Obit of the Day: Night Witch
On October 8, 1941 the Soviet armed forces created three all-women aviation regiments. One was for fighters, one for dive bombers, and one for night bombers. The latter were called the 48th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment and they were legendary.
The women of the 48th Regiment were trained to fly bombing missions behind German lines in the dead of night. The dangerous missions were made more so by the poor equipment provided for the women. The aircraft they used as a Polikarpov PO-2 which was built in the 1920s and was a bi-plane made of wood and canvas. The planes had no radio or radar. Their bombs were held to the wings by wire.
But it made no difference to the women who joined, including Nadezhda (Nadia) Popova. She was only 19 years old when she enlisted, and her motive was simple: revenge. The Germans had destroyed her home and her brother was killed on the front.
During her four years in the air, Lieutenant Colonel Popova would fly 582 missions on the Eastern Front in Europe. One particularly busy evening, she and her co-pilot Katya Ryabova, above left, flew 18 missions.
Lt. Col. Popova and her fellow pilots were unofficially known as “Stalin’s Falcons.” But to the Germans they were known as Nachthexen, or “Night Witches.” Because of the plane’s construction it could easily fly below radar allowing them to surprise the enemy in the middle of the night. The Nazis were terrified of them.
The 46th Aviation Regiment would remain women-only throughout the war, flying over 23,000 missions and dropping over 3,000 tons of bombs. They did suffer casualties, losing 30 pilots during the war.
Lt. Col. Popova would see herself shot down on several occasions. One such incident over the Caucus Mountains resulted in a meeting with another injured pilot - who she later married.
In recognition of her of service to her country Lt. Col. Popova earned the highest honor awarded to citizens of the U.S.S.R., Hero of the Soviet Union. She was also awarded a Gold Star, the Order of Lenin, and the Order of the Red Star.
Nadezhda Popova died on July 8, 2013 at the age of 91.
"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?’"
(Image of Nadezhda Popova, right, and her co-pilot Katya Ryabova is courtesy of The Hargrave History of Aviation)
Other Aviatrices featured on Obit of the Day:
Violet Cowden - Member of the WASPs
Barbara Harmer - Only woman to pilot the Concorde
Evelyn Bryan Johnson - Most flight hours of any woman in history
Sally Ride - First female astronaut in U.S. history
Betty Skelton - “The fastest woman alive”
Patricia Wilson - Flew in the Civil Air Defense during World War II