THE NIGHT WITCHES, SOVIET AIR FORCE
For all sorts of reasons (diplomatic intrigue, faulty intelligence, Stalin thinking he was way smarter than he actually was) the Soviet Union was caught completely off guard by the Nazi invasion, and fast-moving German mechanized and armor units were able to capture an astonishing amount of Russia’s most advanced aircraft and most important airbases by just driving up to them, shooting the commissar in the head, telling everybody they were now prisoners, and driving off to
the next target.
This enormous shortage of manpower and equipment lead to the official formation of a number of women’s military units, primarily in second-line areas and often with second-hand equipment. Most famous among these makeshift emergency units was the 588th Night Bombers Regiment (later given the honorary “Guards” designation as the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Regiment), one of the strangest but most effective air units of the Second World War.
The 588th exclusively flew Polikarpov Po-2 “Kukuruznik” (literally “cropduster”) utility biplanes, originally designed in 1928 and absolutely the oldest and slowest combat aircraft of the war. The Po-2 cruised at 70 mph and could barely break 90 mph at full throttle, so daylight operations were restricted to areas where the Soviets could guarantee safety, but after sunset the Night Witches earned their name and their paycheck—the flip side of the Kukuruznik’s low speed was that they could soar on an idling engine for miles, allowing the women of the 588th to glide silently over German anti-aircraft and machine-gun positions to deliver two tiny but deadly bombs to the heart of enemy encampments.
Every German soldier fighting in the same theater as the 588th went to bed knowing that no matter how strong their fortifications seemed, there was still a chance that the Night Witches would sneak in and make sure they would never see another morning. After the bombing, the Witches faced the much more difficult problem of escaping enemy airspace, but again the glacial slowness of the Polikarpov came in handy—the Luftwaffe’s primary fighter planes were so much faster and more advanced than 588th’s sputtery old cropdusters that they literally couldn’t fly slow enough to stay with the Po-2, and the clever women at the controls were masters of using landscape and shadow for concealment. The Night Witches finished the war after 23,000 sorties and featuring 23 recipients of the Hero of the Soviet.
That 70 miles an hour is about the speed that one lifts off the runway in an old Cessna or piper 140 cherokee, and also land that puppy. Today you can get an experimental license to fly aircraft and about the speed it flies is about 70 MPH. You do not have to pass a medical annually but just have a drivers license and learn about the engine for 20 hours, and you can terrorize the country side. Just make sure you stay above the electrical lines…and you can be a witch too, and you do not even need a broom. For eight to ten thousand dollars, you too, can take to the skies.