World War II: Night Witches

The Night Witches
  • The Night Witches
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Undoubtedly the most-requested episode in our two years hosting the show: The Night Witches were an all-women’s bombing regiment in the Soviet military in World War II. They flew wood-and-canvas biplanes that were never meant to be used in combat. By the end of the war, they’d flown roughly 24,000 combat missions, all of them at night, earning 23 of them the title Hero of the Soviet Union.

Here’s a link to our notes and research.


Soviet female pilots also flew with bravery and distinction fighting against the Germans. 

Thanks for the recommendation Jenn.

Source:  Wikipedia

“Night Witches” is the English translation of Nachthexen, a World War II German nickname (Russian Ночные ведьмы, Nochnye Vedmy), for the female military aviators of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, known later as the 46th “Taman” Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, of the Soviet Air Forces. The regiment was formed by Colonel Marina Raskova and led by Major Yevdokia Bershanskaya.

The regiment flew harassment bombing and precision bombing missions against the German military from 1942 to the end of the war.[1] At its largest size, it had 40 two-person crews. It flew over 23,000 sorties and is said to have dropped [2] 3,000 tons of bombs. It was the most highly decorated female unit in the Soviet Air Force, each pilot having flown over 800 missions by the end of the war and twenty-three having been awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union title. Thirty of its members died in combat.[3]

The regiment flew in wood and canvas Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, a 1928 design intended for use as training aircraft and for crop-dusting, and to this day the most-produced biplane in all of aviation history. The planes could carry only six bombs at a time, so multiple missions per night were necessary. Although the aircraft were obsolete and slow, the pilots made daring use of their exceptional maneuverability; they had the advantage of having a maximum speed that was lower than the stall speed of both the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and the Focke-Wulf Fw 190, and as a result, the German pilots found them very difficult to shoot down. An attack technique of the night bombers was to idle the engine near the target and glide to the bomb release point, with only wind noise to reveal their location. German soldiers likened the sound to broomsticks and named the pilots “Night Witches.”[4] Due to the weight of the bombs and the low altitude of flight, the pilots carried no parachutes.[5]

From June 1942, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment was within the 4th Air Army. In February 1943 the regiment was honored with a reorganization into the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment and in October 1943 it became the 46th “Taman” Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment.[6] The word Taman referred to the unit’s involvement in two celebrated Soviet victories on the Taman Peninsula, during 1943.

Hiuaz Kairovna Dospanova was the only female pilot and navigator from Kazakhstan to serve during the Second World War.

Dospanova was born in 1922 in the village of Ganyushkino, Kazakhstan. She was an excellent student and graduated with honors from high school No. 1 in Uralsk in 1940. Dospanova was a member of her local flying club where she received her pilot’s license.

Dospanova then moved to Moscow where she applied for admission to the Air Force Academy in Zhukovsky but was intially refused. She decided to study at First Moscow Medical Institute, where she was accepted without examination. A year later, the Second World War began. Women had been attempting to join the war effort in combat roles since the beginning, but it was difficult. Many had sent letters appealing to Colonel Marina Raskova, a Soviet pilot who was known as the “Russian Amelia Earhart”. Raskova lobbied to find ways for women to take an active role in the war and was highly successful, leading to women being eligible for the draft and even convincing the military to establish all-female units.

In October of 1941 Josef Stalin ordered Raskova to establish a trio of all-female air squads. The only one that remained exclusively female was the team of night bombers, the 588th Regiment, where everyone from the pilots, to the commanders, to the mechanics were women. Dospanova became a member of the 588th Regiment in May 1942 where she served as navigator before later becoming the head of communication of the 46th Guards Night Bomber Regiment.

The women faced difficulties with equipment, having to fly Polikarpov Po-2 aircraft which were two-seated, open-cockpit bi-planes that were obsolete even then. The planes were made of plywood frames covered with stretched canvas and were light, slow and provided no protection to those inside them. This did provide a slight advantage though, in that they were hard to target due to their slower stall-speed and they could take off and land almost anywhere. The planes had exposed cockpits, and pilots flying in the dead of night often got frostbite.

As their planes were vulnerable the cover of night was necessary for both their survival and success. Three planes would leave simultaneously, two drew searchlights and gunfire and the third remained conceled by the darkness so that it could drop bombs. The pilots would also kill their engines when they were near their targets and glide over while deploying their bombs to ensure that they would not be discovered. The German soldiers began referring to the women of the 588th Regiment as “Nachthexen,” or “Night Witches,” a name the pilots of the 588th took on with pride. There were rumours that the women had been given pills and treatments which gave them the night vision of a cat.

Dospanova made more than 300 combat missions to the southern front, the North Caucasus, Transcaucasia, Ukraine and Belarus. In April 1943 she was seriously injured while making a landing in blackout conditions. She survived by fractured both of her legs. Three months later she returned to the regiment to continue fighting. The 558th squadron was never disbanded, but became the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment.

After the war, Dospanova initially considered a return to medical school but dismissed the idea. First Secretary of the West Kazakhstan Regional Party Mynaidar Salin suggested that she work for the Communist Party and, after the approval of the regional party committee instructor she began her employment at the Higher Party School in Alma-Ata. She progressed from a party committee instructor in Western Kazakhstan to the secretary of the Central Committee of the Lenin Communist Union of Youth of Kazakhstan. In 1951 Dospanova was elected as the deputy of the Supreme Council of the Kazakh SSR, at the first session she was appointed as the secretary of the Presidium. Before her retirement, Dospanova was secretary of the Almaty City Party Committee and played an active role in the development and life of the then-capital. She died in 2008.

Dospanova was awarded with the Order of the Red Star, medals for the defense of the Caucasus, for the liberation of Warsaw, and for victory over Germany. Four years before her death, In December 2004, the Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev decreed that Dospanova was to be awarded the title of “Halyk Kaharmany” (National Hero) for her heroic actions as well as the honour of a special distinction: the Gold Star and the Otan Order.

Sources here, here and here.

Hiuaz Kairovna Dospanova was suggested by @istillcantthinkofatitle

Fighter pilot Antonina Lebedeva (1916-1943) by klimbims
Via Flickr:
Before the war, she studied at the Moscow State University and has been an instructor of one of the capital’s flying clubs. Her military career began in the women’s 586 th Fighter regiment, protecting the sky of Saratov. In aerial combat the brave girl was hit, personally and in the group, three enemy aircraft. July 17, 1943 in an unequal battle Quartet of our pilots against 30 enemy aircraft, she was shot down and her fate remained unknown for a long time. In 1982 near the village Betovo, Oryol Region, was a plane excavated, that crashed in the summer of 1943. The remains of the pilot, his parachute, a pistol, a knife and documents were found. Among other documents were flight and medical books, where clearly was written the name of the holder: Antonina Lebedeva. More than that - there was the headset with fragments of a skull and two girlish pigtails.

Maria Dolina by klimbims
Via Flickr:
Maria Dolina (1922–2010) was a Soviet pilot and acting squadron commander of the 125th “Marina M. Raskova” Borisov Guards dive bomber Regiment. She was active primarily on the 1st Baltic Front during World War II. Performed 72 sorties by plane Pe-2, dropping 45,000 kg bombs. In six aerial combats the crew of Maria shot down 3 enemy fighters (in the group). On August 18, 1945 Dolina was awarded the title of the Hero of the Soviet Union.