Skip to main content

The Nachthexen ( Night Witches)all Women Bomber Pilots of World War Ii From Russia

A senior air warrior, graduate from the Staff College and a PG in military studies. He is qualified to write on war and allied matters.



On 22 June 1941 Hitler put into effect what he had written in his personal story "Mien Kampf". It was an invasion that defied logic as he already was the master of Europe and attacking Russia at that time was akin to committing harakiri. He had written that the German people needed living space in the east and that overruled all logic.

The initial German success against the Soviet Union gave the Germans a false sense of superiority. The Russians fought with determination but their men suffered heavy casualties and they were running short of manpower.

War is a dirty business and the Russian invasion was no exception. It was a no holds barred war and the antagonists used all resources at their disposal to win the war. In particular, the war in Eastern Europe was brutal, almost a life and death struggle. The Russians were hard put to contain the more professional German army. Josef Stalin the wartime leader of Russia approved an all-women bomber crew force to fly and bomb enemy lines. These Russian women were young, beautiful but filled with the daredevil spirit to fight for Russia. At the outset, I must state that no other air force used women as the crew to fly bombers.


The All-Female Bomber Crew

The Russians formed 3 squadrons of bombers. The pilots later earned the nickname "Nachthexen" or Night Witches from the Germans. Two women flew an all-wood biplane on bombing missions. The planes carried no armaments except 2 large bombs. There were no machine guns to defend the planes. One wonders why the women pilots were given these dated planes. Maybe the Russians had no other planes to spare. This shows the desperate situation of the Russian army in the east.

The Russian girl aviators were given wood-frame Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes. They first saw service in 1928 and since then were used for secondary duties like crop-dusting and training. The Po-2 had an open cockpit that exposed the pilot and navigator to frostbite. As the payload capacity of the plane was very less and it had to carry two bombs the planes did not have even a radio or a machine gun

Despite flying these outmoded planes the Russian women bomber squadrons bombed enemy lines at night. They flew low, a little above treetop level, and after dropping their bombs pulled away quickly. Many planes were shot down. As the planes flew low escape from a burning plane was a big zero. Many women pilots perished, but they did their job of harassing the Wehrmacht.

The effect of the all-women bomber brigade on the outcome of the war was minimal. Perhaps the only aim of the Russians was to throw everything at the Germans. The women were however brave and won the admiration of the Germans. The girls were all young and averaged just 20 years. The women pilots were also honored by Stalin. It was a great effort and showed Russian women as capable as any man. Maybe if they were given better planes they would have produced better results


Last word

Much of the credit for the women bomber pilots go to a famous female aviator Marina Raskova. She used her personal connections with Stalin to establish three regiments for female pilots. However, only one regiment the 588th Night Bomber Regiment was all-female including the ground staff and support staff.

The 588th Night Bomber Regiment consisted of 40 two-person crews and was the largest. Towards the end of the war, the girls had flown over 800 missions – with one member flying 1,008 sorties. In all, they flew 23000 sorties and dropped over 3,000 tons of bombs and 26,000 incendiary shells.

The old wood-and-canvas Polikarpov U-2 biplanes had a distinct advantage that came from its obsoletion. Its top speed was lower than the stall speed of the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Focke-Wulf Fw 190. They could fly low and get away without being shot. The only pilot to have some success against the night witches was Luftwaffe ace pilot Josef Kociok who in one night shot 4 planes in 1943. Overall however the night witches were a source of great harassment to the Germans and any German pilot who shot a night witch plane automatically got the iron Cross. 32 girl pilots were killed during the war.

At the end of the war, the squadrons were disbanded and most of the girls returned to civilian life and some married and a few remained in the airforce. During the war, these girls had an aura of their own and there was not an officer in the Red Army who would not like to sleep with one of them but the girls had other things on their minds. They proved that given the chance they were as good as anybody in the world. The Germans also wanted to capture the girl pilots but they could not capture a single night witch bomber pilot alive.

Scroll to Continue


MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on November 26, 2020:

Flourish, what a pleasure to read your comment. Yes, these girls were very brave; come to think of it I wouldn't fly in a wooden plane almost like a coffin but these girls did it and that is very important.

FlourishAnyway from USA on November 26, 2020:

I loved learning about these brave, talented young women. While they weren't really given adequate resources, their story is fascinating. Thank you for sharing this. History should not forget the contributions of women in unusual roles like this, even though they were not provided adequate resources to perform their task. Great article.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on November 26, 2020:

DreamerMeg, loved reading your wonderful comment.

DreamerMeg from Northern Ireland on November 26, 2020:

What an interesting article. I had never heard of the night witches and how brave, flying planes with no defence and no protection from the cold. They were also beautiful.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on November 26, 2020:

Pamela, such a pleasure to read your comment.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on November 26, 2020:

I did not know about these brave women. Their accomplishments are truly amazing. This is a very interesting article, MG.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on November 26, 2020:

Tom, this is a fact of history but the Russians had no choice because they were running short of manpower with a massive killing by the Germans. The Russians lost nearly 20,000,000 males in the Second World War so women outnumber men in Russia. I have been to Russia so many times and have been entranced by the Russian woman.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on November 26, 2020:

Nick, thanks for your comment

Nick Bishop on November 26, 2020:

What a beautiful, valiant woman.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on November 26, 2020:

Liz, this was a great episode of the war. Thanks for commenting

Liz Westwood from UK on November 26, 2020:

This is an interesting and informative article. I had not heard of these pilots before. Reading about the primitive planes and seeing your illustrations, these almost seem to me like suicide missions. It's amazing that any of these women survived.

Related Articles