Witches are real and they do sail across the night sky on broomsticks. Well, more like plywood and canvas airplanes. This is what the Nazis thought of the “Night Witches,” a group of young Russian women volunteering themselves to fight (and fly) for their country. They flew under the moonlight, their only tools being maps and compasses—no parachutes, radios, or radars. They completed 30,000 missions over 4 years and dropped about 23,000 tons of bombs. If any Nazi captured a “witch” they received an Iron Cross. Night Witches were driven, skilled, and feared by the Nazis. They thought that the Russian government was giving them injections for perfect vision at night, like a feline. Nadezhda Popova asserts that was nonsense.
“Almost every time we had to sail through a wall of enemy fire,” said Nadezhda, a member of the Night Witches who recently died at 91 years old in Moscow. As she reflects on her past, she has no idea how she did what she did. She says that the driving force was patriotism and the need for revenge, being that her brother was killed shortly after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.
At the start of the war, women weren’t allowed to enlist. So when Nadezhda applied to serve as a pilot, she was denied admission. “No one in the armed services wanted to give women the freedom to die,” she recalls. A few months later, when the troops needed bolstering, Stalin issued a decree that deployed the 588 Regiment—the exclusively female Night Witches. At this point, people saw powerful women as a great morale booster and empowering propaganda (see: Rosie the Riveter).
Though Nadezhda was thrilled to be enlisted with the Night Witches, she realized the plight of her missions. In order to get through it, she just kept doing exactly as she was told, trying hard not to overthink it. She had to re-program her conception of humanity and death in order to get through combat.
Nadezhda was truly a fighter, especially considering that the Night Witches aircrafts were made out of plywood and canvas (they would burst into flame when shot at) and that their fastest speed was lower than the Nazi’s stall speed. Nadezhda was shot down a few times, but never hurt badly.
After WWII, Nadezhda worked as a pilot instructor in Moscow and was named Hero of the Soviet Union, the nation’s highest honor. In addition, she received the Gold Star, the Order of Lenin, and the Order of the Red Star.
Source: The New York Times
Photographs via The New York Times, The Soicety Pages, www.nightwitches.homestead.com and www.histomil.com