Deputy Commander Nadezhda Popova
Deputy Commander Popova was a squadron commander in the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Regiment who were called the “Night Witches” by the Nazis in WW2
Up front I want to mention that my main sources were 2 articles, one by the NYT and one by the Washington Post, and I’ll link those articles in the show notes. I also listened to an episode of the Criminal Broads podcast that covered Nadezhda and the Night Witches. So, if you’d like to hear more listen to Episode 30 of Criminal Broads.
Also, thanks to a good friend from law school, Madison, who helped with some of my Russian pronunciation.
Nadezhda was born on 17 December 1921. She was the daughter of a railway man and she grew up near the Donetsk coal fields in Ukraine.
Growing up, Nadezhda told an interviewer, “I was a very lively, energetic, wild kind of person. I loved to tango, fox trot, but I was bored. I wanted something different.” She planned to become a teacher or a doctor, until one day a plane landed near her home and she met the pilot.
“I had thought only gods could fly,” she said in the book “A Dance With Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II,” by Anne Noggle. “It was amazing to me that a simple man could get in a plane and fly away.”
After that experience, when Nadezhda was just 15, she joined a flying club without telling her parents.
More than one-quarter of the pilots trained in the clubs were women. This is the time of great invention and of Amelia Earhart, who disappeared on July 2, 1937. Many women in this time were fascinated by flying. Nadezhda graduated a from pilot school and when the war started just after her 18th birthday she was working as an instructor.
Nadezhda wanted to join the effort as a pilot, but was barred from enlisting because she was a woman.
Though I am sure Nadezhda was beyond frustrated at being turned away from being a pilot, it paled in comparison to the emotions she felt in June of 1941, when Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. The Nazis took over her parents’ home and turned it into a Gestapo police station and murdered her brother.
For the rest of her life, Nadezhda would remember seeing the smiling German pilots come flying over the streets of her hometown, gunning down women and children as they tried to flee. “Seeing this gave me feelings inside that made me want to fight them,” she would remember later.
Soon after this, Russia changed their position on women pilots. On Oct. 8, 1941, Joseph Stalin issued an order to deploy three regiments of female pilots, one of which became the Night Witches. The Russian pilot corps clearly needed bolstering; in addition, as many have pointed out, heroic women made good propaganda. Stalin was nothing if not a lover of PSYOP.
To her delight, the 19-year-old Nadezhda was accepted into the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, which would later be renamed 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Regiment. She would eventually rise through the ranks to become the Deputy Commander of theat regiment. The regiment was comprised entirely of women volunteers, most aged 17-26. There was no budget for the female pilots, and so they wore old uniforms handed down from male pilots, and old boots that were so big on them that they had to stuff the toes with scraps of cloth just to be able to walk. The women were given only a couple of months to learn that the male pilots had been given years to perfect.
They flew the Po-2 airplane. It was a two-seater made of canvas and plywood with open cockpits. It was the world’s most produced biplane, with around 30,000 machines built from 1928 to 1952. Originally designed as a trainer and crop dusters, it was quickly modified into a light bomber during WW2. It had rudimentary instruments, no radio and no defensive weapons, no radar. This came with one advantage though, they couldn’t be detected by German radio locators. Additionally, to save weight, most of the women pilots did not wear a parachute. The pilots knew that even if they had one, their low operating heights meant that the parachute would not have time to open. If they were hit by the enemy, they would go down along with their aircraft. Since the planes were bad from canvas and plywood they would incinerate immediately if hit with even minimal ordnance. The regiment flew only at night to enhance their chances of survival.
Nadezhda’s initial excitement gave way to her trademark seriousness after her first mission, in which a Soviet plane was destroyed, killing two of her friends. “I was ordered to fly another mission immediately,” she told Russian Life magazine in 2003. “It was the best thing to keep me from thinking about it.”
The Po-2’s top speed was just 82 knots. But the Witches learned to use this low speed, coupled with the biplane’s exceptional maneuverability, to survive more powerful enemy night fighters like the German Me-109. When attacked they would simply throw their Po-2s into a tight turn at low speed. Since this was well below the stalling speed of the Me-109, the German pilot would be forced to make a wider circle and come in for another attack, only to be evaded once more. The women would also fly so close to the ground that it was unsafe for the swift German fighters to follow. Ultimately the attackers would usually just give up and go.
During their nightly missions, the pilots achieved a degree of surprise by shutting down their engines in the last stages of their bomb runs. The Germans heard only the hiss of the air flowing across their canvas wings and said they sounded like a witch’s broomstick in flight. They gave the regiment the nickname The Nachthexen, or The Night Witches. They represented Death and the Nazis never knew when they would attack.
The Night Witches were so good at what they did that the Nazis started spreading rumors about them. It was the only way they would save face and explain away the women’s skill. They said that the young women pilots were criminals, which explained why they were so good at being sneaky. They said that had been injected with experimental drugs or given pills to give them night vision like a cat. They said they had supernatural powers from the devil.
They were so afraid of the Night Witch regiment that if any German shot one down there were automatically given the Iron Cross.
The regiment flew in formations of three planes. Two would go in as decoys to attract searchlights, then separate in opposite directions and twist wildly to avoid the antiaircraft guns. The third would sneak to the target through the darkness. They would then switch places until each of the three had dropped the bomb carried beneath each wing.
Popova flew 852 combat missions — including 18 during one night. After one mission she found bullets not only stuck in the wood of her plane, but also in her own helmet.
“When the wind was strong it would toss the plane. In winter when you’d look out to see your target better, you got frostbite, our feet froze in our boots, but we carried on flying,” she said. “If you give up nothing is done and you are not a hero. Those who gave in were gunned down and they were burned alive in their craft as they had no parachutes.”
Once, she watched four planes crash, carrying eight women to their deaths. “What a nightmare,” she said decades later, “poor girls, my friends, only yesterday we had slept in the bunks together.”
In four years of conflict, they totaled over 30,000 combat missions and dropped 23,000 tons of bombs on the Germans. About 30 of the Night Witches lost their lives during that time.
Over the course of the war, Deputy Commander Popova fought in Belorussia, Poland and Germany. In 1942, she was shot down in the North Caucasus. Retreating with the infantry, she met her future husband, Semyon Kharlamov, also a decorated pilot. They were married for many years until his death in 1990. together they had a son, who grew up to be a general in the Belarusian air force.
The 46th Guards Night Bomber Regiment was dissolved in October 1945, and Popova returned to her town to a hero’s welcome, complete with marching band and flowers thrown over her car. She was driven to the theatre, where 2,000 people were waiting to honor her
Was awarded ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’, the Gold Star Medal, the Order of Lenin, and three Orders of the Red Star
Deputy Commander Nadezhda Popova passed away on July 8, 2013 at the age of 91. She is buried at the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, Russia.
Lt Col Kimberly Scott Ford
Kimberly’s father was an officer in the Army and seeing pictures of her parents living in Europe were inspiring to her. She would also travel with her mother to drop her father off at the airport and would dream about what was going on at the other end of the runway.
Her interest in flying and joining the military grew and after graduating from high school in 1986, she worked towards that goal. She joined the Air Force and graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1990.
Kimberly is a big supporter in helping women and girls achieve their dreams. She talks about those early days when she was entering the field of aviation and how it was intimidating.
“It’s not that people weren’t welcoming, it’s just that they wouldn’t necessarily look at a little African-American girl and think that she wanted to be a pilot.” Kimberly Scott Ford,
Kimberly says that when she was younger, she focused on all of the things that were holding her back. When she looks back now, it helps focus her on encouraging young people, especially young people of color gain confidence and inspiration towards a career in aviation.
Kimberly Scott was the African-American woman to fly the C-17 Globemaster in the Air Force.
During Kimberly’s time on active duty in the Air Force, she served as an KC-135 Stratotanker pilot. She flew combat missions in operations in Kosovo, Bosnia, Desert Strom and Operation Southern watch. Operation Southern Watch was a joint task force that operated in the southern Iraqi airspace from 1992 to 2003.
She left active duty service in 2001 and transferred into the reserves serving as a Citizen Airman with the 446th Airlift Wing. During her time in the reserves she again flew in combat missions this time in support of Operation New Dawn and Enduring freedom. Operation New Dawn was the end of Iraq war and was the name operations changed to as the US’s mission in Iraq changed towards stability operations. This was in the 2010 to 2011 timeframe.
Kimberly earned the Air Medal for her support in the airlift and air refueling operations in the countries of Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo.
After serving 25 years in the military, Kimberly retired from the reserves in 2016. She continued her pursuing passion for aviation and became the first African American female pilot to fly for Alaska Airlines.
Kimberly is an amazing woman. She is still out there today making a difference. She is actively advocating for diversity in the aviation industry.
She says that the biggest challenge she faced was that she was part of a group that was less than one percent of the Air Force. Fewer than 1 percent of Air Force pilots were African-American women. She credits her mentors with supporting her, encouraging her to continue to reach her goals. She is also helping mentor young women who have dreams like she did when she was young.
Being a woman in a male dominated industry is difficult. Being a woman of color in an industry that is not only male dominated but also very limited on diversity. When no one in the room, or the industry for that matter, looks like you it can be hard to overcome. The rest of that room or the world for that matter has very little understanding of what it takes to break through those barriers. But thank God we have those women who are breaking through. Every generation, every step forward helps those who are coming up the ranks behind you.
Kimberly recommends checking out the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, and also Sisters of the Skies. Both organizations help people of color reach their goals in the aviation industry.
Kimberly is married to her husband retired Col Edward L. Ford.
She continues to take part in recruiting events and inspiring the next generation of aviators.
I’ll leave you with Kimberly’s advice “Work hard, be prepared, be persistent, work towards excellence, keep a positive attitude and don’t give up,” is Scott’s advice to those she mentors. “If you face challenges, learn from your mistakes and then keep going.”
Photo credit is from Kimberly Scott Ford’s FB page: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10157585999710675&set=pb.535190674.-2207520000..&type=3