Sunday, 27 December 2020

Witches By Night

 During WWII, the Germans were terrified of Russian witches.

This is not a joke.

In 1941, Hitler’s Wehrmacht smashed across the borders of the USSR and speared into the Soviet heartland. The Nazi project, which Hitler had gone into in detail in Mein Kampf, visualised the conversion of the USSR into a Nazi colony, where the “strong” (“Aryans”) would rule “naturally” over the “weak” (the Slavs), who would form a helot underclass. The great Soviet cities, Leningrad and Moscow, would be demolished with their populations even if surrendered. Soviet prisoners of war were frozen, starved, shot, medical experimented, and worked to death, refugee columns bombed and strafed from the air, the entire western reaches of the USSR turned into a hellscape of destruction so characteristic of Nazi Kultur.


In the Soviet system at that time, women were given exactly the same status as men, with Stalin repeatedly stating that there were no differences between the sexes and that they were the same. Many Soviet women – Russians, Latvians, Kazakhs, Ukrainians, whatever – had learnt to fly. Note that under the evil tyrant Stalin, any Soviet girl aged 15 who was interested could get pilot training for free. Many did, and some of them had become really famous. One such was Marina Raskova, who with two other female colleagues had attempted a world record long distance flight in the late 1930s. Due to bad weather and engine failure in the depths of eastern Siberia, it had become obvious that the plane would crash. Raskova, the navigator, was ordered to parachute out by the two pilots so that at least one of the three of them had a chance of survival. She did, but only after leaving her survival kit behind for the other two women. Once on the ground she walked in the direction the plane had taken, and finally found the crash site ten days later, surviving on two bars of chocolate during this time. The two pilots, incidentally, had also survived, and all were eventually rescued by ship. Not surprisingly this had made them all heroines in the USSR, with access to Stalin.


Now, in 1941, Raskova began badgering Stalin about permitting women with aircrew training to take part in combat. If they were equal in all things, Raskova said, why shouldn’t they fight as well? Why shouldn’t they have the same right to sacrifice their lives for the Motherland as the men did? Indeed, some woman pilots, like the fighter ace Lydia Litvyak, were already flying as part of mostly masculine air units, but Raskova wanted fully female units; not just the pilots and other aircrew, but even the ground personnel, the mechanics and ordnance operators, would be women. By 1942, Stalin had had enough and gave in. There was only one problem, which was that with the dire situation of the USSR, every capable fighter and bomber was desperately engaged in action, so there was nothing for the new Soviet women crew to fly in.


Oh, no? the Soviet women said. No, really?


Enter the Polikarpov 2, known as the Po 2 or the U 2 (U as a designation as a trainer, which had been its initial role; it shouldn’t be confused with the Amerikastani imperialist reconnaissance aircraft). First designed as long ago as 1928, it was a wood and fabric biplane which by 1942 was long obsolete even as a trainer and had been relegated to crop dusting and light transport roles in the boondocks. Its only good point seemed to be that it was available in very large numbers. It was weak-engined, low flying, with a top speed of just over a hundred kilometres an hour, and one would think that going into battle with it would be a nice way of committing suicide.


One would be wrong, but it took the system some time to realise just how wrong.


When the newly formed 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Red Army Air Force, comprising at that time forty aircrew, of two women each, as well as mechanics and other ground personnel, came into possession of a lot of ancient crop duster biplanes and set about turning them into lethal war fighting machines, they – despite Stalin’s explicit injunctions – found themselves at the receiving end of a mix of male chauvinism and apathy from the military establishment. The women were given cast off uniforms and flying gear, billeted in whatever was available – cow sheds, for instance, or barns – and armed with whatever could be spared after the men had been properly equipped and weaponed. And they were all volunteers, all of them, young women from seventeen to twenty four years of age, from all parts of the USSR and all sorts of backgrounds. 


So what exactly did these women do with their ancient biplanes?


Right from the start, it was obvious that they couldn’t possibly fight the Nazis on an even footing. Their slow crop dusters would have been dead ducks even over the trenches of World War One, let alone the blistering technological superiority of the Germans in World War Two.


And there was the answer: the Germans were so technologically superior that this very superiority could be turned against them, and was.


The very features that made the Po 2 such a hopeless day combat aircraft, in fact, made it an ideal light bomber flying harassment missions at night. For one thing, a weak engine was a relatively quiet engine (it got the plane nicknamed the “sewing machine”), with less of a noise signature warning the enemy of its approach. For another, being a plane optimised for training and crop dusting, it could fly at extremely low altitudes, at extremely slow speeds, and its antique biplane configuration meant that it manoeuvrable enough to fly rings around far more modern and faster monoplane fighters. It was too wood and canvas to be visible to radar, and its maximum speed was below the stalling speed of a German night fighter. That’s right, a Luftwaffe fighter attempting to fly slow enough to get a Po 2 in its gunsights risked falling out of the sky. And if a shell struck the metal fuselage of a modern fighter, it might blow the plane apart or at least would do substantial damage. A shell that struck a Po 2, if it missed the engine or cockpit, would more likely than not just rip right through the plane, leaving a small hole, and keep on going (one pilot successfully flew back to base with her cockpit floor shot away, her feet hanging in empty air, but her plane’s controls perfectly intact).


And this is what the 588th Night Bomber Regiment did: night after night after night, they flew out of their airbases – often just meadows converted into temporary airfields – into the German rear. The two member crew (pilot and navigator, both armed with pistols and the latter sometimes given a machine gun if one was available) had no radio, no radar, no cockpit heating (they flew with frozen hands and feet, their flight helmets and jackets their only defence against the wind in their open cockpits). They flew through total darkness as close to the ground as they could, peering through their goggles to make out any trees or buildings or hills in the way in time to change course. Then, when ten to twelve kilometres from their target, they would climb to a relatively sane altitude and...turn off their engines, gliding silently through the night over their target area, so as not to tip off the Germans that they were coming. Once overhead, they would drop their bombs (without, of course, benefit of bombsights, these were crop duster agricultural aircraft, not warplanes), start their engines, and head for home as not-very-fast as they could before the enemy began shooting back.


Sometimes, especially in winter, ice would freeze the bombs to their racks, and they wouldn’t fall when the buttons were pressed. So did the women abort their missions and turn home? Well, not exactly. Standard practice was for the navigator to step out of her cockpit and, standing on the lower wing, kick the bombs until they finally dropped out of their racks on the heads of the enemy.


These women were, for want of a better word, hardcore.


And that was not all. Because their weak engines had only a limited load bearing capacity, they could only carry two bombs each. And because only the first bomber or two in their gliding attacks could count on surprise (after explosives start dropping out of the sky on your heads, it’s only reasonable to assume that there are people doing the dropping and to begin shooting back) they couldn’t fly in large formations. So what they did was, as soon as the plane returned to base, it would pause only long enough for another couple of bombs to be loaded, fuel pumped in if necessary, and back they would fly for another go.


That’s right – these girls and young women, freezing in their open cockpits, flying through dead darkness at a height that might send them straight into a wall or tree, went back again and again and again to bomb the Germans, in the course of a single night. The record holder is Nadezhda Popova, who joined up to avenge her brother, murdered by the Nazis in 1941, and, believe it or not, flew eighteen missions in one night. 

Here's a somewhat personal article on her, if you're interested.

Nadezhda Popova, sometime during WWII

Incidentally, this was in 1944, when an Amerikastani bomber crew’s entire combat tour was 25 missions. Popova, who you’ll be glad to know survived the war with the rank of Colonel, won numerous medals, and lived to a ripe old age – here she is with Dmitri Medvedev in 2008 – did 72% of that in the course of one single night

Sometimes she would deliberately draw attention, flying her plane within reach of German searchlights as a decoy so others of her unit could sneak in to bomb the distracted enemy. Shot down numerous times, she got away unscathed on every occasion.


Oh, and did I mention that until 1944 the 588th Night Bomber Regiment people didn’t have parachutes? Weight was at a premium, and so I assume were parachutes. The women, actually, said that their planes were parachutes, because they were so light and slow and stable that they could often be crash landed safely without injury to the crew, and many times shot down pilots and navigators managed to find their way back on foot to their lines after abandoning their wrecked aircraft. Popova, by the way, met her future husband while hitch hiking back to base with a Red Army motorised column after being shot down yet again.


And in between missions the women stayed determined to remember that “they were women”. The first of their "twelve commandments" - I have no idea what the other 11 were - was "Be proud you are a woman." They embroidered each other’s uniforms with flowers and designs, organised dances for themselves, used map marker pencils as eyeliner... and if they got leave got cheerfully drunk. Why not?


The 588th Night Bomber Regiment was soon renamed the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Regiment, and fought from the Caucasus all the way to Berlin. By the end of the war it had dropped 3000 tons of bombs (doesn’t sound like a lot until you remember that each sortie only carried two light bombs) and 26000 incendiary shells, flying 23,672 missions. On average, each member flew over 800 missions (if you’re interested, the aforementioned Popova’s total was 852, while the all time record was Irina Sebrova, 1008) and during the entire course of the war they only lost 32 dead. From all causes. Including accidents and disease.


By the way, Hollywood refused to make a film on them. It would detract from Amerikastani we-won-the-war-single-handed-propgandising, and now of course projecting Russians in a good light would be unthinkable.


So what did they achieve for all this effort? Materially, it’s difficult to judge, since light bombs dropped at the dead of night without benefit of bombsights generally can’t be measured for effect. Wikipedia claims that they


collectively accumulated 28,676 flight hours, dropped over 3,000 tons of bombs and over 26,000 incendiary shells, damaging or completely destroying 17 river crossings, nine railways, two railway stations, 26 warehouses, 12 fuel depots, 176 armored (sic) cars, 86 firing points, and 11 searchlights. In addition to bombings, the unit performed 155 supply drops of food and ammunition to Soviet forces.


Be that as it may, there is absolutely no denying the effect that they had on the Germans at the receiving end. Already exhausted, stressed, harassed by partisans from the flanks and rear, faced with the vengeful Red Army from the front, they couldn’t even rest a moment at night without the constant threat of bombs falling on their heads at any moment from the silent night air. In all weathers – be it rain or snow or ice, conditions where their own aircraft wouldn’t even think of budging out of the hangar – the antique biplanes were there, the wind whistling through the bracing wires on their wings the only warning of their coming. The Germans, who hated and feared them so much that anyone who shot down one of them was automatically awarded the Iron Cross, finally paid them the ultimate compliment, giving them the name die Nachthexen. The women themselves cheerfully adopted it, calling themselves the Russian equivalent, Ночные ведьмы, Nochnie Ved’mi,   


In both languages it means Night Witches.


Who else could possibly deserve it?

1 comment:

  1. Outstanding history lesson (which, as you say, is from the history that dare not speak its name, being contrary to the official Western US-Won-WWII-single-handedly version).



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