Before WW 2 Major Marina Raskova was the first woman to be awarded the distinction of “Hero/ine of the Soviet Union.” She was the first female pilot and navigator for the Soviet Air Force in 1934. She set international aviation distance records and in so doing, became famous in Russia and an inspiration for Russian women. When war broke out between Germany and Russia, many women wrote Raskova asking her to intervene on their behalf so they may become aviators. Many Soviet women had lost family members and were determined to help the war effort. Due to Raskova’s standing (as a heroine and a member of the secret police) she had access to government officials including Stalin. In 1941 the 588th Night Bomber Squadron was formed and headed up by Raskova.
The squadron was effectively split into 3 sections ~ fighter, dive bomber and night bomber regiments. It was the night bomber regiment that became the most decorated and known as the Night Witches. They were desperately feared by the Nazis with their consistent hammering of the lines night after night ~ to the point that if a German airman downed one he received the Iron Cross medal. These courageous women pilots were without parachutes ~ amount of weight was an issue on their plywood biplanes and victory was more important than the women’s lives.
Being on a different squadron, Raskova flew a fighter jet and crashed in 1943 when she chanced flying in bad weather. She was given a state funeral with full military honours. Her death was a great loss to the Soviet Union and especially to Russian women and the 1000 aviators who worked with her. (They had flown over 30,000 sorties and 30 became Heroines of the Soviet Union.) Post-war the Soviets did not celebrate the all-women regiments in Victory Day. In fact, they disbanded the women Air Force squads and no longer trained female pilots. You can read more about the difference between post-war women aviators in the west (United States) versus the Soviet Union here.
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