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The "Night Witches"

Since March is Women's History Month I am inspired to try and post a few extra entries this month. So many amazing women, so little time! I hope you enjoy.

At the height of World War II, as darkness descended on the battlefields, a nightmare would appear in German skies. The “Night Witches.” That’s the name the Germans came up with for their nightly terror — 80 or so female aviators from Russia dropping bombs from rickety wooden planes that sounded like brooms sweeping the sky. These pilots, who flew more than 30,000 sorties, were among the bravest fighters in that terrible, long war. The Night Witches, despite their fierce air prowess, have been mostly lost to history. But now, thanks to New York Times best-selling author Kate Quinn, their story is being revived. Quinn’s new historical novel “The Huntress,” highlights the exploits of the Night Witches and is being heavily promoted on social media.

Russians were the only women in the world who engaged in aerial combat during World War Two. These daring young women, some of them just teenagers, flew lightweight aircraft that dodged and darted and dropped bombs on the enemy under cover of darkness. It’s April 1942. Pilots stand by their aircraft, preparing for a bombing mission. The air is cool, and their breath leaves silvery vapor in the still of the night. Banter flows but there is an edge of seriousness, a feeling of uncertainty mixed with strong emotion.

Russia’s story stands out simply because it was the first country, and indeed the only country, to have women pilots flying in battle during World War Two. And the women who served with the Soviet Air Force had the hearts of lions, especially if you consider what they were flying. Their aircraft was outdated, inferior to the German, British and American aircraft, and flimsy in construction. This is no ordinary sight, no ordinary squadron. This is Russia and the pilots – are women. Women, prepared to die for their country, in their own battle against the Luftwaffe and Germany’s advancing armies.

“One girl managed to fly seven times to the front line and back in her plane,” Irina Rakobolskaya, chief of staff for the Night Witches, said in a short documentary for the NBC News education division. “She would return, shaking, and they would hang new bombs, refuel her plane, and she’d go off to bomb the target again. This is how we worked, can you imagine?"

“It’s a story about women of the past who have done some truly amazing things,” Quinn said in an interview. “What’s especially cool about the Night Witches is that of all the allies during World War II, the Russians were the only country who put women into combat officially.” These women warriors of the sky defied all the odds. They had a very high success rate and were greatly feared by the Germans.

Marina Raskova is often regarded as the Russian Amelia Earhart. She was born in 1912 and became the first female navigator with the Soviet Air Force in 1933. A year later she was teaching at the Zhukovskii Air Academy, the first woman ever to have achieved this level.

Before the war Raskova, along with two women co-pilots, made a record-breaking non-stop flight from Moscow to the Far East of Russia. When war broke out, she and many other female pilots volunteered, but their applications were blocked.

However, there was a radical turnabout in 1942, when Hitler’s army invaded the Soviet Union. Three million Russians became prisoners of war and the Soviet Air Force was badly in need of recruits. Raskova took her chance. Supposedly she spoke with Stalin, convincing him of the merits of a greater fighter force – an all-women air force, to assist the war effort. She got what she wanted.

Altogether eighty women flew with the Russian air force. From 1942 to 1945 the three female regiments flew a combined total of more than 30,000 sorties, dropping bombs upon the German army until they retreated back to Berlin.

Two of the women were fighter aces, and twenty-three others were awarded the title, “Hero of the Soviet Union.” By the end of the war, thirty women had given their lives in battle, including Raskova.

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