August 01, 2021

Soviet Terror of the Skies: Marina Raskova and the Night Witches


Soviet Terror of the Skies: Marina Raskova and the Night Witches
Pilots of the Night Witches regiment preparing for a mission. Sovfoto, Getty Images

In the beating heart of Moscow, right off Red Square, there's an incongruous bit of space behind Lenin's Mausoleum. The surprisingly quiet spot is emphasized by busts and Cyrilic plaques, and broken up by a few pines. This is the Kremlin Wall Necropolis, the honored burial grounds for some of the USSR's biggest names. It's a little claustrophobic: on one side is the towering wall of the Kremlin, on the other, the squat, red, brutalist marble holding Lenin's body.

Among the likes of Stalin, Brezhnev, and Gagarin lies Marina Raskova, protagonist of one of the most fascinating stories of the Second World War. Or, as the Russians call it, the Great Patriotic War.

Raskova stamp
A 1939 stamp of Marina Raskova, celebrating a record-breaking flight. | Public domain

Raskova was a famous Soviet pilot in the 1930s: she made a name for herself as the Soviet equivalent of America's Amelia Earhart. Her most famous exploit was navigating a crew of herself and two other women on a record-breaking 26-hour nonstop flight from Moscow to the Far East— a distance of nearly 3,700 miles. While the crew was forced to bail out at the last minute when poor visibility prevented a safe landing, they were instant celebrities, becoming the first women ever to be named  Heroes of the Soviet Union.

According to (possibly true) legend, following the sudden invasion of Russia by the Germans in June 1941, several women reached out to Raskova, asking how they could help defend their homeland (while women weren't outright barred from military service in the USSR, they were discouraged). Raskova, then 29, used her clout and fame to petition Stalin to let her raise a regiment of female pilots. Stalin consented, forming the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, tasked with destroying German trenches, encampments, and other targets under cover of darkness.

Most of the pilots were young students under age 25, and 400 of them arrived at the southern front on May 27, 1942. They would soon become one of the most well-known air regiments to fight in the Second World War.

A Polikarpov Po-2, the type used by the Night Witches. | Alan Wilson, Wikimedia Commons

With more high-tech planes and equipment going to male soldiers and pilots (even uniforms were second-hand), the 588th was stuck with obsolete aircraft: Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, nicknamed "Kukuruznik," which roughly translates to "crop-duster."

In an era where aircraft were becoming rapidly more advanced, the wood-and-canvas Po-2, which was designed in 1928, would have seemed out of place, even suicidal: the Po-2 had such a low capacity for additional weight that pilots weren't able to wear parachutes or use radios. The biplanes did have an upside, though: they could fly at very slow speeds. If a faster, more technologically advanced German plane tried to match a Po-2's speed, it would stall, or fall from the sky from going too slowly.

To prevent detection by enemy troops on nighttime raids (and thereby avoid disadvantageous combat), pilots took to approaching their targets with their engines idling or off. This caused the wooden airframe to make an unnerving wooshing sound, leading the Germans to call the attackers "Nachthexen," "Night Witches."

night witch prep by plane
A member of the 588th prepares by her plane. | AP Images

While the Night Witches began their tenure in southern Russia, pushing the German army out of the Kerch Strait and Crimea, they were soon moved along with the front, fighting in Belarus, Poland, and, finally, Germany.

Over the course of the war, the Night Witches flew nearly 24,000 sorties (That's twenty-four thousand times that a pilot took off, flew, and landed), dropping 3,000 tons of bombs and 26,000 incendiary shells. One source reports: "They damaged or destroyed 17 river crossings, 9 railways, 2 railway stations, 26 warehouses, 12 fuel depots, 176 armored cars, 86 prepared firing positions, and 11 searchlights." More difficult to quantify is the psychological impact the near-silent night bombings had on German soldiers.

The regiment produced 24 more Heroes of the Soviet Union before it was demobilized in October 1945. Of the 261 women in the regiment, only 32 died in the course of the war. Unfortunately, Marina Raskova was one of them: she was killed in a flying accident near Stalingrad in 1943, and her remains were interred in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis, a place of high honor.

However, the Night Witches live on as a legendary episode of Soviet World War II history. They've made appearances in film, books, comics, and even a table-top RPG, if you want to imagine yourself in the Night Witches' ill-fitting, hand-me-down boots. It might not win you a Hero of the Soviet Union medal, but it's as close as you can get.

 

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