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By Elayne Jude, Great North News Services
"Nobody knows the exact date when they started calling us 'Night Witches'. We were bombing the German positions every night, so the Germans began saying these are 'Night Witches', because it seemed impossible to kill us or shoot us down."
- Senior Lieutenant Serafima Amosova-Taranenko
In 1942 the Soviet Union was throwing everything into the fight against Germany, including its women.
By GKO Order 0099, three regiments of women pilots known as Aviation Group 122 were formed: the 588th (night bomber), 587th (dive bomber) and 586th (Yak fighters) Regiments, under the command of Marina Raskova, a famous aviatrix. The bomb loader and mechanic crews of the 588th were also all-women.
The 588th flew an old training biplane, the Polikarpov U-2, or Po-2, which carried no defensive weapons and was highly flammable. Its top speed of 94mph/150kph was less than the stall speed of the principal Nazi fighters, the Messerschmidt 109 and the Focke-Wulf Fw 190. The pilots were able to turn this to their advantage by exploiting the plane's fantastic manoeuverability, and by an extraordinary disregard for personal safety.
The Me-109, intercepting, would be frustrated by the Po-2 turning at a slower speed but with greater agility than it could manage, forcing it to make a wide pass and come in for another attempt, to be meet exactly the same tactic.
On harassment bombing missions behind enemy lines, the canvas wings seemed to have absorbed radar while the small 110hp engine failed to register with infrared heat seekers. But it was noisy; so the pilots cut their engines and glide in over their unsuspecting targets. With its payload of only two small bombs, there was no margin for wastage. The only warning the Axis troops had of their approach was the wind whooshing through the wing tension wires as the Po-2 was upon them.
Of negligible strategic value, these raids had a considerable psychological effect. Their targets were hunkered down in encampments, supply depots, resting between combat. The Germans called them Nachthexen, 'Night Witches', swooping from a silent sky on their fantastical broomsticks. An Iron Cross was offered for each one downed.
At Stalingrad the Germans created what the Russians called a 'flak circus'. Search lights and flak guns, hidden by day, were brought out and positioned in concentric circles. In the linear flight path typical of untrained Russian flyers, the planes were shredded. The 588th, flying in formations of three, sent in the first two to fix the attention of the guns. These two would split off in opposite directions and try to evade the fire, while the third would sneak by undetected, drop her bombs and rejoin the others, while another of the original two would peel off to target.
The Night Witches earned more than 20 Hero of the Soviet Union medals and many Orders of the Red Banner, and participated in the final onslaught on Berlin. By the end of the war. most surviving pilots had chalked up nearly one thousand combat missions.
Former pilot Nadya Popva, who once flew 18 sorties in one night, looke dup into the cold night sky many years later and asked herself: "How did you do that, Nadya ?"
Night Witches: Untold story of Soviet women in combat
By Bruce Miles
Academy of Chicago Publications, 1990