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Nadezhda (Nadia) Vasil'yevna Popova (17 December 1921 – 8 July 2013) was one of the first military female pilots in the Soviet Union, and was highly decorated with awards including the title "Hero of the Soviet Union", the Gold Star Medal, the Order of Lenin, and three Orders of the Red Star during the Second World War.[1]

Early life[edit | edit source]

Popova was born in Shabanovka (now Dolgoye), Russia, on December 27, 1921.[2] Daughter of a railwayman, she grew up near the Donetsk coal fields in Ukraine. As an adolescent, she loved music, song, and dance, taking part in amateur plays and musicals, dreaming of becoming an actress. The Economist reported that she was a "wild spirit, easily bored; she loved to tango, foxtrot, sing along to jazz. It made her feel free."[3] When a small aircraft landed near her village, she became enamored with aviation, enrolling in a gliding school at the age of 15[2] without telling her parents.[1] "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."[3]

In 1937, she made both her first parachute jump and her first solo flight at the age of sixteen. Despite her parents' opposition, she pursued her new passion and obtained her flying license.

She was initially rejected as a student by a pilot school,[1] but after Polina Osipenko, the Inspector for Aviation in the Moscow Military District, recommended her, she was allowed to enroll in the Kherson flight school, graduating at the age of eighteen and becoming a flight instructor.[1]

World War II[edit | edit source]

Popova with Russian president Medvedev in 2009

Popova volunteered to be a military pilot, but the government initially barred women from combat and turned her away.[2] But in October 1941, Joseph Stalin issued orders for three regiments of female pilots to be deployed.[2]

Popova, whose brother Leonid had been killed at the front in 1941 and whose home had been taken by invading German troops,[2] was sent by Marina Raskova to Engels to join other women being trained to become military pilots. She then joined a night bombing regiment, and rose to command the 2nd Women's Regiment (1941–45),[4] flying the Polikarpov Po-2. The regiment was called "Nachthexen" (Night Witches) by the Germans "because the whooshing noise their plywood and canvas airplanes made reminded the Germans of the sound of a witch’s broomstick."[2]

On 10 March 1942, during a training mission, Popova was leading a formation when two aircraft got lost in a heavy blizzard and crashed, killing their all-female crews. These were the first casualties sustained by her unit.[1] After training, she was sent to fight in her childhood home region of the Donetsk coal fields.

Popova was shot down several times in the three years she spent fighting, but was never badly wounded.[2] On 2 August 1942, she was on a day reconnaissance mission when she was attacked by Luftwaffe fighters and forced to make an emergency landing near Cherkessk. Trying to return to her unit, she joined a motorized column, and among the wounded met her future husband, fighter pilot Semyon Kharlamov, who was reading And Quiet Flows the Don.[1]

She later flew a relief mission through enemy fire over Novorossiysk, dropping food, water and medical supplies to the forces trapped in Malaya Zemlya, nearly not making it. After returning, she found her aircraft riddled with bullet holes, right down to her map and helmet.[1][4]

As the Axis forces began their retreat, Popova's unit followed the front through Belarus and Poland and eventually entered Germany. It was in Poland that she reached her personal record of 18 sorties in one night.[1] Altogether, Popova made "852 sorties in the second world war as a pilot in the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, later named the 46th Guards in honor of its courage."[3]

Post-war life[edit | edit source]

The 46th Guards Night Bombing Regiment was dissolved in October 1945, and Popova returned to her town to a hero's welcome, complete with marching band and flowers thrown over her car. She was driven to the theatre, where 2,000 people were waiting for her, among them one of the marines she had helped in Malaya Zemlya.[1]

She married soon after the war - her husband went on to attain the rank of colonel general in the Soviet Air Force, and her son Aleksandr is a graduate of the Air Academy - and she worked as a flight instructor for almost two decades.[4] Popova was widowed in 1990.[1]

Popova died on July 8, 2013 at the age of 91.[5]

Awards[edit | edit source]

External[edit | edit source]

Obituary in The Economist 20 July 2013

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 Milanetti, Gian Piero (April 2011) (in Italian). Le streghe della notte (first ed.). Rome: Istituto Bibliografico Napoleone. pp. 94–99. ISBN 88-7565-100-0.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Milanetti" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Milanetti" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Milanetti" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Milanetti" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Milanetti" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Milanetti" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Milanetti" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Milanetti" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Milanetti" defined multiple times with different content
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Douglas Martin, "Nadezhda Popova, WWII 'Night Witch', Dies at 91", New York Times, July 14, 2013.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 "Obituary: Nadia Popova". 20 July 2013. http://www.economist.com/news/obituary/21581962-nadezhda-nadia-popova-night-bomber-pilot-died-july-8th-aged-91-nadia-popova. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Axell, Albert (2002). Russia's Heroes 1941-45. Carroll and Graf Publishers. pp. 60–68. ISBN 0-7867-1011-X.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Axell" defined multiple times with different content
  5. "Независимое бюро новостей | Умерла летчица, Герой Советского Союза, уроженка Донбасса Надежда Попова". Nbnews.com.ua. http://nbnews.com.ua/ru/news/93345/. Retrieved 2013-07-08. 

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

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