The Night Witches: women soldiers that history forgot
I have always adored history. Not so much the sweeping events that make up the basis of our cultural knowledge, but the story of the people who make history happen. For me, history is the story of someone I relate to, the little guy who gets caught up in a big thing. For me, history is the story of the double amputee who escaped from a Nazi prisoner of war camp three times. History is the story of the woman who built her own tank and went to the front in World War II. And the history that has captured my imagination for some five years now is the story of Russian women who flew biplanes against Messerschmidts—and won.
The Night Witches were the first all-women’s combat regiment in modern history. They fought red tape (if you’ll forgive the pun), bureaucracy, and sexism for the right to fly the worst the USSR had to offer against a far superior German war machine. Their official name was the 588th Night-Bombing regiment, and on paper their mission was simple: drop things. They dropped bombs, leaflets, bricks, and railroad ties—anything that would keep the Germans from sleeping.
They flew inferior biplanes that were so slow, enemy aircraft couldn’t even catch them; planes that tried had to slow down so much that their engines stalled. The Night Witches flew so low to the ground they could be shot by your average German with a gun, and their planes were so flammable that usually one shot was all it took to bring them down. Nevertheless, they were dubbed Nachthexen by the Germans for their deadly silence and precision. Every night the Night Witches would cruise to their target, then shut off the engine to make a silent dive. They’d release the bombs (sometimes climbing out on the wing to release a sticky trigger) and restart the engine as they pulled away. The Night Witches made up to eighteen of these missions a night.