Although Americans continue to debate whether to assign women to U.S. military combat units, during World War II the Soviet Union mobilized over 800,000 women and many of them served in combat roles. After suffering staggering losses (over3 million men) in the first six months of the German invasion that began in June 1941, the Soviets realized that bringing women into their military ranks was vital to their nation’s survival. Women in the Red Army served as tank crew members, machine-gunners, combat medics and even snipers. And in the Red Air Force, female pilots and navigators flew fighter planes, ground attack aircraft and bombers.
In early 1942, Col. Marina Raskova formed three Red Air Force units composed entirely of women: 586th Fighter Regiment, 587th Ground Attack Regiment, and 588th Night Bomber Regiment. Of these all-female Soviet air units, the 588th became the most famous. Commanded by Lt. Col. Yevdokia Bershanskaya, the unit was redesignated 46th “Taman” Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment in October 1943 after its involvement in two Soviet victories on the Taman Peninsula.
Nicknamed “Night Witches” by the Germans, the regiment’s female pilots and navigators flew 24,000 night-bombing sorties from early 1942 until May 1945. Their aircraft were slow, obsolete canvas and wooden Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes with open cockpits; thus, bombing under the cover of darkness was essential to avoid being easily shot down by German fighter planes or anti-aircraft guns.
To save weight and to maximize the biplanes’ limited bomb-carrying capacity (only six 110-pound bombs each), the aircraft were stripped of radios and machine guns and no parachutes were on board. The light bomb loads also required the two-woman aircrews to fly multiple missions each night against their designated targets. By war’s end, all Night Witches pilots and navigators had flown at least 800 missions each, and some had flown well over 1,000.
A favorite tactic of the Night Witches (the one from which their nickname was derived) was to switch off their planes’ engines and conduct “silent glide” bombing runs against their targets to increase the element of surprise and therefore lessen their chances of being hit by enemy anti-aircraft fire. Nevertheless, 30 of the women died in combat.
The Night Witches regiment was the most highly decorated all-female unit in the Red Air Force. Twenty-three of its pilots and navigators received the Hero of the Soviet Union medal, the USSR’s highest valor award. ACG salutes the courage and skill of these Great Warriors.
Jerry D. Morelock, PhD, “Armchair General” Editor in Chief
Originally published in the May 2015 issue of Armchair General.
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