They were the most-decorated combat pilots in the Soviet Union’s World War II armed forces, flying their missions in the dark, and cutting their engines to glide in and bomb the Nazi invaders below.
Having wreaked destruction and psychological torment on the enemy, the pilots would return to their forward bases, rearm their ancient biplanes, and strike again, wringing as many strikes out of a night’s flying as possible over the war’s eastern front.
Officially, the heroic pilots were members of the 46th Guards Night Bombing Regiment. But to the harried and demoralized invaders below, they were “nachthexen,” or night witches, dreaded for the broomstick-like whooshing noise heard just before bombs exploded after being dropped from their treetop-flying Polikarpov PO-2 airplanes.
The pilots embraced the name given them by their enemies. In all, there were 112 Night Witches, volunteers who ranged in age from 19 to 26. In three-and-a-half years in combat, the unit, one of several founded by legendary Soviet aviation figure Marina Raskova, flew more than 24,000 nighttime bombing missions.
Thirty of the pilots died in combat; two dozen earned the title “Hero of the Soviet Union.” They came from all walks of life—some already drawn to the mystique of aviation, which had caught hold with the masses; others, novices who joined to help the war effort.
In 2013, the obituary in the New York Times for Nadezhda Popova, one of the most highly decorated members of the Night Witches, caught the eye of Elena Kritter, an actor/director in New York City who grew up on a Virginia farm.
“What the hell is a night witch?” Kritter wondered before taking in the astonishing story of Popova’s life—one soon to make a powerful impression on her own.
“My jaw was on the floor. How come I’ve never heard of this?” she said, recalling the occasion in a phone interview. “I was shocked and stunned and so enamored of this woman.”
Popova, shown in a 2009 photograph at age 87, struck Kritter as “a regal-looking grandma,” an impression that magnified her sense that “this is one of the coolest stories I’ve ever heard in my life.”
Kritter had other projects in the works in 2013, but the story of the Night Witches proved to have staying power.
How could it not? “It’s a story about women who bombed Nazis.”
By April 2017, she had the time to give the topic the attention it deserved. Developing the idea into a theatrical production seemed suited to a rural environment with an aviation ambience, and Kritter knew “the perfect place to put on a theatrical show”: the family’s Ground Rush Farm in Culpeper, Virginia, where her father Gene Kritter, runs Kritter Cropdusting, flying Robinson helicopters.
In April, all the hangar became a stage as Elena Kritter and performers Madeline Barr, Elizabeth Chahin, Josephine Cooper, co-producer Alida Rose Delaney, Alexis Ingram, and Maggie Ronck became artists in residence, living and working together and creating, in a month’s time, a script, sets, and costumes for the play Night Witches. Before May they had staged seven sold-out workshop performances at the Culpeper farm before members of the aviation community and general audiences. The play is directed by Kathleen Anne Hefferon.
To create “a sense of voice” for Night Witches, the script draws on the “spellbinding” work A Dance With Death, a book by Anne Noggle, who was an American pilot and member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots. Noggle was also a noted aviation photographer, and her 1994 work contains photographs and direct accounts of the Soviet pilots’ exploits, Kritter said.
The Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach, Virginia, offered Kritter and her collaborators the opportunity to inspect its wood-and-canvas-constructed Polikarpov PO-2, the slow, 1928-era two-place agricultural biplane flown by the unit.
“It was spooky getting into it. It feels like a coffin, no protection whatsoever,” Kritter said, adding that she could see the ground through cracks in the airplane’s floor.
Such shortcomings aside, Kritter grants the airplane its tactical advantages crucial to the Night Witches’ missions. With a maximum speed below the stall speed of enemy fighters, shooting it down was difficult. And the PO-2’s short-field capability allowed it to take off and land almost anywhere—ideal for surprise-strike night operations.
As the cast worked to shape the production, personal horizons were expanded. Chahin, the linguist and Russophile of the ensemble, plunged into intense study of the Russian language, helping the cast with pronunciations, and offering insights “coming from a place of love for the culture and a passion for the language,” Kritter said.
Delaney, born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, had lived through the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center as a child. She resolved to confront a fear of flying, vowing not to play her part without experiencing flight. Wearing sunglasses to conceal tears, she lived up to her resolution.
“If these women can do it and like crawl out of the plane as the plane’s in the sky at night and drop a bomb or fix a wing, what am I afraid of? I have no reason to be afraid,” Delaney says in a YouTube video about Night Witches, after accomplishing two flights.
With the bare bones story of Night Witches set in the production’s first phase, Kritter said, a second iteration, refined with “a deepened sense of history,” is touring this fall. It played at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas, Virginia in October, and has performances scheduled in New York on Oct. 21, 22, and 26.
Audience reactions to date convince Kritter that Night Witches is making the dramatic equivalent of a power-on spot landing.
“Audiences are usually stunned,” she said. “In theater I consider that a good thing. There’s just this silence, and sitting in their seats… and then they applaud.” A frequent reaction from show-goers has been, “I had no idea this story existed.”
That response is reminiscent of Kritter’s own reaction when discovering through the Popova obituary “the epic story of young women in their early 20s who showed incredible bravery and resilience and did what I could not imagine myself even doing.”
On the other hand, as one generation tells the story of what a past generation went through, “The only difference between us is time.”
Looking forward, Kritter has set ambitious targets, including a possible off-off-Broadway or off-Broadway run of several weeks for Night Witches, while building up her own production company.
“Lofty goals,” she said.