Nazi-Fighting 'Night Witch' Dead at 91

Nadezhda Popova flew 852 missions in WWII

By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff

Posted Jul 16, 2013 8:58 AM CDT

(Newser) – There can't be too many World War II heroes with a better nickname than this: The "Night Witches" were a group of Russian women who piloted bomb-laden crop dusters over the invading German army, and their story is getting a fresh look in the wake of the death of one of the first and most celebrated women to join their ranks. Nadezhda Popova, who died in Moscow on July 8 at age 91, can claim 852 of the 30,000 missions the women flew in a 4-year span. (PRI's The World shares this amazing counterpoint: US bomber pilots were generally "rotated out" of combat after completing 25 missions.) During that time the "Night Witches" unleashed 23,000 tons of bombs on the Nazis, helping push them out of Russia.

They got their name from the Germans, who likened what the New York Times calls the "whooshing" of their planes to the sound a witch's broomstick might make; the Washington Post explains they killed their engines right before unloading their bombs to up the surprise factor. And they were good at what they did, so much so that Germans spewed rumors that the women relied on pills and injections that gave them cat-like night vision. Popova, who became a "Night Witch" at age 19, was shot down a number of times and, on one occasion, ended up meeting her future husband amid the retreating troops she joined. Said Popova in 2010, "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?'" (Click for another fascinating obituary.)

The type of plane flown by Nadezhda Popova.
The type of plane flown by Nadezhda Popova.   (Wikimedia Commons)
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A documentary on the "Night Witches."   (BitnikGr)

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