Monday, March 05, 2007

Tribute to Soviet Airwomen: The Night Witches

The Nachthexen

In 1942 the Soviet Union formed three regiments of women combat pilots who flew night combat missions of harassment bombing. They flew obsolete Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, that were otherwise used as trainers, and which could only carry 2 bombs that weighted less than a ton altogether. They were so successful and deadly the Germans feared them, calling them "Nachthexen"—night witches. (Some sources state that they were nicknamed "Night Witches" because it was made up entirely of female pilots and they flew their missions in the wooden Po-2's at night.) The Night Witches were the women of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. All of the mechanics and bomb loaders of this regiment, as in the 586th IAP and the 587th Bomber Regiment, were also women. The Soviet women bomber pilots earned in total 23 Hero of the Soviet Union medals and dozens of Orders of the Red Banner. Two women bomber pilots—Katya Ryabova and Nadya Popova—in one night raided the Germans 18 times. The Po-2 pilots flew more than 24,000 sorties and dropped 23,000 tons of bombs. Most of the women bomber pilots who survived the war in 1945 had racked up nearly 1,000 missions each. They had served so exemplarily throughout the whole war that they participated in the final onslauqht on Berlin.

Tactics used by the Night Witches

The 588th, like all night bomber regiments, usually practiced harassment bombing. This consisted of going to the encampments, rear area bases, supply depots, etc., where the enemy was trying to rest from a day of heavy fighting to another, and bombing them. The strategic importance of the targets was seldom high, but the psychological effect of terror and insecurity and constant restlessness in the Germans (and Rumanians, Italians, Finns...) was very effective.
Harassment night bombing was very difficult to do, considering the low performance of the Po-2 biplanes (their top speed was 94 mph/150 kph, less even than most World War I fighters!) and how vulnerable that made them to enemy night fighters. But the Night Witches learned their trade well. The Po-2 was very slow, but it was also very maneuverable. When a German Me-109 tried to intencept it, the Russian plane could turn violently and nimbly at much less than the 109's minimum speed (stall speed), requiring that the German make a wide circle to come in for another pass. Then he was again met with the same evasive tactic, time after time. Many pilots got to nearly earth-level, flying low enough to be hidden behind hedgerows! The German fighter could only try again and again until he got frustrated and just left the Po-2 alone. No wonder, German pilots were promised an Iron Cross for shooting down a Po-2.

Note: Actually, the stall speed of the E, F, and G models of the Me-109 (the ones used in the Soviet Union) was nearing 120 mph/192 kph, so the Messerschmitt could never equal the speed of the Po-2, because even the Russian biplane's top speed was lesser than the German fighter's stall speed. The other fighter (more commonly) used in the Eastern Front, the Focke-Wulf FW-190A, had also a high stall speed, so its predicament was the same.

The Witches would fly to a certain distance of the enemy encapments that were to be the target, and cut their engine. They would then glide silently, silently... When the Fascists started to hear the whistle of the wind against the Po-2's wing bracing wires, they realized in panic that it was too late. The Night Witches would sneak up on them and release their bombs, then restart their engines and fly away home.

The Po-2 would pass often undetected by the night fighters' radar, because of the mildly radar absorbing nature of the canvas surfaces, and the fact that mostly they flew near the ground. German planes equipped with infrared seekers would not see the little heat generated by the small, 110 horsepower engine.

Searchlights, however, were another story. The Germans at Stalingrad developed what the Russians called a "flak circus". They would bring out the flak guns that had been hidden during the day, and lay them in concentric circles around probable targets, and the same with the searchlights. Po-2s crossing the perimeter in pairs in the straight line flight path typical of untrained but determined Russian flyers were usually ripped to pieces by the Flak 37 guns. The 588th, however, developed another tactic. They flew in formations of three. Two would go in first, attract the attention of the searchlights, and when all of them pointed to them in the sky, separate suddenly in opposite directions and maneuver wildly to try to shake them off. The German searchlight operators would follow them, while the third bomber who was farther back snuck in through the darkened path made by her 2 comrades and hit the target unopposed. She would then get out, rejoin with the other two, and they would switch places until all three had delivered their payloads. It took nerves of steel to be a decoy and willingly attract enemy fire, but as Nadya Popova said: "It worked."

This is a Polikarpov Po-2 biplane similar to those used by the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. Most were unarmed except for their ordnance, but some carried a 7.62mm machine gun on a swivel-mount in the observer's position in the rear.



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