Shrouded by darkness, the only trace of the Soviet Union’s 588th Night Bomber Regiment was the gentle whooshing their wooden planes made as they cut through the air. The sound, while almost imperceptible, was feared by the Nazi party and led to perhaps one of the best monikers to come out of WWII: The Night Witches.
Though they were deadly and effective, the all-female regiment was definitely not Stalin’s first choice of fighters. Unfortunately for him, Germany’s invasion left the country short on capable male fighters and pilots and he was running out of options. Marina Raskova, a famous Russian aviator, pled her case to the leader, arguing that women could fill the role he needed.
Fueled in part by revenge and a duty to their country, the 588th Regiment was comprised of about 80 female aviators. The women were given old uniforms and boots that had been thrown out by male aviators and were delegated to wooden biplane crop-dusters, previously used for drills and training. If under enemy fire, the planes would have duck by maneuvering into a dive. If hit by the Nazi tracer bullets carrying a pyrotechnic charge, the incredibly flammable planes wouldn’t stand a chance, immediately bursting into flames.
However, and much to the Regiment’s surprise, the planes, assumed to be their greatest weakness, became an unlikely advantage. The maximum speed of the aircrafts were much slower than the speed of the Nazi planes when stalled, allowing them to maneuver faster than the Germans and escape target lines. The aircrafts were not outfitted with radio, so therefore they couldn’t be found on radio locators. Their size was also an advantage. Being incredibly small, they were undetectable by radar. To locate them or predict an attack, the Nazis had to listen very carefully. By the time they heard anything, it was often too late.
The Nazi’s fear and hatred of the regiment was well deserved. The female pilots dropped approximately 23,000 tons of bombs on their targets over the course of the war. An impressive number considering that their small planes were only capable of holding two bombs at a time, one under each wing. To be effective, the Regiment had to work every night, each time sending out all 80 aviators in pairs of 2 per plane. What’s more, one mission a night wasn’t nearly enough to be effective. The women regularly flew anywhere between 8-18 missions every night, only flying back to base camp to re-arm.
With a pilot in the front and a navigator at the back, the planes travelled in packs. Due to the weight of the bombs, they were forced to fly at low-altitudes, making them much easier targets. Their predicament meant they had to be smart about their missions—they used the night’s darkness as a shield, but the lack of light made it difficult for them to visually locate their target. But the women were brilliant, using the first plane in the pack as bait to attract German spotlights before dropping a flare to identify the target.
Theories and conspiracies surrounding The Night Witches haunted the German forces. The two most popular proposed that either the women were master thieves, sent to the front lines of punishment, or they had been experimented on by the Russians, giving them night vision.
Unsurprisingly, neither theory has much weight. The reality is that the female aviators had been given an opportunity to fight and make a difference in a war that had taken much from them. Their success was borne of determination, duty, and revenge.