Flight of the Rodina

The Soviet Premier, Joseph Stalin, had given clear orders. Soviet pilots would connect Moscow with the farther corners of the Soviet Union. 

Two male pilots had flown 6,850 miles, non-stop from Moscow to the Far East and were declared heroes.

After that successful flight and the ensuing press, Stalin ordered Soviet Women to make a similar trip. Three of the best and most experienced were chosen and given a specially-built aircraft, a modified Tupelo DB-2B, called the ANT-37 “Rodina”, which means “Motherland” in Russian.  Like the men’s flight, it was a serious state-sponsored mission.

Stalin selected Valentina Grizodubova as the Commander of the flight.  Valentina was one of the Soviet Union’s very first woman pilots and the daughter of an aircraft designer, who had her flying since the age of 14.  She had amassed a total of 5,000 hours of flight time. Valentina, the perfect Soviet citizen, was also a concert pianist and a member of the Soviet paramilitary organization called Osoviakhim.

Co-pilot. Polina Osipenko, was the daughter of a Ukrainian farmer.  She had to fight to get the right to fly and finally soloing in 1933.  Polina worked hard, long hours training and flying. By 1937, she had emerged as a celebrated Soviet aviatrix with 3 records, 2 for altitude and 1 for distance on a closed circuit.

As the navigator, Stalin chose Marina Raskova, a trained singer and musician.  She had been the Soviet Air Forces first woman navigator and had quietly worked for the NKVD, the Soviet Secret Police. 

They were the perfect, hand-selected flight crew for the mission.

They had taken off on September 24, 1938 and had flown a full day and through the night.  The clouds and turbulence had forced them to fly at higher altitudes than planned.  Finally, they had located the shores of the Sea of Okhotsk.  Having turned around and come back over land, they found nothing but forests and swamps.  Nothing on their meager charts matched any landmarks they could find, but Raskova had managed still to locate their rough position.

Radio navigation aids were non-existent and they had no fuel to fly a box search pattern to find a town or village, let alone anything of interest.  Their radios were knocked out from the night before when the cabin temperatures had fallen to -35 degrees C.  Fuel was getting low and time was running out.

Everything that was expendable was thrown out to lighten the load.  At 6,500 feet, Raskova bailed out herself. She would have to descend into the forests and then find her way to the imminent crash site on foot. She left her emergency kit and supplies and didn’t even have a compass.  There was nothing to do but set out in the direction she had last seen the plane as it disappeared in the distance.

Grizodubova and Osipenko descended slowly and searched for the best option that didn’t include trees.  They found a half frozen swampy area and prepared for a gear up landing.  They set down and damaged the plane but the two of them were uninjured and able to climb out.  All they knew was that they were somewhere in the Far Eastern reaches of Siberia.  They elected to remain with the plane and hope that search teams would find them.

Raskova wandered the forest alone for 10 days before coming upon the plane. She survived despite having no water and only two chocolate bars. She found the plane just two days after a Soviet search aircraft had located the wreckage and had dispatched ground rescue.  The three were eventually picked up, taken to the nearby village of Kirby, and brought back to Moscow.

As it happened, the “Rodina” had flown 3,672 miles in 26 hours and 29 minutes, a new record for an all-woman flight crew.  All three pilots would be celebrated as Heroes of the Soviet Union (the first time any women had been so honored and the only ones to receive that award prior to World War II).  Additionally, each received a reward of 25,000 rubles for their loyal service to the Soviet ideal.

A year later, Polina Osipenko would die in an accidental crash.  The village of Kirby and surrounding district was renamed in her honor, a name that it retains to this day.

Marina Raskova went on to form the famous WWII all-women night attack regiment called The Night Witches.  She would die in operations during the war against Nazi Germany

Valentina Grizodubova was the only one to survive the war.  She saw the flag go down on the Soviet Union and the end of Stalins dream of Soviet socialism.  She passed away in 1993 at the age of 83, in Moscow.

Night Witches

The Germans named the Soviet female pilots in the 588th Night Bomber Regiment “Night Witches” because of the whooshing noise their plywood and canvas PO-2 aircraft made, when the pulled the power back, lowered the nose of the plane and made the bombing run in the dark of night. It reminded them of the sound of a witch’s clothing with riding her broomstick.

The women proudly accepted the name.

Marina Raskova, after receiving the Hero of the Soviet Union medal for the “Flight of the Rodina”, lobbied for women to take a more active role in the war, and she was highly successful in her efforts, leading to women being eligible for the draft and even convincing the military to establish all-female units.

Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin issued an order in 1941 to establish a trio of all-female air squads. The only one to remain exclusively female was the team of night bombers, the 588 Regiment. Their ages ranged from 17 to 26.

Wearing boots and uniforms that were made for the men, they cut their hair short and came to the realization that the biggest obstacles, before engaging in combat, would be with the equipment. They flew the Polikarpov PO-2, a two seated, open-cockpit biplane that were obsolete even by the standards of the day. Made of plywood and canvas, the planes were light, slow, and provided absolutely no armor. They had their benefits though. They had a slower stall speed than the standard German fighters, making them hard to target and they could take off and land just about anywhere.

On June 8, 1942, the all-female squadron started their first overnight bombing run and continued until the end of the war. No parachutes, no guns, no radios or radar, only maps and compasses. If hit by tracer bullets, their planes would burn like sheets of paper.

40 two-person crews, flying multiple bombing runs as soon as the sky darkened, taking part in as many as 18 in a single night. The planes carried six bombs at a time, so as soon as one run was complete, the pilots would be re-armed and sent back for another run. Flying in the open-cockpit planes in subzero temperatures often gave the women frostbite.

The Germans started spreading the rumors that the Soviet Union was giving the women pills and treatments that gave them the night vision of a cat. Nadezhda Popova, who flew 852 missions herself, earning her multiple medals and the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, said “This was nonsense, of course. What we did have were clever, educated, very talented girls”.

By the end of the war the Night Witches had flown 30,000 bombing raids, delivering around 23,000 tons of munitions, and had lost 30 pilots. 23 pilots, were awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.

Marina Raskova fought for women to have a place in the war and won that fight, among others. She died on January 4, 1943, when her aircraft crashed attempting to make a forced landing on the Volga bank, while leading two other PO-2s to an operative airfield near Stalingrad. She received the first state funeral of the war. Her ashes are buried in the Kremlin Wall, beside Polina Osipenko;s on Red Square.

Marina Raskova,” Flight of the Rodina” navigator and mastermind of the Night Witches, is a highly honored and revered female in Soviet history.

Nadezhda Popova, one of the most famous and honored, Night Witches, died on July 8, 2013. The day before Nikki Mitchell.