To put it mildly, Nadezhda Popova was not your typical teenager. In fact, she was a Night Witch who brought terror from the skies courtesy of a rickety biplane that had no place in modern warfare.
At the tender age of 19, Popova was one of a gallant band of women who risked life and limb fighting for Mother Russia against the Nazis.
They were dubbed ‘Nachthexen’ – ‘Night Witches’ – by German soldiers whom they tormented by cutting their aircraft engines before silently swooping in to drop their bombs. According to the soldiers beneath, the ‘whooshing’ noise they made passing overhead resembled a witch’s broomstick.
The Witches’ job was to harass the German positions, taking out troop encampments, depots and supply lines. Their main impact, though, was psychological.
The Nazis viewed them as such a menace that an Iron Cross was promised to any Luftwaffe pilot who shot down a ‘Nachthexen’.
Popova was one of the first recruits to three all-women air force units, set up in 1941. She would go on to become one of the most celebrated heroes of the Soviet Union.
In the course of her service she flew 852 missions against the Germans and was shot down several times.
That’s hardly surprising when you consider that the obsolete two-seater Polikarpov PO-2 biplanes that she flew were made of fabric and wood, and carried neither guns nor parachutes. Oh, and there was no radio either.
To navigate, the pilots used a stopwatch and a map. But these weren’t the only drawbacks. The plane was only able to carry two bombs. Because of this small bomb cargo, Polikarpov pilots had to fly multiple missions every night. On one occasion, the young Popova flew 18 in a single night.
It wasn’t only the enemy, however, that Popova and her comrades had to contend with. She braved freezing Russian winters, too, in her open cockpit as her face froze and her feet turned to ice in her bid to search out the enemy.
But it wasn’t all about near death in the pitch dark. There was time for love, too. After one of her crash lnadings. Popova found herself joining a retreating Soviet column in which she met another downed pilot, Semyon Kharlamov. Despite a heavily bandaged head, he worked his charm, and after meeting up several times during the war, they married and later had a son.
Popova ended her war as a lieutenant-colonel before returning to her job as a flying instructor. She and Semyon stayed together until he died in 1990.
This brave patriot died last week at the ripe age of 91. She was a remarkable woman with a remarkable story… so, let’s hear it for Nadezhda Popova – the Night Witch who helped send the Nazis packing.