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Sweatpants & History | Happy Birthday to the Leader of the Night Witches, Marina Raskova!

By Jessica Grey

Today we celebrate the birthday of one bad mothashut your mouth—I’m just talking about the mother of the Night Witches—then we can dig it. In the course of her short life, Marina Raskova pursued multiple careers, gained fame as a pilot, broke multiple records, convinced Stalin and the Soviet Air Force to create women’s combat units, and commanded one such combat unit until her death.

Born today in 1912, Marina Raskova grew up as the Russian Empire was collapsing and the Soviet Union was taking its place. She was born into a middle-class family—her father was an opera singer and her mother was a teacher—and she set out to follow in her father’s footsteps, spending her early years studying music. She continued studying music for several years after her father’s death in 1919, but ended up changing course and studying chemistry in high school. In 1929, Raskova took a job as a chemist in a dye factory, which is where she met Sergei Raskov. The two married and, the next year, Marina gave birth to their first and only child, Tanya.

In 1931, Raskova switched career tracks and started working as a draftswoman in the Aero Navigation Laboratory of the Soviet Air Force Academy. It was this career change that opened the door for Marina to become the first female navigator in the Soviet Air Force, and the first woman to teach at the Zhukovskii Air Academy, and a famed aviatrix, making a number of record-breaking flights while working as an instructor at the Academy. The most notable of those flights took place in 1938. Raskova served as navigator on the all-female, three-person crew of the Rodina, whose goal was setting an international women’s record. The ill-fated, state-sponsored flight was frustrated by poor visibility and, after twenty-six hours in the air, the crew was forced into making a crash landing. As navigator, Raskova was seated in the glass-domed nose of the plane and a forced landing a deadly prospect for her, so she bailed, parachuting into the forest below. It was only after she was safely on the ground that Marina discovered that she did not have her emergency pack—no food, no water, no compass. Somehow, after eight days, Raskova managed to find the crash site. All three women were awarded the “Hero of the Soviet Union” award—the first and, until World War II, only women to receive such an honor.

When Hitler turned his eye to the east and sent troops to invade the USSR, the Soviet Union’s alliances shifted from vaguely axis-aligned to clearly allied-aligned. As World War II continued to heat up, Raskova went to work on Soviet leadership—including Joseph Stalin—advocating for the creating of women’s combat units. At the time, women weren’t explicitly barred from enlisting in the Soviet military—they just faced a lot of bureaucratic red tape, or absurdly long delays, or “whoopsies!” their applications were lost. After she had campaigned for several months, Stalin announced the creation of an all-female aviation corps that would, ultimately become three combat units (two of those units would admit men later in the war): the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment, the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, and the 125th Guards Bomber Aviation Regiment. The 46th was the only division that remain all-female and is definitely the most well-known: using obsolete planes and often idling the plane’s engine to glide the bomb toward its target, the women of the 46th became known to the Germans as Nachthexen—Night Witches—because the attacks, accompanied only by wind noise, reportedly sounded like broomsticks. It was the 125th that fell under Colonel Marina Raskova’s command. This unit was elite: they were allotted the best Soviet bombers. All told, the regiment dropped over nine hundred and eighty tons of bombs over the course of eleven hundred and thirty-four missions.

Sadly, Raskova was not to see the war through to its end. On January 4, 1943, she and her crew were en route to the first operational airfield near Stalingrad when, during an attempted forced landing, her plane crashed on the bank of the Volga. The entire crew was lost in the crash. Raskova’s funeral was the first state funeral of World War II and her ashes are interred in the Kremlin Wall. So integral was Marina to the creation of these women’s combat aviation units, many feared that the regiments would be disbanded after her death, but all three continued flying throughout the course of the war. Raskova was awarded, posthumously, the Order of Patriotic War 1st Class. She was only thirty years old when she died.

Given her having accomplished so much and made such an enormous impact by the age of thirty, I can only imagine what kind of a force she would have been through the remainder of the war and beyond. So, as Women’s History Month draws to a close, let’s take a moment to stand in awe of Marina Raskova’s incredible badassery. Happy Birthday, Colonel Raskova!

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