Before “girl power” became an inflated necessity of marketing, a real story, deep, as many, that do not deserve to be forgotten.
A war story among many but not as many.
Not all war stories start with the rumbling sound of artillery fire, the clash of swords, the whistle of bullets and one or more heroes (quite always males), disregarding of the danger and moved by a noble intent. Some, as the one that we are going to remember, start in the pain and in the rage, in the courage and in the harsh will of retaliation and vengeance in the regards of an invader but mostly in the silence of long nights, caressed by the whisper of canvas wings, gliding towards a precise objective. A silence suddenly broken by the devastating effect, material and psychological, that the rapid and precise explosions caused by the soviet 588th female regiment of night bombardment, nicknamed in Russian Ночные Ведьмы, from German Nachthexen, in English Night Witches.
A real nightmare for Nazi’s armed forces engaged on the eastern front during World War two. Making in a certain matter unic this story it’s not only the fact that this regiment have been composed by all female aviators and navigators, not a “news” by the Russian before and soviet then but the obstacles and adversities that those women faced in the intern and extern front to accomplish their mission, moved by an unbreakable determination, a deep rage and the absolute willingness to regain or revenge their lives, already interrupted by the crazy plans of conquest of an invader, tenacious and brutal.
The dream of one, the will of many
The story of the Night Witches found its roots in a precise name, Marina Raskova. Soviet aviatrix, holder of records and near to Stalin, that in 1941 achieved to convince the latter, without many difficulties given the desperate hour that the invaded Ussr was living, of the potentialities of soviet women as fighters. By order of Stalin himself, the same year, Raskova was given permission of founding the 122nd Composite Air Group, composed by three female regiments: 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment, the 587th Day Bomber Aviation Regiment, and the 588th Night
Bomber Aviation Regiment (renamed 46th since 1943 and nicknamed Night Witches) . Focusing just on the Night Witches regiment, under the command of captain Yevdokia Bershanska, we know that the first operative actions, after a harsh training accomplished during the rigid Russian winter and mostly by night, with visibility near to zero, took place during the battle of Stalingrad. To this first sortie followed 24-thousand night missions until the take of Berlin in 1945 and was precisely because of the determination and the unbreakable will of taking revenge of the Nazi invader that those women, despite the losses (32 aviatrix were shoot down) and fatigue were insignited with some medals. At last, 24 members of the Night Witches were insignited of the prestigious decoration of Heroes of the Soviet Union.
The adversities that those “witches”, as the Germans wanted to nickname them, had to face did not stop to the hardness of the conditions or the fire of the anti-aircraft guns. The first big adversity (transformed with cleverness in strength) that the latters had to face were the same aircrafts that make them famous, the biplanes Polikarpov Po-2, mainly built with canvas and wood, unequipped with radios and considered obsolete even before the hostilities.
More modern, fast and better armored aircrafts had never been deployed to the 588th Regiment and were assigned to other units, even the other two Regiments of the 122nd Composite Air Group that received twin-engine Petlyakov Pe-2 and fighter Yakovlev Yak-1. Among the possible explainations of that discrimination one of the more plausible had to be reconducted to the fact that those were the aircrafts that originally were used as trainers in the flight clubs, so, familiar to many pilots. The “witches”, however, succeed in transforming many of those weaknesses in points of strenght, making the obsolete Po-2 an effective light night bomber.
The 588th equipped in this way was not capable, despite the determination of the aviators, to inflict great damages and losses, human and material ones, to the Germans but with the passage of time the psychological effects of the nocturnal raids of the “witches” started giving fruits, depriving enemy troops of sleep, weakening their supply and retreat lines, hitting stocks of ammunitions and precious fuel.
The Night Witches were able even to overcome the problem posed by the so noisy engine of the Po-2, quickly learning to “cut off” the latter in proximity of the objective, gliding silently and followed only by the rustle of the canvas wings of their biplanes. Probably the same rustle of the wings of the Po-2 contributed creating the image of the Night Witches for the Germans, remembering the sound of a witch broomstick.
«It was necessary to take into consideration that usually the aircraft went to the target at altitudes of 1,000 to 1300 meters, cut the gas above the target, and approached at a glide, so the noise of the engine was not audible, and the aircraft identification lights were not lit.»
Every crew accomplished from 5 to 10 missions, usually the number increased during the long winter nights, for a total of 90 missions operated by the entire regiment every night. Only the absolute will of those women, those “witches”, those aviators permitted them to accomplish the mission, in harsh conditions, almost impossible, among the anti-aircaft fire of the Germans and the “fights” against their own old aircrafts (sometimes the release mechanisms of the bombs get stucked and the navigator had to climb on the wing during the flight to manually drop them) as well as the physic fatigue and psychological one. Often having not more than 2 to 4 hours of rest per day, for months, among no stop night missions and training.
They have been called “witches”, but this was a badge of honor to bear only inside the cockpit of their aircrafts. Outside them they were and had remained women, soviet ones of course (perfectly in line with the propaganda of the period), women that wanted to fight and being remembered, following the bright example of heroines like Raskova (fallen in battle in 1943) and Bershanska but not for the mere glory, rather for regaining their lives, protect their families or avenge them but especially for demonstrating to all the women that they can (and have to) be considered capable as men, in a field that for thousands years, exception made for rare cases, had been a violent and exclusive male club, the war.
Dawn comes and the hour of the “witches” comes to an end
With the end of the Second World War in Europe, therefore with the seizure by the Soviet forces of the German capital, Berlin, after a long, bloody and in some ways even controversial campaign (there were the most raw and violent traits of what risked becoming a generalized and brutal revenge), came the time of laurels, but not really for everyone. The former 588th Regiment, the Night Witches, had taken part in the Soviet counteroffensive with strength and determination, since the famous battle of Stalingrad, absolutely on a par if not harder, of the “regular” departments of the army and aviation of the Red Star, the only one among the three “female” battalions of the 122nd Flight Group to remain so until the end. The Soviet government, however, after the war decided to dispose of the female regiments, whose fighters returned to civilian life for the most part, despite the latter having hard proved to be useful to the army and manifesting in some cases the desire to remain in the ranks. Unfortunately, for the Kremlin these regiments fell within the “emergency” and temporary sphere even beyond their possible value as a propaganda tool (the attention paid by Soviet propaganda on these women fighters was indeed very low compared to the “calls to work”) And this became apparent precisely with the end of hostilities. Unfortunately, the 122nd Flight Group, strongly desired, as seen, by the founder of the 588th Night Witches Regiment and the other two female regiments, Marina Raskova, saw its members appointed as veterans by the Kremlin and therefore definitively excluded from combat units and reserves; In short, the hostilities and times of gloomy crisis ended, there was no longer a need for them, there was no longer a need for the notorious witches.. Despite the heroic efforts we have retraced so far, the “witches” were not even allowed to parade during the 1945 victory parade, officially because their Po-2s were too slow to participate in the choreography of the latter.
Witches are (still) pop!
Although the story of the Night Witches and their immediate exploits did not have the resonance and “media coverage” they deserved, in relatively recent times it has been rediscovered. In particular, thanks also to the voice of some direct protagonists who have given interviews and testimonies of the events that occurred during the dark years of the Second World War (examples are the interviews with Irina Rakobolskaya). Monographs and detailed studies of their exploits have been carried out since 1965, when the role of Soviet women, veterans of the Great Patriotic War, was officially recognized and celebrated. In 1974, the first comprehensive study on the participation of Soviet women in war was published, by writer Vera Murmantseva and to which several others followed by writers from different countries. The story of the Night Witches, however, has not remained invisible even to the world of pop culture, lending itself well to a less orthodox and academic diffusion. An example of this is the work that the Swedish band Sabaton (whom we interviewed precisely on the importance of preserving stories even with less orthodox means such as metal music) He did, dedicating a piece of the same name to the “witches” and a historical-informative video. They have also appeared in the world of comics; examples are the homonymous Night Witches and Johnny Red.
A board game has also recently been dedicated to them. So, is the story of witches considered safe from oblivion and being forgotten? Probably yes, but the story of the Night Witches, as seen, boasts much deeper meanings than heroic military deeds. It is a story of female revenge, a more than strong demonstration of the fact that women are absolutely equal to men and able to defend their lives with strength and determination, earning the respect they deserve even in a field like that of war, considered by too many still something far from the female sphere, along with many other things. But above all, it is a true story that does not need artifice or forcing to convey an important message that these witches wanted to leave us with such determination.
 N. Hedley, The might of the night witches: Stunning colour pictures of the all-female combat pilots of World War Two, Mirror, 19 Luglio 2017, image. In: https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/gallery/might-night-witches-stunning-colour-10827354
 N. Zalietok, British and Soviet Women in the Military Campaign of 1939-45: A Comparative Review Article, MCU Journal, November 2018, cit. p. 21
 H. Woodyatt, “Women at War: Soviet and American Airwomen in Combat During World War II” (2020). Honors Theses. 2382, cit. p. 1. In: https://digitalworks.union.edu/theses/2382
 Vaughan, Yasmine L., “Dancing in the airfield: The women of the 46th Taman Guards Aviation Regiment and their journey through war and womanhood” (2018). Senior Honors Projects, 2010-current. 551. Cit. p. 65. In: https://commons.lib.jmu.edu/honors201019/551
Da Redazione, Polikarpov Po-2, immagine, Lasecondaguerramondiale.org, 05 Giugno 2015, Immagine. In: https://www.lasecondaguerramondiale.org/aerei/aviazione-sovietica/511-polikarpov-po-2.html
 A. Krylova, Soviet Women in Combat: A History of Violence on the Eastern Front, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2010, cit. p. 123
 Vaughan, Yasmine L., “Dancing in the airfield: The women of the 46th Taman Guards Aviation Regiment and their journey through war and womanhood” (2018). Senior Honors Projects, 2010-current. 551. Cit. p. 66 In: https://commons.lib.jmu.edu/honors201019/551
 R. Pennington, Wings, Women, and War: Soviet Airwomen in World War II Combat, Ed. University Press of Kansas, 2001, cit. p. 86
 Vaughan, Yasmine L., “Bomb-Dropping Bombshells: An Analysis of the Motivations and Accomplishments of the All-Female 46th Taman Guards Bomber Aviation Regiment”, James Madison University, 2017, cit. p. 14
 Vaughan, Yasmine L., “Dancing in the airfield: The women of the 46th Taman Guards Aviation Regiment and their journey through war and womanhood” (2018). Senior Honors Projects, 2010-current. 551. Cit. pp. 54-56. In: https://commons.lib.jmu.edu/honors201019/551
 The Soviet Night Witches, image, Wright Museum of World war two, Blog, 1 ottobre 2020. In: https://www.wrightmuseum.org/2020/10/01/the-soviet-night-witches/ Vaughan, Yasmine L., “Dancing in the airfield: The women of the 46th Taman Guards Aviation Regiment and their journey through war and womanhood” (2018). Senior Honors Projects, 2010-current. 551. Cit. p. 30
 Ivi., cit. p. 78
 To learn more: A. Spiridigliozzi, Le donne di Berlino, Opinio Juris, 11 May 2023. In: https://www.opiniojuris.it/le-donne-di-berlino-la-vendetta-rossa-negli-ultimi-giorni-del-reich/
 R. Pennington, Wings, Women, and War: Soviet Airwomen in World War II Combat, Ed. University Press of Kansas, 2001, cit. pp. 73.
 Ibid., p. 73
 A. Werth, Russia at War: 1941-1945, Ed. Dutton, New York 1964, cit. pp. 176-177
 H. Woodyatt, “Women at War: Soviet and American Airwomen in Combat During World War II” (2020). Honors Theses. 2382, cit. p. 72. In: https://digitalworks.union.edu/theses/2382
 The Soviet Night Witches, Wright Museum of World War 2, Oct 1, 2020. In: https://www.wrightmuseum.org/2020/10/01/the-soviet-night-witches/
Interview with Irina Rakobolskaya, Chronicles of Courage: Night Witches, NBC News Learn, 2020. In: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HmUZgCGCO8Y&list=PLRpUYjB1LkA-GyigQkUxAaK4vFm0vf2xA&index=11
 N. Zalietok, British and Soviet Women in the Military Campaign of 1939-45: A Comparative Review Article, MCU Journal, November 2018, cit. p. 33
 Per approfondire: A. Minervini, Sabaton: la “crisi” della storia e la musica heavy metal, 18 Luglio 2022. In: https://www.opiniojuris.it/sabaton-la-crisi-della-storia-e-la-musica-heavy-metal/ Eng version: https://www.opiniojuris.it/sabaton-the-crisis-of-history-and-heavy-metal-music/
 SABATON – Night Witches (Official Lyric Video). In: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jcemHIqmkYI
 Sabaton History Channel, Night Witches – Female Soviet Pilots – Sabaton History 050 [Official]. In: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mKd2_GGtNRw
 G. Ennis, R. Braun, Night Witches, Dead Reckoning Pr, marzo 2019
 G. Ennis, H. Burns, Johnny Red, Oscar Ink, Maggio 2017
Foto copertina: N. Hedley, The might of the night witches: Stunning colour pictures of the all-female combat pilots of World War Two, Mirror, 19 Luglio 2017, image.