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Bravery Beyond Belief

ColonelPopovaWhen I was in the Air Force in the 1970s I had access to classified information about the Soviet Union’s air defenses, logistics support systems, likely invasion scenarios in Eastern Europe, military philosophies, equipment capabilities, and a whole host of related factoids.

In a nutshell, the Soviet military philosophy seemed to be based on flooding the battlefield with cheap equipment and undertrained soldiers, sailors, pilots and equipment operators and technicians.

For example, in East Germany, the Soviet Union’s air defense system depended on thousands of small, mobile, low-power, very simple radar systems which didn't cover much airspace but together seemed formidable in satellite photos.

RadarCoverageMapWhat the surveillance photos didn't show was that most of the radar equipment seen from the air didn’t work. The radars had been sent to the front, or what the Soviets considered to be the front, and they just ran them until they broke, which typically didn't take long. The Soviet radar technicians would then cannibalize broken radars for spare parts to repair the unbroken radars in a informal tactical system which still produced radar coverage from what we estimated to be about 20% of what was in place at any given time. Since there were so many of them, some models going all the way back to World War II, they actually produced a decent amount of radar coverage and they were harder to take out because most of them didn't work anyway and western pilots had to get within range and provoke a Soviet radar operator to shine its beam on them to figure out which ones worked and which ones didn't.

As far as it went, it worked fairly well and didn't require the huge and expensive "logistics tail" that expensive, high-performance western military equipment (which frequently did not meet specifications anyway) typically requires — lots of redundant circuitry, detailed spare parts supplies, lengthy repair technician training times, expensive parts and maintenance manuals, extensive operator training, expensive high-performance equipment, fancy repair equipment and tools, and an elaborate delivery support delivery system (convoys, drivers, etc.) and on and on. (The repair system required it’s own logistics support too.)

The same flood-the-field philosophy seemed to permeate the rest of the Soviet military establishment. Their equipment was at the same time simple, cheap, unsafe, low performance, low power, hard to operate, easy to repair, easy to manufacture and deliver, and therefore there would be upwards of five units for every single western-style equivalent.

Once when I was temporarily stationed in Iran in the mid-70s, I worked with several Iranian Air Force junior officers who had to use Soviet ground equipment because they got it in exchange for natural gas Iran traded to the Soviet Union. The Iranian Air Force officers were very unhappy with the exchange — a typical remark I heard was “we give them gas and they give us shit” — because the trucks, tugs, jeeps, radars, generators, tires, and everything else just didn't work well and frequently broke down. On top of that, the Soviet spare parts system, such as it was, allowed users to order spare parts only one day each year depending on the type of equipment. (Obviously, ordering spare parts didn't necessarily mean you would get spare parts, or that they'd be the right spare parts, or that they'd work…) The Iranian Air Force officers did the best they could keeping some of their equipment in operating condition but it was a constant challenge, on top of many other challenges.

Taking the philosophy one step further into the human arena meant that the Soviets more or less considered their troops to be expendable. They didn't provide much safety equipment, very little training, and they tended to order their troops into riskier situations than Western military commanders would ever do. Heavy casualties were part of the Soviet military equation in the minds of the USSR’s generals and defense officials.

But that didn't mean that the Russian soldiers were any less brave or talented as their Western counterparts.

I was reminded of all of this background and history recently when I read about the death of Russian pilot Nadezhda Popova on July 8, 2013.

Nadezhda Popova was part of a unit of Soviet women pilots who flew old biplanes to bomb the invading Germans in World War II. As the Wehrmacht approached Moscow in 1941, Stalin, influenced by a woman named Marina Raskova, one of very few women in the Soviet air force before the war, agreed to set up a women’s air force unit — a night bomber regiment. From mechanics to navigators, pilots and officers, it was composed entirely of women.

Nadezhna Popova, 19
Nadezhna Popova, 19

Aged 19 (!), Popova was one of the first to join what became the best-known of three units, the 588th. By then, early in the war, the Soviets had sustained heavy losses of planes, often on the ground, to the Luftwaffe. So these women had to do their best with cheaply built 1920-vintage wooden biplanes, “Polikarpov Po-2s” that had been used for training and lacked radios and modern navigational equipment. They could carry two half-ton bombs.

The women of the 588th flew their first mission on June 8, 1942. The Germans had retreated in the snow from Moscow but the great battle of Stalingrad was yet to come. Three planes took part in that first mission, aiming for the headquarters of a German division. The raid was successful but, of course, one plane and its pilot were lost.

The 588th flew only at night, and concentrated on harassment bombing of German encampments, rear-area bases and supply depots. The aim was psychological as well as practical. Being light weight, their rickety old planes — no guns, no armor, no canopy, no parachutes, limited fuel, poor performance no radios, no GPS!, minimal instruments and navigational aids (they were lucky to have crude maps, a stopwatch and a compass) — could fly close to the ground and were often undetected by radar. Popova and her comrades would cut their engines near the target — a very risky maneuver which risked not getting the engine started again after the run, leaving the pilot with no elevation to recover in — and glide in and drop their ordnance, restart their engines (if they were lucky) and head back to base. The Germans hated being made to scatter by women and called them the Nachthexen [the Night Witches]. One German source said they were “precise, merciless and came from nowhere.” The Nazis viewed them as such a menace that an Iron Cross was promised to any Luftwaffe pilot who shot down a “Nachthexen.”

Polikarpov1Because the Polikarpov planes were only capable of carrying the two small bombs strapped under their wings, the pilots had to fly multiple missions every night, returning to base to collect more bombs. Nadezhda Popova once famously flew 18 sorties in a single night.

According to an obituary in a London newspaper she remembered the freezing cold weather the most. “When the wind was strong it would toss the plane. In winter when you'd look out to see your target better you got frostbite; our feet froze in our boots, but we carried on flying. You had to focus on the target and think how you could hit it. There was no time to give way to emotions. Those who gave in were gunned down and they were burned alive in their aircraft as they had no parachutes.” (All this was at night, remember.)

Their tactics involved flying in formations of three with two of the planes breaking off to act as decoys and attract the searchlights while the third slipped quietly in to drop its bombs.

On one occasion after crash landing in the North Caucasus Ms. Popova joined a retreating Soviet column in which she met another downed pilot Semyon Kharlamov. His head was heavily bandaged so only his eyes were showing, but he charmed her with jokes and after meeting up several times over the course of the war, they eventually married.

The 588th Night Bomber Regiment was so successful that Stalin formed three regiments of women combat pilots.

RussianPilotsWW2Besides the obvious dangers of air combat, life on the ground was not easy. There was a great deal of resistance to the idea of women combat pilots; their male counterparts often looked down on them, and their living conditions were usually primitive. Sexual harassment was common.

RussianPilotsOrdersNadezhda Popova was born in Shabanovka (today’s Dolgoye). Her father was a railwayman. She grew up in Ukraine in the Donetsk coalfields. She hoped to become an actress; she loved music and dance and performed in amateur theater.

But all that changed when a small aircraft landed near her village and the young Ms. Popova became passionate about flying, enrolling in a gliding school without telling her parents. At 16 (!) she made her first parachute jump and first solo flight.

In the Soviet Union, as elsewhere, this was a time of huge enthusiasm for aviation and Russia had claimed numerous early distance, altitude, and other records. Women were also busy conquering the skies. In 1938 Marina Raskova and two other Soviet women officials set a world record for a non-stop direct flight by women when they flew an ANT-37, a Soviet-built twin-engine aircraft named Rodina [Homeland], over 3700 miles from Moscow to Siberia.

Several Russian women pilots were famous at the start of World War II because of their daring exploits in the First World War. Among others, Princess Eugenie Shakovskaya served as an artillery and reconnaissance pilot, having volunteered for the Czar’s air force in 1914, and flew with the 26th Corps Air Squadron in 1917.

All this undoubtedly influenced the young Nadezhda Popova, and despite her parent’s opposition she carried on with her new passion. She obtained her pilot’s license and applied to enroll in pilot school, but was turned down. Polina Osipenko, Inspector for Aviation in the Moscow Military District, however, intervened and recommended that she be given her chance, and she was accepted as a student in the Kherson flight school, from which she graduated at the age of 18 (!). Ms. Popova then became a flight instructor!

ColonelPopovaAfter the war, as women returned to ordinary jobs the female pilots were often regarded as loose women, but Popova stayed in aviation. She was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. All tolled Ms. Popova survived an amazing 852 missions, starting in the Ukraine and ending up in Berlin in 1945. She survived several forced landings. She met and married another pilot, Semyon Kharlamov, and they remained together until Semyon’s death in 1990.

NadezhdaPopovaNadezhda Popova died on July 8, 2013. She is survived by her son, now a general in the Belarussian Air Force. Ms. Popova was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union, Gold Star, Order of Lenin and Order of the Red Star (three times) during the Second World War.

Obviously, a book and a movie are long overdue.


  1. July 22, 2013

    Good tale!
    I thought the use of “all tolled” was one of those words (eggcorns) that slip by spellcheck.
    Then I thought it might kind of be correct.
    Then I went to

  2. Malcolm Macdonald July 23, 2013

    subscriber2 is correct about all told, but that doesn’t detract from this wonderful piece – well told

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