The Second World War brought a great many changes across the globe, the most protracted of these was the active employment of women in professions previously reserved for ‘men only’. For the majority of women serving in the Allied and Axis forces, their duties were away from direct fighting, instead working in munitions, nursing, driving, administration and so on. In Russia, this was taken one step further with the establishment of an all-female bomber regiment. But this pioneering combat unit wasn’t greeted with open arms, with the women facing as much ‘resistance’ from their fellow countrymen as the German Luftwaffe.
First performed on stage in 2015, (Fire) Embers (Ash) – which is written and directed by Hailey Mashburn – has been reimagined as an audio play for 2021. At the centre of this tale are five of the “Night Witches” – the name given by the German Wehrmacht for Russia’s all-female aviators. Originally given as a term of scorn, the German ‘insult’ was proudly adopted by the women themselves.
In the play we’re introduced to Natalya Meklin (Yvonne Maxwell), Marina Raskova (Elena Harding), Lydia Litvyak (Lydia Cashman), Yevgeniya Rudneva (Rachelle Diedericks) and Nadezhda Popova (Rhonwen Cash). All the women possess very different temperaments and backgrounds, the one constant – they are all in their 20s.
As the first woman in the USSR to be recognised as a professional air navigator, Raskova was able to use her personal connections with Joseph Stalin to convince the military to form three combat regiments of women. Impressive in her own way, Papova was the squadron commander of the bomber regiment and one of the few to see the end of the war, living well into the 21st century.
Another person who would eventually receive public acclaim and military honours is Melkin. Like the rest of the squadron, Melkin is an exemplary aviator, but doesn’t attract any untoward attention to herself. In contrast to Melkin, Litvyak is known for her distinctive perxoide blonde hair, her love of scarves and ‘customised’ uniforms, and general joie de vivre. Which just leaves Rudneva. With a background as an astronomy student, Rudneva is able to apply her acumen practically as a navigator. It is, however, her gift as a storyteller that endears her to her comrades, able to make them momentarily forget about death statistics and remind them that the world possess beauty and hope, as well as darkness.
What makes the feats of these women all the remarkable is that the ‘hand me down’ planes that were assigned to the squadron – biplanes from the First World War that should have been decommissioned because of the threat they posed to the safety of the aviators flying them. The women used the planes’ slower speed, but heightened maneuverability to their advantage, developing a bombing strategy that made use of gravity, gliding in near silence and pulling up at a moment’s notice.
While the play covers the uphill struggle the women faced with poor equipment and general animosity from their peers, much time is devoted to their personal thoughts and aspirations, and the double-edged nature of their ‘liberty’.
On the surface, characters such as Rudneva have a harder time of decompartmentalising their fear, which is understandable as the women didn’t carry parachutes and the planes were more likely to crash because of their dilapidated state than enemy fire. However, all the women have their private fears (such as Litvyak’s anxiety about what would become of their freedom after the war) and ways of masking them.
In truth though, we can ascertain the women have more in common with each other than they realise. But because they have different ways of expressing themselves, they sometimes miscontrue each other’s intent when doubts are expressed, especially regarding the Sisyphean nature of their missions and their ‘effectiveness’. In some ways, the concern and mourning expressed by the aviators for their fallen comrades echo the sentiments expressed by the RAF pilots and their loved ones in Terence Rattigan’s Second World War drama Flare Path.
If you look into the history of these women after you listened to the play, you’ll realise how poignant some of the scenes are, and how prescient the hopes and fears were.
© Michael Davis 2021
(Fire) Embers (Ash) can be listened to for free at: http://fireembersash.com/listen-now