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Night Witches: Soviet Female Aviators in World War II

Hundreds of women served as Soviet combat pilots and flight crew during World War II. Other nations allowed a few women to fly as flight instructors, test or ferry pilots, but only the Red Air Force sent women into battle.  This was not from any shortage of male aviators – the Luftwaffe’s destruction of hundreds of Soviet planes on the ground in the war’s opening strikes left a surplus of pilots, but a desperate shortage of modern aircraft. So women combat pilots were not a propaganda ploy to show off Communist “gender equality” – there was very little wartime publicity for the female aviators. The battle to let Soviet women fly in combat was the achievement of one young major, Marina M. Raskova.

Women combat pilots were not a propaganda ploy to show off Communist “gender equality” – there was very little wartime publicity for the female aviators.

Born into a musical family, Raskova studied to become an opera singer, but switched to a more practical career in chemistry. In 1933, she qualified as the first female navigator in the Red Air Force. During the 1930’s, Stalin promoted long-distance record flights as a demonstration of Soviet technical prowess. In September 1938, Raskova led a female crew on an epic flight to the Soviet Far East, surviving for ten days in the wilderness after the converted DB-2 bomber “Rodina” (“Motherland”) ran out of fuel and crashed. She became an instant celebrity. Stories about heroic young female aviators were a welcome distraction during Stalin’s ferocious Great Purge, which decimated the Communist Party and the Russian military.

Female Soviet Pilots

The use of female pilots by the Soviet Union during World War II was done out of military necessity. RIA Novosti photo

Using her access to the Kremlin elite, Raskova was authorized to recruit three volunteer women’s regiments. During the 1930’s many young Soviet women had fought their way into flying clubs, usually against parental and official resistance; some qualified as flight instructors and civilian flight crew. All were fiercely eager to fight the Nazi invaders.

During the 1930’s many young Soviet women had fought their way into flying clubs, usually against parental and official resistance; some qualified as flight instructors and civilian flight crew.

The pick of the volunteers were selected for the 586th Fighter Regiment, flying the small, maneuverable, new Yak-1, built largely of plywood.

Yakovlev Yak-1

Number Built: 8,700 built

Length: 8.5 m (27 ft 11 in)

Wingspan: 10.0 m (32 ft 10 in)

Loaded Weight: 2,883 kg (6,343 lb)

Engine: 1 x Klimov M-105PF V-12 liquid-cooled, 880 kW (1,180 hp)

Max Speed: 592 km/h at altitude (368 mph)

Range: 700 km (435 mi)

Service Ceiling: 10,050 m (32,972 ft)

Armament: 1 x 20 mm (0.8 in) ShVAK cannon, 1 x 12.7 mm (0.5 in) Berezin UBS machine gun.

Two pilots from this unit, Katya Budanova (11 kills) and Lydia Litvyak (probably 12 kills including an observation balloon, plus three shared) would go on to become the world’s only female fighter aces, while serving on the Stalingrad front with a mostly-male squadron.

Yakovlev Yak-1

Some Soviet female aviators flew the small, maneuverable Yakovlev Yak-1. San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives photo

By comparison, the women of the 587th Bomber Regiment had the most difficult plane to fly: the Pe-2 twin-engine dive bomber.

 

Petlyakov Pe-2

Number Built: 11,427 built

Length: 12.66 m (41 ft 6 in)

Wingspan: 17.16 m (56 ft 3 in)

Height: 3.5 m (11 ft 6 in)

Max Takeoff Weight: 8,495 kg (18,728 lb)

Engines: 2 × Klimov M-105PF liquid-cooled V-12, 903 kW (1,210 hp) each

Max Speed: 580 km/h (360 mph)

Range: 1,160 km (721 miles)

Service Ceiling: 8,800 m (28,870 ft)

Armament: 2 × 7.62 mm (0.3 in) fixed ShKAS nose guns, one later replaced by a 12.7 mm (0.5 in) Berezin UB;  2 × rearward firing 7.62 mm (0.3 in) ShKAS; 1,600 kg (3,520 lb) of bombs.

Some of the female pilots were so small they needed a stack of extra seat cushions to see out of the cockpit. Takeoff required such a strong pull on the control stick that the gunner and bombardier often had to assist the pilot.

Petlyakov Pe-2

Soviet female aviators of the 587th Bomber Regiment flew the Petlyakov Pe-2, one of the more difficult Soviet aircraft to fly. San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives photo

The women of the third unit, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment (later the 46th “Taman” Guards Regiment), achieved the greatest fame and glory of all, flying a slow, fragile wooden and canvas biplane, the Po-2.

 

Polikarpov Po-2

Number Built:  Approximately 30,000 built

Crew: Pilot, navigator

Length: 8.17 m (26 ft 10 in)

Wingspan: 11.40 m (37 ft 5 in)

Height: 3.10 m (10 ft 2 in)

Max Takeoff Weight: 1,350 kg (2,976 lb)

Engine: 1 × Shvetsov M-11D 5-cylinder radial, 93 kW (125 hp)

Max Speed: 152 km/h (82 kn, 94 mph)

Range: 630 km (340 nmi, 391 mi)

Service Ceiling: 3,000 m (9,843 ft)

Armament: Up to 50 kg (110 lb) bombs

The night bombing mission harassed front-line enemy troops, depriving them of sleep and rest. Attacking from low-altitude glides, with the engine off, they often achieved complete surprise on enemy forces. Flying without parachutes, from rough fields only a few minutes away from the front, the “Night Witches” (Nachthexen, as the exasperated Germans called them) often managed five or even ten combat missions per night.

Flying without parachutes, from rough fields only a few minutes away from the front, the “Night Witches” (Nachthexen, as the exasperated Germans called them) often managed five or even ten combat missions per night.

In January 1943, Raskova was killed when her Pe-2 crashed in a snowstorm near Stalingrad. She was honored with the first state funeral of the war, and buried beside the Kremlin Wall. Valentina Grizodubova, Raskova’s pilot on the flight of the Rodina, commanded a long-range bomber unit flying the Lisunov Li-2, the Soviet copy of the Douglas C-47. In all, 33 women fliers received the gold star of “Hero of the Soviet Union,” of these 22 flew the Po-2, 6 flew the Pe-2, and two flew the IL-2 Sturmovik. Yekaterina Zelenko, the only female pilot who had flown in the 1940 Winter War against Finland, was killed on Sept. 12, 1941 when she rammed her Su-2 single-engine bomber into an Me-109.

Polikarpov Po-2

A captured Polikarpov Po-2 is examined by German soldiers. Soviet female pilots flying the Po-2 were nicknamed Nachthexen or “Night Witches” by the frustrated Germans. Bundesarchiv photo

Lydia Litvyak, the “White Rose of Stalingrad,” received the award in 1990, only after her remains were discovered along with the wreckage of her fighter. Litvyak joined a flying club at the age of 14, made her first solo flight at 15, and soon became a flight instructor.  She talked her way into Raskova’s unit by lying about her logged flight hours, and quickly proved to be a “born fighter pilot;” aggressive and resourceful. The captured pilot of her second kill, a decorated German ace, thought the Russians were mocking him when a young girl was presented as the one who shot him down. Only when she recounted every maneuver of the dogfight in detail was he convinced. According to legend, she kept fresh flowers in her cockpit, had her mechanic steal peroxide from medics so she could bleach her hair, and drained hot water from the radiator of her fighter after combat missions, so she could wash it.

It would be over five decades before American female combat aviators would duplicate the story of Soviet women in World War II.

It would be over five decades before American female combat aviators would duplicate the story of Soviet women in World War II. In 1992, an instructor from the U.S. Navy’s TOPGUN fighter school testified to a Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces:

Lydia Litvyak

Lydia Litvyak was nicknamed the “White Rose of Stalingrad.” Museum of Flight photo

…it’s the bonding – it’s that intangible, the bonding that makes a squadron good, better, and we don’t believe you can have that go on if we have females in aviation.”

“Both pilots and generals greeted this bit of military history with a shrug.”

In December 1998, during Operation Desert Fox against Iraq, American women flew in combat for the first time. Flying F/A–18 Hornet fighter-bombers, they struck targets in Iraq, then safely return to their carrier. When asked, “both pilots and generals greeted this bit of military history with a shrug.”