Nadezhda Popova was a true heroine of the Soviet Union – a real-life Luke Skywalker who flew biplanes with canvas wings over enemy territory to drop bombs on the advancing German Army.
She was from Donetsk – that embattled part of eastern Ukraine that is mostly Russian-speaking today and was firmly a part of Stalin’s empire. In Russian, her name was “Nadia.” And, by all accounts, she was all woman.
The women of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment employed a devious and effective tactic against the Third Reich. While one plane would dive, full-throttle, through raking German searchlights, acting as a weaving and bobbing decoy, a second plane would glide in silently to drop its payload of bombs. That done, the second plane would then act as decoy for the first pilot, who glided in to drop her own payload of bombs.
The invading Nazis called them Nachthexen, or “Night Witches.” Nadia Popova flew 852 such sorties over the course of the war – 18 in one night alone.
Whenever she flew, Nadia wore a beetle brooch on the uniform, which she tailored to accentuate her curves. She primped her hair after bombing runs to look pretty for the inevitable cameras. She always kept a white silk blouse and a long blue silk scarf hung up beside her bed.
She was one of the first to enlist in her regiment and insisted on being a fighter pilot. Late in 1942, she dropped food and medicine to the Russian marines trapped on the Black Sea coast at the battle of Malaya Zemlya, flying so low and quiet that she could hear them cheering her. After landing, she counted 42 bullet holes in her plane.
Nadia Popova truly was a hero of World War II, earning the Soviet Order of Friendship, the Order of Lenin and three Orders of the Patriotic War. She outlived so many of her friends and fellow pilots. She outlived not only Hitler, the Nazis and Comrade Stalin, but also the Soviet Union for which she fought. She died on July 14, 2013, at the age of 91, and the world is a poorer place for it.