The Talented and Beautiful “Night Witches” of WWII

See what I did with the title of this blog post?

Yevdokia Bershanskaya (588 NBAP commander) and the crew of Yevdokia Nosal and Nina Ulyanenko 1942. Source: The Dispatch, Feb 2020, Vol 45 No 2, p 17

In the famous Pulitzer-prize winning book “The Guns of August“, the author applies some colorful language to illustrate WWI and Imperial Germany.

Barbara Tuchman framed the German march, for example, like mindless predator ants:

(page 251) The German march through Belgium, like the march of predator ants who periodically emerge from the South American jungle to carve a swatch of death across the land, was cutting its way across field, road, village, and town, like the ants unstopped by rivers or any obstacle.

Germans of 1914 clearly get portrayed by Tuchman as thoughtless insects (instead of bumbling militant strategists and dirty spies with no sense of morality). This doesn’t denigrate being German, but rather shows how people acting in a particular way is toxic (e.g. invading neutral countries to execute civilians, which obviously was a choice).

To be fair, the latest science says South American ants are in fact intelligent and even altruistic (use tools, share information, and at great risk to their own lives will help other ants).

I bring this use of language up because recently I wrote about anti-fascist women aviators of the 1930s and I ran across a strange phrase used by Germans that has been adopted by everyone else afterwards.

“Night Witches” (Nacht Hexen in German, Nochnyye ved’my in Russian)

While researching mostly untold stories of black women aviators in America (who were barred from flying due to systemic American racism and sexism) I ran into an obscure story out of the Soviet Union that carried this peculiar German innuendo.

Here’s an example from a 2013 obituary in the New York Times:

The Nazis called them “Night Witches” because the whooshing noise their plywood and canvas airplanes made reminded the Germans of the sound of a witch’s broomstick.

The Soviet women who piloted those planes, onetime crop dusters, took it as a compliment. In 30,000 missions over four years, they dumped 23,000 tons of bombs on the German invaders, ultimately helping to chase them back to Berlin. Any German pilot who downed a “witch” was awarded an Iron Cross.

These young heroines, all volunteers and most in their teens and early 20s, became legends of World War II but are now largely forgotten. Flying only in the dark, they had no parachutes, guns, radios or radar, only maps and compasses. If hit by tracer bullets, their planes would burn like sheets of paper.

Their uniforms were hand-me-downs from male pilots. Their faces froze in the open cockpits. Each night, the 40 or so two-woman crews flew 8 or more missions — sometimes as many as 18.

“Almost every time we had to sail through a wall of enemy fire,” Nadezhda Popova, one of the first volunteers — who herself flew 852 missions — said in an interview for David Stahel’s book “Operation Typhoon: Hitler’s March on Moscow, October 1941,” published this year.

I don’t buy the explanation that the “whooshing noise” sounded anything like a broomstick, let alone a fictional one (after all, there’s no actual witch’s broomstick).

Nazis, like many people, loved to come up with catchy derogatory names for people they hated.

Black American pilots (men only, as I already mentioned, even though women were training them to fly) were called “Luft Gangster“.

In many ways, retired Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson, USAF (Ret) was fighting a fierce battle before, during and after his days as a Tuskegee fighter pilot (Red Tail) in World War II. Jefferson, 92, was shot down during a mission and spent nine months in Stalag Luft III, a Nazi P.O.W. camp and location of ‘The Great Escape.’ When liberated by Gen. Patton’s 3rd Army, Lt. Col. Jefferson unknowingly became an eye witness to the atrocities at the Nazi Concentration Camp…..Dachau. It’s a fascinating account of bravery, perseverance and character. When he wasn’t fighting for his country, Jefferson was battling racism in his country.

Think about black men pilots being called “Luft Gangster” for a minute. American women were such good pilots they trained the men for combat, yet were not allowed themselves to fly in combat… so it was only Soviet women in the air to get labeled witches.

The NYT brings up another example of how Nazis not only called women pilots witches, but tried to spread rumors such as potions giving women special powers.

At 15, Ms. Popova joined a flying club, of which there were as many as 150 in the Soviet Union. More than one-quarter of the pilots trained in the clubs were women. After graduating from pilot school, she became a flight instructor. […] Ms. Popova became adept at her unit’s tactics. Planes flew in formations of three. Two would go in as decoys to attract searchlights, then separate in opposite directions and twist wildly to avoid the antiaircraft guns. The third would sneak to the target through the darkness. They would then switch places until each of the three had dropped the single bomb carried beneath each wing. The pilots’ skill prompted the Germans to spread rumors that the Russian women were given special injections and pills to “give us a feline’s perfect vision at night,” Ms. Popova told Mr. Axell. “This, of course, was nonsense.”

It was a cynical method to denigrate the women generally, while also denying their skills.

Conversely, a book review from 1982 in Military Review makes the important point that all credit goes to the women, as there were no men to credit.

Source: Military Review, October 1982

And here’s a 1985 article in Soviet Life (an official diplomatic publication of the USSR embassy in America) that hilariously says “Night Witches” became a phrase because their women flew at night, completely ignoring implications of the witch part.

Source: Soviet Life, 1985

These women gave different explanations for the name, when interviewed directly.

Here’s one account:

Nobody knows the exact date when they started calling us night witches. […] We were bombing the German positions nearly every night, and none of us was ever shot down, so the Germans began saying these are night witches, because it seemed impossible to kill us or shoot us down.

That seems a bit of a stretch, given other women talk about watching their colleagues get shot down — even the expression on their face.

Here’s another:

The Germans liked to sleep at night, and they were very angry with the planes. They spread the rumor throughout the army that these were neither women nor men but night witches. When our army advanced again, the civilians said to us that we were very attractive and that the Germans had told them that we were very ugly night witches!

I totally buy that version of events, given again the fact that it comes directly as a 1st person account of being denigrated by Nazis. Their impact was legendary, even though their story rarely has been told.

Also note that an element of surprise ironically came from the Polikarpov Po-2 being so slow it couldn’t fly faster than 94 mph even without bombs. Made of plywood and canvas, with no radios, they flew invisibly through all the German radar, infrared and radio locators.

The “whoosh” of women flying over in simple and silent planes to drop bombs on heads of German men, must have infuriated the infamously drug-addled and technology-obsessed, lazy misogynist Nazis.

Each crew flew as many as eight to 18 missions a night. They flew more than 23,000 sorties during the war, and many pilots had flown over 800 missions by war’s end. It is reported that they released more than 20,000 tons of bombs on Nazi targets. These women undoubtedly contributed significantly to the Red Army and helped to clinch a victory over German forces.

Source: Internet search for “The women who dropped 20,000 tons of bombs on Nazis”

Eighteen missions a night? Talk about pilot combat survival rates. And while 23,000 sorties is high, a rough back-of-napkin estimate of 20,000 tons of bombs dropped suggests that still would have taken nearly 7,000 B-17 flights (a high-visibility plane with a chance of survival at less than 50 percent).

Many pilots having over 800 missions is kind of a big indicator of skill not to mention superiority over German targets. Maybe it was just Nazis stumbling out of bed late and missing their targets that created a “whoosh” sound — all net, no score.

Again, there were no Soviet men to credit with the records; no explanation other than loyalty, skill and talent of women.

See now what I did with the title of this blog post?

Begs the question again of why American women, especially black women, were denied the opportunity to fly at all let alone in war and in combat missions.

It also reminds me very much of tactics used by the Trump family to denigrate and try to obscure women they dislike with name-calling.

‘Horseface, ‘crazy,’ ‘low IQ’: Trump’s history of insulting women… known for giving many of his opponents negative nicknames, men as well as women, but his use of this tactic with women often denigrates their appearance or abilities.

I’m sure the Trump family would ask something like “are you calling us Nazis” if they read this blog. While YES would be an appropriate answer (as I’ve written here before), I also would be tempted to ask them in response “would you prefer I say you march like a South American ant”?


Update May 5th, 2021: Joy Reid explains how one of the two major political parties in America doesn’t show any concern for women being raped and trafficked, but suddenly is up in arms and tries to shut down women who show any signs of talent or skill.

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