The Witches of Stalingrad

Young women terrified German units during World War II. Let's learn about them, courtesy of Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Attack of the Factoids.

IT HAPPENED ONE DARK NIGHT…

Imagine you’re a German soldier, fighting your way deep into the Soviet Union during the summer of 1942. During the time you’re not actually on the front lines, you feel pretty safe and get a chance to rest, let down your guard, even sleep a full night without constant vigilance. After all, the Soviet army is retreating fast, and you’re just 19 miles from Moscow.

Still, you can’t relax completely. There have been whispered rumors of nachthexen, “night witches” who fly silently after dark and drop bombs into previously safe areas, destroying military targets and fraying nerves. You don’t completely believe it, but like a lot of rumors, you wonder if there’s likely some grain of a truth.

Then, while on guard duty one night, you hear a rustling sound above, almost like wind through a broomstick. Before you can investigate, the darkness lights up with a blinding flash and a deafening explosion. The Night Witches have struck again!

TOIL AND TROUBLE

By 1942, the Soviet armed forces were reeling. Millions of men had been killed defending their homeland, often with antique rifles and inadequate defenses. Three million more had been taken prisoner. What to do? Well, there were always the women. Already working in fields and factories, some Soviet women were recruited as pilots, mechanics, navigators, and officers of a new all-female unit, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. They were assigned to hit specific German military targets and to scare its forces with unpredictable, random attacks.

Some in the Soviet air force was resistant to the idea. The “bomber” planes that the women were given to do the job seemed absurdly inadequate: obsolete biplanes made in 1928 of wood and canvas and designed for crop dusting and training. Each plane could carry only two 220-pound bombs. And they were slow— with a top speed of 97 mph— and so flammable that they could ignite if hit by flares or tracer bullets. The planes’ tiny engines were also noisy and tended to stall easily, requiring the pilot to climb out and turn the propeller by hand to get it started again. And because they flew so low, the women weren’t issued parachutes, which just added weight and wouldn’t open in time anyway. And radios? Forget about it. The women navigated in the dark using a map, penlight, compass, and stopwatch to figure out where they were.

WITCHY WOMEN

The female flyers, all between the ages of 17 and 26, turned most of these serious drawbacks into virtues. Their top speed was slower than the stall speed of German fighters, so if the female pilots maneuvered into sudden dives or tight turns, the little planes were hard to shoot down. Their low-altitude and wood-and-canvas construction also didn’t normally make a blip on radar. And the women’s skill at restarting their planes’ noisy little engines inspired the best tactic they could use against German antiaircraft defenses: The women would increase altitude until they came close to their well-defended targets, and then cut their engines and glide, making little noise beyond a light rustling until they released their payload. As the bombs exploded, the pilot would restart the engine and hightail it out of there, just barely above the Germans on the ground. And so the “Night Witches” became a nickname that the 588th borrowed proudly from their enemy.

BURN THE WITCH!

German fighter pilots mostly gave up trying to catch the Night Witches, but ground troops redoubled their efforts. The flimsy Russian planes often came back riddled with bullets from ground fire. (After a particularly harrowing raid, one pilot counted 42 new bullet holes in her plane.) The Germans also developed a new tactic, setting up a circle of hidden antiaircraft guns and spotlights around likely targets. Knowing that the Witches flew in two-plane formations, the spotlight operators tracked them across the sky while the antiaircraft guns ripped the flimsy aircraft into pieces.

In response, the 588th added a third plane behind the other two. As soon as the spotlights hit the first planes, they’d pretend to give up on bombing the target, splitting off in opposite directions while the spotlight operators scrambled to follow them. Meanwhile, the third plane glided in to deliver its load. At the next two targets, they’d switch places until all three planes had dropped their bombs.



From 1942 until the war’s end in 1945, the 40 two-person crews flew more than 30,000 missions, sometimes as many as 18 in a single night. By the end of the war, they’d dropped 23,000 tons of bombs. Twenty-three of the Witches earned the Hero of the Soviet Union medal (the highest honor available), and about 30 died in combat.

_______________________________

The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Attack of the Factoids. Weighing in at over 400 pages, it's a fact-a-palooza of obscure information.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!


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