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"Night Witches" is the English translation of Nachthexen, a World War II German nickname (Russian Ночные ведьмы), for the female military aviators of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, known later as the 46th "Taman" Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, of the Soviet Air Forces. The regiment was formed by Colonel Marina Raskova and led by Major Yevdokia Bershanskaya.
The regiment flew harassment bombing and precision bombing missions against the German military from 1942 to the end of the war. At its largest size, it had 40 two-person crews. It flew over 23,000 sorties and is said to have dropped 3,000 tons of bombs. It was the most highly-decorated female unit in the Soviet Air Force, each pilot having flown over 1,000 missions by the end of the war and twenty-three having been awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union title. Thirty of its members died in combat.
The regiment flew in wood and canvas Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, a 1928 design intended for use as training aircraft and for crop-dusting, and to this day the most-produced biplane in all of aviation history. The planes could carry only two bombs at a time, so multiple missions per night were necessary. Although the aircraft were obsolete and slow, the pilots made daring use of their exceptional maneuverability; they had the advantage of having a maximum speed that was lower than the stall speed of both the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and the Focke-Wulf Fw 190, as a result, the German pilots found them very difficult to shoot down. A stealth technique of the night bombers was to idle the engine near the target and glide to the bomb release point, with only wind noise to reveal their location.
From June 1942, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment was within the 4th Air Army. In February 1943 the regiment was honored with a reorganization into the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment and in October 1943 it became the 46th "Taman" Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment. The word Taman referred to the unit's involvement in two celebrated Soviet victories on the Taman Peninsula, during 1943.
On October 8, 1941, Order number 0099 specified the creation of three women's squadrons - all personnel from technicians to pilots would be entirely composed by women. These were: