'Night Witch' Flew Bomber Planes During World War II

As a young woman, Nadezhda Popova volunteered as a pilot during World War II to drop bombs on German troops, flying planes made of plywood and canvas. Their enemies called them "Night Witches" because the airplanes sounded like a witch's broomstick when they flew overhead. Popova died July 8.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. Nadezhda Popova was known as a Witch of the Night, but instead of a broom, she flew a bomber. Popova was a member of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, a group of young Russian women who volunteered to fly planes during World War II. The whooshing sound of their aircraft made of wood and canvas and the fact that they only flew in the dead of night inspired German troops to dub them the Night Witches.

Popova died July 8th in Moscow. She was 91 years old. Here she is in an interview with the BBC in 2009.

NADESZHDA POPOVA: (Through translator) We flew in sequence, one after another, and during the night we never let them rest. And the Germans made up stories. They spread the rumor that we had been injected with some unknown chemicals that enabled us to see so clearly at night.

CORNISH: The all-female regiment flew in the freezing cold, often just a few meters off of the ground, a dozen missions a night or more.

AMY GOODPASTER STREBE: They flew without parachutes. They flew without armaments, you know, radios or radar, only maps and compasses.

CORNISH: That's Amy Goodpaster Strebe. She's author of the book "Flying For Her Country: The American and Soviet Women Military Pilots of World War II."

STREBE: So you can imagine them being up there with the Luftwaffe and having to, you know, fight on the same - same way with the German pilots.

CORNISH: According to the New York Times, the Night Witches dropped 23,000 tons of bombs on the Germans over the course of four years. Nadezhda Popova herself completed 852 missions during the war. She found work later as a flight instructor but never again flew in combat. Decades later, Popova said of her experience, I sometimes stare into the blackness and close my eyes. I can still imagine myself as a young girl up there in my little bomber and I ask myself, Nadia, how did you do it?

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