Saturday, June 24, 2017

Night Witches by Kathryn Lasky

Night Witches is set in Stalingrad, Russia in 1942 and is a fictional account of a young girl who joins 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Airforce.

The 588th Night Bomber Regiment was set up after the famous Russian woman aviator, Marina Raskova urged Stalin to allow women to become fighter pilots. This bomber regiment was made up of young women between the ages of seventeen and twenty-six who flew flimsy planes made of plywood and canvas and carried a two bombs on each run. Each plane contained a pilot and a navigator in an open cockpit and no parachutes.

They flew close to 30,000 missions over the course of the war, generally eight missions per   night. These missions were to harass the German army, and to destroy strategic targets. Because the bi-planes were smaller and lighter and had a maximum speed below the stall speed of the Luftwaft, they had greater maneuvrability giving them an edge in battle.

The 588th Regiment eventually became known as the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment. Thus the Soviet Union was the first nation to have women pilots in a combat role. The Germans nicknamed these pilots "Nachthexen" or "night witches" because their light planes made a soft swishing sound, like that of what they imagined a witch's broomstick would make. They were so feared by the Germans that a pilot who shot down a night witch was awarded the Iron Cross.

Night Witches opens in Stalingrad, 1942 with Valentina Petrovna Baskova crouching in the rubble of her apartment building with her mother. They are watching the night lights set up by the German Sixth Army sweeping the sky in at attempt to protect their fuel depots, ammunition dumps, ground troops and support vehicles from being bombed by the light bi-planes of the 588th Regiment. Valentina's sister, Tatyana is on the "night witches"; both of them having learned to fly planes from their father who was head of the training program at Engels airbase. Three days ago on June 22, the Nazis invaded Russia in a major military offensive called Operation Barbarossa. Russian citizens were rallied to fight for their country and their leader, Comrade Stalin. Tatyana left for the People's Volunteers while Valentina's mother refused to allow her to go with her sister.

Their apartment has had one wall blown out. In the morning while Valentina's mother leans out the blown-out window, she is fatally shot through the throat. All alone, Valentina waits in the apartment and that night finds herself in the company of Yuri, whose father was a hunter in the Urals. Yuri had often been bullied at school but now he's a sniper, which makes him part of the NKVD or the secret police. Yuri tells her that he killed the sniper who shot her mother.  Valentina tells Yuri she must get out of Stalingrad and find the air fields of the 588th Regiment so she can join her sister as a night witch. Yuri tells her it will be difficult to do both. He tells her that Hitler has ordered all the citizens of Stalingrad to be marched to a camp and suggests that she leave immediately and try to get evacuated to the east bank of the Volga.

With this end in mind, Valentina (Valya) leaves and begins making her way through the city. However, she doesn't get very far before a schoolmate enlists her to work on a gun crew in one of the trenches. She is taught to operate an M1939, a 37-millimeter anti-aircraft gun by a young boy name Mikhail.When their trench is overrun by German panzers, Valentina saves them but they lose many fighters. Eventually however, Yuri comes to Valentina's rescue and helps her get to the night witches. Valya will start out as part of the ground crew, but she's determined to pilot her own plane and drive the Nazi's out of Russia.


Night Witches tells the remarkable story of the first group of women who were involved in defending the Soviet Union against the Nazi invasion during World War II.  Although the characters in Night Witches are fictional, the night witches themselves were not.

I have several complaints about this novel as a piece of historical fiction. The first is that the date in the opening chapter is misleading because it identifies the battle for Stalingrad incorrectly as beginning in 1941. It did not. Hitler's offensive to subjugate Russia - known as Operation Barbarossa,  began in June of 1941. In the summer of 1941 the Germans, who caught the Red Army completely unprepared, rapidly moved into Russia. By July of 1941, despite vigorous resistance by the Soviets, the German Army had advanced four hundred miles into Russian territory and were only two hundred kilometers from Moscow.  The winter of 1941 saw many problems for the Germans, in particular the exceptionally bitter winter for which the German troops were not prepared, and significant losses of troops and materiel. The fight for Stalingrad began July 17, 1942. Hitler wanted to capture the city as it was a major industrial center that produced armaments. Capturing it would cut the Soviet's access to southern Russia and open the way to capturing the oil fields in the Caucasus.

Throughout the novel there are no other dates given and the time frame is vague. The story runs from roughly June of 1942 until 1946. It would have been very helpful if dates were given, even in a general way, throughout the novel so readers could place the events. Also Lasky provides no maps and unfortunately no historical note at the back to help younger readers understand more about the battle for Stalingrad which was considered one of the most significant of World War II - a battle which turned the tide of the war.

Lasky does capture to some extent the horror of bombed out Stalingrad and the terror of fighting the oncoming panzers and German army. However, her focus is more on the main character, Valya's struggle to become a pilot and her role as a night witch. The story follows the night witches as they liberate first Stalingrad, then the Kursk peninsula, then Soviet Russia, as they move through the Ukraine and into Poland and finally into Germany.

Valya and the other night witches know they cannot be captured because of Stalin's views about his own soldiers being captured;  "There are no Soviet prisoners of war only traitors..." This makes Valya and the other pilots terrified of being shot down and becoming a prisoner of war. When Tatyana is lost and her fate unknown, Valya worries. If her sister is alive and a German prisoner, the Russian soldiers will kill her when they find her. As Valya states  "Stalin believes that in Hitler's camps there are no prisoners of war, only Russian traitors. Surrender, even if one is wounded, is considered a criminal act...In Stalin's mind, 'true patriots' would not permit themselves to be captured, but would have fled east to the Urals." When she is shot down behind the lines her commander Major Yevdokia Bershanskaya works to have her rescued because Valya's fate once the Soviets liberate the area will be worse than death. Eventually  Bershanskaya tells Valya, "...every time a German prisoner camp is liberated, these SMERSH units and NKVD officers move in to interrogate the Russian prisoners, the 'traitors' who allowed themselves to be captured. These agents are charged with evaluating the prisoners' loyalty to the Soviet Union. Stalin is paranoid. He is as bad as Hitler." To prevent this from happening to Valya, Bershanskaya gives Valya cyanide tablets when she is sent on a mission to rescue her sister.

Valentina is a fully developed character; strong willed, courageous and intelligent. She's resourceful but seems incredibly self-possessed despite the death of her father, mother and grandmother, the loss of her home and the horrors of war. When Valentina first begins working with the night witches, she devises a new plan to make refueling  and loading the planes faster. This gets her noticed by Yevdokiya Bershanskaya, commander of the 588th Regiment who decides to promote her. But Tatyana disagrees and only reluctantly accepts Valentina in her new role. This results in their relationship becoming strained.  It takes the downing of Tatyana and her rescue that brings the two sisters together. When Tatyana does not return from a mission and is believed to have been lost, Valya is inconsolable. "My grief is bottomless, and I'm grieving for two of us, for I am lost as well. The person who infused me with purpose and meaning is gone. Without Tatyana I am nothing."

Lasky only briefly touches on the conflict Valya and her friend Yuri who is a sniper, experience as they kill people during the war. When Valya thanks Yuri for saving her life and preventing her from getting on the boat, he tells her "...You see, I'm a sniper. I kill all day, all night long. But I got to save you. Save a life. I felt human again." For Valya it is different. "I can't forget how I almost crossed my fingers when I asked which Yana had died. Is there something wrong with me? I wonder if my sister witches ever have thoughts like these. Killing from the air is easy. We see the target but not the human face behind the target. The consequences are distant. But somewhere there is undoubtedly another little four-year-old girl in Germany whose papa I have killed." Valya, after bombing a train, which she found thrilling, wonders, "Am I truly becoming a witch? Have I become addicted to killing?"

The historical inaccuracy mars an otherwise well written and fascinating account of one aspect of World War II. Readers will have to do their own research to flesh out their knowledge about Operation Barbarossa and the "night witches" of the 588th Regiment.

The following web articles provide information about the night witches as well as other aspects of World War II and Russia:
The Lethal Soviet Night Witches - Russian Female Heroes of the Air

The BBC website has an excellent webpage on Operation Barbarossa, "Hitler's Invasion of Russia In World War Two"

For more information on Stalin's treatment of repatriated Soviet troops read "Stalin's War Against His Own Troops" from the Institute For Historical Review.

Book Details:

Night Witches by Kathryn Lasky
New York: Scholastic Press     2017
211 pp.

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