Die Nachthexen

If Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, then the Devil would surely take pride in these women.

On the 22nd of June 1941 Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union – The largest invasion force in history with over 3.5 million troops, 3.4 thousand tanks and 2.7 thousand aircraft ploughing through Soviet defences across an 1,800-mile front (a front over twice the length of Great Britain). With German generals enforcing a policy of “total annihilation”, mass rape and genocide ensued. As well as bearing witness to the murder of their sons, their husbands, their brothers and their fathers – the women of Russia also suffered mercilessly. 

Many of these women became bored. Bored of playing a support role in the War. 

Colonel Marina Roskova - a female pilot and navigator of the Soviet Air Force received countless letters from these women who wanted to join the fight. With women not allowed to take part in combat roles Colonel Roskova with her links to the Kremlin, decided to petition for change.

In October 1941 the order came from Stalin himself to form the 221st Female Bomber Squadron – and of that the 588th Night Bomber Aviation Regiment would become the most feared amongst Hitler’s ranks. This all female night fighting regiment would be equipped with the square route of fuck all (√f’all). These women aged from 17 - 26, in wooden bi-planes that were made for dusting crops would now use them for dusting fascists – whilst fighting frostbite in insufficient over-sized male clothing. Some might say that these ladies had the odds stacked against them, having to fly these plywood planes into the fury of German flak whilst wearing terribly unflattering clothing clearly not supplied my missguided…

…But as we all know, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned – and the fury of German flak was clearly no match for these women.

Their planes were slow, had no armour, could only carry a pilot and navigator, could only carry 2 bombs, had no machine guns to defend against attack; their navigational equipment consisted of map, compass, ruler, pencil and a flashlight - yet these women still carried out over 30,000 bombing missions, dropping over 23,000 tons of munitions.

The planes did however have a few inadvertent advantages. Due to their primitive construction it was rarely possible for them to be picked up on radar. Their slow speeds also made them extremely difficult for German fighters to target them at night.

Quickly identifying their shortfalls, the women of the 558th turned weakness to strength. They knew they had to avoid being seen, so they only flew at night - and for these night missions they developed their own tactics. Flying in small groups of three, with the first 2 planes acting as decoys (if necessary attracting spotlights and fire) the third would then switch off the engines and glide towards target to drop their deadly payloads. They would then regroup and continue this until all planes had expended their payloads before heading back to refuel, re-arm and repeat – throughout the entire period of darkness.

Rumours started to circulate amongst the German troops of the all-female bomber crews who would glide over their ranks in the dark hours. The faint sound produced by the gliding reminded the Germans of a Witch’s broomstick, and from this the women of the 558th earned the nickname Nachthexen, or “Night Witches” - A name they adopted with pride.

These Witches of the night were as relentless as they were merciless in their bombing runs. From the ruins of a besieged Stalingrad to the ruins of a besieged Berlin these women would on average magic 8-10 sets of good news onto Fascist targets per night – the record being 18. German command even started spreading rumours that the Soviet Government had medically enhanced these women with experimental medicine – How else could their unexplainable skill at night be explained? The reality of course was that they were simply highly skilled, highly motivated, highly pissed off young women with crop dusters. 

So feared were they that German fighter pilots who shot down the Nachthexen were awarded with the highly prestigious Iron Cross for their skill and bravery. But despite these women’s skill and bravery, many who took to the night skies would never again witness the light of day.

One Legendary Commander of the Night Witches, Nadezhvda Popova, who despite being shot down on numerous occasions, as well as landing on one occasion to find her plane riddled with 42 bullet holes, would actually survive the war that took the lives of 32 Million Russians. She married a Russian Fighter Pilot, together raised a son who became a Fighter Pilot and in 2010 reminisced of her time in the first ever Female Bomber Regiment: “I sometimes stare into the blackness and close my eyes. I can still imagine myself as a young girl, up there in my little bomber. And I ask myself, ‘Nadia, how did you do it?’”