Saturday, 18 January 2014
Women Warriors - Night Witches
The Germans called them the Nachthexen, but in Russia they were known as Stalin's Falcons, the all female Soviet Russian night bomber squadron of the Second World War. There was also a fighter squadron and a dive bomber squadron. British and American women were allowed to fly in order to deliver new planes to airfields, and other behind the lines flying, but these women went into action.
The night bombers were flying old and obsolete biplanes, the Polikarpov Po-2, which were so slow their top speed was below the stalling speed of Messerschmitt 109s, but they were also very maneuverable, so they were very difficult to shoot down. A favoured tactic was to idle the engine when they got close to their target and coast in silently to drop their payload of two bombs each. They didn't carry radios, and navigated to their targets using an ordinary map and a stop watch. Oh, and because of the low altitude flying and the weight of the bombs, they didn't carry parachutes.
Ground defences were far more dangerous to them than enemy fighters. Being so slow, it was immensely dangerous to be caught in a searchlight beam. So they flew in teams of three; two planes would catch the attention of the ground defences while the third dropped her bombs, and then they would change places until they had all dropped their bombs.
At their largest size, the night bomber squadron had 40 two-person crews, and all the ground support staff were women as well. In the winter of 1942, there are stories of the ground crews having to lie on the wings of the planes to stop them from blowing away in gales - they were only made of wood and canvas.
The pilots flew 24,000 sorties in all, from 1942 to 1945. The number is so high because they flew multiple missions in a night. By the end of the war, the surviving pilots had all flown over 1,000 missions each, and 23 of them were awarded Hero of the Soviet Union medals (as comparison, Leonard Cheshire was awarded a VC for sustained courage over more than 100 missions in a Lancaster bomber).