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
Pilot, Natalya Meklin