By New Worker correspondent
THE NAZIS during the Second World War referred to Soviet women pilots who operated on and around the eastern front as “Nachthexen” (night witches) because the whooshing noise their plywood and canvas airplanes made reminded the Germans of the sound of a witch’s broomstick.
The women who piloted those planes, former crop dusters, took it as a compliment. In 30,000 missions over four years, they dumped 23,000 tons of bombs on the German invaders, ultimately helping to chase them back to Berlin. Any German pilot who downed a “witch” was awarded an Iron Cross.
The 588th Night Bomber Regiment was formed by Colonel Marina Raskova and led by Major Yevdokia Bershanskaya. The women pilots, all volunteers and most in their teens and early 20s, became legends of the Second World War II but are now largely forgotten. Flying only in the dark, they had no parachutes, guns, radios or radar, only maps and compasses. If hit by tracer bullets, their planes would burn like sheets of paper."
Later they became known as the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment of the Soviet Air Force. The word Taman referred to the unit's involvement in two celebrated Soviet victories on the Taman Peninsula during 1943.
The regiment flew harassment bombing and precision bombing missions against the German military from 1942 to the end of the war.
At its largest size, it had 40 two-person crews. It was the most highly decorated female unit in the Soviet Air Force, each pilot having flown over 800 missions by the end of the war and 23 having been awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union title. Thirty of its members died in combat.
The regiment flew in wood and canvas Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, a 1928 design intended for use as training aircraft and for crop-dusting, and to this day the most-produced biplane in all of aviation history.
The planes could carry only six bombs at a time, so multiple missions per night were necessary. Although the aircraft were obsolete and slow, the pilots made daring use of their exceptional manoeuvrebility; they had the advantage of having a maximum speed that was lower than the stall speed of both the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and the Focke-Wulf Fw 190, and as a result, the German pilots found them very difficult to shoot down.
An attack technique of the night bombers was to idle the engine near the target and glide to the bomb release point, with only wind noise to reveal their location. German soldiers likened the sound to broomsticks and named the pilots "Night Witches." Due to the weight of the bombs and the low altitude of flight, the pilots carried no parachutes.
From June 1942 the 588th Night Bomber Regiment was within the 4th Air Army. In February 1943 the regiment was honoured with a reorganisation into the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment and in October 1943 it became the 46th "Taman" Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment.