Ballad of the Unknown Pilot

Summary: A wounded Soviet pilot in a crippled fighter reflects back on his wartime experiences. He’s seen and done a lot of interesting things, but one memory sticks out above the rest. He remembers the strange little unit of young women who flew biplanes and lived in a barn.

Night Witches aircraft
From the documentary “Night Witches, 588th Night Bomber Regiment” by Gunilla Bresky.

August 1942

The Pilot struggles to keep his Yak fighter level. The weather is worsening and the cloud ceiling low. But those are the least of his problems right now. His machine is riddled with holes and engulfed in black smoke from the smoldering engine. The Pilot feels scorching pain down his side. Enemy bullets passed through the cabin, and his body as well. The agony is almost unbearable, but a sign of life. A sign of life that’s slipping away and succumbing to numb bliss. Euphoria is a serene, deceptive enemy that must be stopped at all costs. To lose consciousness means death. Pilotless, the Yak will tumble from the sky into the forested mountains below.

It was a one-sided fight. Three German Messerschmitts versus one Soviet Yak. Outnumbered, outgunned and outmaneuvered, yet the Pilot remained in the sky; saved by fortune. The Messers, their wings iced and feeling the approaching cold front, retreated. In this way, triumphant invaders and beleaguered defenders alike retreated before a stronger force: The Motherland itself. “No more fighting in the skies, under penalty of death!” She declared.

Lifeblood drains from the crippled war machine, both from her leaking engine and the injured pilot under her canopy. The Nazis retreated for the moment. The Soviet heartland lives, even if just for one more day. But the Pilot’s duty isn’t over. He has to return his plane, no matter how little is left of it, back to the airfield.

Unlike a romantic novel or song, there are no daydreams of home or loved ones in the Pilot’s mind. He’s consumed by one, singular thought, every fiber of his being focused on one Herculean task: accomplish the mission to the last drop of blood.

Sputtering and losing airlift, the coughing Yak emerges through the descending storm clouds, her airfield just ahead. The Pilot and his metallic companion have just enough left in them to make a landing attempt. Just one. But that’s all he needs.

The parking lot that used to be lined with Yaks and dear friends is emptied. They’re all dead, annihilated in a hopeless gun battle the Pilot himself just barely escaped from. The airfield itself is almost depleted of life. Men, trucks, supplies, anything that can be moved, all retreating in a chaotic stream down the unpaved roads to the South.

Retreat is open defiance against Stalin’s orders. Not a step back! But a stronger admonition is fast approaching. Broken Soviet forces of the Caucasus Campaign will hit unpassable barriers on three sides of sea and mountain. Stalin or no Stalin, the only choices left will be fight and win or be destroyed.

As he opens his landing gear and lifts his flaps for a landing, the Pilot notices one neighbor of his old regiment that has not yet retreated. A line of U-2s, primitive and stubborn biplanes manufactured by the thousands for war against the Hun invasion.

It’s the planes of the Night Bomber regiment. There are many night bomber regiments, but this one is different and strange. The Pilot is a wounded man wrestling a ruined plane to the ground, all his senses drowned out by the eye-watering, deafening stench of burning oil, gushing gasoline, the death throes of a dying engine. But in the middle of it all, the sight of the night bombers, and the mysterious flyers who crew them, causes a little warm glow in his heart.

The Pilot first saw them a scarce few weeks ago. Biplanes landed and taxied to the adjacent parking lot, and he paid them no mind. There was nothing significant about a night bomber regiment, especially in comparison to the Yak Fighters he and his comrades flew.

That same day the Pilot went to the air support battalion for flares. As he waited, the wood doors swung open and he got his first glimpse of the Night Bomber aviators: a parade of children! Young boys draped in baggy, tent-like uniforms, clomping around in boots ridiculously too large for them. Their hair cut short, but with a single long bang of hair draped over their foreheads.

The Pilot and his peers frowned in dismay. “Is the People’s Army so short of men that we have to conscript little boys?” He said, deliberately louder than he needed to.

Overhearing the Pilot, one of the Night Bomber aviators stops and faces him. Upon closer examination, these aren’t boys at all. They’re women! But is that a more comforting alternative?

The girl pilot was around 20, but her face is covered in baby fat, making her seem even younger. With deep blue eyes and an astonishingly narrow waist, she actually wouldn’t look half-bad if she had hair and dressed properly. The girl was wounded by his comment but hid it well. She quickly composed herself with a smirk and put her hands on her hips.

“Do I look like a boy to you, comrade?” She scoffed.

The correct answer is “yes,” but he didn’t have the heart to say that. So instead the Pilot stared at her with a dumb expression on his face.

Satisfied in victory, she continued on to the quartermaster and showed him the required certificates. The quartermaster’s surprise customers made a request that had never entered his ears before. Bras and panties, did he have any? “Of course not!” He blustered in astonishment, turning red as a tomato. Why would a logistical unit of the Soviet Air Forces have lingerie lying around? The girls left in defeat, resigned to their fate of wearing men’s drawers for all eternity.

A much more annoying request soon followed, this time from the girls’ commander, a stern yet alluring woman who looked about 30. She insisted her charges be given a double ration of water to wash their hair. An outrageous, unmilitary, and unfair request, but men will only argue about such a topic for so long, while a woman will argue until she wins or the world ends, whichever comes first. The night bomber major got her way. Her girls washed their hair.

Rumor spread faster than a brush fire. By nightfall it was the topic of every conversation on the airfield. A girls’ flying regiment! The Pilot and his comrades wondered why anyone would think that was a good idea. Was the army such a joke now that women could do it? But the men’s distaste was matched by intrigue. The strange regiment of girls was the only thing on the men’s minds now.

“I know who they are!” Someone shouted.

His memory jogged, the man went to the officers’ mess and pulled a flyer off the wall. There were so many posters, newsletters, and press releases, it was difficult to keep track of them all, but seeing the girls made the man think of this particular little picture.

“This is them.” He said.

The Pilot took the flyer. It featured an ink drawing of a U-2 peppering bombs on a German tank. In big letters emblazoned at the top: Night Witches. Night Witches! The leaflet went on to explain…

“Formally, this is the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, one of three units in a women’s air corps personally approved by Stalin himself. The girls weren’t conscripts. They all volunteered to risk their lives for the Motherland. The Night Bombers were so effective, so accurate, and so difficult to shoot down, the Germans began to suspect the girls had supernatural abilities, or perhaps arcane drugs that gave them night vision. Their planes gliding to a target whoosh like brooms. The whistle of bombs from unseen planes added to the girl flyers’ supernatural aura. Fearful and exhausted from being bombed from dusk to dawn, the Germans cursed their antagonists as Night Witches! But the girls didn’t take it as an insult. They appropriated the name and used it themselves with pride. Frustrated and humiliated, new orders were issued to all German fighter pilots. Anyone who shot down a Night Witch plane would automatically be recognized with an Iron Cross.”

“This is the most ridiculous nonsense I have ever read in my life.” The Pilot said.

“You think someone would print a lie like that?” His friend exclaimed. “The girls exist! How do you know the story is a lie? Name one thing on this you could prove didn’t happen.”

“If there was a group of German girls bombing us, do you believe ‘Night Witches’ is the best insult we could come up with for them?

“I suppose not.” The Pilot’s friend laughed.

All the men wanted a closer look at these new neighbors, but their curiosity was left unsatisfied. Rather than quarter beside the males in cozy barracks built by engineers, the female aviators exiled themselves to an abandoned cow barn on the opposite side of the airfield.

It was a noxious old building that could make a grown man gag if caught downwind. But after a day of diligent scrubbing, the girls made their new home as pristine as a virgin’s boudoir. Also like a virgin’s boudoir, no man ever set foot inside. The girls picked their base with a strategic cunning that would put Napoleon to shame. Even after a thousand years of trying, no man could ever approach the barn undetected. Thanks to rigid segregation, the night bombers’ daily feminine routines remained a lurid mystery.

After that first encounter at the support battalion, the Pilot never got a proper look at the woman warriors. Men flew by day; girls flew by night. They rarely saw each other, and only at a distance.

Besides officers conducting official business, the only male troops permitted to cross No Man’s Land to the cow barn were cooks and their drivers. They spoke of girls chattering and giggling to each other as they lined up for warm army gruel three times a day. It was indeed an entire regiment of girls. All females, down to the last soldier. Not a single man among them, not even an engineer or an armorer!

Photo of 3 "Night witches."
Luchinkina Valentina Stepanovna of the 46th Guards Taman night bomber aviation regiment with fellow soldiers Evgenia Pavlova and Nina Buzina, 1945.

“Did the Army issue you a brain, or only soup ladles?” The Pilot demanded of the cooks. “Tell us more of these Night Witches!”

The Pilot and his comrades invented what they thought was a brilliant strategy. They would woo the girls with skilled maneuvers. Some men were skeptical, but the Pilot convinced them otherwise. “Why did these girls come here? They like planes, and like flying. Let’s show them how it’s done!”

From that moment onward, instead of landing their Yaks immediately following a mission, hotshots buzzed the cow barn, tipping their wings side to side in a flirtatious hello. The men’s courtship had the opposite effect they intended. Exhausted night bomber crews couldn’t sleep from all the roaring racket of Yak mating rituals. The female commander complained to higher command, who in turn ordered all men to stop annoying the girls.

With the diligence of military intelligence analysts, the Pilot and his merry companions pieced together hearsay, rumor, and confirmed facts about their glamorous comrades in the cow barn. They examined all information with scrutiny. By tribunal, they sealed the fate of every story: truth, or a lie? It was known as truth that the girls liked embroidery, chess, poetry and volleyball. It was also confirmed as truth that they talked and daydreamed of love, weddings and babies, like girls typically do.

“And you said they were a gang of foul-mouthed lesbians!” An admirer barked indignantly.

“I heard it from a very reliable source.” The critic defended his thesis with vigor.

“An idiot gunner from 2nd Bombers isn’t a ‘reliable source,’ Sasha!”

“So? What’s your evidence that they aren’t queer?”

“I saw one of them by the marsh. I waved and she waved back!”

“Oh she waved, that’s practically a marriage proposal right there.” The critic threw up his arms in resignation.

After weighing all the evidence, the conclusion was clear. “They’re good girls and any story claiming otherwise isn’t so.” The Pilot announced, enjoying unanimous agreement of everyone present. So the men continued the war effort, facing danger and death every day. A typical mission would end as the Yaks bounced down the airstrip. Or at least the Yaks that came back.

As the sun set on one warm evening, the Pilot and his comrades set out with a pair of binoculars and peered at their female comrades across the strip. The girls circled up, waiting for their night’s sorties to start. Men typically wait by their planes smoking cigarettes and amusing each other with stories and jokes, mostly off-color ones. The girls didn’t smoke and didn’t like tasteless humor. Tobacco and coarse language are unbecoming of a woman. Instead, they sang and danced. The sillier the dance, the better. The girls did this every night before a mission. They had so much fun they paid no mind to how hot, cold, wet, humid or otherwise miserable the weather was. They had each other and that was enough.

Darkness came and the commander fired her flare gun, signaling the attack. As one, the aviators raced to the parked aircraft, two girls to a plane. A pilot in the front, a navigator in the back. One by one they took off in short intervals, whirring toward enemy lines. A short time later, the first plane reached the enemy positions. The navigator armed and dropped an illumination cannister overboard, lighting up the target area. With fascist positions exposed, they could be bombed. Explosions lit up the horizon. Germans quickly responded with an intertwined forest of roaming searchlights and anti-air artillery hammering the sky.

The U-2s’ simplicity is what makes them deadly. They can attack in a silent glide, too slow to be easily attacked by fighters, too small to show up on radar, and nearly impossible for ground troops to shoot down. Incendiary bullets pass through the canvas wings harmlessly. A biplane’s only weakness is the car itself. A single good hit can set the whole aircraft ablaze, destroying the hull, cooking off flares, and burning the aviators alive.

After the first sortie, girls didn’t return to the main base they took off from. Instead, they landed at a “jump airfield” built on the very edge of friendly lines. It’s abandoned during the day to avoid being bombed. After the first sortie, the commander and her ground crews travel by truck to the jump airfield and wait for the planes. The jump field reduced the amount of time a bomber needed to fly in between attacks.

Bombing is a tough business of machinery, heavy lifting, and physical toil. Yet each plane was airborne less than five minutes after landing. How could little girls compete with men? By determination and a clever disregard for military regulations.

The Soviet Air Force assigns a ground crew to each plane. The ground crew works on that plane, and that plane alone. The result is total chaos. Crews have to wait on each other for available gas pumps. Other crews wait for space at the bomb racks. Still more crews try not to collide with each other as they scramble around the flight line.

There was a rumored explanation for how the girls accomplish their magic. They abandoned the practice of assigning crews to individual planes during a mission. Instead they developed a brigading system. All the armorers descended on a single plane. But it wasn’t a mob, it was an assembly line. One group of girls to the gas pumps. Another group to the bomb racks, and so on. A plane would go from one station to the next without anyone getting in each other’s way. The girls’ assembly line was an impressive process that didn’t slow down one bit until the last sortie landed at dawn.

The Pilot heard a tale from one of his friends at headquarters. This friend witnessed a meeting of all chiefs of staff in the division. Representing the female night bombers was a girl with cropped black hair and chubby cheeks, barely 22 years old. She wore the epaulets of a captain, yet underneath the uniform was a blushing university girl from Moscow State. Even in brief conversation, the girl’s mind burned bright with exceptional intelligence, but she knew nothing of the military. To be brutally honest, she didn’t know much of anything at all about the world outside of her university.

Behold the chief of staff of the legendary Night Witches: a young girl who could go on for hours about the composition of an atom but had never been kissed. The world is often unkind to sheltered people like her. She would have to learn lessons the hard way, like the one barreling toward her now like a tank skidding down a muddy hillside.

In a moment of giddy, naïve innocence, the bright physics student gushed about her regiment’s revolutionary new process for rearming night bombers. She was so proud and excited she rambled on and on, oblivious to the officers’ icy glares. Her voice finally trailed off. Too late she realized she was a progressive lamb in a lions’ den of militant conservatism.

Instead of offering the gushing girl praise, the division chief of staff berated her in front of everyone. The young captain shrank back in her seat, cheeks flushed, nodding in fervent agreement “Yes sir, Comrade Colonel sir!” She swore to return to her cow barn and put a stop to this assembly line nonsense immediately.

But the girls secretly continued their mischievous process anyway. Even when too dark and far away to be seen, the assembly line was obvious by the sheer speed it was gobbling up depleted planes and throwing them back into the sky.

Night Witches on parade

Men enjoyed the girls’ flying regiment as a fun distraction from the miserable, dangerous boredom of military life. But there also grew respect. The Pilot even started to feel foolish for his initial disdain for them. Just like men, the girls flew bravely, endured danger and Spartan living conditions, not complaining once.

After returning from patrol, Yak pilots calmed their nerves with a traditional “100 milligrams of the people’s drug.” With the vodka in their bellies, the men resumed their habits of smoking and sharing obnoxious stories. Some stories true. Some exaggerated. Some made up entirely. Some just meant as jokes. But all humor had a clear line nobody crossed. Nobody uttered a cruel or vulgar word about the girls in the cow barn.

Reinforcements arrived. Truckloads of engineers, clerical staff, surveyors, armorers and many other specialists crucial in a growing military installation. Some of them had heard the story of the Night Witches too. Not all took the girls’ flying regiment seriously, especially when hearing they lived in a cow barn.

“A barn?” One of the newcomers chuckled. “An appropriate home for the Flying Cows, Death Battalion of the Sky!”

“They drop bombs on Fritz’s head and get shot at every night.” The Pilot snapped. “What do you do?”

The Pilot himself had made fun of the girls, now he was getting angry in their defense. The Night Witches, those girls so close yet so far away in their cow barn. The Pilot hadn’t so much as had a real conversation with one, but he adored them regardless.

All such amusement and happiness disappeared. The glorious Soviet counterattacks. floundered. Stalin’s commanders learned from mistakes made in 1941, but not enough. Their Spring and Summer offensives were poorly coordinated, officers and men were inadequately trained and lacked proper communication. The Germans destroyed them piecemeal until all the new army formations were crippled.

In August, the resupplied Germans launched a counterattack as fierce as the initial invasion. Everything the Soviets gained was lost almost overnight. Red positions fell apart in embarrassing disarray. The situation at this airfield was no different. All the tanks and infantry protecting it have been scattered or destroyed. The enemy will be upon it before sundown.

An hour ago, the Pilot and the rest of his regiment boarded their Yaks. The airfield is being evacuated. Everyone is leaving the front. But not the fighters. Being Yak pilots is a mixed blessing. They get all the glory, but also die first. They looked at each other one more time before disappearing behind their canopies. This would be their last flight and they all knew it.

“Not one step back!” The Pilot shouted to the others. His comrades. His friends. His brothers. Men he would never see again.

The Yaks assembled in the sky and formed up to meet the oncoming cloud of Messerschmitt fighters. It was a desperate and futile battle from the beginning. Yaks exploded midair or spun out of control into the rocky terrain below, breaking apart as they tumbled. The Germans suffered minor losses. A damaged fin here, a smoking wing there. Only a few Messers crashed. The Pilot’s regiment was destroyed utterly. By chance, he survived.

His plane shakes violently as the Pilot makes his final approach. But it doesn’t come apart. Like him, the Yak isn’t giving up. Wheels slam down on the airstrip with a jolt, making his torn insides scream. But he’s made it back on the ground. He’s done his duty to return the plane.

Looking around outside, the Pilot realizes he’s landed on the wrong side. He’s in the Night Bombers parking lot. “Ha, I’ve snuck into the witches’ lair.” He thinks to himself. “It was that simple all along. Just land right in the middle of them.” It’s really not that funny. But he finds it funny. There’s blood pooling on his seat underneath…

Hitler’s Lightning War is fast approaching. Tanks will burst from the trees within the hour. Plumes of dust from their tracks are already visible in the distance. The Yak is still steaming as several men run over from across the runway and open the canopy. The Pilot is dead. He should have died quite a while ago, but he wasn’t done yet. There’s nothing anyone can do for him now. They jump down from the Yak and continue their retreat.

The cold front beats the Germans here. The clouds darken and sheets of rain come down with increasing intensity.

Can the Pilot see this happening? Does the soul continue to exist after death, or does it dissipate into the universe? A better question might be how could the Pilot’s soul not linger on when its physical form suffers a fate like this? The Pilot is alone, a broken body in a crippled plane on an emptying airfield. His comrades are all dead. Everyone else abandoned him. The fallen Pilot is alone.

But he’s not alone. More people climb onto his plane and peer into the cockpit, eyes sparkling, their faces somber. Little hands reach into his ruined cabin and pull the Pilot out. It’s the girls. They came for him. They ease the Pilot into a waiting horse cart. The horse is emaciated and weak, but does his duty leading the grim little funeral procession off the airfield, past the cow barn, into the muddy terrain beyond, sporadically lit by bizarre patterns of lightning in the sky above.

It’s another assembly line of sorts. Several more girls already dug the grave for him. It’s off the beaten path where he won’t be disturbed, where his bones won’t be dug up by the treads of German tanks or trampled by the jackboots of German soldiers.

Horse halted, the girls wrap the Pilot in a tarpaulin and ease him into his final resting place. The dirt has already turned to a thick muck under the torrent of rain. Two Night Witches start to shovel the grave closed, the rest circled around, watching quietly. Their uniforms are soaked through, but it doesn’t bother them.

Grave sealed, the girls stand in silence. What can they say? They know nothing about him. Are his parents alive? Was he married? Did he have children? Siblings? They don’t even know his name.

They don’t know where’s he’s from either. What was his home? Moscow? A Ukrainian collective farm? A mining town in Belorussia? It doesn’t matter, because it’s all the same. No matter where the Pilot is from, he is home. He’s on Soviet soil. The Motherland that birthed him, raised and nourished him, is now reclaiming him.

It’s a cold and miserable ceremony. There’s no parades, speeches or gun salutes. But the Pilot’s sisters gave him the sincere farewell that he deserved.

Respects paid, the girls depart. Minutes later their little “sewing machines,” biplanes of wood and canvas, buzz to life. To fly in broad daylight exposed to enemy fighters is suicide. But the storm protects them. Shaving just above the treetops, Night Witches fly when others can’t.

The Pilot’s earthly body is where they left it. But what of his soul? Assuming such a thing is possible, can the Pilot find peace? Or will he continue his patrol across the sky, watching over the Motherland he died for? Maybe next time the girls are singing and dancing by their planes, he’ll be there too.

See Wikipedia for information about the Night Witches in WWII.


Critiques welcomed, but will be moderated.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events, and incidents are either works of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2020. All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or used in any matter without permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. This copyright overrides this website’s Creative Commons license.

Ian Michael

Author’s afterword

I hope you will continue to enjoy my regularly posted stories on Sundays. This is an introduction to my next book, The Silver Cord, a novelization of a legendary, but very real band of heroes from World War II. Or, as they would call it, “The Great Patriotic War.”

The release of the print and Kindle editions of Ultra Violence: Tales from Venus will be announced soon.

I also encourage everyone to follow my Facebook and Twitter pages for updates on my books.

About the author

See Ian Michael’s bio. Contact him at LinkedInTwitter, or Facebook. See his other articles on the FM website …

For More Information

Ideas! For some holiday shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

Please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Also see other posts about WWII, and especially these posts …

  1. Putting women in combat: a quick look at the other side of the debate.
  2. About the future of an American army with women as combat soldiers.
  3. Women in combat are the real Revolution in Military Affairs.
  4. News about the battle for women’s equality in our armed forces.
  5. Martin van Creveld looks at Amazons: women warriors in the real world.
  6. Martin van Creveld looks at the experience of women in the Israel Defense Forces.
  7. Martin van Creveld: women are a problem in the military, not the cure.

Books about the Night Witches

These are just a few of the history books about that unit. There are several works, like this post, of historical fiction about them.

The first big-selling English-language book about the Night Witches is Night Witches: The Amazing Story Of Russia’s Women Pilots in World War II by Bruce Myles (1990).

Ian highly recommends A Dance with Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II by Anne Noggle (1994).

Ian also recommends The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II (English 2017 of a 1985 original in Russia) – a profound book about Soviet women in WWII by oral historian Svetlana Alexievich.

Night Witches: A History of the All Female 588th Night Bomber Regiment by Fergus Mason (2014).

The Soviet Night Witches: Brave Women Bomber Pilots of World War II by Pamela Jain Dell (2017).

“Tonight We Fly!” The Soviet Night Witches of WWII by Claudia Hagen (2017).

Night Witches at War: The Soviet Women Pilots of World War II by Bruce Berglund (2019).

Night Witches: The Amazing Story Of Russia's Women Pilots in World War II
Available at Amazon.
"Tonight We Fly!" The Soviet Night Witches of WWII
Available at Amazon.


25 thoughts on “Ballad of the Unknown Pilot”

  1. Books I recommend to learn more

    When reading books about the Night Witches, there are two things to bear in mind.

    (1) The Night Witches are a legendary Soviet Union with a carefully constructed Stalinist narrative. Legendary Heroes under Stalin tended to represent classes of people. As a result, a very common mistake that westerners, even historians (people who should know better) make is that the 588th was the ONLY group to fly U-2/PO-2 planes. Not true at all. The whole point of the women’s air corps was to give them the same planes as men: fighters, dive bombers and night bombers. The PO-2 biplane was VERY commonly used in the Soviet Air Forces.

    (2) The girls of fighting age when war broke out were raised to a unique blend of communist and traditional values. If an American politician today proposed Stalin’s 1926 family policy, Democrats would probably call him “literally Hitler”. It would be considered so massively right-wing and extreme, it would have no chance of ever becoming law. The Girls’ Flying Regiments were made up of socially conservative women who admired Stalin – that makes English-speaking historians uneasy for multiple reasons. Stalin is the only man who ever lived who convinced women to fight in large numbers. And, as far as anyone can tell, he did it by accident.

    There are LOTS of books written about the 588th NB Regiment. The vast majority are garbage. The Night Witches were always big heroes in Russia, and have sporadically achieved widespread fame in the West at various points.

    Early on, most people outside of the USSR hadn’t heard of the Night Witches. That changed when Bruce Myles wrote about them in his book Night Witches: The Amazing Story Of Russia’s Women Pilots in World War II. It’s by far the most famous book about them. It’s also nonsense. It sounded fictional even as I was reading it – lazily researched and parts outright fabricated. The girls also hated it. One of them commented in an interview “the names are true.”

    Night Witches started becoming popular again in the past decade. There’s a few reasons why that could be. Putin has been pushing WWII history, including the Night Witches. The last remaining girls in the regiment also passed away in that period, their obituaries featured in major English publications. So we have another bunch of fiction and non-fiction books… most of them poorly researched garbage. They’re almost all a waste of time, from what I’ve found so far.

    So what SHOULD we read? When possible, go to the Night Witches themselves. Fortunately, these were the top 1% of the most highly educated women in the country. For a proper understanding of them, ignore the drivel and listen to the girls themselves.

    By far the best book to read is We were called Night Witches (2005) by the regiment’s chief of staff, Irina Rakobolskaya, and pilot Natalya Melkin. It’s exhaustively written, and also comes with a timeline, maps, photos and a full roster of names of everyone in it (started with 115, ended with a little over 200). Honestly, it’s excellent and got a lot less attention it deserved. It’s out of print and as far as I know was never published in English. Considering how trendy Night Witches are, it’s frustrating that the definitive volume by them is mostly ignored.

    However, the full text can be found online here, and converted reasonably well with Google Translate.

    Another excellent book is A Dance with Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II by Anne Noggle (1994). – Noggle herself was a WASP pilot in WWII. She interviewed women from all three regiments, and attended one of their annual reunions outside Bolshoi Theater in Moscow.

    That’s just about all you need to read. Look at the references of other books and web articles. They’re circular and reference each other, but the facts and quotes almost all originated from the two books above.

    The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II (2017) is a profound book about Soviet Women in WWII, by oral historian Svetlana Alexievich. It’s NOT an easy book to read. A 1-star review left on the Amazon page puts it best:

    “In the introduction the author says she wants to show war as it really is so she focuses on the horrible things these women saw and did. The first chapter was so gory I stopped reading and gave the book away.”

    These are three good books I spent after a lot of trial and error. If someone wants to add to the list please do.

  2. That was pretty good but in writing and topic.

    My question is how factual were the exploits of the NW given that there probably was a lot of propaganda surrounding them?

    1. Sven,

      That’s a great question – this short story is a prelude to a full novelization which I’ll be releasing in serial format here in the next few weeks. So distinguishing propaganda from truth was a question I had to resolve early on.

      The answer I came up with is that the Soviets themselves didn’t exaggerate the NW – exaggeration comes from Western writers and audiences failing to understand two things:

      1) Almost every English book I’ve come across doesn’t convey that the NW’s were just one Night Bomber unit, there were many male ones just like them. In fact they had a “brother” regiment, the 889th Light Night Bombers, who had identical planes and worked closely with their “little sisters” throughout the war. The 889th were apparently equally accomplished as the 588th Night Witches, and received personal praise from Stalin for it.

      Funny enough, the regiments’ commanders married each other after the war.

      I do think exaggeration happens in the West’s perception of the NW mission because they don’t understand the tactics involved. The U-2 biplanes could only carry around 300 kg of bombs at a time. The planes also had no sights. The navigator in the back seat also served as the bombadier, and basically had to guess (sometimes using chalk marks on the wings) when to drop the bombs… the Night Witch air crews called this type of sighting “simpler than dried turnips.” so small number of bombs plus little accuracy meant that they usually inflicted very little damage.

      The point of these nighttime raids was “harassment bombing” – they would keep whole formations of enemy soldiers awake and jittery all night so they would be ineffective for combat operations the following day.

      Soviet strategy in WWII gets a bad rep due to their poor performance early in the war, and later Cold War propaganda. There’s no evidence besides unsubstantiated hearsay that the Soviets ever used the “human wave” attacks you see in movies. Soviet “Deep Battle” doctrine was far superior to the Germans’. Harassment bombing was an important part of a combined arms attack. Weaken the enemy lines through lack of sleep… combine that with heavy bombings, artillery to create multiple weak points, then break through with ground formations of tanks and mechanized infantry.

      Back to the Night Witches… from everything I’ve read, I come to the conclusion that they were a capable unit with strong cohesion, excellent leadership.

      2) The second question – again related to propaganda – is why did the NW receive so many awards, particularly “Hero of the Soviet Union” – a typical regiment would get at most two or three Heroes. The Night Witches had 25. OF COURSE that was propaganda, but for a different reason than one might think at face value. Soviet Labor and War medals were intended for the larger purpose of elevating a person as a role model the Party wanted other people to emulate. So when you have a whole unit of women showing bravery in battle… an occupation dominated by men, it’s logical that the powers that the Air Forces would want to highlight as many of them as possible as heroes among women, and their respective communities.

      It can be tough to fully understand this concept as Americans… but the Soviet Union was much more precarious, 15 different states and many different ethnic groups. So you had 23 (later 25) women who all went home to their homes in Moscow, Ukraine, Belorussia, Siberia, Crimea, Siberia, etc…. and became patriotic war heroes for those communities. This strategy worked.

      One of their squadron commanders, Nadia Popovich, described returning to her home town to a parade and ceremony of thousands of people cheering for her. She was also greeted by a Marine who was saved by food supply drops by the Night Witches. (Incidentally, much, much later in life, she personally met with Putin in a public event celebrating heroes from “The Great Patriotic War.”)

      Our culture tends to take the Night Witch legend and try to apply feminist terms to it. The Soviets never tried to portray the Night Witches as “better” than men, but wanted to show that they could be equally brave soldiers… and recognize those women with medals to inspire other women to act the same way. Americans tend to look at all those medals and assume “that must have been because they were so much better than me” – when that wasn’t the intended purpose at all.

      1. Heroes to knit together the different states and different ethnic groups was a well-understood strategy. My friend Tatiana, who grew up in Ukraine in Soviet Times, recalled how her school curriculum knit together the USSR, carefully making sure students learned folk stories and epics and music from all the different ethnic groups. The 13th century Georgian epic The Man in the Panther’s Skin was one of them, including a very nice edition my daughter and son-in-law purchased in Kiev, written in Georgian and Russian, illustrated with by Sergo Kobuladze.

    2. The Night Witches project for me started out as a short story, but ended up growing into a full novel. They’re a group of people that, the more I learned about them, the more I respected them. Especially when I started reading their memoirs. Their air crews were highly educated, well spoken… and very humble and brutally honest about their war experiences.

      Perhaps the most eye-opening and moving story about them occurred after the war. The veterans pooled their money together and funded their commissar to go on a personal expedition retracing the regiment’s steps, and successfully found all the crash sites and recovered the bodies of all the girls who had been classified as “Missing In Action” (there was one crew that took a long time to find… some farmers came forward in 1965 and said they’d buried two girls under their plane… but the plane was removed and the graves obscured) – that was very important, especially back then in the Soviet Union, because soldiers classified as missing were under suspicion as surrendering. Life-long loyalty like that is exceptionally rare.

      Just a couple days ago I found a book with a compilation of diaries from various members of the three girls’ regiments. Which I’m looking forward to reading. So far I’ve seen snippets, but never been able to read them in full.

    3. Okay for some reason the second half of my comments went through… my comment that actually answered your questions got flagged as spam… I’ll call and have it put up tonight once the admin is available to fix it

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  18. A well-written story. I am married to a man from Republic of Georgia, which helps me appreciate the wonderful details you have included.
    “Young boys draped in baggy, tent-like uniforms, clomping around in boots ridiculously too large for them. Their hair cut short, but with a single long bang of hair draped over their foreheads.” To explain this detail,
    Wikipedia supplies a nice explanation with Ilya Repin’s painting “Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks”. They may have been young people, but they had the full force of history imbedded in their hearts, shown to the world by a lock of hair.
    The relations between the young men and women are depicted faithfully, displaying an un-Western type of modesty. Shota Rustaveli’s “The Man in The Panther’s Skin” tells us of King Tinatin (and hence, King T’hamara) in Quattrain 39: “Though indeed she be a woman, still as sovereign she is begotten of God. She knows how to rule. We say not this to flatter you; we ourselves, in your absence, often say so. Her deeds, like her radiance, are revealed bright as sunshine. The lion’s whelps are equal (alike lions), be they male or female.”

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