Nadezhda Popova: Soviet pilot known as 'the Night Witch'


Nadezhda Popova was part of a unit of Soviet women pilots who flew old biplanes to bomb the invading Germans. As the Wehrmacht approached Moscow in 1941, Stalin, influenced by Marina Raskova, one of very few women in the Soviet air force before the war, agreed to set up a women’ s air force unit, a night bomber regiment. From mechanics to navigators, pilots and officers, it was composed entirely of women.

Aged 19, Popova was one of the first to join what became the best-known of three units, the 588th. By then the Soviets had sustained heavy losses of planes, often on the ground, to the Luftwaffe.The women had to do their best with 1920s, wooden biplanes, Polikarpov Po-2s that had been used for training and lacked radios and modern navigational equipment. They could carry two bombs weighing less than a ton altogether.

The women of the 588th flew their first mission on 8 June 1942. The Germans had retreated in the snow from Moscow but the great battle of Stalingrad was to come. Three planes took part, aiming for the headquarters of a German division. The raid was successful but one plane was lost.

The 588th flew only at night, and concentrated on harassment bombing of German encampments, rear-area bases and supply depots. The aim was psychological as well as practical. Their planes could fly close to the ground and were often undetected by radar. Popova and her comrades would cut their engines near the target, glide in and drop their deadly cargo, restart their engines and head back to base. The Germans hated being made to scatter by women and called them the Nachthexen [the Night Witches]. One German source said they were “precise, merciless and came from nowhere”. The 588th Night Bomber Regiment was so successful that Stalin formed three regiments of women combat pilots.

Quite apart the dangers of combat, life was not easy. There was a great deal of resistance to the idea of women combat pilots; their male counterparts often looked down on them, and their living conditions were usually primitive. Sexual harassment was also part of their lives.

Nadezhda Popova was born in Shabanovka (today’s Dolgoye). Her father was a railwayman. She grew up in Ukraine in the Donetsk coalfields. She hoped to become an actress; she loved music and dance and performed in amateur theatre. All that changed when a small aircraft landed near her village and she became passionate about aviation, enrolling in a gliding school without telling her parents. At 16 she made her first parachute jump and first solo flight.

In the Soviet Union, as elsewhere, this was a time of huge enthusiasm for aviation and  Russia had claimed numerous distance, altitude, and other records. Women were also busy conquering the skies. In 1938 Marina Raskova and two other Soviet women set a world record for a non-stop direct flight by women when they flew an ANT-37, a Soviet-built twin-engine aircraft named Rodina [Homeland], 6,000km from Moscow to Siberia.

Several women pilots were known from the First World War. Among others, Princess Eugenie Shakovskaya served as an artillery and reconnaissance pilot, having volunteered for the Czar’s air force in 1914, and flew with the 26th Corps Air Squadron in 1917.

All this undoubtedly influenced Nadezhda Popova, and despite her parent’s opposition she carried on with her new passion She obtained her flying licence and applied to enrol in a pilot school, but was turned down. It was Polina Osipenko, Inspector for Aviation in the Moscow Military District, who recommended that she be given her chance, and she was accepted as a student in the Kherson flight school, from which she graduated at the age of 18. She then became a flight instructor.

After the war, as women returned to ordinary jobs the female pilots were often regarded as loose women, but Popova stayed in aviation. She was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. She survived 852 missions, starting in the Ukraine and ending up in Berlin in 1945. She survived several forced landings. She met and married another pilot, Semyon Kharlamov, and they remained together until Semyon’s death in 1990.

She is survived by her son, now a general in the Belarussian Air Force. Popova was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union, Gold Star, Order of Lenin and Order of the Red Star (three times) during the Second World War

Nadezhda Vasil’yevna Popova, pilot: born Shabanovka, Ukraine 17 December 1921; married Semyon Kharlamov (died 1990; one son); died 8 July 2013.

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