8 July 2013 saw the death of a Soviet heroine, Nadezhda Vasil’evna Popova, at the age of 91. Nadezhda Popova was just one of hundreds of Soviet airwomen who flew combat planes during the Second World War and have subsequently been dubbed ‘Night Witches’.
Popova was born on 17 December 1921 and decided to become a pilot when she saw a small plane land near her home town. She was active in the Soviet civil defence movement in the 1930s, becoming a qualified sniper and parachutist. Her plans to become a pilot were thwarted locally, as was the case for many young women, and so she sought direct support in Moscow from the Soviet pilot heroines and long-flight world record holders Valentina Grizodubova and Polina Osipenko. Popova was subsequently recruited to a flying school, from which she graduated in 1940.
When war broke out she was recruited into the Soviet Air Force and shortly after transferred to the Soviet Union’s first all-female Air Group No. 122. She was soon appointed flight commander of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, re-designated as the 46th Taman’ Guards Night Bomber Regiment. She took an active part in many night bombing raids, flying in total darkness and without lights, as part of the Soviet war effort. She is reported to have flown a total of 852 missions, 737 of which were at night. Her aircraft was shot down on many occasions and once caught fire, but she survived these adventures, unlike many of her comrades.