The Lioness Project: The Night Witches

Instead of a lioness, this time, we have a pride. The Soviet 588th Night Bomber Regiment was an all-female squadron of fighter pilots who harried the Nazi forces so much that the German soldiers called them “Nachthexen,” or “Night Witches.” The regiment took it as a compliment, and adopted the name.

“We flew in sequence, one after another, and during the night

we never let them rest. And the Germans made up stories. They spread

the rumor that we had been injected with some unknown chemicals

that enabled us to see so clearly at night.”

—Nadezhda Popova,
588th Night Bomber Regiment

Night Witches


When World War II broke out in Europe, people from all walks of life volunteered to take arms against the Nazis, and women were no exception, though they were generally turned away.  In the Soviet Union, one such was Marina Raskova, who had gained fame as an aviator in the 1930s, and was known as “the Russian Amelia Earhart.”  The Soviet military had no specific rules against women taking combat roles, but they had always blocked such attempts, or given applicants the run-around until they gave up. So in 1941, Raskova went straight to the top—she used her personal connection to Joseph Stalin to convince him to form three female combat regiments.  The 588th not only used all-female pilots, but also all-female commanders, mechanics, staff, and engineers, and remained so throughout the war.

The pilots of the 588th were given two-seater, open-cockpit Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes—made of canvas stretched over plywood frames, and obsolete even then. They provided no armor or protection, from enemy fire or the elements. They were slow, and so light that they could only carry six bombs at a time, so that pilots often had to do 8 or more bombing runs a night, could only fly at low altitudes, and without parachutes. But the planes could take off or land almost anywhere, they didn’t stall as easily as other planes, making them much harder to target. Flying these highly flammable aircraft through enemy fire multiple times nightly, they hunted as a pack: three planes would work together, with two drawing Nazi fire, while the third cut her engines and glided silently over the target, dropping her bombs under cover of darkness. The Nazi soldiers compared the quiet whoosh of the planes to broomsticks, and called them “Night Witches.” These raids were so successful, and instilled such fear in the Germans, that to take down a Witch would instantly earn a soldier the Iron Cross.

The Night Witches completed more than 30,000 missions between 1942 and 1945. Each pilot flew more than 800 missions. Twenty-three were awarded Hero of the Soviet Union.