Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Marina Raskova and the Night Witches

This badass chick of history personally dropped more than 900 tons of bombs on Nazis. But she'd never planned on becoming a bomber pilot - she wanted to be an opera singer. Today, she's remembered as a Russian folk hero. Meet the tough and photogenic Marina Raskova, commander of the so-called "Night Witches."

Raskova's father was a noteworthy opera singer. Her mother, a teacher, had a great respect for knowledge and had seen to it that Raskova's brother, Boris Malinin, became a scientist who specialized in shipbuilding. Like most parents, they foresaw a fine future for their child that didn't pan out. Trained and pushed to become a musician, Raskova kept at it even after her influential father's death in a motorcycle accident when she was just seven years old. To honor his memory, she wanted to be the best opera singer in the world.

Turns out, Raskova was her own worst critic. She was so hard on herself, so impatient with her own perceived shortcomings as a singer, that she eventually quit music entirely. Instead, she followed her mother and brother into the field of science, focusing on chemistry in her later school years. When she completed secondary school, she helped to support her mother and brother by taking a job as a chemist with a company that made dyes. There, she met and married a handsome fellow by the name of Sergey Roskov. Together, they had a baby in 1933, and gave her the appropriately Russian name of Tanya.

Then things started to change for Raskova. In addition to her scientific background, she was a talented artist and had a good eye for detail. This led to a fateful job - a draftswoman with the Soviet Air Force Academy. While there, she was trained as a pilot and became the first woman in Russian history to obtain an official pilot's license. She was promoted to teaching at the academy soon after.

She could have stopped there and rested on her laurels, but Raskova was a driven woman. She participated in three record-breaking flights and became a folk heroine almost overnight. Her most famous flight was with two other women on a non-stop journey of more than 4,000 miles from Moscow to deep in Siberia. The entire trip took 29 hours, but it was not without peril. In a plane called the Motherland (a converted bomber), they made it almost to their destination when, in the terribly cold weather, the plane accumulated so much ice on its wings it began to lose altitude. To make matters worse, visibility was so poor that the women were literally flying blind, and had very little idea where to find the airfield they were to land on.

In a desperate move, the crew began to jettison everything they could out of the airplane to reduce weight and gain altitude. In the end, it wasn't enough. Raskova, figuring they needed to drop at least another 100 pounds, realized there was one thing they hadn't dropped yet - a crew member. She heroically rose to the occasion, strapped on a parachute, and dropped into an icy-cold sea of cloud in the dead of night. Miraculously, she survived her landing, but found herself in deep woods. Meanwhile, the other two crew members were able to gain altitude, find their bearings, and make land.

But it took Raskova some 10 days to rendezvous with the plane. Presumed dead, she appeared out of nowhere at the airfield with a handsome hunter who'd found her in the wilderness. Together, they made the long trek through the cold to meet up with the plane (whether this hunter had anything to do with her later divorce has been a source of occasional speculation and gossip over the years).

The Soviet media, such as it was, made great play of this, and Raskova was given the award "Hero of the Soviet Union" - the first woman to be so honored, and one of only three people to receive the honor before World War II.

This may have been the last anyone heard of Raskova, if not for a man named Adolph Hitler. In June 1941 Nazi troops stormed into Russia. Ultimately, this would devolve into a nightmare for the Germans, but in the first stages they were shockingly successful. By November that year, they'd captured some 3 million Russians, had Leningrad under siege, grounded the Soviet air force, and wiped out a huge chunk of the Red Army.

Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin pushed the country to rebuild and fight on, but he was short of men. Perhaps this was why, when Raskova approached him about forming all-female combat regiments, he agreed. Technically, there was no bar against women serving in the military in Soviet Russia. In reality, their appointments were often blocked or held up. But Stalin agreed to Raskova's request in October 1941, and with the famous "Order 0099" he established three fighting forces made up entirely of women. Raskova was assigned to oversee these three air regiments, and personally commanded the 125th Guards Bomber Aviation Regiment. The vast majority of these women were under the age of 20, and the oldest were not yet 30. 

Very soon, the women were running night-time bombing raids on Nazi military targets. These ranged from "harassment raids" meant to unsettle and demoralize the Germans to precision strikes against military targets. They were phenomenally successful, and by the end of the war, they'd flown more than 30,000 combat missions.

These missions were usually undertaken in horrible conditions. The planes they used were outdated, mere toys compared to German planes. But while they were not speedy, they were highly maneuverable. This meant that they were light, with almost no insulation. The women often flew in temperatures of -55 degrees Fahrenheit with only flight jackets and helmets. The planes got so cold that if a woman accidentally touched the metal with her bare skin, it would stick to the metal and rip off. The planes - which were modified crop-dusters - could only carry a few bombs at a time, which meant the pilots had to fly up to eight missions in one night. Finally, in order to save carrying capacity for bombs, the women always flew without parachutes.

Raskova developed the tactics for a special squadron of female bombers who were given a fearfully respectful nickname by the Nazis - the "nachthexen," or "night witches." She personally recruited them, interviewed them, trained them, and supervised their missions. The name came from the fact that the Nazis could never hear their engines - just the sound of wind passing above before a firestorm of devastation. It sounded to some Germans like flying broomsticks. The women used a tactic developed by Raskova: a few miles out from their targets, they'd cut their engines and glide into range. Then they'd drop the bombs, restart the engines in mid-air after leaving the target area, and fly back home amidst a withering hail of anti-aircraft fire (often to pick up another load of bombs and do it all over again).

Not everyone was impressed with Raskova and the Night Witches. While the Soviets lauded them in public as great heroes, information released since the fall of Communism in Russia indicates the women were frequent targets of abuse by their male colleagues. Not only was male chauvinism on display - there was jealousy, too, because the female bombers often got the best planes. Because the women weren't generally trained as mechanics or ground crew, men often filled these roles, which they felt made them subservient or less heroic than their female counterparts. There were at least two recorded cases of sexual assaults on the air bases (suppressed at the time), and a great deal of what we would today call sexual harassment: a poor thank-you to some of the bravest pilots on either side in World War II. Even in her personal life, Raskova was affected by this attitude. Unable to bear playing second fiddle to his heroic wife, her husband filed for divorce in 1935.

The state, however, honored dozens of these women, many of whom lived through the war and retained their heroic status, trading it in to provide good careers and well-connected husbands.

Unfortunately, Raskova was not one of them. She did not live to see the end of the war. After a bombing raid deep into Nazi-controlled territory, she was leading two crippled planes back to an ad hoc airfield near Stalingrad when, we must assume, something went terribly wrong with her aircraft. She was forced to attempt an emergency landing in the best place available - the banks of the Volga River. It wasn't the perfect spot to land, and indeed, Raskova crashed. She and her crew were killed.

Stalin personally saw to it that Raskova received the first Russian state funeral of the war. She was honored with full Soviet pomp and circumstance. Her face was placed on propaganda posters, films were made about her, and she adorned several postage stamps in Russia and its client states. A street in Moscow was named in her honor. Her ashes were buried in the Kremlin Wall on Red Square.

Perhaps the nicest tribute to her came from Soviet scientists who orchestrated the Venera spaceships that investigated the planet Venus between the early 1960s and 80s. A prominent patera, or shallow bowl-like crater, on Venus is named in her honor. Naming part of a celestial body for her seems a fitting tribute to this woman who certainly know how to fly high.

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