Nadia Popova is name you have probably never heard of unless you are Russian, were crazy about WWII airplanes as a kid, or are a woman military pilot (or, maybe, Peter Kuhlman). It is not a name that I remember although I read alot about World War II airplanes as a kid. What I do remember reading about were what the Germans called Nachthexen, or Night Witches. They were a group of Russian women pilots who terrorized the Germans.
We like to think that we won the war against the Germans, but the Russians did the heavy lifting. Three quarters of the German Army was on the Eastern Front, the first time the German Army was stopped was at Stalingrad, and most historians consider that the turning point of WW II in Europe. That was in late 1942. The Soviets had no material to speak of, just people to throw at the Germans – Stalin famously said Quantity has a quality all it’s own – taking 1,150,000 causalities at Stalingrad alone. They had so few assault rifles, that, in the big push across the Volga, they attacked with two men for each assault rifle, when the guy with the rifle was shot, the other picked it up.
The Night Witches were equipped about as poorly. They flew at night in open, wooden, bi-planes with a top speed of 94 miles per hour against the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe – think about that for a second – in Belorussia, Poland and, finally, Germany. The women didn’t wear parachutes because they were too heavy. In four years, the Night Witches flew over 30,000 missions . The Atlantic points out that They were loathed. And they were feared. Any German pilot who downed a “witch” was automatically awarded an Iron Cross.
They were also amazing.
The most amazing was Nadia Popova. She was a girly-girl who loved to dance and wanted to be a teacher, and she flew 852 missions as a night bomber pilot. (The average crew of a B26, our most used medium bomber during WWII, flew just over 20 missions during their entire career.) After one mission, she returned with 42 bullet holes in her plane. In Poland, she reached her personal record of 18 sorties in one night. That means that she took off – in an open plane, in the dark, often in sub-zero weather – flew over German lines to dropped her bomb load, and returned to her base in the dark. Eighteen times in one night.
After all that, Nadia lived through the war, got married and had kids and grandkids. She died at 91 on July 8th of this year.