As I mentioned before, the planes that these women flew were designed to be crop-dusters. Being made from wood and canvas, they were incredibly light and manoeuvrable – but also incredibly slow. This lack of speed was actually a blessing, as the top speed of the PO-2 biplane was slower than the stalling speed of the German fighter planes sent to shoot them down.
The German fighters were in effect too fast to be able to lock onto the Soviet planes for any length of time without stalling. This meant that a skilled Night Witch could shimmy out of range again and again until she shook off the German fighter.
Their wooden planes weren’t all shits and giggles though – tracer ammunition would set a PO-2 on fire in seconds if it made contact with the canvas covered wings. And with no parachute, the brave soviet sister in the cockpit would burn to death.
Despite the possibility of burning alive in their planes, the worst fear of the pilots was being captured by vengeful German soldiers. The pilots knew that death was preferable to being captured alive by the Nazis. Each Night Witch carried a spare round just in case she crash landed behind enemy lines.
Despite the fact that they flew in snail-paced firetraps, the Night Witches used tactics which called for their planes to be used as decoys – attracting searchlights and tracing fire.
What they would do is fly in a formation of three – two at the front, one behind. The two planes in front would fly into the German spotlights and attract the flak from the jubilant German soldiers below who thought they’d caught a Night Witch.
The front planes would then peel off to the left and right, taking the spotlights and flak with them. Pilot number three would then turn off the engines, glide down on her broomstick in the darkness and bomb the shit out of the unsuspecting Germans.
The planes would then reform and repeat this procedure until all their bombs had been dropped.
The skill of the Night Witches prompted German soldiers to spread rumours that the Russian women were given special injections and pills to give them a feline’s perfect vision at night.
No one likes a sore loser.
One of the most decorated Night Witches, Nadezhda Popova, who died last year, said “Almost every time we had to sail through a wall of enemy fire.”
“In winter when you’d look out to see your target better, you got frostbite. Our feet froze in our boots, but we carried on flying.”
“You had to focus on the target and think how you could hit it. There was no time to give way to emotions… Those who gave in were gunned down and they were burned alive in their craft as they had no parachutes.”
“We bombed, we killed; it was all a part of war. We had an enemy in front of us, and we had to prove that we were stronger and more prepared.”
Amen to that sister.