RIP Russian WWII pilot Nadezhda Popova, 91

(A remarkable profile in courage. R.I.P.)

“Nadezhda Popova, WW II ‘Night Witch,’ Dies at 91”

Source: (excerpt below)

The Nazis called them “Night Witches” because the whooshing noise their plywood and canvas airplanes made reminded the Germans of the sound of a witch’s broomstick.

The Russian women who piloted those planes, onetime crop dusters, took it as a compliment. In 30,000 missions over four years, they dumped 23,000 tons of bombs on the German invaders, ultimately helping to chase them back to Berlin. Any German pilot who downed a “witch” was awarded an Iron Cross.

These young heroines, all volunteers and most in their teens and early 20s, became legends of World War II but are now largely forgotten. Flying only in the dark, they had no parachutes, guns, radios or radar, only maps and compasses. If hit by tracer bullets, their planes would burn like sheets of paper.

Their uniforms were hand-me-downs from male pilots. Their faces froze in the open cockpits. Each night, the 40 or so two-woman crews flew 8 or more missions — sometimes as many as 18.

“Almost every time we had to sail through a wall of enemy fire,” Nadezhda Popova, one of the first volunteers — who herself flew 852 missions — said in an interview for David Stahel’s book “Operation Typhoon: Hitler’s March on Moscow, October 1941,” published this year.

Wow, that’s amazing, I never heard of such a thing but damn is that brave as hell.

No parachutes? Jesus.

This makes me feel bad about using navigational aids in Rise of Flight.

From what I’ve read, that’s not at all surprising. For much of the war the Russians were just throwing as many bodies at the enemy as possible with little or no equipment. I.e. “you three men, here’s a rifle. When the man with the rifle falls, one of the other two pick it up.”

I don’t know much about the Russian front except that it was brutal, so I guess I shouldn’t be terribly surprised. But to send someone up in essentially a paper airplane without a parachute is, well, yikes.

I’ll add here, because I don’t know where else it would go, that my wife’s grandfather had a hell of a story about Russia during WWII. He was a young man in Austria when the German army came through and conscripted* pretty much everyone who could hold a rifle and sent to the Russian front. There he was captured and was a POW through the end of the war. Which was also brutal because prisoners were expected to work and were given something like a bowl of soup per day to live on, and were executed if they couldn’t do what was asked of them. Interestingly, he learned the trade of masonry during his time as a POW, and plied that trade for the rest of his life after moving to the states. I wish he was still alive to talk about this, or that I had even met him. All of this is second hand from my wife.

*And by conscripted, I mean you joined the German army or were shot on the spot.

The plane they often flew was the Po-2. The what? Yes, this thing: Basically a WW1 biplane and used as a flying jeep (and probably much less competitive than even a Sopwith). Their regiment was reorganized as a Guard’s regiment in recognition of their accomplishments.

The Po-2 as a hack night bomber only worked, paradoxically. because it was obsolete. Were they given somewhat more modern aircraft, like the Brewster Buffalo or some used up Hurricane, they’d all probably be dead in a year. But the Po-2s top speed was basically slower than the stall speed of modern German aircraft; in essence the Germans would have needed some biplanes of their own to dogfight with them.