Night Witches

Did you know that, during World War II, Russian women were given special injections that allowed them to have night vision?  That was the rumor spread by Germans to explain the abilities of the Soviet Air Force’s 588th Night Bomber Regiment, an all-female aviation group that conducted over 23,000 bombing missions against the Germans from 1942 to the end of the war.

The group flew Polikarpov PO-2s, developed as agricultural crop dusters and able to fly at very low altitudes.  The group would shut down their engines in the final stages of their missions and fly close to their targets.  The only sound that would be heard before detonation was a whoosh, like the sound of a flying broomstick, thus earning them the nickname Nachthexen, or Night Witches.

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The Polikarpov above was found in a forest outside Vladisvostok.

I learned their story at the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach, Virginia, a massive and stunning private collection of WWI and WWII planes.  I’ve never seen Mr. History Tourist so excited about anything, much less being dragged to a museum, as he was in this place.  The WWII planes are all original.  Most of the WWI planes are reproductions, with a few notable exceptions, like the (heavily reconstructed) Flying Jenny below.  Most are in flying condition and the museum conducts two air shows each summer, one with the WWI planes and one with the WWII.

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The collection is housed in hangers, so it’s a good museum to do in inclement weather.  The volunteer docents, many retired military aviators, were exceptionally well-informed and enthusiastic.  They said that their volunteer hours earn them riding time on the planes.  If you don’t live in the Virginia Beach area and can’t volunteer, you can pay to ride one of the WWII planes.  That is going on my to-do list.

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The museum also has lots of ground vehicles and other WWI and WWII related items.

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The owner of the collection has announced his interest in selling the collection.  He says that he can no longer afford to keep it up and subsidize the museum. So visit the museum soon (1) in case it closes and you miss an opportunity of a lifetime, and (2) to show that there is interest in the museum, and keeping the collection accessible to the public.

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10 Responses to Night Witches

  1. Good post. Reminded me of the story that in WW2 the RAF allegedly spread the story that the great accuracy of their fighter pilots at night was the result of them being fed enormous quantities of carrots when in the successes were actually due to the highly efficient newly installed onboard radars which they wanted to keep secret.

  2. Wow – I didn’t know that story. Very interesting! Just goes to show, women are the stronger sex. 🙂 I hope that museum manages to stay open or find a new owner who will keep the collection as a museum. It is sad to think that treasures like those won’t be available for the public to see.

    • It definitely would be a loss if it all went to someone who didn’t want to share!

      Yes, women are perfectly capable of going into combat and being successful. The US military should take a lesson.

  3. I love the story of the Night Witches. Sometimes they had to manually restart the old engines to make the getaway on top of everything. The Soviets called them “Night Swallows” (“Ночные ласточки”). I’ve never seen one of their planes in real life! The museum sounds fascinating. The two air shows and actually flying in one of the planes are absolutely on my list! WOW!

    • I never thought about that — if they turned the engines off, they would have to turn them back on. I wonder how often they didn’t come back on. The museum write-up featured the obituary of the longest living Night Witch, who died last July. She said that she felt survived the war because she was lucky. They had a high casualty rate.

  4. Absolutely fascinating. Do hope he doesn’t sell, someone buys it with an interest, or a public organisation takes it over – ha! I’m sure a flying jenny was in a danielle steele novel I read 😀 Looks like a fabulous collection. Take that flight now and tell us all about it!

    • Going back for an air show and a flight definitely is in the plans. The Flying Jenny is famous in the States because the U.S. Postal Service printed a stamp with a picture of a Jenny on it, but the Jenny was mistakenly printed upside down. An inverted Jenny stamp is now worth quite a bit.

  5. Kathie Shattuck says:

    My father would have LOVED that story and the museum. For a short time as a young man he owned his own small plane and used to fly from the midwest back to New York to visit his family. The one time as a family we visited DC during a sweltering July, he insisted on dragging us all to a museum exhibit of airplanes. Not my favorite aspect of history, but certainly something he loved.

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