviving WASPs were granted full military honours and status.<p>War changes everything, and touches everyone; every sacrifice must be honoured.<p>Thanks again

War Changes everything

Sad... every sacrifice must be honoured yet they're not. This is NOT a SLAM against females. ;)

I don't understand why females are kept out of 'war'. Please believe me, Men can be nasty, yet a female can be worse in combat.

What Gives?

This is an open honest question - hopefully any responses will be the same.


This looks great!

I can't wait to get my hands on a copy!

Yay! It's about time someone did more herstory research!

I've been studying up on ladies in the military lately, too, and have been posting one fab lady a day since the end of February as a part of Black History Month and Women's History Month. For a while, I'd never see anything on either, and am so glad to see others picking up on this kind of thing again as well.


Eternal memory

I very much appreciate heroism of these girls. They have thrown all: the house, a family, children - for the sake of the world on the earth.

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