To my shame, I'd never heard of the "Night Witches" until reading that Nadezhda Popova died earlier this month. Once I learned more, I was amazed. The Night Witches were an elite team of all-female bomber pilots who flew old cropdusting planes and kicked so much Nazi ass.
Popova died at 91, a veteran of 852 bombing missions. That's about how many dinners you've eaten for over two years, just to give a sense of scale. Combined, the Night Witches flew over 30,000 missions, dropping over 23,000 tons of bombs on German invaders in the Soviet Union, with each plane dropping one or two bombs at most. These missions that the Night Witches flew are pretty incredible even if she'd only flown one.
The squadron was established in October 1941 by Stalin himself, as the Soviets desperately needed more pilots. The planes they used weren't state-of-the-art fighter aircraft, but rather repurposed old crop-dusting PO-2 biplanes. These were planes made of wood and fabric and paper, and were so slow that their cruising speed was the same as the stall speed for most of the German planes they'd be up against.
They were fragile and slow, but that slowness made them very hard to hit, and they were incredibly maneuverable as well. A typical mission would send up a group of three planes, crewed by two Witches each. Two planes would act as decoys and divert searchlights, then acrobatically avoiding anti-aircraft fire, while the third plane snuck in and dropped its pair of bombs. The planes would then swap jobs until all the bombs were away.
The German pilots had so much trouble shooting the Witches down, they came up with all kinds of superstition and rumors about them. Most notably is the name, Night Witches, which German pilots gave to them from the wooshing sound their flimsy planes made, reminding them of witches on broomsticks. This sound was more noticeable because the Witches would often cut their engines to idle and glide to their targets.
There were also rumors that the Witches were given special injections to “give us a feline’s perfect vision at night,” which was, of course, horseshit that scared Nazis come up with.
Popova was highly decorated, and after the war became a flight instructor, and ended up marrying a fellow Russian pilot she met after she was shot down on one mission. In a 2010 interview, Popova said of her days as a Night Witch,
“I can still imagine myself as a young girl, up there in my little bomber. And I ask myself, ‘Nadia, how did you do it?’ ”
Nadia, rest in peace, you amazing badass.