The Night Witches

The 588th Night Bomber Aviation Regiment is the best known of the three female regiments established by Marina Raskova in the USSR during World War II. Largely unknown in the west, she is one of the most venerated and best-loved female aviators of the USSR. The regiment was redesigned the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment in January 1943. The 46th was the only one of the three regiments established by Raskova to remain exclusively female throughout the war. The regiment flew a total of 24,000 combat missions and was the most decorated of the women’s regiments with twenty-three of its’ members being awarded the Gold Star of the Soviet Union by 1990, five of them posthumously.

The female pilots would later be nicknamed “Nachthexen” (Night Witches) by their German counterparts, who came to fear their successful aerial tactics in their wooden Po-2 planes. The Po-2 was usually used as a training plane with their open cock-pit made of wood and canvas – a relic of the 1930s. Galina Brok-Beltsova, a navigator in the 125th Guards Bomber Aviation Regiment, describes in an interview after the war how and why the Soviet female aviators acquired the nickname Night Witches.
“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 bomb them. Of course they would have to run into the night in 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.

Despite being the most successful of the three regiments, the 46th was also the most ill-equipped. The fragile wood and canvas Po-2 was no one’s idea of a good combat aircraft. One of the navigators of the 46th regiment pointed out that “before the war the Po-2 had been used by flying instructors and no one would have dreamed to use it for military purposes”. The women didn’t carry parachutes or self-defence machine guns until the end of the war, although after its introduction the parachute is known to have saved the life of one navigator, Rufina Gasheva.

The Po-2 had no weapons except the four small bomb racks. It was also lacking a radio or any sophisticated instrument. So the Po-2 carrying only a light bomb load could only attack light targets, troops and unarmored vehicles etc. Most sources evaluate the night bombing raids as effective; in general as harassment raids worked well because they forced the enemy on all fronts to take precautions, lose sleep and on occasion suffer the loss of a storage area or fuel depot. The Po-2 based right behind the front lines enabled it to continuously harass the German troops throughout the year. The Germans themselves admitted it would be “wrong to underestimate the effects of the attacks, since they were so unpredictable and therefore extremely disturbing… they hindered the already short rest of the troops and had an adverse effect on supply operations, although the actual physical damage done in the raids was small.”

Another astonishing fact about the 46th veterans is the number of missions they performed successfully. Because the regiment was based very close to the front, due to the limited capabilities of the of the aircraft, the aviators flew repeated missions restricted only by human fatigue and the approach of daylight. On average, the Po-2 crews flew five to ten missions each night, with an occasional maximum effort of as many as fifteen missions a night. Each flight usually took 45-50 minutes and it was the seasonal darkness rather than the short duration of the flight that allowed for the large number of flights per night. 325 was the maximum number of flights in one night. This was achieved through one of several innovations in the 46th regiment. Irina Rakobolskaya, chief of staff, of the 46th Guards Regiment describes one of the innovations adopted by the 46th,
“there is a regulation that says every mechanic and armorer had to service their own plane. So there would be a crowd at the airfield. It was dark. The mechanics tried to see if [each plane landing] was their own plane. Mechanics had to meet planes and help them to their hardstands. Mechanics had to hold the wing at the take off point. If each mechanic only worked on her own plane we could only manage two flights per night… And so we used groups of mechanics each with a speciality. One met planes, another refuelled… armorers worked in groups of three and there were two such groups. The bombs weighed 50 kg. A truck unloaded bombs, an armorer had to unwind the lead and lift the bomb first on her knees, then under the wing. On the nights of maximum activity each girl had to lift three tons of bombs. So we worked. It was not according to the regulations. But because the work was better organised we managed to do more.”
This enabled the 46th to “twin an aircraft (refuel and rearm it) in only five minutes – a major factor in achieving the high success rate of the regiment.

The title of Hero by law was conferred if a pilot or navigator completed more than 500 successful combat flights. The 46th Hero’s as a rule had more than 700 flights. The women more than anything craved recognition from the men, all they wanted was some sign from the men that they recognised they were at least equal. So recognition when it did come was very unexpected. Capt. Irina Rakoboolskaya normally so calm and composed, burst through the door of the bunker, her face flushed with excitement, the General Popov was outside and to “fall in” quickly. General Popov, the divisional commander was accompanied by several other officers. General Popov stood before the front rank and began to read from the piece of paper in his hand; “By order of the Supreme Soviet and in recognition of your outstanding service to your country…” After speaking of the many sorties they had flown, the damage to enemy trroops and equipment, and their general devotion to duty, eventually he stated that “I am ordered to announce that the 588th Women’s Night Bomber Regiment will from today be given the title of the 46th Guards Regiment. To be awarded the title of Guards Regiment was the greatest collective honour they could have achieved. It placed the women among the elite of the fighting units.

They were the first regiment in their division to be awarded such an honour. Eighteen pilots and six navigators of the 46th Regiment received the highest military honour, the Hero of the Soviet Union title – a far greater proportion than in the other women’s regiments. There are differing opinions as to why the 46th received such a disproportionate number of Hero awards. At least one veteran of the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment recognised that although there was a much better chance of receiving medals in the 46th, there was also a much greater risk of mortality.

These women were very important in their role as fighter pilots. As described their missions slowed the Germans progressions as storage areas and fuel depots were damaged and destroyed. Described as harassment raids they succeeded with very poor equipment in difficult conditions.

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