Much has been written about the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, later renamed the 46th “Taman” Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, the all-female VVS regiment that carried out night bombing harassment missions against German ground troops, and for good reason, as these young women performed amazingly heroic actions during the Great Patriotic War. The airwomen of the 46th were pushed to the edge of human limitations, and played a crucial role in the Soviet Union’s victory over Germany on the Eastern Front.
The 46th was made up entirely of female volunteers in their late teens and early 20s. Dubbed Nachthexen (Night Witches) by their German adversaries, the Soviet airwomen in the Night Bomber Regiment flew over 24,000 combat sorties throughout the war, dropping 23,000 tons of bombs behind enemy lines.
One of the more amazing features of the story of the 46th is the equipment with which they were given to carry out their missions: Polykarpov Po-2 biplanes (known as U-2 until 1944), made of wood and canvas. Powered by a Shvetsov M-11D engine that
produced 125 horsepower, the aircraft, ostensibly from a bygone era, carried a pilot and a navigator as well as a total of six 50 kg bombs. With a maximum speed of 152 km/h (94 mph), the Po-2s had a peculiar advantage over German interceptors such as the Bf-109 and Fw-190, as these Luftwaffe aircraft had stall speeds higher than the Polykarpov’s top speed. Consequently, the Soviet airwomen developed evasive maneuvers to exploit the discrepancy, and found that a diving corkscrew movement was an effective way to avoid being hit by German aircraft guns.
A danger far larger for the aircraft of the 46th, however, was anti-aircraft fire. Important ground targets were frequently equipped with search lights. If the Germans were able to catch the biplanes in the searchlight, it was quite easy for the anti-aircraft guns to zero in on the slow-moving plane to shoot it down. As Senior Lieutenant Yevgeniya Zhigulenko recalled, “There is a superhuman psychic overstrain when you are blinded by the searchlights and deafened by the explosions of antiaircraft shells and fire all around you. Your concentration over the target is so intense that it results in a complete loss of your whereabouts—a disorientation. You cannot tell the sky from the ground. Many of our crews crashed in that way.”
The airwomen of the 46th developed defensive tactics to minimize the chances of being caught in one of the dreaded searchlights. It was determined that the element of surprise was the best way to avoid being downed by anti-aircraft fire. The Po-2 pilots would thus approach the target from a high altitude, throttle back the engine to idle, and quietly glide over the target. Until the bombs exploded, the only sound that could be heard on the ground was the wind flowing over the plane’s canvas.
After a bombing run began, however, German anti-aircraft operators were able to anticipate the flight path of other Soviet aircraft, as bombers attacked the target individually, with approximately 3 minutes between each run. After dropping their bombs, each aircraft would return to the airfield, refuel and rearm, and take off towards the target again. Thus, there was a continuous stream of these small planes from dusk to dawn, one bombing every few minutes. As Junior Lieutenant Raisa Zhitova-Yushina explained, “The aircraft flew on their missions at three-minute intervals between planes. It was like a conveyor belt: every three minutes an aircraft took off. When we were approaching the field and runway [upon return] we would cry out ‘Refuel, bombs, get ready!’ because we were eager to bomb the positions of the Germans.”
The Germans, consequently, were well aware of each mission’s timing following the first attack, though as Major Mariya Smirnova, the commander of the squadron, recalled, “They had to be on the alert all night long—they didn’t have a wink of sleep. This strategy was deliberate to tire the enemy around the clock.”
In order to accomplish such psychological victories over the Germans, however, the pilots, navigators, and aircrews of the 46th had to sacrifice their own sleep. Many veterans of the Night Bomber Regiment recalled sleeping only 2-4 hours each night. “After each combat night we were allowed to sleep three or four hours before a new duty day,” mechanic of armament Junior Lieutenant Olga Yerokhina-Averjanova stated. Similarly, Senior Sargeant Nina Karayova-Buzina, recalled “We worked all night, then had a two to three-hour rest and returned to the planes in the morning… We were very small and slim during the war, and we had bad nutrition, never enough sleep, and very hard work, but no one complained. I never even felt tired.”
The 46th undoubtedly played a crucial role in the Soviet Union’s victory over Germany on the Eastern Front. After being activated in May of 1942, the regiment was active in the Don region, saw action in the Crimea, Belorussia (Belarus), Poland, and as far west as Berlin. Thirty of the Regiment’s crew members were killed in 1,100 nights of combat. It was not uncommon for individual pilots and navigators of the regiment to amass an astounding 1,000 combat missions flown throughout the war. Twenty-three of its members were awarded the Gold Star Hero of the Soviet Union, the state’s highest award.
The brave young women of the 46th accomplished truly amazing feats during the Second World War. Subject to the elements, facing sleep deprivation, at times starvation, injury, illness, and not to mention gender biases and discrimination, these servicewomen took the ostensibly obsolete Po-2 biplane and turned it into an effective weapon. The regiment was involved in many of the major battles on the Eastern Front, and the bravery, fortitude, strength, and sheer willpower of these young women played no insignificant role in the victory over Germany.