Saturday, 28 June 2014

The Night Witches

America had Amelia Earhart. Britain had Amy Johnson, and Russia had Marina Raskova. "Who?" I hear some ask, while others will know straight away. Aviatrixes. Record breaking female pilots. While Amelia Earhart tragically went missing during a flight in 1937, Britain's Amy Johnson signed up during Word War Two to fly with the ATA, tragically losing her life in the Thames Estuary on a freezing day in January 1941. Marina Raskova, often regarded as the Russian Amelia Earhart, was the first woman to become a navigator with the Soviet Air Force in 1933. One year later, she began teaching at the Zhukovskii Air Academy, again the first woman to do so.

Marina Raskova
When WW2 broke out, many female pilots volunteered for service, but their applications were blocked. It would appear that they were actively discouraged from serving their country, undoubtedly a sign of the times. After all, female pilots were not engaged in active service in America or Britain either. They were, however flying with the ATA, delivering essential aircraft to air bases around the UK, and so were always flying beneath the constant cloak of danger. The Americans had their own select group of female pilots, known as the WASPS, again engaged in a similar role to Britain's ATA.

In 1941, things radically changed. The Soviet Union was invaded by Hitler's German army in the summer. The Nazis waged a war of annihilation. By November that year, they were about nineteen miles short of Moscow and Leningrad was under siege. Three million Russians were now prisoners of war and the Soviet air force was badly in need of recruits.

Marina Raskova recognised the worth of the female pilots in warfare and was rumoured to have used her personal connections with Joseph Stalin, to convince the military of the merits of having an air squadron of women. In all, three combat regiments were formed. Not only did they have all female pilots, but the engineers and ground crew were also women. The Soviet Union was the first country to allow female pilots to engage in battle, and the three regiments flew a combined total of more than twenty-three thousand sorties, dropping 23000 tonnes of bombs upon the German army over four years, aiding their retreat back to Berlin. There were two fighter aces, and twenty-three women were awarded the title, Hero of the Soviet Union. By the end of the war, thirty women had given their lives in battle.

The regiments were as follows:

The 588th Fighter Aviation Regiment began in April 1942, the first in operation.
The 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment was widely feared by the Luftwaffe, who referred to the pilots as the Night Witches.
The 125th Guards Bomber Aviation Regiment was commanded by Marina Raskova until her death in battle in January 1943, aged thirty.

These brave women flew in flimsy biplanes, without radar, radios and often without parachutes. Maps and compasses were their only sources of navigation. They decorated their planes with flowers and used navigation pencils for lip colour, while their uniforms were hand-me-downs from their male counterparts. However, their success in the sky soon drowned out any disapproving and scathing remarks from their male counterparts. And as you can imagine, they tolerated a fair amount of discrimination.

The bomber pilots flew in pairs - a pilot and a navigator. The lightweight planes were only capable of carrying two bombs, so it was standard practice to fly multiple sorties in one night. At times they found themselves flying up to eighteen sorties.
As a last precaution, they were all given an extra bullet so that they were able to shoot themselves rather than risk capture by the enemy.

Nadezhda Popova, one of the first volunteer pilots, sadly passed away in 2013. She was once quoted as saying that she could see "the smiling faces of the Nazi pilots" as they strafed women and children in the streets, who were fleeing from their Luftwaffe attackers. Patriotism and revenge undoubtedly drove these women to volunteer to serve their country.

The Po-2 biplanes they flew, had a top speed that was less than the stall speed of the Germans planes and they were highly maneuverable. This meant that they could turn away from a German fighter plane, and by the time he performed his turn, he would have travelled a fair distance away from the Po-2, by which time it would be executing another turn, thus making it rather difficult for the Luftwaffe pilot to hit with canon fire.
The Russian pilots could also fly these little planes quite low to the ground, often at hedge height if necessary, for cover.
They had the ability to fly low and to sneak in upon the enemy, undetected by radar. Once they were close to their target, they would cut their engines and glide in to drop the bombs and then restart the engines to fly away. Hence their name, Night Witches, taken from the sound the wind made against the wires on their wings, a whooshing sound; some said it was how they imagined a witches broom to sound.

Being of such flimsy, wooden/fabric construction also made them highly flammable. Given the circumstances, they only flew at night, under the cover of darkness, in an attempt to seek some protection. Prone to attacks by night fighters, it was with amazement that they returned at all as their planes were often bullet ridden. Such was their reputation that the Luftwaffe pilots were promised the Iron Cross for every Night Witch they shot down.

Marina Raskova
I am in complete awe of these feisty, brave women and commend their courage and great aviation skill. Flying in such obsolete aircraft under such bleak and harrowing conditions was a testament to their abilities and to their determination. I have no doubt that their contribution made a vital difference and Marina Raskova was the mastermind of this elite squadron of women. She was given the final honour of a state funeral in 1943 and was laid to rest in Red Square, Moscow, the city of her birth.