The Swallow – a story of the WWII Night Witches

Summary: A skeptical Soviet aircraft mechanic has a surprise encounter with a Night Witch, one of the legendary female bomber pilots of the Great Patriotic War. It does not go as he expected.

Polikarpov Po-2
A Polikarpov Po-2 at the Ferté Airshow 2019. By Tibboh, Wikimedia Commons.

Sasha watches the sun drift up from behind the mountaintops. This is the second time he’s seen that since he started his shift and can barely keep his eyes open for it. As a Ukrainian mechanic at an Air Support Battalion repair shop, Sasha is scheduled for regular 12-hour shifts. But it often doesn’t work out that way. Damaged and worn-out planes pile up in the parking lot faster than the exhausted men and women of the ASB can get them combat-ready again.

As a senior technician, Sasha is qualified to work on most of the planes used by the regiments his ASB is responsible for, like the Yak fighters and U-2 biplanes. Throughout the 1930s, the Soviet Air Forces introduced a variety of other planes that Sasha might have needed to learn. But as luck would have it, there was no need for him to. They proved to be ineffective and were removed from service at the beginning of the war. More precisely, they were shot down.

His job is not an easy one. Sasha works long hours with his arms stuck deep in the guts of an engine and has the scars on his hands to prove it. None of that bothers him. As a factory worker for most of his life, Sasha has been accustomed to grueling and painful work since he was a boy. When war broke out and the conscriptions started, Sasha’s tough trade proved to be a saving grace. He’s grateful to have a skillset that makes him useful for something besides another set of hands to hold a gun and pair of feet to march on.

So Sasha works day after day doing more or less the same thing. Pilots land outside to complain about one problem or another with their aircraft. For a time-consuming job, the pilot will leave. But usually the job is brief enough for the pilot to stick around while Sasha works. Then the two men swap stories of childhood nostalgia, romantic conquests that allegedly happened, silly pranks they pulled on their friends at the barracks, and off-color jokes. With the job finished, the pilot leaves.

Sometimes those pilots come back another day with another problem. But they usually don’t. There’s nothing to be gained by speculation as to why. Maybe the plane continued to work fine forever. But it’s more likely that the pilot took off for a particular mission and ended up in a place where he won’t need maintenance ever again. More than once a plane has returned without its pilot. Towed back. Then Sasha’s duty is to restore the airframe best he can for it be transferred to a new owner. If that’s not possible, he scavenges it for useable parts.

On paper, all planes are supposed to go to the repair shop after every 300-500 flight hours to be stripped down and carefully inspected. That’s a job that can take even a whole crew as long as a week to finish. But such inspections happen rarely. Most Soviet combat planes don’t live past 100 flight hours.

Military life in an ASB isn’t easy. But Sasha has seen enough blood-splattered cabins to know that his role in the war could be much worse. And shorter.

With the day’s work done, Sasha lights up one last cigarette before calling it a night, or day, or whatever it is. He’s looking forward to collapsing into a dreamless coma on his bunk. He may or may not remember to undress first, not that it would make a difference. Or at least that’s what Sasha thought he was going to do. Sasha’s first sergeant leaves the command post and joins him on the airstrip.

“Khomenko, my favorite technician!” The First Sergeant slaps him on the back a little harder than Sasha would like.

His supervisor looking on greedily, Sasha offers his pack of cigarettes. The First Sergeant helps himself to one and takes a drag. “I have another job for you.” He puffs a smoke ring, a trick he’s been practicing for months and shows off at every opportunity.

“Can’t someone else do it?” Sasha groans.

“Why? Do you have someplace more important to be? A date with one of our fair comrades from the fueler section, perhaps? What’s her name, oh, Nina! She’s quite the looker, isn’t she?”

“Isn’t Nina a little young?”

“Christ, you’re so boring! If she’s old enough for war, she’s old enough for love. Wait, where was I going with this? Oh, right. What urgent task is keeping you from working on another plane?”

“I was thinking of a ritual that people do sometimes. They call it sleep.”

“Sleep?” The First Sergeant guffaws. “Ha! Nonsense! I’ve tried that a few times myself. It’s overrated. Besides, this next job is important.”

“What is it?” Sasha resigns himself to the absurd nightmare of his existence.

“A U-2 biplane.”

“A sewing machine? For God’s sake, are you serious? It’s a five-cylinder engine attached to a wood box. An idiot could fix one.”

“Good, then this will be easy for you.”

“Do you hate me? Why do I have to do it?”

“Oh, Khomenko, how could you think I hate you? As for why, we’re in the Army and I told you to.”

“There’s that.” Sasha concedes.

“Secondly, I walked outside and you’re standing right here! You’re already wearing your coveralls and everything”

“That is convenient. But also because I just did two shifts in a row.”

“And I also picked you because you’re a nice guy.” The First Sergeant grins.

“A nice guy?” Sasha asks. “Is there a medal for that?”

“Eh, no. But it makes you perfect for this. Your visitor arriving shortly is Junior Lt. Sebrova, the division’s most accomplished night bomber pilot. Sebrova has flown more combat sorties than anyone, and at this rate will probably be the first to break a thousand.”

“Just surviving that long is an accomplishment in of itself.” Sasha agrees. “He must be quite a character.”

“She.”

“She? From the female regiment? The 46th Guards, or whatever they’re calling it now?”

“That’s right. One of the Night Witches, and the best of them! The great Irina Sebrova, the Third Reich’s worst nightmare.”

“A woman making their lives difficult must be annoying.” Sasha finishes his cigarette and stamps it out on the gravel.

“You’ve never worked with our sisters from the 46th, have you?”

“I know they drop by often.” Sasha answers. “But I never happened to be on shift for them. I might add this wasn’t on one of my scheduled shifts either.”

“Then today is your lucky day. You’re about to brush shoulders with a war hero.”

“So you’ve met this Lt. Sebrova before?”

“Yes, and don’t let her sex fool you, Khomenko! She’s utterly fearless in battle. Sebrova will weave through a forest of enemy spotlights and anti-air cannon up to a foxhole filled of terrified German soldiers and drop an incendiary bomb right in the middle of them. All that death and destruction in her wake, and she doesn’t feel a shred of pity. Today you’re going to look in the eyes of a stone-cold killer.”

“How impressive.” Sasha scoffs. “Whatever would we do without women like her?”

“You sound skeptical. Why?”

“I’m not skeptical. I just don’t think dropping bombs is a woman’s business.”

“That’s not very progressive of you, Khomenko. Didn’t you have a few female workers at your side in the factory? What about the young women right here in our battalion? I’ve never heard you complain about any of them.”

“Yes, but those women are truck drivers, mechanics, fuelers, and desk clerks.” Sasha says. “They don’t fly around blowing people up.”

“Fascists aren’t people.”

“That’s not the point. Why are we glorifying war to girls and encouraging them to fight? Men die and are crippled in battle, but there’s no avoiding that. Why get women killed and crippled too? It’s ridiculous and unnecessary. And what about after the war? You can’t tell me a young girl spending years of her life killing and destroying won’t damage her in the head. Do you want to put a baby in the arms of a woman like that? Is that the bride you want to take home to meet your parents? Imagine that conversation. Did she go to school? What’s her job? Does she have any hobbies? Oh, she hunted down a hundred men and blasted them to bits. Yes, Mother, this is the girl I picked to raise your grandchildren!”

“You’re so smart. Maybe after the war you should study to be a psychologist. That could be your thesis. The Female Brain: what do her neurons do when she kills fascist scum?”

“What’s a neuron?” Sasha asks.

“I have no idea. I just heard it somewhere.”

“I’m pretty sure you have to finish primary school before you go to university.” Sasha shrugs. “Or go to primary school at all.”

“You’re such a defeatist, Khomenko.”

“Coarseness isn’t the only problem with military women. I’ve seen some of the antics that happen around here. I thought this was an army, not a brothel.”

“It’s quite fun!” The First Sergeant chortles. “Female company makes this shithole a little more tolerable. And our, ahem, sisters-in-arms, are just as bored as us.”

“That’s just it. Catching prizes may be fun while we’re at the front. But when this war is over and we go home, do you really want a wife who’s been with who knows how many men while she was out here? A good bride is supposed to save herself for her future husband, not open her legs for every moron with a medal on his uniform who winks at her.”

“Maybe you would make a better priest than a psychologist. Just hurry up and do it before the church gets on Comrade Stalin’s nerves again. He’s not a difficult man to keep happy and I’m not sure why everyone keeps screwing that up. Don’t make stupid political jokes. Don’t publish disrespectful articles that are obviously going to piss off the wrong guys. Don’t wrap your food in a newspaper with Stalin’s face on it. Good God, book-smart people have no common sense.”

“I guess attending university doesn’t make you smart,” Sasha says.

“You’re a fine mechanic and a nice guy, and that’s enough for today. As for neurons, maybe you can ask Sebrova. I’m sure she knows. Night Witch girls all got fancy educations from what I hear.”

“As flattered as I am, what does any of this have to do with me being a nice guy? Why does that matter?”

“Because if you swear or say something crude, you’ll upset her.”

“Lt. Sebrova does sound like an iron soldier who eats nails for breakfast. Upsetting her is probably a terrible idea.”

“You would regret it immediately.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. I suppose I should get ready for this immensely complicated repair job. What should I bring? A hammer?”

“That’s up to you, Khomenko. I’ll leave you to it.” The First Sergeant flicks the cherry off his cigarette and turns back to the command post. “Remember to be nice to her.”

“Right. Or she’ll be incredibly angry with me.”

Sasha doesn’t have to wait long before a little dot appears in the sky. Junior Lt. Sebrova has arrived. Her biplane touches down and chugs past the mechanic and rolls to a stop.

Ira pulls off her flight cap, adjusts her short dark hair and unbuckles her harness. For some reason she’s wearing her service greens and skirt, an odd choice of attire for flying a greasy, open-topped plane.

He had no idea what to expect but is still surprised. Aviators, especially combat pilots, are the Soviet Union’s greatest heroes. They’re virtually demi-gods. Air Forces pilots know that and have a swaggering cockiness about them. They enjoy their hero status while they can. Air combat in the first year of the war was practically a death sentence, and it still is if one goes out often enough.

Ira just doesn’t strike him like any of that. There’s nothing particularly special about her at all. She’s extremely… average. The legendary pilot is just a plain girl in her mid-twenties. One would pass her on the street and not look twice. Her uniform, on the other hand, is far from average. Ira’s jacket is lined with personal medals and unit citations. Sasha’s greens are folded up in his footlocker back at the barracks, and he only has one medal for it. He can’t even remember what it was for. Just a collective pat on the back for the whole unit. The Red Army does that a lot.

She sees Sasha watching her and looks away.

With her plane landed and cold, Sasha picks up his tool kit to greet her. Ira holds down the hem of her skirt to keep it where it’s supposed to be as she descends from the cockpit. Sasha isn’t sure what to do with her so decides to be formal like you’re supposed to be with a superior officer.

“Good morning, Comrade Lieutenant.” He says cheerily with a salute. Ira salutes back and mumbles a response. Then she blushes and stares at the ground. “Can I look at your plane?” Sasha asks. She nods and follows him back to the parked U-2. “So it’s been having some trouble?” He continues, dropping his box by the carriage.

“The engine stutters sometimes.” Ira says quietly. “Our engineer thinks it’s the fuel injector.”

“She’s probably right, or might be something else.” Sasha climbs up to the front of the aircraft, in front of the pilot’s windshield. He has to be careful where he steps. The skin of the whole plane is nothing but canvas covered in plywood that might puncture under his weight. Up close, he can see the numerous places the airframe has been hit by enemy fire and patched up. There’s no talking. Just awkward silence. It’s extremely uncomfortable. Sasha likes to chat as he works but isn’t used to having to carry the whole conversation by himself.

“We don’t have to be all formal.” He says. “I’m Sasha.” Ira doesn’t answer. “I’d love to hear about your unit.” Sasha pushes onward. “A whole flying regiment of women? It sounds so exciting. The ground crews too?”

“Yes. Everybody.”

“On these little crop dusters, the bombs are really heavy. Is that hard to manage?”

“The 100 kg bombs are hard.” She shrugs. “But three girls can lift one.”

“Night Bombers!” Sasha contemplates. “Any exciting stories?”

“No.” Ira is avoiding conversation at all costs, but she is watching his every move as he tinkers with the engine. She’s a very quiet girl; timid even. But she has the same protective jealousy of her plane as any other pilot who comes through here.

“How do you like your sewing machine?” He asks her.

“My sewing machine?”

“Yes, because it’s a little machine and makes that same chugging sound.”

“I know, but we don’t like to call them that.” Ira shakes her head. “We call them swallows.”

“Why swallows?”

“Because our planes are like pretty little birds. Swallows.”

Soviet female soldier in uniform of World War II writes
By Demian. AdobeStock-172500633.

“From what I’ve heard about your unit, the fascists wouldn’t agree.”

“I guess not.” Ira goes quiet again.

Sasha has to admit his preconceptions about the famed woman aviators might have been unfair. Ira seems like a sweet and modest girl. But it’s difficult to squeeze more than a couple of words out of her. He’s not convinced she’s particularly bright. Sasha looks back at her perched on top of the navigator’s seat. “You have a lot of medals,” Sasha observes.

“Uh-huh.”

“What for?”

“Flying a lot.”

“Just that, nothing in particular?” He probes some more.

“No.”

“It’s still something to be proud of. Do you always fly dressed up in your greens?”

“Yes… I mean, not on sorties or anything like that. But the rest of the time I do.” Ira says.

“Why?”

“Wearing a skirt makes me feel nice.”

“It does.” Sasha agrees.

“Oh.” Ira shrivels up.

“What university did you go to?” Sasha changes the subject as gracefully as he can.

“University? I didn’t.”

“But I thought you all did.”

“No.” Ira shakes her head.

“That’s alright. Most people don’t. Just primary school?”

“Not that either.”

“How far then?”

“Fifth Grade.” Ira confesses. “I dropped out to work.”

“What kind of work?”

“A flour mill.”

“Really?” Sasha is astonished.

“I’m sorry. You were probably expecting someone glamorous and educated and clever. I’m not any of those things.”

“No, not at all! It’s good to meet another worker. We’re the backbone of society. Think about it. Who built these planes to begin with? We did! Men and women just like us.”

“That’s true. I never thought of it that way.”

“Isn’t that what communism is all about?” He turns to look back at her. “We work hard so our children and grandchildren can go to school and have nice things we couldn’t? Like two room apartments.”

“Or ten room apartments.” Ira giggles.

“Eh, let’s not get carried away.”

“Ira.” She says.

“Comrade Ira! And here you are, flying a bomber. So you must have gone to flight school. How’d you manage that?”

“I was a pioneer as a girl. Flying planes sounded exciting and I always wanted to do it. So when I was old enough, I applied at the Komsomol. Nobody liked girls going to flight school back then. They thought we would be useless at it. But when I graduated, they asked me to stay on as a pilot instructor.”

“You taught men how to fly?”

“The first time I did it I wanted to hide. I was scared they wouldn’t listen to me. But they did. After that it got easier, and most of my students passed with high marks. When I talk about aviation, navigational theory, instruments, and things like that, I’m not so nervous.”

“Everybody’s nervous the first time they do something. And you’re a great pilot because of it, I’m sure”

“Going to the front was harder,” Ira tells him. “The day war broke out I volunteered, but nobody wanted girls to do that either. Then Premiere Stalin let Marina Raskova form her girls’ flying regiments. She hand-picked us, you know. She said I’d make a wonderful Air Forces pilot someday if I put my mind to it and never gave up. We all loved her. She was the greatest female aviator ever. We didn’t just look up to Marina Raskova. We wanted to be her.”

“To think when you first landed here, I could barely get a word out of you.” Sasha laughs. “You were so quiet! I thought you were a mute. You’re very well-spoken.”

“I’m just a little shy when I meet new people.” Ira hands the greasy component back to him. “And our Party organizer always makes sure we remember what we’re fighting for and don’t go astray. Oh, and the commissar! She’s wonderful. We call her Mother. She always makes sure our spirits are up and she writes our families. Mother even remembers our birthdays. How do you keep track of a hundred girls like that? And we have the best commander in the whole world!”

“In the whole world? That’s a bold claim.”

“But it’s true! Maj. Yevdokiya Bershanskaya. She’s amazing. We all look up to her. She wanted to be a fighter pilot, but Raskova made her be a regimental commander. Bershanskya was so upset!”

“Why would she be upset? Isn’t being a commander better?”

“Not really, when you think about it.” Ira disagrees. “A lot of us wanted to be fighter pilots. When you’re flying a fighter, you kill fascists one-on-one. We were disappointed when we went to the Night Bomber regiment. Dropping bombs on fascists you can’t see really isn’t the same. It’s even worse for the commander. She’s flown a few sorties to set the example, but most of the time she can’t leave the ground.”

“I suppose that would be disappointing.” Sasha sighs. “But still, blowing fascists into little pieces must be a lot of fun, even if you can’t see them.”

“We’re not like that.” Ira notices the disapproval in his voice. “We aren’t coarse women who enjoy killing people.”

“What do you mean? You’re only doing your part. We have to kill the enemy to win.”

“You don’t understand!” Ira groans. “We all wanted to fight, but we were so silly. When Raskova told us we had to do six months of training, we were disappointed. We thought the war would be over in a week. It was a ridiculous thing to believe, but we didn’t know any better. We were just little girls with pretty dresses, long braids, and big dreams. None of us knew what war is actually like”

“Nobody does.”

“In a way, flying Night Bombers isn’t so terrible. We can glide to the target without making noise, and don’t show up on radar. Enemy gunners are all trained to shoot at high altitude bombers. When we show up in our two-seater biplanes, our little swallows, the Germans don’t know what to do with us. They see explosions and it takes them a long time to figure out where it’s coming from. They just shoot in all directions. As for fighters, they’re designed to hunt fast, modern bombers, and duel other fighters. They’re too fast and heavy for their own good; they can’t slow down enough to get a good shot at us without stalling out. We can sideslip away and by the time the pilot chasing us can turn around we’re already gone.”

Witch flying on broomstick in the evening.
By Heaven. AdobeStock-35994857.

“It still doesn’t sound like a walk in the park.”

“No, it’s awful. The enemy gets lucky sometimes, and that’s all it takes. Searchlights are the worst. If you glance into one, you can probably get away with it. But if you get tangled up in several, you’re blinded and the gunners have enough reference points to know exactly where you are. Our U-2 planes are like candles. One incendiary round into the undercarriage is enough to set it ablaze. You burn alive. Then all those flares in the crew cabins, right in your lap, cook off like fireworks. Our regiment activated with 115 girls. Out of those, 40 were pilots and navigators. Out of those original 40… it’s best not to count.”

“Pilots who come through here sometimes tell me what the air war is like. But it’s not something one can understand without being there.”

“Like I said, Bershanskaya was disappointed when she was assigned to command instead of flying a Yak fighter. We were all disappointed a little. U-2s are little training planes we flew at school. We thought being assigned them to operate in battle was a bad joke, like we were a token force of women allowed to fly just for the sake of the government being able to say we did. But it didn’t take long for us to know better. Night raids are terrifying. It’s the scariest thing any of us has ever done. And even after you land safely, it’s not over. The caffeine pills that keep us awake on missions keep us awake when we try to sleep too. Then there’s the nightmares, the spotlight dreams. It’s so hard! But we have to be brave and not give up.”

“And your commander helps you cope?”

It’s obvious now why Raskova picked Bershanskaya to lead us. She’s actually very similar to Raskova, though they don’t look anything alike. That’s why we all admire her. We wouldn’t have made it this far without our commander.”

There’s a question has been bubbling up in Sasha’s mind for too long and he has to get it off his chest. “Why’d you do it?” He asks. “Why did you want to fight at all? Aren’t there enough equally important jobs for women to do back home?”

“One of my girlfriends told me that Stalin asked Raskova the same question. He thought it was too awful to send women to die in the war. It’s hard to explain, but we just had to fight, whether anyone wanted us to or not.”

“But why?” Sasha asks again. “What was going through your heads?”

“Uh, have you ever heard of girls’ illnesses?”

“No, and I’m a little scared to ask what that means.”

“It’s a joke, really. Back at the regiment we have ‘illnesses.’ One of these illnesses can strike at any moment and infect our entire unit, like a disease. It could be anything; a game, a hobby, or something like that. We wake up one day and all want to do it at the same time. We’re completely obsessed with it and think of nothing else. Then later we all lose interest in it at the same time. That’s what makes it funny. No one can explain why that happens.”

“So when all of you wanted to enlist at the same time, that was one of those ‘illnesses?'”

“Maybe.” Ira says. “But I think it was more of a sense of duty than anything else. Comrade Stalin has done so much for women. Medical clinics, trade schools, kindergarten, better marriage and divorce laws… too many good things to even list properly. Thanks to him, women are safer and have more rights than ever before.”

“I guess men can overlook things that are important to the opposite sex.” Sasha admits. “Stalin looks after men and women.” He rips out a component, wraps it in a rag and hands it over to Ira. “Hold on to this for a moment. Don’t let it drip on your pretty uniform.”

“After everything the Great Stalin has done for us, how could we not fight for him?” Ira continues. “How could we not fight for our way of life? How could we not fight for our families and country? How can we claim to be equal to men if we aren’t here with you, fighting to the last drop of blood?

“When you put it that way, it shouldn’t have come as any surprise that women wanted to fight.”

“Some of the girls are Party members, some aren’t. But every last one of us is a dedicated communist. That’s what Raskova was looking for when she formed the girls’ flying regiments. Yes, we had to be brave and strong, but most of all, we had to be loyal; our minds and souls absolutely and unconditionally committed to the Motherland and to Stalin. That’s what Raskova always said, and we took her words to heart. Like Marina Raskova, we all swore to give anything, up to and including our lives, in defense of the dream of communism, the Soviet Union! The light in a world trapped in medieval darkness. Marina Raskova gave her life for the cause, and we would all gladly to the same, if need be.”

“It sounds like your unit is an example for the rest of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army to follow.” He extends his hand back to her. “I need that back now.”

“No, a women’s regiment isn’t so different.” Ira hands the greasy tube she was safekeeping back to him. “That’s the whole point. We’re organized the same and do all the same things a men’s regiment would.”

“But us men were conscripted. As ashamed as I am to say it, a lot of men are only fighting because they didn’t have a choice. You volunteered even though you didn’t have to. When the government didn’t even want you to. Most girls stayed home.”

“We’re proud to be the ones who insisted on going to the frontlines. We’re better than the girls who stayed home in the safety of their apartments. We look down on them.”

“And with good reason.” He agrees.

Ira watches him tinker around. Sasha is too fixated on what he’s doing at the moment to say anything further. “Do you mind if I ask you a question?” She pipes up. “For you, as a man. Do you think a woman in the army is easy to be around?”

“You’ve been tolerable so far.” Sasha laughs.

“No really, like – as a wife?”

“Uh, I hadn’t thought much about it.” He answers. “Why?”

“I just want your opinion. Would she be too much for a man to handle?”

“To take a guess, I would think it’s the same as any marriage. It’s just like the army, and she’s used to the army. Maybe as a soldier, she’ll understand better than most girls that life can be tough.”

“Have you heard of Alexey Maresyev?” Ira asks.

“Who hasn’t? He’s one of our greatest heroes. Getting shot down and losing both legs, then returning to battle with prosthetics and becoming a fighting ace. Everyone should strive to be as dedicated and patriotic as him.”

“He said woman soldiers are very brave. We want to attend school, start careers, and raise families. But instead we go to war and risk our lives.”

“You should take that to heart.” Sasha says. “It’s nice when some random Ivan gives you a compliment, but when Maresyev praises you, that really means something.”

“Maresyev was being tactful. War is different for women than men. Of course, we think about how important it is to win and are scared of dying like anyone else. But in the back of our minds, we dread what might happen after the war. Everyone thinks about the present, but women worry about the future too. Do we have a future at all?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Uh, I’m not sure how to put this without sounding selfish.”

“Don’t worry about that.” He tells her. “We’re having a friendly conversation.”

“When the war is over, there’s going to be a lot more women our age than men. Do you know what I mean?”

“That’s not selfish. No one wants to be alone forever. We just met, but you seem nice. I’m sure you won’t have any trouble getting married.”

“But that’s only half the problem.” Ira sighs.

“What’s the other half then?”

Maresyev has no legs, but he’s a hero and girls all want him. Even men who aren’t Maresyev come back from war and are heroes. Even if they’re balding, or too pudgy or too skinny or too short. Even if they have a war injury. Women will overlook all those things and still find veterans attractive. What about girls? Most of us weren’t particularly pretty to begin with; and even if we get through the war uninjured, we’re still damaged goods. Who wants some woman who’s been to war and is crude and tough? Besides that, we’ve been around men for years. Even though we’re an all-female unit with no men, we can say we never did anything improper, but is anyone going to believe us?”

“Maybe you’re overthinking things.” Sasha says.

“No, it’s true. Who’s going to want us when there are girls back home who are younger, prettier, haven’t lived with men, and haven’t been to war?”

Sasha tightens the last lug on the engine block and wipes his hands clean. “I think you’re being foolish. You’re fighting in the most important struggle in history, and you act like that’s something to be ashamed of. You have medals for valor in battle, and I’ve never even been to battle. You’re probably braver than me but are embarrassed about it. That’s silly.”

Sasha slides to the ground. He should have thought of this earlier. “You don’t get to fly much for fun, do you?”

“No.” Ira says.

“I tinkered around with your plane for a bit, but there’s no way to know for sure exactly what’s wrong without a little test flight.”

“A test flight?” Her eyes light up. Without missing a beat, Ira scrambles to the pilot’s seat and jumps in. Sasha goes to the navigator’s position. It’s filled with bouquets of wildflowers.

“What’s all this?” He asks.

“Oh, that. My navigator has a boyfriend.”

“Then the boyfriend can find her more.” Sasha tosses the flowers overboard. Ira puts her flight cap on and buckles in. “Do you have a boyfriend?” Sasha asks innocently.

“Uhh… yes.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Yes, I do!” She insists.

“What’s his name, then?”

Wheels turn in Ira’s head, but nothing comes out.

“I’m going to need to have a look under the control panel while we’re up there.” He says. “I won’t be buckled in, so no fancy flying. Just stay nice and level.”

“Got it.” Ira nods.

Sasha climbs out and goes to the front of the plane to spin it up.

“It’s going to take a while to get her running.” Ira says sadly. “My little swallow is tired and worn out.”

“Not anymore.”

She activates the electric starter and Sasha turns the propeller. The engine effortlessly spins to life. Ira squeals and claps her hands in delight. Sasha is barely back in his seat before she barrels down the runway and into the sky.

The plane levels out at around 800 meters for a slow circle over the airfield. Sasha gets to work while Ira basks in the excitement of doing what she’s dreamed about since she was a little girl. It’s exhilarating. She’s reminded of when she was back in flight school and allowed to pilot solo for the first time. The sky is clear and the weather perfect for flying. Ira looks over the side and sees little trucks and planes lined up below, people scrambling around them like little ants.

Ira gets so excited she zooms even higher and jams her stick to the side and pushes on the floor pedals, throwing the plane into a spin on its axis. Only much too late does the poor girl remember she has a passenger who’s upside down and not wearing a harness. She looks back in horror and sees Sasha clinging to the edges of his cockpit for dear life. Ira screams and flips the plane upright. Sasha plops back into his seat, too terrified to do anything except stare blankly into space.

She takes her plane straight back to the landing strip and touches down. The moment the U-2 rolls to a stop, Ira leaps out and runs away.

Sasha stays frozen in the cabin, still digesting his brush with sudden death. Eventually, he wills his arms to move again and he sits up. Sasha’s stomach lurches and he decides its smarter to sit still for a while longer. After a few minutes, Sasha pulls himself together enough to assess the situation. Abandoned by its pilot, the biplane is still idling quietly where she left it. Sasha looks down at the controls in front of him and taxis the aircraft to an appropriate place in the parking lot. He cuts the motor and gets out.

Where’s Ira? He spots her outside the command post. She’s sitting on a bench, crying. Sasha comes over and sits down on the other end of the bench.

“If you’d fallen out, what would I say to the commander?” Ira sobs.

Sasha thinks that scenario would have caused him bigger problems than her, but seeing Ira cry makes him feel sad. She’s the victim here. “There’s no harm done.” He assures her. “I’m fine.”

“Someone else can fix my plane. You don’t have to put up with me anymore.”

“No, I’ll finish working on it.”

“That’s alright. Don’t feel like you have to.”

“I enjoy working on your plane.” Sasha says. “I’ll work on it next time, too. It’s fun.”

“You really think so?” Ira wipes her tears away.

“Yes, I really do. And… if you want, you can come see me without the plane.”

“Is that right?”

“Only if your boyfriend doesn’t mind.”

“I don’t have a boyfriend. I just made that up.”

“Then can I be your boyfriend?” Sasha volunteers.

“Eh, I’ll think about it. Only if you do a good job on my plane.”

“Too easy.”

“Do you need to go up again?” She asks.

“No, that won’t be necessary.”

————————–

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.

Other posts about the Night Witches

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! 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.

 

7 thoughts on “The Swallow – a story of the WWII Night Witches”

  1. The most important thing to understand about the role of women in the Great Patriotic War is this: The moment they got pregnant, they were sent home to safety and warmth… hint hint, nudge nudge.

    When it became obvious that so many men were die-ing that lots of fertile young women would never get husbands the fertile young women were sent to where the men were in order to make babies without husbands. The Nation needed to survive after all.

    Besides, the officers generally got to be first in line.

    Everything else was propaganda. The Stalinist regime was good at propaganda.

    1. Rum,

      Like most Americans, I know little of life in the USSR during WWII. I haven’t heard anything about what you describe. Can you point to anything discussing what you describe? It’s certainly an interesting and undercovered (so to speak) aspect.

    2. Rum,

      You raise a fair question. It is true that pregnancy does get a female soldier sent home from a war zone. That is a rational thing to do now, and there were certainly pregnancies in the Soviet Army, like there are in militaries today. Theres no way to know how many… even if they did keep a count, they wouldn’t be interested in sharing the number (note that even to this day, the Russians haven’t declassified the full list of women raped by Berria, though they assure everyone they are thinking of maybe doing it. Some day.)

      There was a term for officers’ mistresses, the “field campaign wives.” The actual wives back home weren’t happy about this.

      As for the Night Witches, it is of course hard to know for sure. They had their regimental “commandments”, which were tongue in cheek, but still. Here’s the first few:

      1) Be proud, you are a woman. Look down on men!

      2) Do not drive away your neighbor’s groom!

      3) Do not envy a friend (especially if she is in the outfit)!

      4) Do not cut your hair. Save femininity!

      So there was a sense of urgency about the benefits of finding a husband during the war… and corresponds with the number of hasty marriages immediately afterwards, sometimes on the airfield itself.

      There was allegedly only one pregnancy and birth during the war (by a pilot who transferred in unknowingly pregnant, and was married, so had a valid excuse). The regiment did go through great lengths to prevent pregnancy, and apparently were not shy about slut shaming (which their chief of staff, briefly, gently ans lightheartedly brought up in one paragraph of her book)

      The pilots and navigators dominated the conversation. They picked a narrative and every last one of them stuck with it to the grave. It’s a very nice narrative that’s very polite and well spoken, and importantly, devoid of politics almost needless to say, the intellectual galaxy brains of western journalism bought it hook line and sinker.

      It’s nice to have a group of warrior women to admire for defending their country, but not out of loyalty to Stalin. One might wonder how an explicitly Stalinist regiment forgot to recruit any Stalinists, but that’s not the type of thinking that’s encouraged on the NYT staff.

      So that’s what makes them a surprisingly tough subject to study or write about. They did write a lot about themselves, but none of their books broke a thousand copies, very difficult to find, and were not translated into English. Theres quite a few books and articles written about them… but all skin deep. Russian authors play along with the narrative, and most English-speaking authors dont realize there is a narrative at all.

      But this “safety and warmth” hypothesis you being up doesn’t apply in the Soviet Army in the great patriotic war for two reasons:

      1) Soldiers had more food and better healthcare than civilians. Even in the most extreme siege of the war, Leningrad, soldiers had a much higher bread ration, when everyone else was at below starvation levels. So a woman being in the army made her living conditions better, not worse.

      2) children outside of marriage in the 1940s wasnt socially acceptable like it is now. Qnd without a father, it would be extremely difficult to raise a child.

      In relation to #2, here is where Stalin’s policies come into play

      -After WWI and the Civil War, Russian liberals dreamed of a post-family civilization where the state raised children. Stalin decided that idea was absurd and reversed it. Now that all children being raised by a feminized state is a trendy idea among American lefties, one has to wonder what the Left’s patron saint Uncle Joe would think of Berkeley preschool teachers forcing boys to play with dolls.

      Also when it comes to conservatism, Stalin lifted sanctions against the church, as he saw it as a useful state instrument for mobilizing people.

      So hopefully that clears up the question, at least partially.

  2. Ian,

    I enjoyed reading your input. I do not have a really in-depth background on the subject; I did more of a drive-by analysis based on

    1. No matter what anyone thought or felt about unwed motherhood at the time, it was obvious that many, many young women would never find a husband — in more or less the same numbers as the deaths of would-be husbands at the front.

    2. Special units like these pilots had received a lot of expensive training and were hard to replace. The vast bulk of women in the military were hardly trained at all and were imminently replace-able. A huge percentage were semi literate.

    3. The propaganda system was not eager to highlight the underlying dynamic – that Stalins way of waging the war was gravely injuring the future of the peoples of the USSR and extreme measures were needed to restore a balance.

    4. So, of course they lied about nearly everything regarding the role of women. To do otherwise would be to indict Uncle Joe.

    1. I think that’s an accurate statement. And matches memoirs I’ve read from the period that women in the 1920-24 generation largely went unmarried and childless.
      Also true. Though literacy had vastly improved since the fall of the tsar, it was a gradual process. Less than 1% of women went to university.

      Now I am not sure what you mean here. Hitler went easier on his population and economy (refusing to fully mobilize until 1944), and lost. Not only did Stalin win, he did so with (not counting the initial surprise attack in 41) fewer military casualties than Germany. The “two men to a rifle” and stories of human wave attacks are, as far as I can tell, baseless cold war propaganda and not actual Soviet military doctrine.

      1. Re: the “two men to a rifle” story

        The earliest reference I have found to this is in the 1952 novel Moscow by Theodor Plievier. He led a fascinating life, a true believer who was on almost all sides during his long life – except the Nazis. Here is the most commonly seen bio of him, although I don’t know its source or accuracy.

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