Who Were The "Night Witches" During World War II?

By Antonia Čirjak on August 3 2020 in History

A Polikarpov Po-2, the aircraft type used by the all-women regiment of the Soviet Union.
A Polikarpov Po-2, the aircraft type used by the all-women regiment of the Soviet Union.
  • Night Witches were a female air force that fought against Hitler and his Nazi regime in World War II.
  • The Night Witches attacked only during the night, and they had perfected a stealth approach which made it nearly impossible to detect them before it was too late.
  • The squadron led by Marina Raskova earned legendary status in the history books.

Night Witches were a female air force that fought against Hitler and his Nazi regime in World War II. Although they fought for the Soviet Union, the nickname actually came from behind the enemy lines. The Germans referred to this all-women fighting regiment as ‘’Nachthexen’’, which means night witches. 

The Night Witches attacked only during the night, and they had perfected a stealth approach which made it nearly impossible to detect them before it was too late. The squadron led by Marina Raskova earned legendary status in the history books, although the enemy saw nothing and heard nothing but ghosts before the Nachthexen dropped their bombs. 

Against All Odds

Irina Sebrova flew 1,008 sorties in the war, more than any other member of the regiment.

Honestly, it is genuinely surprising that we do not have a Netflix show about the Night Witches. Russian cinematography only gave us one season, and this was only eight episodes back in 2013. The story of the Night Witches is an action-filled and stereotype-busting example in modern-day history, where women proved that they are not only at least as good as men when it comes to handling scenarios in the warzone, but they surpass them in many ways.  

What was so impressive about commander Marina Raskova and her all-female crew. The first thing with noting is that they flew in planes that were, well, not so combat-ready to say the least. The so-called Polikarpovs could not carry more than two bombs per flight, one located under each of the wings. However, that did not stop the Night Witches to pull out some of the most amazing air-strike missions ever recorded in the history of war. 

The bombs the Night Witches dropped were quite heavy, and because of it, the plane’s engines could not pull up high enough, on altitudes that would make a bombardment safer. Well, for the crew doing the bombing at least. The Night Witches had to fly very low, and that is why night time was their preferred time of day to conduct operations. In conditions of lowered visibility, the Germans had a really tough time noticing their attacks. 

The Queens Of Stealth

What made it even more difficult is an impressive technique that Marina Raskova and her team used before reaching the target’s location. They would literally turn their engines off, making the aircraft almost completely silently hovering above the ground. With an idle engine, at night, the Night Witches usually did not have a lot of problems reaching the drop zone. That is when the Germans nicknamed these stealthy female soldiers the way they did - the sound of an idle engine would sound just like a broom of a witch free-roaming when the night falls. 

The Death Of Marina Raskova

A 1982 Soviet envelope commemorating the 40th anniversary of the founding of the regiment.

Despite the heavy and intense training that Raskova and her team went through after Stalin gave the order to organize three air force squadrons that would have an all-female crew, the Night Witches were not received well by the men in the Soviet army. Raskova and her colleagues expected, and unfortunately, had to deal with sexual harassment during their service. 

However, between 1942 and 1945, when Germany finally surrendered, the Night Witches flew about 30,000 missions. They did suffer some casualties on the battlegrounds, and not all missions were a success, despite their impeccable stealthy tactics. Thirty women lost their lives flying under the Night Witches. Unfortunately, the woman who started it all, Marina Raskova, also did not return from one of the missions that she flew on January 4, 1943. 

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