Night Witches

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588th Night Bomber Regiment (1942–1943)
46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment (1943–1945)
A Polikarpov Po-2, the aircraft type used by the regiment
CountrySoviet Union
BranchSoviet Air Forces
RoleHarassment and tactical bombing
Nickname(s)Night Witches
EngagementsEastern Front of World War II
DecorationsGuards designation
Order of the Red Banner
Order of Suvorov
Regimental CommanderYevdokiya Bershanskaya
Deputy Regiment CommanderSerafima Amosova
CommissarYevdokiya Rachkevich
Aircraft flown
BomberPolikarpov Po-2

"Night Witches" (German: die Nachthexen; Russian: Ночные ведьмы, Nochnyye Vedmy) was a World War II German nickname for the all-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. Though women were officially barred from combat at the time, Major Marina Raskova used her position and personal contacts with the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to obtain permission to form female combat units. "Combat facilitated and ushered in a reluctant acceptance of women in military, based more upon practicality and necessity than for equality".[1] On October 8, 1941, an order was issued to deploy three women's air-force units, including the 588th Regiment. The regiment, formed by Raskova and led by Major Yevdokiya Bershanskaya, was composed primarily of female volunteers in their late teens and early twenties.[2]

An attack technique of the night bombers involved idling the engine near the target and gliding to the bomb-release point with only wind noise left to reveal their presence. German soldiers likened the sound to broomsticks and hence named the pilots "Night Witches".[2][3] Due to the weight of the bombs and the low altitude of flight, the pilots did not carry parachutes until 1944.[4][5]

When the regiment was deployed on the front line in June 1942, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment became part of the 4th Air Army of the Southern Front. In February 1943 the regiment was honored with the Guards designation and reorganized as the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment in the 325th Night Bomber Aviation Division, 4th Air Army, 2nd Belorussian Front; in October 1943 it became the 46th "Taman" Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment,[6] "Taman" referring to the unit's involvement in the Novorossiysk-Taman operations on the Taman Peninsula during 1943.


In October 1941, Major Marina Raskova was granted authority to select candidates for the 122nd Composite Air Group, an all-female aviation regiment. Raskova had already established several world records in long-distance non-stop flights and was referred to as the "Russian Amelia Earhart" for her achievements. When the Germans invaded in 1941, young women began writing Raskova letters, asking how they could best serve their country using their flight skills. Raskova used her personal connection with Stalin to obtain approval to establish the regiment.

Stalin was quick to approve of the initiative, as he had a general interest in the women's "tremendous international propaganda value."[7]

History and tactics[edit]

The regiment flew harassment and precision bombing missions against the German military from 1942 until the end of the Second World War (1945).[8] At its largest, it had 40 two-person crews. The regiment flew over 23,000 sorties, dropping over 3,000 tons of bombs and 26,000 incendiary shells.[9][10] It was the most highly decorated female unit in the Soviet Air Force, with many pilots 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-two of its members died during the war.[11]

The regiment flew in wood-and-canvas Polikarpov U-2 biplanes, a 1928 design intended for use as training aircraft (hence its original uchebnyy designation prefix of "U-") and for crop dusting, which also had a special U-2LNB version for the sort of night harassment attack missions flown by the 588th. The plane could only carry 350 kilograms (770 lb) of bombs,[12] so eight or more missions per night were often necessary.[13] Although the aircraft was obsolete and slow, the pilots took advantage of its exceptional maneuverability; it also had a maximum speed that was lower than the stalling speed of both the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and the Focke-Wulf Fw 190, which made it very difficult for German pilots to shoot down, with the exception of fighter ace Josef Kociok, who grounded the regiment for an entire night by shooting down three or four of their planes on the night of 31 July – 1 August 1943.[14][15][16][17]

Timeline and operations[edit]

Members of the regiment were deployed from the Engels Military Aviation School to the Southern Front as part of the 218th Division of the 4th Air Army on 23 May 1942, where they arrived on 27 May.[18]


Throughout the course of the war the regiment accumulated approximately 23,672 sorties in combat, including in the following battles:[9]

  • Battle of the Caucasus – 2,920 sorties
  • Kuban, Taman, Novorossiysk – 4,623 sorties
  • Crimean Offensive – 6,140 sorties
  • Belarus Offensive – 400 sorties
  • Poland Offensive – 5,421 sorties
  • German Offensive – 2,000 sorties

In total the regiment collectively accumulated 28,676 flight hours, dropped over 3,000 tons of bombs and over 26,000 incendiary shells, damaging or completely destroying 17 river crossings, nine railways, two railway stations, 26 warehouses, 12 fuel depots, 176 armored cars, 86 firing points, and 11 searchlights. In addition to bombings, the unit performed 155 supply drops of food and ammunition to Soviet forces.[9]


Yevdokiya Bershanskaya, regimental commander.

In total, 261 people served in the regiment, of whom 32 died of various causes during the war including plane crashes, combat deaths and tuberculosis. Twenty-eight aircraft were written off.[19][20]


Longstanding effects[edit]

Disciplined personnel[edit]

Senior Engineer Sofiya Ozerkova destroyed her party card in case of capture during a retreat from an encircled airbase after she had chosen to stay behind to deny the German Army a Po-2 undergoing repairs. Following her return to the Regiment she was sentenced to death by a military tribunal in 1942 because she could not produce the card. She refused to appeal the sentence as a show of loyalty to the party, but was later acquitted after the political commissar attached to the unit intervened on her behalf. Her sentence was suspended and she was reinstated to her position.[21] Mechanics Raisa Kharitonova and Tamara Frolova were sentenced to ten years of imprisonment for dismantling a flare (used by navigators to illuminate bombing targets) and using the small silk parachutes to sew undergarments. Both of them were retrained as navigators, but Frolova was killed in action in 1943.[22][23]

Honored personnel[edit]

Irina Sebrova flew 1,008 sorties in the war, more than any other member of the regiment.

Twenty-three personnel from the regiment were awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union, two were awarded Hero of the Russian Federation, and one was awarded Hero of Kazakhstan.[24]

Heroes of the Soviet Union[edit]

Heroes of the Russian Federation[edit]

Hero of Kazakhstan[edit]

Post-War life[edit]

In 1917, Russia became the first country to declare legal equality for women, which allowed them to enter military service. Women were inherently equal in both rights and responsibilities as a Russian citizen as social equality was a fundamental part of the Communist ideology. After World War II, women in Russia were treated as they always have been, especially before the 1917 law was passed. This may promote a more nationalistic views for Russia, along with soldiers to fight for their country, rather than for the actual equality and treatment of women. A common dilemma for these women grew out of the social pressures of deciding to place more importance on the family instead of an aviation or military career. Irina Rakobolskaya, pilot with the 588th Regiment, rationalized the difficult reality and challenges she faced to pursue both a family and piloting career when she stated, “I think that during the war, when the fate of our country was being decided, the bringing in of women into aviation was justified. But in peacetime a woman can only fly for sport...otherwise how can one combine a career with a family and with maternal happiness?”[25]

Other women's regiments[edit]

On 8 October 1941, Order number 0099 specified the creation of three women's regiments—all personnel from technicians to pilots would be entirely composed of women. The other two regiments were the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment, which used Yak-1 fighters, and the 587th Bomber Aviation Regiment, which used twin engine Pe-2 dive bombers. Later the unit received the Guards designation and reorganized as the 125th Guards Bomber Aviation Regiment.[26] Although all three regiments had been planned to have women exclusively, none remained all-female.[27] The 586th and 588th Regiments employed male mechanics,[28][29] the 586th because 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 by a man, Major Aleksandr Vasilievich Gridnev, in October 1942. The 587th Regiment was originally under the command of Marina Raskova, but after her death in 1943, a male commanding officer, Major Valentin Markov, replaced her. The 587th's Petlyakov 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 some men to join the aircrews as radio operator and tail gunner.[11][30] The 588th Regiment's staff driver and searchlight operatives were also male.[31][32]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ms, Rochelle (Spring 2014). ""Nachthexen: Soviet Female Pilots in WW2"" (PDF).
  2. ^ a b "Nadezhda Popova, WWII 'Night Witch' dies at 91". The New York Times. July 14, 2013.
  3. ^ Noggle 1994, pp. 18–21.
  4. ^ Axell, Albert (2002). Russia's Heroes 1941–45. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers. pp. 60–62. ISBN 0-7867-1011-X.
  5. ^ Noggle 1994, p. 19.
  6. ^ Erokhin, Evgeny (2008). "65-летие 4-ой Армии ВВС и ПВО − Ростов-на-Дону, 25–26 мая 2007" [The 65th anniversary of the 4th Red Army Air Force and Air Defence Forces − Rostov-on-Don, 25–26 May 2007]. (in Russian). Archived from the original on 10 June 2007. Retrieved June 29, 2016.
  7. ^ Nowaki, Rochelle (Spring 2014). "Nachthexen: Soviet Female Pilots in WWII" (PDF). University of Hawai'i at Hilo. 13: 56–62.
  8. ^ Rakobolskaya & Kravtsova 2005.
  9. ^ a b c Maslov, Mikhail (2016). Прославленный ПО-2 : "небесный тихоход", "кофемолка", "чокнутый будильник" [The renowned PO-2: "Heavenly slug", "coffee grinder", "crazy alarm clock"]. Moscow: IAuza EKSMO. ISBN 9785699902668. OCLC 981761317.
  10. ^ "Nadezhda Vasilyevna Popova". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. April 28, 2016.
  11. ^ a b Noggle, Anne; White, Christine (2001). A Dance with Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II. College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press. pp. 20–21. ISBN 1-58544-177-5.
  12. ^ Gordon, Yefim (2008). Soviet Air Power in World War 2. Hersham-Surrey, UK: Midland. p. 285. ISBN 978-1-85780-304-4.
  13. ^ Garber, Megan (July 15, 2013). "Night Witches: The Female Fighter Pilots of World War II". The Atlantic. Retrieved June 29, 2016.
  14. ^ Rakobolskaya & Kravtsova 2005, p. 149.
  15. ^ Rakobolskaya & Kravtsova 2005, p. 80-82.
  16. ^ Noggle 1994, p. 65-67.
  17. ^ Obermaier, Ernst (1989). Die Ritterkreuzträger der Luftwaffe Jagdflieger 1939 – 1945 [The Knight's Cross Bearers of the Luftwaffe Fighter Force 1939 – 1945] (in German). Mainz, Germany: Verlag Dieter Hoffmann. p. 147. ISBN 978-3-87341-065-7.
  18. ^ Rakobolskaya & Kravtsova 2005, p. 320-321.
  19. ^ Laktionova, Lesya (1999). Женские авиационные части в Великой Отечественной войне 1941–1945 гг. :Историческое исследование. Moscow.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  20. ^ "46-й гв. нбап - страница клуба "Память" Воронежского госуниверситета". Retrieved 2018-04-02.
  21. ^ Rakobolskaya & Kravtsova 2005, p. 55-56.
  22. ^ Goryunov, Oleg. "120 боевых вылетов и незабудки на портянках: жизнь и смерть "Ночных ведьм"". Телеканал «Звезда» (in Russian). Retrieved 2018-10-30.
  23. ^ Rakobolskaya & Kravtsova 2005, p. 326.
  24. ^ "Герои Советского Союза, России, Казахстана". Retrieved 2018-04-05.
  25. ^ Mencej, Mirjam (2016-11-16), "Night Witches", Styrian Witches in European Perspective, London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, pp. 349–399, doi:10.1057/978-1-137-37250-5_8, ISBN 978-1-137-37249-9, retrieved 2022-03-16
  26. ^ Kharin, V. V. (2016). "Приказ НКО СССР 0099 от 08.10.41 – О сформировании женских авиационных полков ВВС Красной Армии" [Prikaz NKO SSSR 0099 of 10/08/41 – On the formation of women's aviation regiments of the Red Army Air Force]. (in Russian). Retrieved June 29, 2016.
  27. ^ "The Soviet Military Awards Page Forum". Retrieved March 3, 2018.
  28. ^ "The Soviet Military Awards Page Forum". Retrieved March 3, 2018.
  29. ^ "The Soviet Military Awards Page Forum". Retrieved March 3, 2018.
  30. ^ Bhuvasorakul, Jessica Leigh (March 25, 2004). "Unit Cohesion Among the Three Soviet Women's Air Regiments During World War II" (PDF). Tallahassee, Florida: Florida State University. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 25, 2012. Retrieved June 29, 2016.
  31. ^ "The Soviet Military Awards Page Forum". Retrieved March 3, 2018.
  32. ^ "The Soviet Military Awards Page Forum". Retrieved March 3, 2018.


  • Cottam, Kazimiera Janina (1998). Women in War and Resistance: Selected Biographies of Soviet Women Soldiers. Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing/R. Pullins Co. ISBN 1-58510-160-5.
  • Cruz, Alberto (2013). Las brujas de la noche. El 46 Regimiento Taman de aviadoras soviéticas en la II Guerra Mundial [The witches of the night. The 46th Taman Regiment of Soviet Airmen in World War II] (in Spanish). La Caída. ISBN 9788461662296.
  • Magid, Aleksandr (1960). Гвардейский Таманский авиационный полк [Guards Taman Aviation Regiment] (in Russian). Moscow: DOSLAF. OCLC 881535802.
  • Noggle, Anne (1994). A Dance With Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press. ISBN 0890966028. OCLC 474018127.
  • Pennington, Reina (1997). Wings, Women, and War: Soviet Airwomen in World War II Combat. University Press of Kansas. ISBN 0-7006-1554-7.
  • Rakobolskaya, Irina; Kravtsova, Natalya (2005). Нас называли ночными ведьмами: так воевал женский 46-й гвардейский полк ночных бомбардировщиков [We were called night witches: this is how the female 46th Guards regiment of night bombers fought]. Moscow: University of Moscow Press. ISBN 5211050088. OCLC 68044852.
  • Sakaida, Henry (2003). Heroines of the Soviet Union: 1941–45. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84176-598-3.

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