Night Fright

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Nadezhda Popova Credit: Tass

“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.” —Nadezhda Popova

It might have something to do with Halloween, or perhaps it is just a twist of Fate, but yesterday afternoon I was doing some research for a story and stumbled across a 2009 obituary for one tough Russian lady, Nadezhda Popova. A former crop duster turned military bomber pilot, Nadezhda and her co-pilot were one of 40 two-woman crews who flew nightly missions dropping bombs on invading German troops during WWII.

Her group, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, was known by the Germans as “The Night Witches” because of their style of flight. Dressed in hand-me-down uniforms from male pilots while flying unarmed, open-cockpit Po-2 bi-planes made of plywood and canvas, the ladies would cut their engines and glide over their targets, releasing their bombs at a low altitude for maximum accuracy. The whooosing noise their planes made in the darkness reminded the troops below of the sound of a witch’s broomstick.

Averaging 8 missions apiece over the course of four years, the female pilots of the 588th Regiment dropped 23,000 tons of bombs in 30,000 missions. Any German pilot who downed a “witch” was awarded an Iron Cross medal.

Without the benefit of a parachute, radar, radio, or a gun, Ms. Popova completed 852 missions, flying only in the dark and using just a map and compass.

After the war Nadia married, moved to Moscow and worked as a flight instructor. She was named Hero of the Soviet Union (the nation’s highest honor) and was awarded the Gold Star, the Order of Lenin and the Order of the Red Star.

“I sometimes stare into the blackness and close my eyes…I can still imagine myself as a young girl, up there in my little bomber. And I ask myself, ‘Nadia, how did you do it?’ ”
—Nadezhda Popova, 1921—2013

Blue skies, Nadia.

Related Link: NY Times, July 14, 2009

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