If you like stories of amazing women, buckle up, because this one is a wild ride.
During WWII, the Soviet Air Force’s 588th Night Bomber Regiment flew incredibly harrowing missions, bombing Germans with rudimentary biplanes in the dead of night. The Germans called them Nachthexen—”Night Witches”—because the only warning they had before the bombs hit was an ominous whooshing sound akin to a witch’s broom.
The “whoosh” sound was due to the fact that the women would cut the planes’ engines as they approached, gliding in stealthily before dropping their bombs. And the Night Witches moniker was fitting, considering the fact that the 588th was an all-female regiment.
Their missions were incredibly dangerous, especially considering how the women were equipped. Most of the recruits were in their late teens to mid-20s, and crew members had to learn how to pilot, navigate and maintain the aircraft so they could serve the regiment in any capacity. They underwent an intensive year of training to learn what usually took several years to master.
The planes they flew were rickety biplanes made of plywood and canvas, which were usually used for crop dusting and training. According to the Wright Museum, a tracer bullet could easily cause the plane to burst into flames, causing some of the women to refer to their aircraft as “a coffin with wings.” The planes’ top speed was just 90 mph, and the weight of the two bombs and crew they carried meant they had to fly low. That made the planes easily visible targets, so the women only flew their missions under the cover of darkness.
The open design of the aircraft and the fact that they flew at night also meant that the women were fully exposed to frigid temperatures during Soviet winters. According to The History Channel, the planes would get so cold, touching them would tear off bare skin.
Since there had been no women in combat in the Air Force before, they were given hand-me-down men’s uniforms and had to tear up bedding to stuff into the end of their boots to make them fit properly. Due to the limited capacity of their aircraft and limited funds, they also were deprived of the modern equipment their male counterparts had access to—radar, radios, machine guns and even parachutes. Instead, they had to use maps, rulers, compasses, stopwatches and pencils to perform their missions. And if they needed to bail out, they just hoped they were close enough to the ground to survive.
Up to 40 two-person crews would be sent out each night to complete between eight and 18 missions each. They would go out in groups of three, with two planes acting as decoys to draw the German searchlights and flack gun attacks away from the third. The one advantage the small, slow biplanes had was maneuverability, so they relied on fancy flying to create a diversion. When the navigator of the third plane tapped the pilot on the shoulder, she would kill the engine and silently swoop in for the bomb drop. The three planes would each take turns in this manner until all three planes had dropped their payloads.
The term “Night Witches” was coined by the Germans, but the women took on the nickname with pride. They had every reason to be proud. They were so feared that any German who downed one of their planes was automatically awarded the prestigious Iron Cross medal.
From June 1942 to October 1943, they flew more than 23,000 combat sorties, collectively logging over 28,000 flight hours and dropping more than 3,000 tons of bombs and 26,000 incendiary shells on Nazi targets. Their bombing raids wreaked havoc on river crossings, railways, warehouses, fuel depots, armored cars, firing positions and other valuable logistical targets. They also made 155 food and ammunition supply drops to other Soviet armed forces.
By the end of the war, the Soviets has lost 32 Night Witches in service. The 588th Regiment was highly decorated; of the 89 Soviet women who received the Hero of the Soviet Union award—the country’s highest honor in WWII—22 were Night Witches.
However, when the Soviet Union held a massive victory parade after the war, the Night Witches weren’t included in it. Their planes, which these badass women had painted flowers on to add a feminine touch, were deemed too slow.
Learn more about the Night Witches with NBC News Learn: