10 Most Notable Pilots of the Night Witches
The Night Witches, the female aviators of the Soviet Union during World War II, included several notable figures who played significant roles in the regiment. Their selfless dedication and exceptional contributions exemplify the bravery and unwavering spirit displayed by the women aviators in the face of adversity.
Their outstanding service and profound impact in the defense of their nation is evidenced by the fact that 23 members of the regiment were honored with Hero of the Soviet Union title.
Marina Mikhaylovna Raskova (1912-1943)
With support from some the most senior Soviet officials, this Moscow-born pilot and military instructor formed the Night Witches in 1941. Unbeknownst to many people, Raskova, in her early years, dreamed of becoming an opera singer.
Raskova also founded two other female air regiments – the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment and the 587th Bomber Aviation Regiment. This Soviet WW2 hero died on January 4, 1943, when her aircraft came down in an attempt to make a forced landing. None of the crew survived. In honor of her accomplishments, she was given a state funeral – the first to take place in the war.
Major Yevdokiya Bershanskaya (1913 – 1982)
Bershanskaya is best known for serving as the commander of the Night Witches. Like her fellow Night Witches, Bershanskaya demonstrated unwavering courage and determination in the face of adversity.
She faced the risks and challenges of flying combat missions, conducting operations at night, and operating in hostile environments. For her service, she received the Order of Suvorov, making her the first and only woman to earn the honor. Many of her female pilots earned several distinguished honors, including Heroes of the Soviet Union.
Yevgeniya Rudneva (1921 – 1944)
Rudneva, a talented astronomer and head navigator of the 46th Guards Night Bomber Regiment, was posthumously honored with the prestigious title of Hero of the Soviet Union.
Before World War II, she held the position of head of the Solar Department at the Moscow branch of the Astronomical-Geodesical Society of the USSR. Rudneva’s expertise in astronomy showcased her intellectual prowess and dedication to scientific pursuits.
Also an alumnus of the Engels Military Aviation School, she was selfless in her service to the Night Witches Regiment. On the night of 9 April 1944, she was shot down while serving as the navigator for Praskovya “Panna” Prokofyeva, one of the new pilots in the regiment. The incident further highlighted the grave risks and dangers faced by the Night Witches in their nighttime bombing operations.
Rudneva’s sacrifice and dedication to her duties as a navigator further exemplify the bravery and fortitude exhibited by the women of the 46th Guards Night Bomber Regiment in their crucial role during World War II. Combined with her contributions to the field of astronomy, she certainly etched her name as an exceptional figure in both military and scientific realms.
Irina Sebrova (1914 – 2000)
She served as a flight commander in the regiment during the Second World War. Her exceptional contributions earned her the prestigious title of Hero of the Soviet Union on 23 February 1945.
Sebrova accomplished an impressive feat of completing over 800 bombing missions, and by the war’s end, she had amassed over 1,000 sorties. Her remarkable achievements made her the female pilot with the highest number of missions flown during the war, highlighting her courage and dedication to the Soviet war effort.
Yevdokiya Pasko (1919 – 2017)
Born in what is today Issyk Kul Region in Kyrgyzstan, Yevdokiya Pasko served as a squadron navigator in the regiment during the war. Like some of the people on this list, she received her initial training at Engels Military aviation School and was then assigned to the Night Witches. She conducted many bombing missions against enemy forces in Poland, Crimea, Belarus, the Caucasus, Berlin, and among others. All in all, she flew more than 780 sorties during the war. For her bravery and service, she received the Hero of the Soviet Union. She also received the Order of the Red Banner.
Valentina Stupina (1920 – 1943)
She played multiple vital roles in the all-female aviation regiment during World War II. She served as a pilot, flight navigator, and the head of communications until her unfortunate death in 1943. Following her passing, Khiuaz Dospanova assumed her responsibilities within the regiment. Sebrova’s contributions as a skilled pilot and her role in communication underscore her significant involvement in the Night Bomber Regiment, despite her untimely demise. She was honored with the Medal “For Courage” (also known as the Medal “For Valor”).
Yekaterina Ryabova (1921 – 1974)
Ryabova, a remarkable Soviet navigator in World War II, received the esteemed title of Hero of the Soviet Union on 23 February 1945 for her exceptional bombing missions during the war.
Serving as a member of the 46th Guards Night Bomber Regiment, the Moscow-born achieved the rank of senior lieutenant. She displayed immense dedication, flying an impressive 890 night missions in the Polikarpov Po-2 aircraft. Her extraordinary contributions to the regiment and her unwavering commitment to the Soviet war effort underscore her significance as a courageous and skilled aviator.
Irina Rakobolskaya (1919 – 2016)
She was a distinguished mathematician and physicist. She made valuable contributions during World War II as the chief of staff of the regiment. Following the war, she continued her scientific pursuits, working as a physicist at Moscow State University and focusing on the study of cosmic rays. Sebrova’s exceptional career was recognized with numerous prestigious state awards, and in 1990, she was honored with the title of Honored Scientist of the Russian SFSR.
Nadezhda Popova (1921 – 2013)
A squadron commander, Popova was one of the most prominent members of the Night Witches. She flew over 700 sorties during the war and became one of the highest-scoring pilots of the regiment.
In one night alone, she and navigator Yekaterina Ryabova, carried out a whopping 18 bombing sorties. For her valor and commitment, she was honored with the Hero of the Soviet Union in February 1945. She also received the Order of the Red Banner three times – in 1942, 1943 and 1945. After the war, she continued her aviation career and held various positions within the Soviet Air Forces.
Yevdokiya Nosal (1918 – 1943)
Nosal, a courageous junior lieutenant and deputy squadron commander in the Regiment during World War II, received the esteemed title of Hero of the Soviet Union posthumously on 24 May 1943.
Her death came on April 23, 1943, when the Polikarpov Po-2 she was flying in was hit in the forehead by shrapnel. Her plane had come under a heavy fire from both a German fighter and heavy anti-aircraft fire. She was 25 years old at the time of her death.
Nosal’s remarkable achievements made her the first woman pilot to be honored with this prestigious title during the war. Her dedication and bravery in her role as a pilot exemplify the significant contributions made by women in the Soviet Air Forces. Her recognition as a Hero of the Soviet Union serves as a testament to her extraordinary service and sacrifice in the defense of her country.
Notable Facts about the Night Witches and their aircraft
- The name “Night Witches” was given to them by the German soldiers due to their stealthy night bombing operations. It is said that the plane – i.e. Polkarpov Po-2 – they flew in made sounds like broomsticks.
- The 1928 design of the Polikarpov U-2 biplanes were not intended for intense combat situations. They were instead used during training of pilots. In some cases, they were used for crop dusting.
- The aircraft had a maximum speed of around 94 miles per hour (152 kilometers per hour) and a range of approximately 250 miles (400 kilometers). It was equipped with two small bomb racks that could carry up to six bombs, typically weighing 22 pounds (10 kilograms) each.
- The Night Witches did not carry parachutes until 1944 because of the weight of the bombs and the low altitude of flight.
- From October 1943, the Night Witches came to be officially known as the 46th “Taman” Guards Night Bomber Regiment. The name was derived from their involvement in the Novorossiysk-Taman operations on the Taman Peninsula during 1943.
- The Night Witches, a group of female aviators in World War II, accomplished remarkable feats during their service.
- The Night Witches played a significant role in the Soviet war effort, contributing to the disruption of German supply lines and morale. Their bravery and accomplishments earned them respect and recognition, including numerous awards and decorations.
- The Night Witches conducted nighttime bombing missions using outdated and noise-prone Po-2 biplanes. Flying at low altitudes, they relied on stealth, turning off engines and gliding to their targets to avoid detection by enemy radar. They left an indelible mark on World War II history, showcasing the courage and skill of female aviators in combat.