Nadezhda (Nadia) Popova, night bomber pilot, died on July 8th, aged 91
This article is from the New York Times Europe
WHEN their hair was chopped off—as it had to be when they joined one of the Soviet Union’s three women-only air-force regiments—some of the women looked just like boys. Add in the bulky flight jackets, the too-big trousers and the size 42 boots, all made for men, and they could have passed for male pilots, just about. Not Nadia Popova. Somehow she managed, with a cinched waist here and a few darts there, to look like a Hollywood star. Between sorties she would fluff her hair, pressed flat by her leather flying helmet, in her tortoiseshell mirror (as at the centre of the picture above). Before each flight she would pin to her uniform a beetle brooch, which also served as a lucky charm. Beside her wooden cot in whatever shed they were sleeping in—once a cowshed—she kept a white silk blouse and a long blue silk scarf, in case she had to make a really feminine impression.
This was also the young woman—she was 19 or 20 then—who could turn her aircraft over and dive full-throttle through raking German searchlights, swerving and dancing, acting as a decoy for a second plane that would glide in silently behind her to drop its payload of bombs. That done, the second plane would act as decoy while she glided in to drop bombs herself. She made 852 such sorties in the second world war as a pilot in the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, later named the 46th Guards in honour of its courage. Once, over Poland in 1944, she made 18 sorties in a single night. The aircraft were old two-seater biplanes, PO-2s, originally training planes, made of canvas and plywood with open cockpits. When it rained, water ran over the instruments; when the planes were shot at, shrapnel tore the wings to shreds. There was no radio and, to save weight, she never wore a parachute. If you were hit, that was it.
She was a wild spirit, easily bored; she loved to tango, foxtrot, sing along to jazz. It made her feel free, which was also why at 15 she had joined a flying club without telling her parents. A pilot had landed his aircraft one day outside their town, Donetsk in Ukraine, astonishing as a god fallen to earth, in his leather jacket. From that moment she too wanted to soar like a bird. Walking towards a plane, every time, she would get a knot in her stomach; every time she took off, she was thrilled all over again.
Often she flew in pitch dark and freezing air. In an aircraft so frail, the wind could toss her over. Its swishing glide sounded, to the sleepless Germans, like a witch’s broomstick passing: so to them she was one of the Nachthexen, or Night Witches. To the Russian marines trapped on the beach at Malaya Zemlya, to whom she dropped food and medicine late in 1942, she sounded more like an angel. She had to fly so low that she heard their cheers. Later, she found 42 bullet holes in her plane.
Loving life as she did—running barefoot in the grass, exulting in the cherry trees that flowered outside her bedroom window—it was odd that she had suddenly wanted “the freedom to die”. It took no time, though. The moment the German invasion was announced, in June 1941, she abandoned the dance-dress she was ironing and ran to the airfield. She was one of the first to enlist in her regiment, demanding to be a fighter pilot. Soon enough, too, she had personal reasons to hate Germans. They killed her brother Leonid in the first month of the war. In August 1942, having crash-landed her plane in the North Caucasus, she saw Stukas bombing the desperate columns of refugees on the road. Her family home was commandeered by the Gestapo, the windows smashed and the cherry trees cut down.
The worst, though, was to lose friends. Eight died in a single sortie once when she was lead pilot, as hulking Messerschmitts attacked them in the dazzle of the searchlights. To right and left each tiny PO-2 went down like a falling torch. She never cried as much as when she returned to base and saw the girls’ bunks, still strewn with letters they had never finished writing. She was tough (“No time for fear”) and surprised at her increasing toughness as the war went on. But she was a woman, too.
The military men never let them forget it, mocking “the skirt regiment” even when its members had become heroines in the press. The women expected it, and did just fine without them. It was fun, though, to organise dances with the men; many of them fell in love; and so did Nadia Popova, with a blue-eyed heavily bandaged pilot she spotted under a tree, another god fallen to earth. He warned her not to make him laugh, as she clearly wanted to, because his wounds hurt. She read him poetry instead, and when she found her Semyon again for good it was at the Reichstag in Berlin in 1945, where they wrote their names in victorious pencil on the walls.
Instead of her beetle brooch she eventually wore on her smart dark suit the medal of a Hero of the Soviet Union, the Order of Friendship, the Order of Lenin and three Orders of the Patriotic War. With enormous pride she sported them, a beaming blonde among the men. She admitted she stood gazing at the night sky sometimes, wondering how she had ever managed to perform such feats up there. Well, came her down-to-earth answer, because you had to; and so you did.