"Night Witches" (German: Nachthexen; Russian: Ночные ведьмы, Nochnye Vedmy) was a World War II German nickname for the women military aviators of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, known later as the 46th "Taman" Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, of the Soviet Air Forces. Though women were initially barred from combat, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin issued an order on October 8, 1941 to deploy three women's air force units, including the 588th regiment. The regiment, formed by Major Marina Raskova and led by Major Yevdokia Bershanskaya, was made up primarily of women volunteers in their late teens and early twenties.
History and tactics
The regiment flew harassment bombing and precision bombing missions against the German military from 1942 until the end of the war. At its largest, it had 40 two-person crews. The regiment flew over 23,000 missions, dropping over 3,000 tons of bombs and 26,000 incendiary shells. It was the most highly decorated all-women unit in the Soviet Air Force, each pilot having flown over 800 missions by the end of the war and twenty-three having been awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union title. Thirty of its members died in combat.
The regiment flew in wood-and-canvas Polikarpov U-2 biplanes, a 1928 design intended for use as training aircraft (hence its original uchebnyy designation prefix of "U-") and for crop dusting, which also had a special U-2LNB version for the sort of night harassment attack missions flown by the 588th, and to this day remains the most-produced wood-airframed biplane in aviation history. The planes could carry only six bombs at a time, so eight or more missions per night were often necessary. Although the aircraft were obsolete and slow, the pilots made daring use of their exceptional maneuverability; they had the advantage of having a maximum speed that was lower than the stall speed of both the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and the Focke-Wulf Fw 190, as a result, German pilots found them very difficult to shoot down with the exception of one German fighter ace, Josef Kociok, who grounded the regiment for an entire night after shooting down four of its planes in one night.
An attack technique of the night bombers was to idle the engine near the target and glide to the bomb release point, with only wind noise left to reveal their location. German soldiers likened the sound to broomsticks and named the pilots "Night Witches." Due to the weight of the bombs and the low altitude of flight, the pilots carried no parachutes until 1944.
When the regiment was deployed to the warfront in June 1942, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment was within the 4th Air Army on the Southern Front. In February 1943, the regiment was honored with the Guards designation and reorganization to the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment into the 325th Night Bomber Aviation Division, 4th Air Army, 2nd Belorussian Front; in October 1943 it became the 46th "Taman" Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment. "Taman" referred to the unit's involvement in two celebrated Soviet victories on the Taman Peninsula during 1943.