In a bit of a departure from interviewing women for women in horror month, I thought I’d do a little expose of some women in horror of a different kind. I’ve sorta kludged this together from the references at the end of the article.
588th Night Bomber Regiment – The Night Witches
The year was 1941 and Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union. By November the German army was just 19 miles from Moscow. Leningrad was under siege and 3 million Russians had been taken prisoner. The Soviet air force was grounded.
In the summer of 1941, Marina Raskova was called upon to organize a regiment of women pilots to fly night combat missions of harassment bombing.
From mechanics to navigators, pilots and officers, the 588th regiment was composed entirely of women.
An attack technique of the 588th was to idle the engine near the target and glide to the bomb release point, with only wind noise left to reveal their location. German soldiers likened the sound to broomsticks and the 588th was so successful and deadly that the Germans came to fear them and call them the ‘Nachthexen’ (Night Witches).
The women of the 588th fought non-stop for months, sometimes flying 15 to 18 missions on the same night. They flew obsolete Polikarpov Po-2 wooden biplanes that were otherwise used as trainers. The planes could only carry two bombs that weighed less than a ton altogether. Most of the women who survived the war had, by the end, flown almost a thousand missions each.Due to the weight of the bombs and the low altitude of flight, the pilots carried no parachutes.
The Witches developed the technique of flying close to their intended targets, then cutting their engines. Silently they would glide to their targets and release their bombs. Then they would restart their engines and fly away. The first warning the Germans had of an impending raid was the sound of the wind whistling against the wing bracing wires of the Po-2s, and by then it was too late.
The Po-2 would often pass undetected by the radar of the German fighters due to the unreflective nature of the canvas surfaces and also because they flew so low to the ground. Planes equipped with infrared heat seekers fared no better at detecting them due to the small heat emission from their puny little 110-hp engines. In some respects, the Po-2 flown by the Night Witches could be considered the very first stealth planes.
Marina Raskova – record-breaking Soviet aviatrix
In 1938 Marina Raskova and two other women set a world record for non-stop direct flight by women when they flew an ANT-37, a Soviet-built twin-engine aircraft named Rodina (homeland), 6,000 kilometers (3,240 nautical miles) from Moscow to Komsomolsk-on-Amur on the southeastern tip of Siberia.
The aircraft started icing up over Siberia, and the women struggled to gain altitude. They threw everything they could move out of the airplane, but still they continued to lose altitude. Realizing they were out of options and a crash was inevitable unless they could further lighten the plane, Marina, who was the navigator on the flight, decided upon a daring course of action. Noting their position on a map she bailed out into the frigid darkness of Siberia. The two remaining women eventually landed safely at their destination, and a hunter rescued Marina.
Marina and the other two women were the first women to be awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal for their record-breaking flight. It was Marina’s accomplishments and visibility that helped her persuade Stalin to form the three regiments of women combat pilots.
If any one deserves the “Women in Horror” title, it’s these ladies. I cannot even fathom flying an plane (that was even obsolete at the time) that is open to the elements, in the middle of night, and shutting off the engines and gliding in to bomb someone. Putting myself in the shoes of a German on the eastern front, I can just imagine the whooshing, flapping sound of the wind through the wing cables and across the canvas wing surfaces, probably leaving you enough time to yell “Night Witcheeeesss!” before the the roof above your head explodes. What a horrifying image that is.
We all know that, in western media and political discourse at least, Russians are always inherently evil, so I’m willing to bet this fabulous story will never receive a Hollywood film treatment. Instead,I’ll leave you with this song written by the super talented Swedish band Sabaton about 588th Night Witches, and I think it is appropriately bad ass. A real tribute.