As millions of German troops invade the Soviet Union during World War II, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin authorizes women to form the first female bomber regiments. These young female pilots and navigators fly the old-fashioned Polikarpov Po-2 on night missions to attack enemy targets, earning them the German nickname of Nachthexen, or Night Witches. "Chronicles of Courage: Stories of Wartime and Innovation" is a co-production of Vulcan Productions and NBC Learn.
Chronicles of Courage -- Night Witches
KATE SNOW, reporting:
Eastern Europe explodes as Germany invades the Soviet Union. More than three million German troops overwhelm the Soviet Army. It's the largest military invasion in history. The Soviets, allied with the United States against Nazi Germany, suffer millions of casualties. Desperate for resources, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin authorizes the first female bomber regiments.
IRINA RAKOBOLSKAYA (Regiment Chief of Staff, Soviet Union): I was amongst those who were immediately accepted into the navigator group so I was very pleased.
SNOW: Physics student Irina Vyacheslavovna Rakobolskaya is one of the first to volunteer, and soon becomes chief of staff for the all-female 588th Night Bomber Regiment. They are well-trained and fiercely committed to defending their homeland.
RAKOBOLSKAYA: We went to war knowing this is war, and we are risking our lives.
Dr. REBECCA GRANT (Military Aviation Expert): Women were used because Russia was short of manpower and short of pilots. And there were women in Russia who were extremely capable aviators and able to lead combat squadrons.
SNOW: In the spring of 1942, the women's regiment is sent to the front lines, and as many as 40 crews of pilots and navigators are equipped for combat with the old-fashioned two-seated Polikarpov Po-2, a bi-plane constructed of plywood and oiled fabric and extremely fragile.
RAKOBOLSKAYA: If you jab with your finger at the wing, you'd make a hole in it.
Dr. GRANT: It was much more like a World War I airplane than a World War II airplane.
SNOW: The Po-2 is rudimentary in design and technology. Its top speed is less than 100 miles per hour, while German warplanes average nearly 400 miles per hour. But the pilots quickly learn to exploit its advantages -- it's easy to fly and maneuver, and can carry over 400 pounds of bombs.
RAKOBOLSKAYA: This plane was so simple, it didn't require any special fuel, or special bomb mechanisms, it required nothing at all. All it needed was a pilot and a navigator.
SNOW: Their night missions take them over enemy lines in the dark to bomb German targets like supply depots, airfields, and even troops. They endure temperatures as low as zero degrees in the open cockpit, and sometimes toss out a small bomb or extra grenades carried in their laps. The Germans nickname them ‘Nachthexen,’ the Night Witches, for their elusive midnight raids.
RAKOBOLSKAYA: We knew the Germans used to call us Night Witches. And we didn't mind, of course we were the Night Witches. That was quite clear.
SNOW: The Night Witches maneuver through a dangerous situation. The slow and flimsy Po-2 lacks protective armor, so the women must strike silently, using stealth tactics and the element of surprise.
Dr. GRANT: When they were close to their aim point they would switch off their engines and glide in silently to drop the bomb.
SNOW: As the pilots throttle back, cutting the engine's fuel supply, the Po-2 is able to remain aloft due to the force of lift. Lift is generated by the flow of air around the plane's wings, counteracting the plane's weight. Unlike heavier metal planes, the Po-2's light frame and fabric wings help maintain its lift longer, so the plane continues to glide forward as it descends toward the target and into a precarious position.
RAKOBOLSKAYA: And the plane could glide down to about 500 meters above ground. We couldn't bomb from lower heights, because the splinters from exploding bomb could hit the plane.
SNOW: Silently maneuvering through the freezing night air over the German lines, these brave women drop their bombs on their targets. Dodging bomb fragments and evading German anti-aircraft fire, the pilots throttle up their engines and make a dash for home, to refuel, rearm, and go out to bomb again.
RAKOBOLSKAYA: One girl managed to fly seven times to the front line and back in her plane. She would return, shaking, and they would hang new bombs, refuel her plane, and she'd go off to bomb the target again. This is how we worked, can you imagine?
SNOW: The Night Witches are the first women of any nation to fly in combat. Using the outdated Po-2 and inventive tactics, these young women fly more than 24,000 bombing runs, during which 30 of them lose their lives. Their bold missions help push the Germans out of the Soviet Union and bring victory to the Allies.
ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY, Va. — Even in death, Elaine Harmon challenged convention.
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