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HEROINES OF the highest order—and one of the world’s most successful aircraft designs—bedeviled the Nazis during World War II. The tale of the Night Witches and the Polikarpov Po-2 is a fascinating bit of aviation history.
The story is timely with the recent passing of Nadezhda Popova, age 91, as reported in The New York Times, July 14, 2013 http://goo.gl/hGARX.
Hero of the Soviet Union (the nation’s highest honor), with a Gold Star, the Order of Lenin and the Order of the Red Star, Popova was one of a Soviet women’s regiment flying Po-2 biplanes as night bombers in what were known militarily as nuisance raids.
The Polikarpov Po-2 (née U-2) holds a world record for biplane production, with a number exceeding 20,000, and perhaps as great as 33,000, built between 1928 and 1952. It has served in roles as varied as trainer, crop duster, air ambulance (with dual litters in nacelles on the lower wings) and night bomber.
The Po-2 had only modest performance, including a cruising speed of 68 mph and top speed of 93 mph. It was, however, extremely maneuverable. Its designer is credited with joking that a Po-2 could “fly up to a window and look over the sill to see if the enemy was inside.”
In 1941, Josef Stalin put this stealth capability to good use. At the same time, through urging of Soviet aviatrix Marina Raskova, Stalin created three regiments of women, the only time in WWII that women flyers were given combat roles. (Other countries used women solely in ferrying aircraft and the like.)
The women were all young, 18 to 20, and all in love with flying. Nadezhda Popova, for example, joined a flying club when she was 15. She had already been a flight instructor before she entered the 588th Night Bomber Regiment at age 19.
In Amy Strebe’s book, Flying for Her Country, Popova says, “I was a very lively, energetic, wild kind of person. I loved to tango, fox trot, but I was bored. I wanted something different.”
And night raids piloting a Polikarpov biplane surely qualified as different.
Nazi pilots tried to shoot them down, but the Soviet biplanes were elusive prey. The Po-2 was extremely maneuverable—and flew at less than the stall speeds of the German fighters.
The Po-2 night raiders flew in threes, each with a pilot and navigator. They took turns, two planes as decoys attracting spotlights and zig-zagging to avoid fire, while the other identified her target and dropped a single bomb carried beneath each wing. Then they’d swap places.
These were not your ordinary young ladies.
The name Nachthexen, German for Night Witches, was disliked by the Russian women. However, among the German troops, there were rumors that the women were injected with a drug giving them feline night vision. Second, their Po-2 was of wood and fabric construction. When the aircraft throttled-back for a stealthy bomb run, all the enemy would hear was a rustling sound that they likened to a witch’s broom. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013