THE WITCH IS DEAD
By, Captain Nancy Aldrich, aviation writer
Several months ago I wrote an article about the Women’s Army Service Pilots (WASP) here in America. They were very courageous and inspirational women, but were never allowed to fly in combat. Of course, there was no combat taking place in America. However, in Europe things were much different. The war was everywhere. A very special group of young Russian women was formed in 1941, and this article is about one of those young women.
Nadezhda ‘Nadya’ Popova was born December 17,1921(some report December 27, 1921), in Shabanovka, Russia, the daughter of a railwayman. She grew up in the coal fields, and dreamed of becoming an actress. She loved singing, dancing, jazz, and acting. She was a bit of a free spirit, and easily bored. When she saw a small airplane land in her village she became enamored of aviation. She thought only Gods could fly and found it hard to believe that a man could actually fly. At the age of 15, she decided, without telling her parents, to take flying lessons.
Originally the school refused her lessons. However, when Polina Ospipenko, the Inspector for Aviation in the Moscow Military District, recommended her, the school accepted her application and her lessons began. In 1937, she made her first solo flight and also her first parachute jump. She graduated from the Kherson Flight School at the age of 18, and began instructing. Her parents objected, but that did not seem to slow her down. She was passionate about aviation!
War was in the air, and Nayda volunteered to be a military pilot. At the time, women were barred from becoming military pilots. However, in 1941, when Germany broke their treaty with Russia, Stalin intervened and issued orders for three regiment of female pilots. They were divided into fighters, dive bombers, and night bombers. She was able to join a night bombing regiment, and rose to command the 2nd Women’s Regiment. Nayda, whose brother, Leonid, had been killed at the front, and whose home had been taken over by German forces, was eager to fight. She said, “I could see the German aircraft flying along our roads filled with people who were leaving their homes, firing at them with their machine guns. Seeing this gave me feelings inside that made me want to fight them.”
During a training mission on March 10, 1942, Nayda was leading a formation. They flew into a blizzard and two of the airplanes got lost and crashed, killing all four women aboard. These were the first casualties in her unit. She is quoted as say, “What a nightmare, poor girls, my friends, only yesterday we had slept in the bunks together.” After her training was complete, she was sent to her home region around the Donetsk Coal Fields.
The women were flying the Polikarpov PO-2, a small two place airplane made mostly of plywood and fabric, so they were invisible to German radar. The airplane’s top speed of 94 mph was slower than the German planes could fly, making it much more maneuverable. The planes frequently flew so low to the ground that they were in the hedgerows and could not been seen from the German fighters. Frustrated, the Germans would often give up and leave the small planes alone. The planes, however, were very flammable. If hit with a tracer, it would burst into flames. Because the airplanes were flown close to the ground, and at night, they did not carry parachutes, so they would become flaming coffins.
On bombing runs, they could only carry the weight of two bombs, so they would have to make multiple runs each night. On one night, Popova made 18 bombing runs.
They flew in groups of three. When the women were close to their target, they would separate, with two flying in as decoys. As the decoys attracted the attention of the searchlights, they would maneuver wildly in different directions. Once the searchlights were distracted, the bombing pilot would idle, or kill, her engine so it could not be heard and descend to drop her bombs. After the first dropped her bombs they would regroup, and a second would become the bomber, then the third, until all the bombs were dropped. Nadya said that it took nerves of steel to be a decoy and willingly attract enemy fire, but it worked very well. Because the airplane gliding down to its target made a soft whooshing sound, and could not be seen, the Germans were reminded of flying broomsticks and began calling them “Nachthexen,” or Night Witches. That was a name the women accepted proudly!
The Germans said that the women were given special injections and pills which gave them a feline’s perfect vision at night. Nadya commented in an interview for the book “Greatest Russian War Stories, 1941-1945,” “this was nonsense, of course, what we did have were clever, educated, very talented girls.”
The Night Witches flew what is called ‘harrassment bombing’ missions. Their targets were mostly supply depots, encampments, rear base areas, etc. Because of their constant raids, the German forces got little rest, and were left feeling vulnerable and very insecure. German pilots were promised an Iron Cross if they shot down a Night Witch.
Describing their flights, she said, “When the wind was strong, it would toss the plane. 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. If you give up, nothing is done and you are not a hero. Those who gave in were gunned down and they were burned alive in the craft as they had no parachutes.”
Popova was shot down several times during her service, but was never badly wounded. On August 2, 1942, she was on a daytime reconnaissance mission and was attacked by Luftwaffe fighters. She was forced to make an emergency landing. While returning to her unit, she joined a motorized column and met her future husband, Semyon Kharlamov, a fighter pilot.
After one night bombing run, Popova counted 42 bullet holes in her plane. She said to her navigator, “Katya, my dear, we will live long!”
During the course of WWII, the Night Witches flew more than 30,000 sorties and dropped 23,000 tons of bombs. Of the women, 30 were awarded the title, Hero of the Soviet Union, about a third of women so honored, and at least 3 fighter aces. Nadya flew 850 bombing missions, an astounding number when you stop to think that most American pilots were rotated out of combat if they survived 25 missions.
Decades after the war and the mission of the Night Witches ended, Popova said, “at night sometimes, I look up into the dark sky, close my eyes and picture myself as a girl at the controls of my bomber, and I think, ‘Nadya, how on earth did you do it?”
Nadezhda Popova passed away on July 8, 2013, at the age of 91.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych said Nadya Popova’s life was “an example of service to the Motherland. Her feats in the course of the Great Patriotic War will never be forgotten.”
It is also my hope that these brave young heros will always be remembered and honored for their incredible bravery.
The Witch is dead, but not forgotten!
By,Captain Nancy Aldrich, aviation writer, 20thCenturyAviationMagazine.com
( Winner of the 2012 prestigious Golden Yoke Aviation Writers Award )
Whoever trusts in the Lord Happy is He! Prov 16:20
WW II RUSSIAN PO-2
“Flying My Dream” is a revised and expanded edition of ‘Captain Gramma’. It contains some new stories, and makes the book more understandable and interesting for non-pilots. This new book still tells the story of how Nancy Aldrich found herself a single mother of two teenage children, with no formal training or education with which to get a good job. Through struggle, determination, tears and prayer, she was able to become a Captain for one of the largest airlines in the world. This is her story. It is a story of hope and encouragement, not just for women, but to anyone who feels like all doors have been closed. It is a story of opening those doors and walking into your dreams.