Night Witches

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A Polikarpov Po-2, similar to the aircraft operated by the Night Witches

"Night Witches" is the English translation of Nachthexen, a World War II German nickname (Russian Ночные ведьмы, Nochnye Vedmy), for the female military aviators of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, known later as the 46th "Taman" Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, of the Soviet Air Forces. The regiment was formed by Colonel Marina Raskova and led by Major Yevdokia Bershanskaya.

The regiment flew harassment bombing and precision bombing missions against the German military from 1942 to the end of the war.[1] At its largest size, it had 40 two-person crews. It flew over 23,000 sorties and is said to have dropped [2] 3,000 tons of bombs. 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 twenty-three having been awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union title. Thirty of its members died in combat.[3]

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 maneuverability; 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."[4] Due to the weight of the bombs and the low altitude of flight, the pilots carried no parachutes.[5]

From June 1942, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment was within the 4th Air Army. In February 1943 the regiment was honored with a reorganization into the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment and in October 1943 it became the 46th "Taman" Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment.[6] The word Taman referred to the unit's involvement in two celebrated Soviet victories on the Taman Peninsula, during 1943.


Senior Lieutenant Yevgeniya Rudneva, air navigator
Captain Nadezhda Popova, pilot, in 2009
  • Yevdokia Bershanskaya—Regimental Commander
  • Yevgeniya Zhigulenko, Hero of the Soviet Union—Flight Commander
  • Tat'yana Makarova, Hero of the Soviet Union—Flight Commander
  • Nina Ul'yanenko, Hero of the Soviet Union—Flight Navigator
Notable members

Exclusively female units[edit]

On October 8, 1941, Order number 0099 specified the creation of three women's squadrons—all personnel from technicians to pilots would be entirely composed by women. These were:[7]

Although all three regiments had been planned to have all women only the 588th would remain an all-women regiment throughout the war. The 586th fighter regiment had to employ male mechanics as no women had received training to work on the Yakovlev fighter planes before the war. The 586th's woman commander,Major Tamara Aleksandrovna Kazarinova, was replaced with a man, Major Aleksandr Vasilievich Gridnev, in October 1942. The 587th dive bomber regiment was originally under the command of Marina Raskova but after her death in 1942 a male commanding officer, Major Valentin Vasilievich Markov, replaced her. The 587th's PE-2 dive bombers also required a tall person to operate the top rear machine gun but not enough women recruited were tall enough, requiring the addition of some men to join the aircrews as radio operator/tail gunner.[8][9]

Film adaptations[edit]

In 1981 a Soviet feature-length film called Night Witches In The Sky (В небе ночные ведьмы) was directed by one of the members of 588, Evgenia Zhigulenko (Евгения Жигуленко), Hero of the Soviet Union.

In 2001 a UK-Russian co-production starring Malcolm McDowell, Sophie Marceau and Anna Friel was due to be made, but ultimately failed to get backing from an American studio.[10] This was not because of the perceived lack of audience interest in a German-Soviet based film since Enemy At The Gates had proved relatively successful that year, but because the studios at the time had made twenty-five very big World War II films, none of which had mentioned the Soviet participation in the war. The studios deemed it difficult to sell the fact to the American public that the first people to stop the advancing Germans was actually “a small bunch of Russian teenager girl pilots," per email correspondence with Frixos Constantine, the producer of the project at the time.

In 2013, a short animation called The Night Witch commemorating Nadezhda Popova, who had died earlier that year, was commissioned in collaboration with The New York Times Magazine’s The Lives They Lived issue and directed by American filmmaker Alison Klayman.[11]

There are currently two film projects underway. One is being written by Gregory Allen Howard, who wrote the screenplays for Ali and Remember The Titans and financed by the grandson of Boris Yeltsin.[12] The second is a script called The Night Witches, written by Steven Prowse, which has been officially selected over forty times at film festivals and won Best Screenplay on twelve occasions to date, but has yet to have anyone attached to the project.[13]

Cultural references[edit]

  • Harry Turtledove's alternate history series Worldwar features Lieutenant Ludmilla Gorbunova, a fictional "Night Witch".
  • The Night Witches have been honored in song and informative videos by Gian Piero Milanetti, an aviation historian and writer whose father was an engine and armament mechanic of Italian ace Luigi Gorrini during World War II.[14][15]
  • The Night Witches had appeared in the long-running British comic strip Johnny Red. Writer Garth Ennis, a childhood fan of the strip, would later write a three-part comic book mini-series called Battlefields: The Night Witches[16]
  • Another comic where the Night Witches are appearing is "The Grand Duke" by Yann and Romain Hugault (Archaia Entertainment, 2012.)[17] ("Le Grand Duc", Paquet 2008)
  • Katya Berkovna, a character in the novel Last Citadel by David L. Robbins, serves with the Night Witches during the Battle of Kursk.
  • "Nachthexen" (Night Witches) is the title of a song off the 2008 album ...Of Frost and War by Dutch death metal band Hail of Bullets.
  • "Night Witches" is the title of a song from the 2014 album "Heroes" by Swedish metal band Sabaton
  • "Night Witches" is the 8th track from the 2011 album As High As the Highest Heavens and From the Center to the Circumference of the Earth from the Stoner/Shoegaze band True Widow
  • "Night Witches" is a role-playing game by Jason Morningstar, in which players take the role of the Night Witches.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "We were called Night Witches" by Rakobolskaya I. V. Kravcova N. F. Moscow:MGU, 2005 ISBN 5-211-05008-8
  2. ^ BBC TV
  3. ^ Noggle, Anne; White, Christine (2001). A Dance with Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II. Texas A&M University Press. pp. 20–21. ISBN 1-58544-177-5. 
  4. ^ New York Times obituary of Nadezhda Popova
  5. ^ Axell, Albert (2002). Russia's Heroes 1941–45. Carroll and Graf Publishers. pp. 60–62. ISBN 0-7867-1011-X. 
  6. ^ (Russian) 65-летие 4-ой Армии ВВС и ПВО
  7. ^ Original transcript order 0099 01 10 1941
  8. ^ Noggle, Ann (2001). A Dance with Death : Soviet Airwomen of World War II. Texas A&M University Press. ISBN 1-58544-177-5. 
  9. ^ Bhuvasorakul, Jessica. "Unit Cohesion Among the Three Soviet Women's Air Regiments During World War II". Florida State University. 
  10. ^ Variety Magazine, June 28, 2001
  11. ^ New York Times, December 12, 2001
  12. ^ Variety Magazine, November 4, 2013
  13. ^ The Night Witches on FaceBook
  14. ^ La Streghe Della Notte (Джан Пьеро Миланетти НОЧНЫЕ ВЕДЬМЫ) video
  15. ^ Live at Keynsham Music Festival 2014
  16. ^ Battlefields, Dynamite Entertainment
  17. ^


Further reading[edit]

  • "Day of Glory for USSR's Night Witches", by Robyn Dixon. Los Angeles Times. May 10, 2001, Part A: Foreign Desk, page A1.
  • What They Didn't Teach You About World War II, by Mike Wright 1998 ISBN D39191-649S

External links[edit]