Remembering The Night Witches
To each other they were sisters, with bonds forged in blood and terror. To the Red Army Air Force they were an infuriating feminist sideshow. To the Germans they were simply Nachthexen—Night Witches. [x]
Last July 2013, I happened upon the obituary of Captain Nadezhda Popova. She was 91 years old. And she was a Night Witch.
Until Joseph Stalin removed Moscow’s ban on women in the military on October 8, 1941, “no one in the armed services wanted to give women the freedom to die,” Captain Popova told Albert Axell for his book, Russia’s Heroes: 1941-45 (2001). During World War II, the female military aviators of the Soviet Air Force’s 588th Night Bomber Regiment went on to fly approximately 23,000 sorties (often multiple missions per night), and drop over 3,000 tonnes of bombs on German invaders from 1942 to the end of the war. These pilots braved the night skies with no parachutes, flying in obsolete Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes that were designed for training and for crop-dusting. Due to the slower speed of the P0-2 and the skill of the pilots, they were not easy to target—though Captain Popova herself was shot down several times, and the regiment did suffer losses.
One of the techniques used by women was to idle their engines near a target, then glide in to the release point. The sound of the wind against planes made of canvas and wood sounded much like broomsticks, thus earning them the name “Night Witches.”
German pilots were awarded an Iron Cross for successfully downing a “witch.”
Prior to seeing Captain Popova’s obituary, I had no idea who or what the Night Witches were, but I was intrigued enough to do some research and was pleased to discover that their World War II legacy is far more than just an entry in Wikipedia.
I discovered that, though not well known among the many heroes of war, the Night Witches have appeared in several books, as well as a comic by Garth Ennis and Russell Braun that was published by Dynamite Entertainment in 2009 as part of their Battlefields series.
As the German army smashes deep into Soviet Russia and the defenders of the Motherland retreat in disarray, a new bomber squadron arrives at a Russian forward airbase. Its crews will fly flimsy wooden biplanes on lethal night missions over German lines, risking fiery death as they fling themselves against the invader—but for these pilots, the consequences of capture will be even worse. For the pilots of the 599th Night Bomber Regiment are women! In the deadly skies of the Eastern front, they will become a legend, known to friend and foe alike as the Night Witches.
Unfortunately, not only does this blurb get the regiment wrong, the comic does not give much depth on the topic and waters things down a bit with a rather superficial love story. Still, I went from not knowing anything about these brave Russian women to discovering that Dynamite had at least valued them highly enough to have them figure prominently in this war series.
Night Witches is a tabletop role-playing game about women at war. As a member of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, you’ll answer the call of your Motherland in her darkest hour. Can you do your duty and strike blow after blow against the Fascists? Can you overcome discrimination and outright sabotage and rise above your sexist comrades? Are there limits to patriotism—or endurance? Play Night Witches and find out!
This is more than just a war game where three to five players plan their strategies, and, unlike the comic, it doesn’t seek to glorify tales of war with excitement and drama. Sure, there will drama and excitement as you play through the WW2 campaign, but the focus will be on the very human struggles of battle as soldiers and as women.
Last year, I knew nothing about the Night Witches. This year, my moment of silence will offer respect to the brave women of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment.