The Night Witches

Natalya Myeklin, Gold Star Hero of The Soviet Union
Soviet Era WWII Combat Pilot

Probably I should have put up Marina Raskova, the leader of the Witches, instead of Myeklin. I think that Myeklin was the youngest of the Witches, though with the exception of Raskova, they were all very young women when they joined the Soviet 588th fighter group. The Soviets had two all woman bomber squadrons and a squadron of all woman fighter pilots, as well as 2,000 women snipers in the field in World War II. In the cases of the air squadrons, every single member down to the mechanics were women.

The Nachthexen flew Polikarpov Po-2s, wood and canvas biplanes that didn’t even have guns on their bombing raids. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that they gave the women the bad planes because they were women, but the truth of the matter is that the Soviets were desperate to put anything that could fly into the air when Stalin’s non-aggression pact with Hitler failed. The Witches flew over 23,000 sorties in their outmoded and fragile planes, sometimes flying 18 bombing runs in a night. Like all the Soviet military, they took terrible losses during the war.

There were also Soviet lady snipers who parachuted in behind enemy lines with their male comrades. 3/4 of the female snipers were killed in action; some were caught, tortured and killed by the enemy. Fear of capture led many of the women pilots to refuse to carry parachutes, prefering to die in a crash rather than end up in enemy hands.

Marina Raskova was the organizer of the women bombing units and commander of the 588th. From what I can tell, Raskova was made of nuclear-enhanced titanium willpower. Once, when she and two of her women pilots were going for a non-stop distance record, she jettisoned herself into the wilds of Siberia when their plane’s wings started icing up. She lived to tell that tale, and was KIA on a bombing run in the war.

The women fighter pilots of the 586th flew over 4,000 sorties. A great many of them were also KIA. We don’t know the names of Lilya Litvyak and her sister pilots any more than we know Raskova or Myeklin, because, I think, the powers that be do not like to bring up the specter of successful women in combat.

Some Friends asked why I knew about the Russian women pilots. I’m interested in Russian History, though mostly the earlier eras. I’m interested in female pilots because my elementary school nurse was a retired WWII test pilot, a WASP. She was a quiet, kind and amazingly strong woman. And also, although I don’t look like a feminist, I am a feminist. Those Commie women kicked ass and didn’t bother to take names. Whatever else was wrong with the Soviet Union (lots and lots and LOTS), they did for a while get this one thing right. While the women of the RAF the USAF were consigned to positions for “freeing up men for combat”, the Russian women were doing whatever they were able to do.

Why is this relevant in 2009? Because in 2009 we still have people saying that although modern military equipment has “leveled the playing field”, women don’t belong in the pilot’s seat. Tell that to the Witches in their PPo2s, or to the Soviet women aviatrixes who flew planes initially thought to be “too hard” for a woman to fly. Because in 2009, we have revisionist Historians saying that the women of the Soviet armed services were all just a bunch of pretty faces for publicity shots, not real soldiers or pilots or cosmonauts. If I can make even the one person who was bored enough to read all the way to the end of this post aware how courageous these women were, and how many of them were KIA defending their country alongside their men, then my job here is done.

Maybe the ghosts of the Nachthexen will go haunt the skeptics. 🙂

Go See Some More Soviet Flying Ladies

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