Nazis dubbed them the “Night Witches” (“Nachthexen”), and they were terrified of these highly skilled Soviet women pilots. This colorful name came from the way these fierce female flyers would stop their aircraft engines and silently swoop in before dropping their bombs; the “swooshing” sound as they passed overhead was said to resemble that of a witch’s broomstick. The Soviet Union was struggling mightily in 1941 to stop the Nazis’ advances. Stalin himself ordered the formation of three all-women air force units. One of the first volunteers was 19-year-old Nadezhda Popova, who would go on to become one of the most celebrated heroes of the Soviet Union; she flew 852 missions against the Germans in wobbly wooden biplanes and was shot down several times. Her unit, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, was equipped with obsolete two-seater Polikarpov PO-2 biplanes made of wood and cloth. As such, they weren’t very fast and were extremely unwieldy and hard to maneuver. These pilots didn’t have radios, guns, or even parachutes, and they had to navigate using a stopwatch and a paper map. Too exposed to fly during the day, the Night Witches only flew under the cover of darkness. Their mission was to harass German positions and take out troop encampments, storage depots, and supply lines. They were extremely good at their job and were also noteworthy as the first women in the world to fly as military pilots.
“In winter when you’d look out to see your target better, you got frostbite, our feet froze in our boots, but we carried on flying. You had to focus on the target and think how you could hit it. There was no time to give way to emotions.”