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Girls With Fangs

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The Amazing Night Witches Of Moscow

By James Donahue

Hitler and Napoleon made the same mistake in their quests to control the nations of Asia and Europe. They dared to attack Russia and discovered the Russians can put up a fierce fight.

Among the fighters standing up against Hitler’s forces were a number of youthful women pilots of the 588 regiment who flew obsolete Polikarpov Po-2 wooden biplanes, loaded with bombs, over German regiments in the night. And theirs is one of the more amazing stories to come out of Russia following that bloody conflict.

They were nicknamed "night witches" by the Germans because the planes they flew were built for crop dusting and were so lightweight and maneuverable, the girls could shut off their engines as they approached their targets, then drop their bombs from a silent night sky. The only sound the Germans heard was the "swishing" of the wings as they glided over their heads and just before the bombs hit. They said it was like the sound of a witches’ broom passing through the night sky.

The girls became so skilled at swooping in and striking their targets the Germans started saying they had night vision. Those night witch aircraft were especially feared by the German troops.

The 588th was organized in 1941 as the Nazi Army was bearing down on Moscow. It was a regiment of women pilots, machinists and volunteers who were especially trained under the command of Marina Raskova to establish a nightly harassment against the Germans.

The little aircraft, manned by two people and carrying no more than two bombs a flight, began their missions in June, 1942. By the time the war was over the regiment had flown thousands of combat missions and played a significant role in driving the Germans out of Russia.

Those women, most of them averaging 20 years of age, fought non-stop for months on end, sometimes flying 15 or more missions on a single night. By the end of the war, most of the women that survived the war had flown nearly a thousand missions each.

The unique thing about the Po-2 biplane was it’s slow speed of 94 miles per hour. While it made them vulnerable to enemy guns and night fighters, the little biplanes were extremely maneuverable and flew slower than stall speed for most enemy fighter planes. The women soon learned how to dodge the enemy guns and aircraft and bring their frail aircraft home, often riddled with bullets but still flying.

The girls learned to make sharp turns as German fighters came at them, forcing the German pilots to make wide circles and then come back for a second try. The biplanes also could fly so close to the ground they were nearly impossible for the German pilots to spot from above.

The biplanes were made of wood frames and canvas, thus making them invisible to radar. Their little 110 hp engines also could not be detected by German infrared heat seekers.

The Germans eventually created a "flak circus," an arrangement of flak guns and searchlights that spotted the biplanes and successfully shot them out of the sky. To combat this the girls began flying in squadrons of three planes. As they approached the target, two planes would fly together while the third separated and remained hidden. When the searchlights found the two decoys, the pilots separated and wildly dodged the flak guns while the third hidden plane bombed the target. Later the pilots would join up and switch places for the same trick.

At one time the regiment was operating with 40 two-person crews. During the war it flew over 23,000 sorties and dropped an estimated 3,000 tons of bombs. It was the most highly decorated female unit in the Soviet Air Force. Twenty-three women were awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal. Thirty women were killed in combat.