September 2016 saw the death of Irina Vyacheslavovna Rakobolskaya, renowned physicist and one of the last remaining members of the all-female Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment of the Red Army known as the ‘night witches’.
Rakobolskaya was born in 1919, the daughter of a physics lecturer and a school teacher, in Dankov which is about 190 miles south of Moscow on the River Don.
Her family moved to Moscow in 1932 after her father’s death and in 1938 Rakobolskaya became one of the very few women to be admitted to Moscow State University.
It was a dark time in Russia with Stalin’s purges of the military in full swing which in turn was followed by the outbreak of war with Germany and in 1941, Rakobolskaya and seventeen other students gave up their studies to join the Red Army’s air wing.
She said later that she had joined out of patriotism rather than out of love for Stalin and the communist party and because of her skills in physics and mathematics, Rakobolskaya trained as a navigator, but instead of flying, she was appointed regimental chief of staff, much to her disappointment.
The all-women unit flew the slow and flimsy Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, like the one on the right, that looked bettered suited to the previous world war and they flew an extraordinary 24,000 sorties over the following three years. And such was the impact of their stealthy, low-level, night-time bombing raids that the Germans named them Nachthexen, or Night Witches.
The regiment won 23 Hero of the Soviet Union medals, but 32 of their number were killed in action, including Yevgeniya Rudneva whose death Rakobolskaya witnessed in 1944.
When the war ended, Rakobolskaya kept the memory of the Night Witches alive by publishing Rudneva’s war diary as well as her own memoirs and by giving many interviews.
Rakobolskaya returned to her studies at MSU and became a distinguished physicist in the field of cosmic rays. She authored or co-authored some 300 academic publications, including six books and a textbook on nuclear physics. She was appointed professor of physics in 1977, and from 1994 held the lifetime position of distinguished professor.
She was honoured with numerous military and civil awards and in 2013 a documentary on her life was broadcast on Russian television.