The Night Witches
After the German attack on the Soviet Union, on Jun22nd, 1941, the Soviet Air Force established three regiments with female personnel. In this case everyone involved, pilots, navigators, mechanics and all other ground staff were women. These regiments were Nos. 586 IAP, 587 BAP and 588 BAP (Night bombing regiment). It was the latter that came to be called “The Night Witches”. Unlike the other two regiments, No 588 BAP continued to be an all-female unit for the rest of the War.
The Night Witches flew Polikarpov Po-2 aircraft, even at that time obsolescent aircraft that for the most part were used as trainers. These had first flown in 1928, powered by a mere 115 hp engine and with a top speed of just 150 km/h. These aircraft were armed with a 7.62 mm machine gun and could carry two 120 kg bombs.
In normal conditions these aircraft would not have stood a chance against German fighters flying at up to four times their speed and much more heavily armed. This type of slow biplane had however one advantage, as they were extremely agile and could therefore turn much more sharply than the fast German fighter aircraft. In other respects their tactic was to fly at night when they were much less visible. They approached their targets as low as possible until they were very close. They would then climb a little, switch off their engines and glide silently to the target to release their bombs. All that could be heard was the wind in the wires on the wings. This muted whistling that could only be heard immediately before the bombs dropped led to the unit being called “The Night Witches”, “Natthäxorna” in German. After releasing the bombs the pilot would restart the engine and fly back to base.
The 588th night bombing regiment received many awards for their efforts, but their successes cost many losses. The regiment operated throughout the whole War and participated in the final battle for Berlin in 1945.