The Night Witches and Other Warrior Women of World War II
The Night Witches and Other Warrior Women of World War II

The Night Witches and Other Warrior Women of World War II

Khalid Elhassan - December 8, 2019

As was the case throughout most of history, fighting during the Second World War was mostly a male occupation. However, “mostly” is not the same as “all”, and during the course of the conflict, hundreds of thousands of women took up arms and participated directly in combat. Many fought as partisans in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, or as uniformed members of the Soviet military – the only country that deployed women into combat in significant numbers. The Resistance movements of Western Europe also saw numerous women taking up arms and taking part in combat. Following are forty fascinating things about some of the warrior women of World War II.

The Night Witches and Other Warrior Women of World War II
Red Army female soldiers in WWII. Gun Rodeo

40. The Soviets Mobilized Women For the War Like No Other Country

In the US, Rosie the Riveter is rightly praised as a symbol of women’s contribution to the war effort, and as a harbinger of women’s increased presence in the workforce. However, America’s mobilization of women for the war was far exceeded by that of the Soviet Union, which made more extensive use of women in its war effort than any other WWII combatant.

In addition to employing women in armaments factories and in other roles contributing to the wartime economy, the Soviets inducted women into the Red Army. Not in auxiliary uniformed outfits, such as America’s WAVES, but directly into the Soviet military. During the war, over a million women served in the Red Army. While most of them performed support roles, such as supply, transportation, or medical care, roughly 100,000 Red Army women fought in the main battle line as snipers, tank crews, combat pilots, or straightforward frontline infantry.

The Night Witches and Other Warrior Women of World War II
Marina Raskova. Pintrest

39. The Night Witches

Things got rough in the USSR during the days and months following Operation Barbarossa, the sudden German onslaught in the summer of 1941 that came within a hair’s breadth of crushing the communist state. The Soviets threw all they could lay their hands against the invaders, in a desperate attempt to stop or at least slow down the Nazis. Yet, even in those dire times, the authorities were reluctant to use women in the front line.

Women were initially barred from combat, but after repeated appeals, most notably from Major Marina Raskova, who made the case directly to Stalin, permission was granted to form female combat units. On October 8th, 1941, three female aviation units were formed, commanded by Raskova. They were consolidated into the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, later redesignated as the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, and commonly known as The Night Witches.

The Night Witches and Other Warrior Women of World War II
Members of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, AKA the Night Witches. Flite Test

38. The Night Witches Gather

Ignoring and overcoming the skepticism of naysayers, enthusiastic young Soviet women flocked to the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. Many had lost family and loved ones to the Nazi invaders, and were itching for an opportunity to dish out some payback. Hitherto, they had only been allowed to contribute to the war effort in support roles, but many had wanted to be and knew they could be if given the chance, pilots and gunners.

The volunteers were mostly in their early twenties, but some were as young as seventeen. Not only were the pilots in these all female squadrons women, but so were the ground staff and ground crews. They were determined to demonstrate that female pilot and female aerial squadrons could make a valuable contribution to the defense of the Motherland. By June of 1942, training and organization had been completed, and the Soviet female aviatrixes were ready for combat.

The Night Witches and Other Warrior Women of World War II
A Polikarpov Po-2. Flickr

37. The Night Witches Take Flight

The women of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment flew in slow – and by the standards of WWII, antiquated – plywood and canvass Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, originally designed in the 1920s for flight training and crop dusting. Flying such old and unmilitary machines into combat during the daytime was suicide, but if flown at night under the cover of darkness, it was possible for the obsolescent Po-2s to sting the enemy and survive.

On the night of June 28th, 1942, the 588th flew its first combat sortie, a strike against a German headquarters facility. The flimsy Po-2s could not carry much – only two light bombs, over a short distance. However, their airfields were close to the front lines, so there was enough time to fly, bomb, return to base, reload, and repeat. Sometimes, pilots of the 588th flew up to eighteen bombing missions during a single night.

The Night Witches and Other Warrior Women of World War II
The Night Witches’ planes were seriously outmatched by those of the enemy, both in speed and in maximum altitude. Wikimedia

36. The Virtues of Obsolescence

The Polikarpov Po-2 was slow and obsolete, but that very obsolescence came with silver linings. For one, it was highly maneuverable. In the hands of a capable pilot, a Po-2 could perform jinks and dips and turns within a small radius, that the faster and more modern German airplanes sent to shoot them down – assuming they could find them in the first place at night – simply could not match.

The Night Witches and Other Warrior Women of World War II
Night Witches of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. War History Online

The Po-2’s slow speed also had its advantages: its maximum speed was less than the stall speed of the Messerschmitt Me Bf 109 and Focke-Wulf FW 190 fighters. Between that, the dark cloak of night, and the aforementioned maneuverability, German fighters had an extremely difficult shooting down the women of the 588th.

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A 588th Night Bomber Regiment pilot. Flite Test

35. The Flying Covens

Because of their airplanes’ light bombload – only two bombs, one under each wing – the aviatrixes of the 588th often flew in relatively thick formations in order to make a dent. A typical mission often involved up to forty Po-2 airplanes, each with a pilot in front and a navigator in the back. Because of weight constraints, they almost never had any ammunition with which to defend themselves if attacked.

Because of their wood and canvass construction, the Po-2s did not show up on radar, and the distinctive sound of their engines was often the first warning Germans had that the raiders were near. The first planes usually went in as bait to attract the attention of German spotlights, whose illumination helped the raiders. They would release flares to further illuminate the target, drop their bombs, then make the short flight back to base to rearm, and fly another sortie.

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Pilots of the Night Witches in 1942. Wikimedia

34. Keeping the Nazis Up at Night

The psychological damage of the 588th bomber raids might have exceeded the physical harm. The incessant raids throughout the night kept exhausted Nazis from getting adequate rest, and the fear of a random bomb falling on one at any moment further frayed nerves that were often already at the snapping point.

The Germans nicknamed the Soviet aviatrixes Nachtexen, or “Night Witches“, because the whooshing noise of their wooden planes – whose pilots sometimes cut off the engines and glided to their targets to increase the chances of surprise – sounded like a sweeping broom. So feared and hated were the Night Witches, that any German who downed one was automatically awarded an Iron Cross.

The Night Witches and Other Warrior Women of World War II
Irina Sebrova, who flew 1008 missions during the war. Wikimedia

33. The Night Witches’ Tally

The women of the 588th braved bullets and frostbite in the air, and battled sexual harassment and skepticism on the ground. Their commander, Marina Raskova, bucked them up with the Twelve Commandment of the Night Witches, the first of which was: “Be proud you are a woman“. Killing Nazis was their primary goal, but in their free time, they did needlework, patchwork, decorated their airplanes, and danced.

Flying up to eighteen bombing missions a night, the 588th put up quite a record. One of their pilots, Irina Sebrova, flew over a thousand sorties. Collectively, the Night Witches flew over 30,000 combat sorties, during which they dropped over 3000 tons of bombs, and 26,000 incendiary munitions. Their last flight took place on May 4th, 1945, about forty miles from Berlin. Despite being one of the most highly decorated Soviet Air Force units, they were not included in the Victory Day Parade at war’s end, because their Polikarpov planes were too slow and looked too old.

The Night Witches and Other Warrior Women of World War II
Aleksandra Boiko and her husband, Ivan. Pintrest

32. A Family That Fights Together Stays Together?

Aleksandra Boiko not only fought in the front lines against the Nazis, but did so as a crewmember in her own heavy tank. “Own” in this case being literal, as the tank in which she fought was actually owned by her and her husband, Ivan Boiko, who fought in the machine alongside his wife.

The Boikos lived in the Siberian town of Magadan, having volunteered to work in that rugged region, where wages were higher and the opportunities for advancement were greater. It was the back of beyond, and with nothing to spend their money on, they saved their wages. When the Germans invaded, they heard the news that Aleksandra’s hometown of Kiev had fallen, and soon thereafter, that the Wehrmacht had captured Ivan’s home village of Nezhin. From family and friends, they heard of atrocities, burned homes, ravaged cousins, and relatives murdered or dragged off to Germany as slave laborers. They decided to do something about it.

The Night Witches and Other Warrior Women of World War II
A Iosef Stalin IS-2 heavy tank. History Net

31. Buying a Tank

Aleksandra and Ivan Boiko sought to join the Red Army, but the draft officials refused, because both had essential jobs – Ivan was a superb heavy truck driver, while Aleksandra performed essential clerical work for her department. They nonetheless figured out a way to get into the fight. During the war, Soviet citizens could directly pay for specific new tanks and planes for the military. So, in 1943, the couple donated 50,000 rubles from their savings to pay for a new IS-2 heavy tank, and wrote a letter to Stalin, asking for the right to drive that tank into battle.

Stalin agreed, and the Boikos were trained as tankers in Chelyabinsk Tank School. Ivan became a tank driver, while Aleksandra became a tank commander – the only woman to have ever commanded a heavy tank during WWII. Their technically “private” tank was officially named “Kolyma”, after the Kolyma River near the couple’s Siberian town of Magadan.

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Red Army female tank crew member. Rejected Princesses

30. The Boikos on the Front Line

Aleksandra Boiko, commissioned as a lieutenant after graduating tank school, arrived at the front with her husband in 1944, in their brand new IS-2 heavy tank – her as commander, he as driver. They first saw combat in the Riga Offensive, during which Aleksandra’s tank destroyed five enemy tanks, including a Panzer VI Tiger, and two guns. For her exploits, she was awarded the Order of the Patriotic War, First Class.

A few months later, the Boikos’ tank was hit and damaged, and both spouses were seriously injured. Their tank was repaired, and they eventually recovered from their wounds and returned to the front. All in all, Aleksandra and her husband fought from the Baltics, through Belarus, into Poland, and eventually ended up in Czechoslovakia at war’s end. Upon demobilization, Aleksandra returned to Magadan, where she ran a bakery, and was eventually elected to the City Council. Unfortunately, the Boikos divorced in the 1950s. Ivan died in 1995, and Aleksandra followed him a year later.

The Night Witches and Other Warrior Women of World War II
Germans soldiers parading past the Arc de Triomphe after capturing Paris in 1940. Bundesarchiv Bild

29. From Comfortable Elite to Despised and Endangered

In 1925, Charlotte Noshpitz was born in Paris into a Jewish immigrant family, the father from Belorussia, the mother from Romania. One of her grandfathers was an anthropology professor, and Charlotte was raised in an intellectual household whose routines included a weekly salon that often hosted French luminaries of the letters, sciences, arts, and academia.

Then life took a nosedive, when the Germans defeated France in 1940. The collaborationist French Vichy regime enacted discriminatory laws that revoked the French citizenship of naturalized Jews, and authorized the internship of foreign Jews or the restriction of their residence. When out in public, Charlotte and her family were forced to wear yellow stars of David sewn to their clothes to identify themselves as Jews.

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Charlotte Noshpitz’s fake wartime ID. The Forward

28. Hiding From the Nazis

By 1942, Charlotte Noshpitz’s father was in hiding. Later that year, her mother was arrested in a roundup and deported to Auschwitz. Charlotte’s father and brother fled to Nice in southern France. She followed them soon thereafter, and joined the local Resistance at age seventeen.

When her father stumbled upon her stash of weapons, Charlotte arranged false identity papers to get him out of the country and out of her hair. She told him that she would go with him to Switzerland, but at the border, she bid him adieu as she handed him to a guide who escorted him the rest of the way. She then turned around and returned to the fight.

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Charlotte Noshpitz. Washington Jewish Week

27. Resistance Exploits

Charlotte Noshpitz’s Resistance work included stashing and transporting weapons and money, often beneath the Germans’ noses, and creating and distributing fake documents. She also guided fugitives to the French border and safety beyond in Switzerland or Spain. In addition to escorting freedom fighters and political opponents of the Nazis and their French puppet regime, her charges included many Jewish children.

Charlotte also engaged in direct action, such as planting explosives – including a bomb that went off in a Paris movie theater where SS members were gathered. In 1944, she fought in the Paris Uprising that preceded that city’s liberation. For her wartime services, she received the Médaille de la Résistance, the Croix du Combattant Volontaire de la Resistance, the Médaille des Services Volontaires Dans la France Libre, and the War Commemoration Medal.

The Night Witches and Other Warrior Women of World War II
Some of Charlotte Noshpitz’s medals. The Forward

26. Befriending Hemingway

After the war, Charlotte Noshpitz resumed her education, studied psychology at the Sorbonne, art history at the Louvre, as well as languages. She sailed to the United States to further her mental health studies, and to examine a model health treatment center in Kansas for replication in Paris.

During a rough crossing of the Atlantic, she met and befriended Ernest Hemingway. After her return to France, she married in a ceremony attended by her Resistance compatriots, and settled into family life and a rewarding professional career.

The Night Witches and Other Warrior Women of World War II
Partisans captured by the Germans, en route to their execution. Holocaust Encyclopedia

25. The Youngest Heroine of the Soviet Union

Belorussian teenager Zinaida Martynovna Portnovna fought the Nazis as a partisan during WWII. She ended up as the youngest female recipient of a Hero of the Soviet Union award, the USSR’s highest distinction for heroic service to the country and society. Unfortunately, it was a posthumous award, as Zinaida was captured by the Germans and executed in 1944.

WWII came as a rude shock to Zinaida, as it did for most Soviet citizens. Born and raised in Leningrad, she was fifteen years old and hundreds of miles from home, at a summer camp near her grandparents’ home close to the Soviet-German border in Belorussia in June of 1941. When the Nazis invaded, German tanks swept past Zinaida’s summer camp, and the teenager found herself cut off behind enemy lines.

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Zinaida Portnova. Valka

24. Radicalized by Nazi Brutality

Young Zinaida Portnova endured life under the brutal German occupation, but became radicalized when a German soldier struck her grandmother while confiscating the family’s cattle. So she joined the underground Komsomol – the youth division of the communist party – and its resistance group, dubbed “The Young Avengers”.

Zinaida started by distributing anti-German propaganda leaflets, collecting and hiding weapons for the partisans, reporting on enemy troop movements, and engaging in opportunistic acts of sabotage of enemy vehicles. After learning the use of weapons and explosives, she took part in raids and sabotage operations against power plants, pumps, and a brick factory in the vicinity of Vitebsk, during which an estimated 100 German soldiers were killed.

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Zinaida Portnova during interrogation after her capture. Agenda Communista

23. Capture and Martyrdom

In 1943, Zinaida Portnova got a job in a kitchen that served the German garrison of Obol, and poisoned the food. When suspicion fell upon her, she demonstrated her “innocence” by eating the food to prove that it was not poisoned. When she did not exhibit immediate ill effects, she was released. She became violently ill soon thereafter, but survived.

She fled Obol, joined another partisan unit, and served as its scout. In late 1943, contact was lost with the Obol partisans, and Zinaida was sent to the city to investigate. She was captured almost immediately, but managed to grab a pistol her German interrogator had carelessly left lying atop his desk, and shot him to death, plus two guards who came rushing in upon hearing the gunshots. She escaped the building, but was eventually tracked down and captured. She was tortured, then executed on January 15th, 1944, aged seventeen.

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The younger Oversteegen sister, Freddie, in 1945. Vice

22. The Resistance Heroine Sisters

Dutch sisters Truus and Freddie Oversteegen were born into a left-wing working-class family. They grew up in an industrial district north of Amsterdam known as the “Red Zone” for its residents’ political bent. In the 1930s, their parents actively assisted an organization known as Red Aid, which helped Jewish and political refugees escape Nazi Germany to the safety of the Netherlands and beyond.

In their youth, the sisters grew accustomed to fugitives hiding in their household from Dutch police, who were likely to deport and hand them over to the Gestapo at the border. The pair were thus already Antifa, or antifascist, long before the Germans conquered the Netherlands in 1940, when Truus was sixteen years old and Freddie was fourteen. Those inclinations led them to join the Resistance.

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Truus Oversteegen, right, during the war. Flickr

21. Joining the Fight

The Oversteegen sisters lived in dire poverty after their parents divorced, and the hardships and shortages resulting from life under Nazi occupation made things worse. Living with their mother, they managed to get by. Their mother also managed to continue the family’s tradition of harbouring fugitives from oppression, by hiding a Jewish couple in their apartment during the war. As Freddie recalled years later, that confused her at first, because the Jewish couple were capitalists, while the Oversteegens were communists.

Around that time, the Dutch Resistance approached the Oversteegen girls’ mother, and asked if she would allow her daughters to join the Council of Resistance – a resistance organization that had close ties to the Communist Party of the Netherlands. Their mother consented, and the teenage sisters eagerly accepted the invitation and joined the resistance. They became the first women in their cell.

The Night Witches and Other Warrior Women of World War II
The Oversteegen sisters. Dagospia

20. Direct Action

The Oversteegen sisters started off small, distributing leaflets and illegal newspapers, and offering assistance to fugitives from the Nazis. However, things changed in the aftermath of the brutal Nazi crackdown in 1941, in retaliation for the massive Dutch workers’ strike to protest the deportation of Jews.

That German brutality further radicalized the Oversteegen girls. So Truus and her sister decided to join an armed partisan fighter cell that engaged in direct action against the Nazis.

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A WWII Dutch Resistance cell. For God and Country

19. Luring Horny Nazis to Their Doom

Truus Oversteegen received military training, and was to taught how to operate a firearm. Her early assignments required no shooting on her part, however. She was sent to flirt with and seduce German soldiers, then lead them into the woods, where they would be killed by her comrades.

As Freddie described it decades later: “[Truus] was like: ‘Want to go for a stroll?’ And of course he wanted to. Then they ran into someone — which was made to seem a coincidence, but he was one of ours — and that friend said to Truus: ‘Girl, you know you’re not supposed to be here.’ They apologised, turned around, and walked away. And then shots were fired, so that man never knew what hit him. They had already dug the hole, but we weren’t allowed to be there for that part“.

The Night Witches and Other Warrior Women of World War II
Freddie and Truus Oversteegen. Scribol

18. Racking Up the Resistance Exploits

It did not take long before Truus Oversteegen got to put her weapons training to good use, by shooting Germans herself. Along with her sister, she also rigged up bridges and railroad tracks with explosives for destruction. The Oversteegen girls also helped smuggle Jewish children out of the country, carried out daring missions to help some of them escape from detention centers en route to extermination sites, and even sprang some from concentration camps.

However, life as armed partisans was a difficult row to hoe for the Oversteegen girls, full of dangers and marked by tragedy as often as success. Early on, Truus, who had undertaken numerous missions to help Jews escape the Nazis’ clutches, was present at a failed rescue mission of Jewish children. It ended with the tiny fugitives caught in searchlights in an open field, where most were cut down with machine guns. Before the war was over, many of her Resistance comrades were arrested and executed.

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Truus Oversteegen in later years. Yad Vashem

17. Moving On

Courageously, Truus and Freddie Oversteegen soldiered on and kept up the fight, evading capture despite sizeable rewards that were placed on their heads. After the war, Truus put down her arms, and went about settling down and raising a family. She got married in November of 1945, and had four children. She made a name for herself as a respected artist and sculptress, and as a public speaker about war, antisemitism, and tolerance.

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Freddie Oversteegen, shortly before her death in 2018. National Hannie Schaft Foundation

In 1967, Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the Holocaust, designated her as one of the Righteous Among Nations – an honorific for non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from the Nazis. In 1982, she wrote a memoir about her wartime experiences, When Not, Now Not, Never. Truus died on June 18th, 2016. Her younger sister Freddie passed away on September 5th, 2018.

The Night Witches and Other Warrior Women of World War II
Josephine Baker. Direct Expose

16. From Cultural Icon to Resistance Heroine

When WWII began, French intelligence recruited Jazz Era icon Josephine Baker, AKA the “Creole Goddess”, “Black Pearl”, and “Bronze Venus”, who by then was a naturalized French citizen. In the 1930s, she had voiced support for Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, so when the Axis overran Franc in 1940, they assumed she was sympathetic to their cause. They were mistaken.

Baker took advantage of the occupiers’ trust and exploited her fame to charm Axis officials at social gatherings, in order to collect information. As an international entertainer, she had an excuse to travel, and she did, smuggling coded messages, written in invisible ink on her music sheets, between the French Resistance and the Allies.

The Night Witches and Other Warrior Women of World War II
Josephine Baker sporting her WWII medals during the March on Washington. The Washington Post

15. Putting Her Life on the Line

In addition to smuggling clandestine messages, Josephine Baker also hid fugitives in her home, supplying them with fake IDs and visas. Later in the war, she joined the French Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, in which she was commissioned as a lieutenant, and also performed for Allied troops.

In recognition of her wartime exploits and contributions to France, she was named a Chevalier of the Legion d’honeur by Charles de Gaulle, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of Resistance with Rosette. When she died in 1975, Baker became the first American woman buried with military honors in France, including a gun salute.

The Night Witches and Other Warrior Women of World War II
Roza Shanina. Mega Curioso

14. The Arctic Killer

In 1924, Roza Georgiyevna Shanina was born in a Russian village near the Arctic Circle, one of half a dozen children of a milkmaid mother and a logger father. She was determined to better herself, so at age fourteen, against her parents’ wishes, the teenaged Roza walked about 120 miles through the Taiga to the nearest rail station. From there, she caught a train to the nearest city, Arkhangelsk, so she could attend college.

Roza graduated from college in 1942, as the Soviet Union was reeling from the recent Nazi onslaught. She tried to enlist, but was repeatedly rejected. In 1943, the authorities finally relented, and allowed her to join a sniper school. That was bad news for the Nazis.

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Roza Shanina, left. All That is Interesting

13. The Deadly Sniper

Roza Shanina was assigned to a sniper platoon in the spring of 1944, and by early that April, she had killed her first German. That first dead Nazi unnerved her, but before long, she was knocking off Germans with as much detachment as if they had been tin cans on a fence. During a five-day stretch, Roza shot dead 13 Germans while under near constant artillery and machinegun fire, for which she was decorated with the Order of Glory for bravery.

By that summer, as her body count climbed, Roza Shanina became a national heroine, with her photo featured on the front pages of Soviet newspapers. By the end of August, 1944, she had killed 42 Nazis. She was killed in East Prussia in January of 1945, while trying to shield a wounded comrade with her body. By then, she had been credited with 59 confirmed kills.

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Eta Wrobel. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

12. The Resistance Leader of Lokov

Polish Resistance heroine Eta Wrobel was born in 1918 in Lokov, into a large Jewish family of ten children. Her father taught his offspring to help others, no matter the circumstances, and Eta took that to heart. When the Nazis conquered Poland, things got horrifically bad for Poland’s Jews, but Eta, who described herself as a “born a fighter“, was determined to do what she could to resist.

What she could do, at first, was to forge false identity papers for Jews. She did that until 1942, when her ghetto was liquidated, and Etta and her family were packed off to concentration camps. Fortunately, she and her father managed to escape en route, and fled into the woods near Lokov. Unfortunately, she was the only one of ten siblings to survive the Holocaust. She would do her best to avenge them by founding a resistance group.

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Eta Wrobel. Jewish Partisans

11. From Guerrilla to Mayor

Eta Wrobel helped found an eighty-member Jewish partisan group, and took the fight to the Nazis. She ambushed the occupiers’ supply convoys, mined roads, conducted hit-and-run raids, and otherwise did her best to hurt the Germans. The partisan life was a harsh existence, without adequate shelter, supplies, or medical care. On one occasion, Eta was shot in the leg, but the group’s only doctor was busy taking care of somebody more seriously injured. So Eta extracted the bullet herself: she dug it out of her leg with a knife, then sterilized the wound with vodka.

The Night Witches and Other Warrior Women of World War II
Eta Wrobel. Jewish Women’s Archive

When the Nazis were forced to retreat in 1944, Eta was asked to become mayor of her town. She got married later that year, and moved to the US in 1947, where she raised a family. Looking back at her partisan years, Eta reasoned that: “The biggest resistance that we could have done to the Germans was to survive“.

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Odette Sansom. Getty Images

10. From Housewife to Spy

In 1942, Odette Sansom, a housewife and mother of three in Somerset, England, heard a broadcast from the British Admiralty, appealing for photographs of the French coast. Odette had grown up in northern France and had some photos. So she sent them, but to the wrong address: the War Office, instead of the Admiralty. What she wrote attracted the attention of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a secret organization tasked by Winston Churchill to “set Europe ablaze!“, and they swiftly recruited her.

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SOE operative Odette Sansom and her daughters. Code Name Lise

Just a few months after first hearing that Admiralty broadcast, Odette was inserted into occupied France, as a member of an SOE cell. What followed were harrowing adventures, narrow escapes, romance, capture, torture by the Gestapo, and stints in concentration camps. By the time it was all over, Odette Sansom would become WWII’s most highly decorated spy, of either sex.

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An SOE radio transmitter and receiver. Wikimedia

9. Navigating the Tricky Intricacies of the French Resistance

When she arrived in southern France, Odette Sansom’s first mission was to arrange room and board for her SOE network’s radio operator, who had no ration card – a necessity at the time. She managed that and other early assignments, then things got complicated just a week after her arrival. In November of 1942, the Germans, reacted to the recent Allied landings in North Africa, by invading and occupying the nominally independent rump France, in which Odette operated.

Odette’s network had plenty of internal strife, and the new conditions made things worse. She was kept busy with her secret courier work between the SOE and various Resistance groups, while the network descended into chaos. That led to sloppy security work, which almost got Odette captured by the Germans during a failed attempt to arrange a clandestine night time airplane landing.

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German military canines. Digital Cosmonaut

8. Hunted by German Dogs

In late 1942, Odette was almost captured when a French Resistance contact, tasked with finding an out-of-the-way landing area, screwed up. The site was supposed to be suitable for the nighttime landing of a modified Hudson bomber, which was to airlift an SOE operative and four French generals back to Britain. Ineptly, the contact selected an airfield located about a thousand yards from a German antiaircraft battery.

A new landing site was selected, this one an abandoned airfield about 500 miles away. After dodging Germans and collaborationist Vichy police, Odette and her party made it to the airfield, only to discover that the control tower and a nearby barracks were occupied by German troops. It was a trap, and the party was forced to scatter, with Germans hot on their tail. Odette crashed into bushes, with German dogs snapping at her heels. She plunged into an icy stream, and battled the freezing current to the other side, before she finally shook off her pursuers.

The Night Witches and Other Warrior Women of World War II
French Vichy police, under Gestapo supervision, rounding up Jews in Marseilles for deportation. Frank Falla Archive

7. Hiding in a Whorehouse

Not long thereafter, Odette Sansom was acting as a courier between the SOE and a French Resistance higher up, but the mission took longer than expected, and she missed the last train back home. All hotels were booked, and the last thing Odette wanted was to get arrested for violating curfew, and risk a search that might reveal incriminating documents. So she hid in a brothel that catered exclusively to German soldiers, run by a madam sympathetic to the Resistance.

It was as safe a hideout as any, because such an establishment was the last place the authorities would expect to find an anti-Nazi. However, on that particular night, the brothel was raided by German military police looking for a deserter. To keep them from entering Odette’s room, the quick-thinking madam claimed that the room housed her niece, who was infected with smallpox.

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Ravensbruck concentration camp prisoners. All That is Interesting

6. Capture and Torture

Odette Sansom was eventually tracked down and arrested by the dreaded Gestapo. She refused to disclose her secrets, so she was taken to Fresnes Prison outside Paris. There, the Gestapo brutally interrogated Odette over a dozen times, torturing her with red hot irons to her back, and yanking out all of her toenails. She screamed in agony, but insisted that she knew nothing.

Eventually, the Nazis gave up on trying to squeeze information out of Odette, and sent her to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. There, the camp commandant, Fritz Suhren, kept her on a starvation diet, and housed her in a punishment block cell, from which she could hear other prisoners being tortured. She survived, and testified against him and other prison Ravensbruck prison guards after the war. He was convicted and executed.

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Odette Sansom. Foreign Policy

5. WWII’s Most Decorated Spy

Odette Sansom was personally decorated by King George VI after the war, receiving awards such as Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE), and the George Cross (GC) – the highest non-military decoration for gallantry. Between those and French awards, such as the Legion d’Honneur, she became WWII’s most highly decorated spy.

Her adventures were depicted in the 1950 film Odette, in which she was depicted by Anna Neagle. She married an SOE operative with whom she had become romantically involved during the war, but it ended in divorce in 1956. She remarried, to another SOE agent, with whom she remained until her death, in 1995.

The Night Witches and Other Warrior Women of World War II
Simone Segouin in 1944. Rare Historical Photos

4. The Life Magazine Sensation

In August 1944, correspondent Jack Belden of Life Magazine met an interesting character when he entered the French town of Chartres: a gun-toting teenage girl who stood out from everybody around her. She was Simone Segouin, who went by the nome de guerre Nicole Minet. Belden ended up doing a story on her that made her a temporary celebrity.

Simone was born in 1925 into a poor peasant family near Chartres, about 55 miles from Paris. As the only girl among three brothers, she grew up knowing how to hold her own among men. In 1943, a local French Resistance leader killed a collaborator in the center of Charters, then fled. Moving about the countryside, he came in contact with then-17-year-old Simone, and impressed by her poise, recruited her into the Resistance as a courier.

The Night Witches and Other Warrior Women of World War II
Members of the French Resistance laying charges to blow up railroad tracks. Pinterest

3. The Girl With a Gun

Simone Segouin learned how to operate a submachine gun, which became her signature weapon. She was also gradually brought up to speed on the activities of the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans, a combat alliance of militant communists and French nationalists. As a courier, Simone needed a bicycle to get about, but not having one, her first mission was to steal one from the Germans.

The Night Witches and Other Warrior Women of World War II
A derailment caused by the French Resistance. Getty Images

She did, and the liberated bicycle was repainted and became her personal reconnaissance vehicle, which allowed her to more easily deliver messages and stake out targets. After demonstrating that she could take care of herself and not jeopardize others in dangerous situations, Simone was allowed to take part in hazardous combat missions. They included blowing up bridges, derailing trains, and killing or capturing Germans.

The Night Witches and Other Warrior Women of World War II
Simone Segouin posing for journalists in 1944. US National Archives

2. Simone’s First Dead Nazi

On July 14th, 1944, on France national holiday, Bastille Day, Simone Segouin killed her first Nazi. Around five that morning, she lay in ambush in a roadside ditch, and when two Germans pedaled by in bicycles, she fired upon them with her submachine gun, killing both. She then went on the road, searched the bodies, collected their papers and weapons, and made her way alone through the woods, to deliver the haul to her Resistance hideout.

It came as no surprise to Simone’s comrades when she confessed to having enjoyed killing the detested occupiers. She was intensely patriotic, and was inspired by her father, a decorated WWI combat veteran. When first recruited into the Resistance, Simone had been asked if she felt uneasy about killing Germans, and she replied: “No. It would please me to kill Boche“. As she put it decades later, it was simple: “The Germans were our enemies – we were French“.

The Night Witches and Other Warrior Women of World War II
Simone Segouin during the 1944 Paris Uprising that liberated the French capital. Rare Historical Photos

1. Liberating Paris

On August 23rd, 1944, Simone Segouin was with the Resistance fighters of the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans when they helped liberate Charters. She took part in capturing 25 Germans, and shepherded them to POW cages. Simone and her comrades then linked up with the French 2nd Armored Division as it headed out to liberate Paris, and she was in the thick of the fighting that freed the French capital on August 25th.

For her performance, Simone was promoted to lieutenant, and awarded a Croix de Guerre. After the war, she became a pediatric nurse, and in 2017, a street in Courville-sur-Eure, a small town near Charters in which she now lives, was named in her honor.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Alter Net, December 28th, 2018 – Josephine Baker’s Secret Life as a WWII Spy

Daily Mail, August 29th, 2015 – The Hotpants Hotshot: Formidable Derring-do of the Nazi Hunting, Gun Toting Pin Up Teen of the French Resistance

NYPost – Meet the Dutch Girls Who Seduced Nazis and Lured Them To Their Deaths

Imperial War Museum – Odette Sansom, GC

History – Meet the Night Witches, the Daring Female Pilots Who Bombed Nazis by Night

Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation – Eta Wrobel

Loftis, Larry – Code Name Lise: The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII’s Most Highly Decorated Spy (2019)

RTD Documentary – How a Soviet Woman Bought a Tank and Avenged the Death of Her Husband During WWII

Vice, May 11th, 2016 – This 90 Year Old Lady Seduced and Killed Nazis as a Teenager

Washington Jewish Week, March 1st, 2017 – Charlotte Sorkine: Unknown Hero of the French Resistance

Wikipedia – Night Witches

Wikipedia – Zinaida Portnova

World War II Database – Roza Shanina

Wrobel, Eta – My Life, My Way: The Extraordinary Memoir of a Jewish Partisan in WWII Poland (2006)