Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Night Witches of World War II

The German sentry stands at his post, trying desperately not to doze off. He’s cold, hungry and tired, the combination of Russian winter, lack of food, and lack of sleep making him wobble on his feet.

A whisper of wind brushing through wires is the only warning he gets, before a series of six explosions light up the night around him and a blast wave slams him to the ground. Ears ringing, he gets up to try and sound an alarm, train a searchlight, shoot something!

In the distance, a 110hp radial engine coughs to life, and the fragile Po 2 biplane, freed of its bombload, slips away from the chaos and into the cold Russian night, heading back towards its home base for another bomb load and another target. There will be no sleep in the German camps tonight, for the Night Witches are on the prowl once again.

In writing about night fighters, I’ve largely focused on their origins, and use in the European and Pacific theaters by British, American, and German forces. Most of these aircraft share some common traits: heavy cannon armaments, radar, multiple crewmembers, and twin engines (exceptions being the U.S. Navy’s F6F-3N and -5Ns). They swept the skies for enemy bombers, engaged other night fighters, and employed their heavy armament as the first in a long line of “All-Weather” attack aircraft.

But on the Russian front, while not technically a fighter group, there’s one specific unit I want to highlight: the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, the only all female air combat unit to operate in frontline service during World War II.

They didn’t fly advanced, all weather, radar equipped aircraft. In fact, the Polikarpov Po-2s were obsolete by 1930s standards, much less by the 1940s. Flying in crews of two, pilot and navigator, they operated their old, slow, open cockpit biplanes exclusively at night, sometimes flying eight or more sorties a night, flying low, cutting the engine near the target to glide in, release their bombs, then restart the engine and escape.

The Germans gave them the name “Nachthexen” or “Night Witches” for the sound the wind made whistling through the bracing wires of the Po-2s while the pilots glided in for an attack. They said it sounded like broomsticks, and thus the nickname was born.

Polikarpov Po-2

Their primary defensive tactic against the much faster, well armed BF-109s and FW-190s was a series of tight circles. The Po-2’s top speed was below the stall speed of the German fighters, and German pilots found it difficult to keep the slow, wildly maneuvering aircraft in their sights long enough to bring them down.

This isn’t to say they didn’t try. The Night Witches’ aircraft often returned with bullet holes punched through the fabric of the fuselage and wings, and thirty members of the squadron died during combat.

It’s a fascinating and largely untold (in the West) story. This unit put together a record that would be a credit to any air combat unit, and did so under some of the worst possible conditions, using antiquated aircraft, against some of the best pilots the German Luftwaffe fielded.

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