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Nominee 5: Nadezhda (Nadia) Vasil'yevna Popova
Our 5th Nominee is Nadia Popova, the heavily-decorated Hero of the Soviet Union, one of its first female military pilots, and three-time winner of the Order of the Patriotic War, given for bravery (the only bomber pilot to be so decorated). Despite parental and institutional disapproval, she obtained her pilot's license at the age of 16, becoming a flight instructor two years later.
She was one of the female pilots dubbed by the Germans "Night Witches," flying the primitive Polikarpov Po-2 biplane on missions, mostly night-bombing raids, with a personal best of 18 missions in one night. She was shot down several times, and her plane was sometimes shot up quite badly, but she always managed to get back in the air. After the war, she went back to being a flight instructor, never losing her love of flying. She passed away at the age of 91, after a long and glorious career.
Here are some pictures of Nadia in uniform. Note the sheer quantity of medals. Also note that in the second one she is standing in front of an aircraft which is distinctly not a Polikarpov biplane.
The Polikarpov Po-2 is an interesting aircraft. Originally used for crop-dusting and similar non-military tasks, it is possibly the most-produced biplane ever. It was lightly armed and carried a tiny payload, flying at incredibly low altitudes and doing so very, very slowly (it is said that the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Focke-Wulf Fw 190 had a stalling speed equal to the maximum speed of the Po-2, making it difficult for German pilots to keep them in the gun-sights). The engine made a distinctive noise, and they were known for causing the German troops to lose sleep, a function described as "psychological warfare." They were used in the Korean War as well, and the aircraft has the distinction of being the only biplane ever credited with a jet kill: an F-94 Starfire slowed to 110 mph in order to catch one, and consequently dropped from the sky.
Here is the Polikarpov Po-2:
The 588th Night Bomber Regiment (or "Night Witches") is also an interesting subject. They flew throughout the war, from 1942 all the way through the Battle of Berlin. By the end of the war, they had flown 24,000 missions (be careful with this number - I have heard this is the total number of sorties flown by women in the Soviet Air Force, elsewhere) with an active complement of 40 flight crews at its largest. Both the flight- and ground-crews were all-female. The pilots and navigators must have been extremely brave. To quote Wikipedia: "The Women's Regiment flew exclusively at night; their planes, which were not equipped with guns, radios, radar, or parachutes, would incinerate immediately if hit with even minimal ordnance." They lost 30 flyers over the course of the war. Here is Nadia with some of her fellow Night Witches, waiting for darkness to fall (she is the one standing):
And another of her with Galina Bespalova, one of the navigators:
Putting Nadia and her colleagues on the tabletop is not too much of a challenge. Shapeways will 3-D print you a Po-2 in 1:100, 1:144, or any scale you choose (1:200?), and the prices are not too bad. I don't think that Wings of Glory has done one yet (correct me if I'm wrong) but someone did make this available at the Wings of Glory Aerodrome site. DeAgostini makes a 1:100 scale diecast one (you can buy it from The Flying Mule - I have always had great service from these guys). KP Models, Hellers, and others make 1:72 scale kits which you can find on eBay if not elsewhere. ICM and Admiral also have kits in 1:48, for your 28mm games. There is even a paper model for free download from PaperCraftSquare (don't be scared if you see some Cyrillic - I tried it and it did not infect my machine with anything. It didn't even influence my voting preferences.) In short, there are plenty of options.
Here is the Shapeways 1:144 model, and the cover art for one of the 1:48 kits:
And here's the DeAgostini diecast model (which will be bombing Germans on my table soon):
As for getting a figure for Nadia herself, that may prove more difficult. Probuilt Model does a 1:32 figure of Lily Litviak, but nothing for Nadia (the fighter pilots always steal the spotlight). As for 15mm and 25/28mm, there are lots of female snipers, and oftentimes medics and communications figures, but nothing in a flight suit. You could always do a conversion. (I'd probably start with the female figure from Westwind's Russian Communications Set or one of the figures from Copplestone's Bolshevik Heroines - just add pocket flaps and lots of medals.) I don't see this as a problem, necessarily - short of a good rendering in 54mm/1:32 for collectors, there wouldn't be much need for a Nadia figure, especially not on the wargames table - she was probably asleep during the day, and she clearly spent all of her nighttime hours in the air. Maybe if she was downed behind enemy lines, and had to escape...
The whole subject makes me wonder how well our wargames rules for WWII Aerial combat would handle the somewhat strange characteristics of the Po-2, especially as regards the slow flying speed making them difficult to shoot down. (I'm sure that none of them would account for the psychological effects of the engine noise - this would probably go on the same weapons chart as "harsh language"...)
Regardless, Nadia Popova has my admiration - not only did she help to pioneer the role of women in the Red air force, but she flew a scarily-primitive aircraft to great effect in a highly-decorated bomber unit of the Great Patriotic War. She stands as a symbol of bravery, and of a life devoted to the love of flying.
Copyright (c) 2018 by Arofan Gregory. All rights reserved.