The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fierce, feared and female: The WWII pilots known as the ‘Night Witches’

Their planes were rickety crop-dusters, but the Soviet women turned them into killing machines.

A female Soviet pilot, decorated with medals, stands next to a plane in 1942. (Agentur Voller Ernst/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

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.

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These pilots, who flew more than 30,000 sorties, were among the bravest fighters in that terrible, long war.

“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?"

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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,” published last month, highlights the exploits of the Night Witches and is being heavily promoted on social media.

Quinn stumbled across the story of the Night Witches during a late night Google hunt for potential story lines. She was hooked immediately.

“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.”

To create her fictional Night Witches, Quinn relied, in part, on a collection of interviews with real Night Witches titled “A Dance with Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II.” The women described their fascination with flight in the days after Amelia Earhart captured the world’s attention.

She awed the country before Amelia Earhart even took to the skies

Also, they wanted revenge.

Nadezhda Vasiliyevna Popova, one of the pilots interviewed, said she volunteered after her brother was killed in battle.

“I saw the German aircraft flying along our roads filled with people who were leaving their homes, firing at them with their machine guns,” she said. “Seeing this gave me feelings inside that made me want to fight them.”

The Night Witches were led by Marina Raskova, a famous Russian aviator who convinced Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to use female bomber pilots after Germany invaded Russia. Furious attacks by the Germans left Stalin short on men.

The female pilots were treated like male bomber pilots — well, sort of.

The witches were forced to wear old uniforms and boots discarded by their male counterparts. Their planes were rickety biplane crop-dusters — “a coffin with wings,” as another writer told the History Channel.

But none of that mattered to the Night Witches. In reading about their missions and examining pictures of them, Quinn was astounded by just how far they’d go to drop their bombs.

“It’s quite astounding when you’re looking at a picture of this Russian babushka,” Quinn said, “and she’s saying something about ‘Oh yes, you know, when the bomb gets stuck on the rack you just climb out on the wing at a thousand meters and, you know, you just lay flat and you give it a push.’”

Quinn’s assessment of their tenacity: “You women are crazy. You’re incredibly brave, but my god you’re crazy.”

The bonds between the female bomber pilots resembled the bonds formed between men in the trenches. They’d sing and dance on the airfield while waiting for the sun to set. They’d help each other with laundry. They’d complain to one another about the misery of wearing men’s underwear.

And then, as darkness descended, they became killing machines.

At least 30 Night Witches never returned from sorties. Those who did make it home alive spent the rest of their lives marveling at what they had done.

“I look up into the dark sky,” Popova said, “close my eyes and picture myself as a girl at the controls of my bomber, and I think, ‘Nadya, how on earth did you do it?’ ”

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