World War II

The Night Witches Were Russian Women Who Silently Bombed Nazis by Night

At the height of World War II, the Soviet pilots of the 588th Night Bomber regiment set themselves apart for their fearless tactics. Though civilians on the ground often witnessed these boys' derring-do, nobody ever saw them outside of their flight helmets. That's because the pilots of the 588th weren't boys at all. Meet the Night Witches.

Talk About "Fly by Night"

The women of the 588th ranged from 17 to 26 years old, and as Nazi forces crept further and further into the USSR, they were up in the skies to begrudge them every inch. The 40 planes and their two-women crews flew as many as eight missions every night — by the end of the war, they'd dropped 23,000 tons of bombs on German armies.

It was those Germans who gave them the nickname "Nachthexen", or "Night Witches", for their silent, sudden attacks. The Witches flew rickety (and slow) plywood planes that were secretly the key to their success. They flew in low, and employed daring distraction tactics to avoid the Nazis' more numerous and more technologically advanced planes. One trick involved two pilots drawing spotlights and enemy fire while a third swooped in with her engine cut and her lights put out. Pretty bold, considering that their wood-and-canvas rides could catch fire with a single successful hit.

Just picture it. In the silence of the winter's night, a soft "whoosh" from the planes' wings as they glided in would be all that would give away the Night Witches' attacks. And because their planes flew slower than the Nazi planes could even stall, they were often much more maneuverable than their counterparts. No wonder every German soldier who downed one was immediately awarded an Iron Cross.

Marina Raskova

Day-to-Day Discrimination

With such a tremendous record of victory and bravery, the women of the 588th would obviously be showered in praise from their fellow aviators, right? Er, about that...it was still the 1940s. Male pilots disparaged the women, and one general complained that he had been "sent a bunch of girlies" instead of soldiers. But the Night Witches took these insults in stride as well, and celebrated their pilot identities by decorating their lips with navigation pencils, and painting flowers on their bombers.

The Night Witches were out-planed, out-gunned, and 0ut-numbered by their Nazi enemies, and they didn't even have much support from their own military. But they still became one of the war's most incredible military forces.

Curious about the Night Witches? Check out Bruce Myles' "Night Witches: The Amazing Story of Russia's Women Pilots in World War II". Any purchases you make from that link will help to support Curiosity.

Russian Night Witches

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. "Night witches" were Russia's all-female fighter pilots in World War II. 01:00

  2. Soviet night witches would fly as many as 18 missions in a single night. 02:33

  3. If a German killed a night witch in WWII, automatically that soldier is awarded an iron cross. 03:27

Written By
Reuben Westmaas
October 26, 2017