Simanaitis Says

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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


Nadezhda Popova, 1921-2013, was one of Soviet pilots known—and feared—by Nazi troops as the Nachthexen, the Night Witches. Image from The New York Times, July 14, 2013.

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.


Originally the U-2, the Polikarpov Po-2 was renamed honoring its designer, Nikolai N. Polikarpov, after his death in 1944. Image from The Rand McNally Encyclopedia of Military Aircraft, 1914-1980, edited by Enzo Angelucci, The Military Press, 1980. Both and list this book.

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.


Polikarpov Po-2. Wing span 37 ft. 5 in. Empty weight 1698 lb. Takeoff weight 2205 lb. Shvetsov M-11 110-hp 5-cylinder radial. Image from Angelucci.

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.)


Marina Raskova was already a record-holding aviatrix when she persuaded Josef Stalin to give women a combat role in flying.

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.


Flying for Her Country: The American and Soviet Women Military Pilots of World War II, by Amy Goodpaster Strebe, Potomac Books, 2009. Both and list it.

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.”


Nadezhda Popova, standing, enjoys some downtime with her colleagues. Image from The New York Times, July 14, 2013.

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,, 2013


  1. Mark Orr
    August 6, 2013

    Such a fascinating story. There area so many great stories from the eastern front that never get told in the west.

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