Why Hitler's Armies Learned To Fear Stalin's Night Witches

October 12, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: Soviet Air ForceNazi GermanyWarAir Force

Why Hitler's Armies Learned To Fear Stalin's Night Witches

Gaining a reputation as formidable foes, the Night Witches earned grudging respect from their German adversaries.

The accident was almost more than Lilya could bear. Not only was her lover Alexei dead, but the crack pilot died in a mundane accident that had nothing to do with his ability as a pilot. The irony seemed to goad Lilya into more furious aerial activities. She flew relentlessly, spending almost every waking moment in the air.

About three months after Alexei’s tragic accident, Lilya and her wingman ran afoul of German fighters while escorting bombers on a mission. The date was August 1, 1943, and it marked the end of Lilya’s aerial panegyrics. She crash-landed her plane near a village and was apparently killed by the impact. However, her body was not found in the wreckage. Her commander pressed hard to have her awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union, but the authorities refused because no trace of her body could be found. They speculated that she might have been captured by the Germans. The mystery was added to the Litvyak legacy of skill and daring, and the puzzle remained unsolved for many years.

Inna Pasportnikova told how she, her husband, and grandchildren searched for the remains of Lilya’s body for more than three years. They used metal detectors over an extensive area in the vicinity of the crash site but found no trace of it. For decades, rumors of Lilya sightings popped up across the Soviet Union. There were even comments about the gross exaggeration of her death, but Lilya never showed up in the flesh.

Finally, in the late 1980s, two boys playing in a field in Belorussia started enlarging a hole that they had seen a snake enter. They did not find the snake, but they did uncover some human bones. After extensive investigation and evaluation by forensic experts, the mystery of Lilya Litvak’s demise was solved. Apparently, the inhabitants of the nearby village had buried her immediately after her crash to deny the Germans any opportunity of desecrating her remains.

The year 1990 saw the end of the long, winding Lilya Litvyka trail. President Mikhail Gorbachev proclaimed her posthumously a Hero of the Soviet Union. Although official recognition of her skill and daring was 47 years in coming, the inspiration Lilya provided her peers in the Red Air Force was a palpable factor in molding the airwomen into effective defenders of their country.

The “Night Witches” and their PO-2s

The origin of the sobriquet “Night Witches” (the Nazi term was Nachthexen) lay with the 588th Air Regiment. It was the only one of the three to remain under the control of a woman, Major Yedokia Bershanskaya, throughout the war. Its objective was twofold. First, of course, was the destruction of German military installations, but it also extracted a growing psychological toll on German soldiers as the struggle continued. The “pop, pop, pop” of the engines in the Polikarpov PO-2 aircraft they flew was so distinctive that when German troops heard them, they automatically began to dive for cover from bombs, conditioned to jump at the sound.

Since the regiment’s pilots flew virtually all night long every night, it is easy to imagine the emotional trauma they wreaked on the tiring German soldiers. MacBeth’s witches chanted, “Hover through the fog and filthy air.” Perhaps the ranks of the Wehrmacht that surrounded Stalingrad contained a Shakespearean scholar or two who remembered that line, and thus thought it appropriate to dub their tormenting Russian women Night Witches. In any event, the nickname stuck, and soon spread to all Russian airwomen.

The PO-2 was virtually a flying anachronism. It was designed in 1927, but new production had almost ceased by 1941. It was made of wood and covered with fabric, hardly cutting- edge technology even for 1941. Presumably, even the lethargic Soviet production facilities could be counted on to make them quickly and in sufficient quantity to be hustled into the breach against Germany.

The cockpit of the plane was open, and its cruising speed was an agonizingly slow 60 miles per hour. The slightest brush with antiaircraft fire or tracer bullets set the aircraft ablaze. The crews were not even provided with parachutes until 1944. So, for three years every mission was fraught with great peril.

Primeval living conditions, primitive equipment, long hours on duty without sleep, and abject danger were bad enough, but the women often were subject to the political stresses placed on Soviet citizens during those times. Lieutenant Mariya Tepikina-Popova told of her experience in joining the regiment: “While I was being interviewed at headquarters a personnel officer saw my last name and asked if I was related to the political officer of the same name, who was assigned to the same training school where I had been a pilot.

“I knew this officer with the same name had been arrested and imprisoned as an enemy of the republic in 1937. I thought quickly how I would best answer, because I was not related to him. In these times you had to deny any knowledge of him, or the consequences could be quite unpredictable and include prison. So I answered that I kept my distance from the command and staff of the school and didn’t know him. The personnel officer understood my evasion and replied, ‘Oh, since he was my best friend and you are a Tepikina too, I’ll let you join the 46th Regiment.’”

24,000 Combat Missions, 1,100 Nights

During the war, the regiment flew 1,100 nights of combat, just about every single night from the time it entered combat in 1941 to the end of the war in 1945. It flew 24,000 combat missions. Twenty-three of its women were recognized as Heroes of the Soviet Union, five posthumously. The unit was designated an elite or “Guards Regiment” in 1943 and thereafter was known as the 46th Tamar Guards Bomber Regiment. It fought in the Caucasus, Crimea, and Belorussia.

The 587th Bomber Regiment was the third unit to be formed from of Marina Raskova’s 122nd Composite Air Group. Instead of the antiquated PO-2, it flew the Petlyakov PE-2. This was a modern twin-engine dive-bomber with a maximum speed of more than 330 miles per hour. With its twin fuselage configuration, it was one of the Red Air Force’s most difficult planes to fly and was just coming into production in the spring of 1942.

Thus, while the other two regiments were training in the planes they would fly in combat, the 587th could only work in classroom training, using service manuals and other instructive material. Finally, the PE-2s began to arrive at Engles in late August and early September 1942. Training consumed the rest of the year, and in January Raskova led her unit to an airfield on the Volga River near Stalingrad.

Then fate struck Marina Raskova a cruel blow. She, whose aerial career had been fawned on by fortune for years, suddenly saw her good luck spin out of control. On a routine flight to the regiment’s new base, bad weather struck. As she flew closer to the base, the weather grew worse. When she tried to land, her plane crashed into an embankment on the other side of the river. She and her crew were killed instantly. Marina Raskova had never flown a combat mission.

However, her regiment certainly did. The first combat mission of the 587th was in February 1943, and the regiment was under the command of a man, Major Valentin Markov. He maintained command of the unit throughout the remainder of the war, despite his initial skepticism about female pilots flying combat missions. As he expressed it in a 1992 interview, “I couldn’t visualize how I could command women during war, flying bombers. I knew the aircraft and knew how difficult it was even for men to fly. I didn’t know how women could manage it.”

The skepticism was mutual. A navigator, Captain Valentina Kravcheno, spoke for the entire regiment when she said, “We wouldn’t even hear of a man coming to command our regiment.”

Discipline and devotion to duty won out, and the regiment served with distinction. In the fall of 1943, it was honored with the designation of a Guards Regiment and was renamed the 125th Guards Bomber Regiment.

“Almost All of Them Were Shot Down”

Markov ended his career as a lieutenant general in the Soviet Air Force. During the 1992 interview, he went on to elaborate on the complete metamorphosis of his views on women pilots flying in combat. “It’s hard to fancy how difficult the conditions were for these women,” he reflected. “Almost all of them were shot down and, after hospitalization, they came back and flew bravely.

“The women in my regiment were self-disciplined, careful and obedient to orders; they respected the truth and fair treatment to them. They never complained and were very courageous. If I compare my experience of commanding the male and female regiments to some extent at the end of the war, it was easier to command this female regiment. They had the strong spirit of a collective unit.”