One cold spring day in 1943, two junior lieutenants, Tamara Pamyatnykh and Raisa Surnachevskaya, were on a routine patrol over a Soviet railway junction. Suddenly they were confronted by an armada of 42 German bombers - they reacted immediately. Diving with the sun behind them, the women opened fire on the centre of the Junkers formation. Each pilot shot down two enemy planes. Tamara ran out of ammunition and was going to ram another bomber with her airplane, when her wing was shot off. She bailed out and landed in a field. Men and women civilians rushed over to help. "They undid the parachute straps and offered me a glass of vodka, which I refused", she recalls. "Nobody couldn't understand why the brave lad who had taken on a Nazi squadron wouldn't drink vodka!" Russia's female pilots in during World War II Then Tamara took off her helmet and the astonished crowd saw the dashing young aviator was a woman. Tamara is among the surviving veterans Lucy Ash has tracked down in Moscow and southern Russia. The Soviet Union was the first nation to allow women to fly combat missions. Women pilots in other countries flew military aircraft in support roles and some were fired on by enemies. But only Soviet women pilots could fire back; only Soviet women dropped bombs and fought in air battles. Celebrity influence Why? Partly because a young woman called Marina Raskova had the ear of Joseph Stalin. Raskova was a national celebrity, a Soviet Amelia Earhart. Before the war, she and two women co–pilots made a record breaking, non stop flight from Moscow to the Russian Far East. Just days after the Germans attacked the USSR in 1941, Raskova persuaded Stalin to establish three female units grouped into separate fighter, dive bomber and night bomber regiments. She trained her personnel as pilots, navigators, maintenance and ground crews, and deployed them to devastating effect. Nadezhda Popova, now a great grandmother, was a pilot in the 46th Night Bombers Guards Regiment. "The Germans called us Night Witches because we never let them get any sleep", she says. "They spread a rumour that we had been injected with some unknown chemicals that enabled us to see so clearly in the pitch black.!" Every May 2nd she joins the surviving members of her regiment oputside the Bolshoi theatre in Moscow to reminisce about their daring raids in flimsy bi-planes without radios or even any parachutes. Initially, at least, the women struggled to gain the respect of their male comrades. One general at the front complained bitterly about being sent a "a bunch of girlies" with such high pitched voices, that he felt he was in a kindergarten. But the women soon proved him wrong and showed their valour even if they did like to decorate their planes with flowers and use their navigation pencils to colour their lips and eyebrows. On a more sombre note, the number one fear expressed by nearly all female aircrew was what might occur if they were ever captured alive by the Germans. Galina Beltsova, a navigator with the Dive Bombers regiment says: "All of us were provided with one extra bullet and if I could see I was being circled by the enemy of course I could take out my pistol and shoot myself – as a last resort." Lucy talks to these formidable women veterans who played such a crucial role in the skies over Stalingrad and elsewhere on the Eastern Front. She discovers that they have not only motivated a new generation of female pilots but that their bravery has also inspired tributes from American airwomen, comic book artists and even a Dutch heavy metal band. Listen online :: BBC World Service - Documentaries - Night Witches Download mp3 :: http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/worldservice/docarchive/docarchive_20091102-0956a.mp3 View slideshow :: BBC NEWS | Special Reports | Audio slideshow: Night witches Heard this earlier today and although i did have things to do i found that i couldn't turn it off. Thought it would be of interest to others on here too.