Clearing the Skies for the Red Army – Part 2: The Destruction of Luftflotte IV

Clearing the Skies for the Red Army – Part 2: The Destruction of Luftflotte IV

By Dr Luke Truxal

Editorial Note: In the conclusion of a two-part series on the contribution of US air power to the conduct of the Second Iași-Chișinău Offensive, Dr Luke Truxal examines the role of the US Fifteenth Air Force in the destruction of Luftflotte IV in the lead up to the launch of the Second Iași-Chișinău Offensive by the Red Army in August 1944. You can read the first part of this article here

On 6 June 1944, the same day that the Allies landed in Normandy to begin the liberation of western Europe, the US Fifteenth Air Force attacked Galati airfields. This represented a new phase of the air war over Romania, one where Luftflotte IV came under direct attack because of an American air superiority campaign. This article will contend that the American attacks against Luftflotte IV, at the request of the Soviets, contributed to the success of the Second Iași-Chișinău Offensive.

When American bombers flew from Soviet bases against Axis forces in Romania on 6 June 1944, it marked the first time in the war that they took off from behind Soviet lines to attack Axis targets. This mission was a part of Operation FRANTIC I, the first shuttle bombing missions from western Allied bases to Soviet bases. After leaving their bases in Ukraine, American bombers struck the primary Axis airfield in Romania at Galati. One hundred and four American B-17s and 42 P-51s of the Fifteenth Air Force attacked the German and Romanian air facilities at Galati. Fourteen Axis fighters along with another 25 spotted near the airfield engaged the strike force. During the ensuing air battle, American fighters accounted for six Axis fighters at the loss of two American fighters. The 104 B-17s dropped 155.3 tons of explosive bombs and 51.3 tons of incendiary bombs on the airfield and its facilities. Much of the buildings, hangers, and facilities at Galati were destroyed or damaged during the bombing. Of the 40 aircraft still on the ground during the attack, the Fifteenth Air Force destroyed eight and damaged 11.[1] FRANTIC I’s final mission was an attack on the Focsani airfield on 11 June and a return to the American airfields in Italy. Flying from the Soviet bases, 121 B-17s dropped 223.9 tons of bombs on the Focsani airfield escorted by 52 P-51s. The bombers struck the barracks and workshops along with additional facilities. The attacking force engaged 15 to 20 ME 109s and FW 190s over Focsani.[2]

FRE_008681
A P-51 Mustang nicknamed ‘Tempus Fugit’ of the 31st Fighter Group, Fifteenth Air Force in 1944. (Source: IWM (FRE 8681))

In another attempt to weaken Axis air power over Romania, the Americans executed Operation FRANTIC III, the first fighter sweep shuttle mission to the Soviet Union. According to the FRANTIC III plan on 11 July 1944, the purpose of the mission was to send 72 P-38s and 48 P-51s from the 306th Fighter Wing of the Fifteenth Air Force to execute counter-air operations from the American airfields located behind the Soviet lines in Ukraine. The three tactical objectives of FRANTIC III included: strafing of aircraft at Mielec, Poland; strafing of aircraft airfield and dive-bombing of the facilities at Lviv; strafing of targets that are identified through photo reconnaissance while in the Soviet Union.[3] At 7:45 AM on 22 July 1944, the 82nd and 31st Fighter Groups of the 306th Fighter Wing took off from their bases in Italy to attack the Romanian airfields near Zilistea and Buzau. When approaching the target, the American fighters dropped to an altitude of 5,000 feet. When they reached 4,000 feet, they passed several Axis aircraft flying near the airfield. The 82nd Fighter Group bypassed them to attack the airfields, while the 31st Fighter Group provided air cover. Once below 4,000 feet, Romanian anti-aircraft fire engaged the formations. The city of Ploesti began to deploy a smokescreen as they noticed the incoming American fighters. The 82nd Fighter Group attacked five airfields: Zilistea, Buzau, and three satellite fields. The 82nd Fighter Group destroyed 41 aeroplanes on the ground. Both the 82nd Fighter Group and 31st Fighter Group destroyed another 15 aeroplanes in the air at the loss of five P-38s. After the attack, the two groups reassembled and proceeded to their airbases located in Ukraine at Piryatin, Poltava, and Mirgorod.[4]

The next day the 306th Fighter Wing received orders to attack the German airfield at Mielec. One problem that the 306th Fighter Wing ran into was the fact that the Soviet offensive against German Army Group Center, codenamed Operation BAGRATION, had driven within 88 miles of the airfield, and there was concern that the Americans might accidentally strafe a Soviet ground formation. Additionally, poor weather delayed the attack until 25 July. By that time, the Soviet advance was 48 miles away from the airfield.[5] On 25 July, 36 P-38s and 36 P-51s of the 306th Fighter Wing attacked the airfield at Mielec, destroying anywhere from nine to 16 German aircraft on the ground. South of Mielec the fighters spotted a train and column of trucks which were also attacked destroying four locomotives and 14 trucks. On their way back to their bases in Ukraine, the fighter formation stumbled across a German bomber formation of 36 German JU-87 bombers without an escort. The American fighters engaged and destroyed 29 of the bombers. By the end of the day, the American fighters returned to their bases without suffering a loss.[6] The 26 July mission was a low-level fighter sweep of Ploesti and Bucharest and then a return to the Fifteenth Air Force bases in Italy. Poor weather forced the formation to divert to the Galati and Zilestea area. This led to an engagement with German fighters that resulted in 20 German fighters being shot down at the loss of two P-38s. [7]

The Red Army requested more follow up counter-air operations on the eve of the Second Iași-Chișinău Offensive. The Red Army General Staff sent a request to Deane’s counterpart in Moscow, Major General Robert L. Walsh, who oversaw all American air operations on the Eastern Front. Walsh sent an urgent message to the commander of the United States Strategic Air Forces in Europe, Lieutenant General Carl Spaatz, on 2 August. He wrote, ‘The Soviets requested that we concentrate our attacks on the following: enemy airdromes just south of the Iasi-Akkerman front.’ This included at least twelve airfields near the front lines. The Soviets provided a list, which Walsh transmitted directly to Spaatz. [8] The Americans had already carried out three fighter-bomber missions against German airfields in July.[9]

Operation Frantic
Russian officers chat with Colonel Barton, Commanding Officer of the 483rd Bomb Group, and Colonel Rice of the 2nd Bomb Group at Mirgorod. The girl in the center is an interpreter. (Source: National Museum of the USAF)

This request led to FRANTIC IV, the second all fighter shuttle mission of the war conducted by the 306th Fighter Wing. On 4 August, 45 P-38s of the 82nd Fighter Group took off to strafe the airfields around Focsani, while 45 P-51s of the 52nd Fighter Group provided air cover. The attack destroyed four Axis aircraft, three locomotives, and one tank car. Additionally, the P-38s strafed the hangers, buildings, and troop trains. Afterwards, the 306th Fighter Wing proceeded to Poltava. On 6 August, 30 P-51s and 30 P-38s of the 306th Fighter Wing took off from Poltava for the return fighter sweep. The 306th Fighter Wing destroyed 30 railway cars, 11 locomotives, four tank cars, and one aircraft at Cariova and Ploesti.[10]

After 2 June, the Luftwaffe’s sorties declined to 1,347 sorties.[11]  This data is also backed up by Fifteenth Air Force studies done after the fall of Romania of the air defences in the Ploesti and Bucharest area. The study estimated that in April 1944, Axis aircraft deployed around Bucharest and Ploesti numbered 200 to 255. Those numbers declined after the counter-air operations began. By May 1944, the number of Axis aircraft deployed to the area was anywhere between 125 to 145. In June, the numbers further decreased to 95 to 110 aircraft located in that same area. By August, Axis air power had declined in the Bucharest-Ploesti area to approximately 40 to 45 aircraft.[12] According to an American assessment of the decline, the Fifteenth Air Force concluded that the decline resulted from American counter-air operations and a redeployment of Luftwaffe forces to other theatres.[13] American counter-air operations and additional attacks against vital parts of Romania, significantly reduced Axis air power in the country during the summer of 1944. This, in part, explains part of the reason for the success of the Second Iași-Chișinău Offensive. Axis air power in the region had been, for the most part, eliminated.

In conclusion, the successful air superiority campaign against Axis air in Romania reveals a lot about the Allied offensives in Romania. First, the American Fifteenth Air Force played a pivotal role in the Second Iași-Chișinău Offensive by clearing the skies of Axis air power.  Next, this is an excellent example of successful joint operations. The Fifteenth Air Force worked in conjunction with the Red Army to attack targets of importance to the Soviet ground war in a timely fashion. Finally, from a historiography standpoint, more needs to be written about this subject. Preliminary research into these air operations indicates that American air operations in the Balkans were not confined strictly to attacking targets related to oil production.

Dr Luke Truxal is an adjunct at Columbia State Community College in Tennessee. He completed his PhD in 2018 from the University of North Texas with his dissertation ‘Command Unity and the Air War Against Germany.’ His previous publications include ‘Bombing the Romanian Rail Network,’ in the Spring 2018 issue of Air Power History. He has also written ‘The Politics of Operational Planning: Ira Eaker and the Combined Bomber Offensive in 1943’ in the Journal of Military Aviation History. Truxal is currently researching the effectiveness of joint air operations between the Allied air forces in the Second World War. He can be reached on Twitter at: @Luke_Truxal.

Header Image: American and Russian soldiers in 1944 during Operation FRANTIC. In the background is a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber and a C-47 Dakota transport aircraft. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] United States Air Force Historical Research Agency (USAFHRA), Montgomery, AL, Call 622.430-6, Headquarters Eastern Air Command, ‘Eastern Command Narrative of Operations: 2nd Italy-Russia Shuttle Operation – 2 June 1944.’

[2] USAFHRA, Call 622.430-6, MASAF, “Excerpt-MASAF Intops Summary No. 325, 11 June: Foscani North Aerodrome Installations 5th Wing,” 11 June 1944.

[3] USAFHRA, Call 622.430-6, Headquarters Fifteenth Air Force, ‘Fifteenth Air Force Plan for Operation Frantic III,’ 11 July 1944.

[4] USAFHRA, Call 622.430-6, Headquarters 306th Fighter Wing, ‘Narrative Report of Frantic III Operation,’ 28 July 1944.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Library of Congress (LoC), Papers of General Carl Spaatz, Robert L. Walsh to Spaatz and Eaker, 2 August 1944.

[9] LoC, Spaatz Papers, George McDonald to Anderson (“Frantic”), 21 August 1944.

[10] USAFHRA, Call 622.430-6, 306th Fighter Wing, “INTOPS No. 381,” 7 August 1944.

[11] Hardesty and Ilya Grinberg, Red Phoenix Rising: The Soviet Air Force in World War II (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2012), p. 292

[12] Ike Skelton Combined Arms Research Library, Army Air Force Evaluation Board, ‘Army Air Force Evaluation Board Report VI: Ploesti,’ n.d., p. 21.

[13] Ibid, p. 19.

Clearing the Skies for the Red Army – Part One: Learning from Failure

Clearing the Skies for the Red Army – Part One: Learning from Failure

By Dr Luke Truxal

Editorial note: On 20 August 1944, the Soviet Union launched two army group sized formations, the Second and Third Ukrainian Fronts, against Axis Army Group South Ukraine. Army Group South Ukraine had been tasked with defending Romania. During this offensive, known as the Second Iași-Chișinău Offensive, the Soviets routed the Third and Fourth Romanian Armies and destroyed the German Sixth Army. By the end of the offensive on 29 August, the Romanian fascist government under Prime Minister Ion Antonescu was overthrown, and Romania defected to the Allies. In the first of a two-part series on the contribution of US air power to the conduct of the Second Iași-Chișinău Offensive, Dr Luke Truxal examines some of the lessons and issues that emerged from the First Iași-Chișinău Offensive between April and June 1944.

Few historians have delved deeply into the history of the Second Iași-Chișinău Offensive. Those who have written about the campaign typically only analyse the ground war. The foremost authority on the ground war on the Eastern Front, David Glantz, has covered the fighting in Romania in two of his books. In Red Storm Over the Balkans, Glantz analyses the First Iași-Chișinău Offensive. He also writes about the Second Iași-Chișinău Offensive in his overview of the fighting on the Eastern Front. Neither work referred to the air war that influenced the outcome of the fighting on the ground. Rob Citino, in his analysis of the fighting in Romania, excludes the air war.[1] Likewise, much of the historiography of the air war has overlooked the role of American air support provided to the Soviets during the invasion of Romania and focused more on the attacks against the Romanian oil industry. James Lea Cate and Wesley Frank Craven, in the official history of the United States Army Air Forces in the Second World War, focus strictly on the bombing of Romanian oil at the exclusion of the interdiction and air superiority campaigns. As a result, their narrative remained unchallenged for years.[2] In the 1990s, historians began to examine other aspects of the air war over Romania, including attacks against Romanian civilians and an air interdiction campaign.[3]

FRE_000860
Personnel of the 96th Bomb Group and the 452nd Bomb Group receive briefing against the wall of a bombed-out railway building in Poltava, Russia during Operation FRANTIC in summer 1944. (Source: IWM (FRE 860))

This first article examines the lessons learned from the First Iași-Chișinău Offensive and the Soviet-American planning that led to an aggressive air suppression campaign against Axis air forces in Romania.  As a result of this work, the US Fifteenth Air Force, under the command of Major General Nathan Twining, was able to execute a successful air superiority campaign that aided the Soviet advance into Romania in August 1944 during the Second Iași-Chișinău Offensive from 20 to 29 August 1944. The success of this air campaign was due to the considerable level of coordination between the Fifteenth Air Force and the Red Army before launching the offensive against the Luftwaffe. The architect of this coordination was none other than the commander of the United States Strategic Air Forces in Europe (USSTAF), Lieutenant General Carl Spaatz. In establishing air superiority over Romania, the Fifteenth Air Force ground down German and Romanian air assets from as high as 255 aircraft deployed in the Bucharest area in April 1944 to as low as 40 aircraft in that same area by August 1944.[4]

The unsuccessful first attempt to seize Romania came during the First Iași-Chișinău Offensive between 8 April to 6 June 1944. The Second and Third Ukrainian Fronts aggressively pressed forward after their success in Ukraine. Despite initial breakthroughs, the German and Romanian forces counter-attacked and held the frontier, then known as Bessarabia. Soviet forces suffered setbacks both on land and in the air.

Perhaps the only positive to come from the First Iași-Chișinău Offensive for the Allies was the establishment of a system to coordinate the operations of the Fifteenth Air Force with Soviet ground forces. The system, established over the course of March and April 1944, coordinated Fifteenth Air Force air operations through the Red Army General Staff in Moscow. This laid the groundwork for future coordination when the Soviets resumed their invasion of Romania. United States Army representative in Moscow, Major General John R. Deane, worked tirelessly during March and April to establish a system to coordinate Fifteenth Air Force operations with the Red Army. Ultimately, the Soviets only agreed to an indirect communication system through Moscow to the Second and Third Ukrainian Fronts. On 20 April, General Aleksei Antonov, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Soviet Armed Forces, made it clear to Deane that any such coordination had to be done through Moscow. Antonov went on to say that his superior, Field Marshal Aleksandr Vasilievsky, Chief of Staff of the Soviet Armed Forces, did not believe that the Soviet forces advancing into Romania needed an air liaison officer.[5] This created a slow process when it came to coordinating air attacks with Soviet forces. According to Deane, without the liaison officers, coordination passed from Spaatz to Deane. Afterwards, Deane scheduled a meeting with his counterpart, Major General N. V. Slavin, who then sought approval of the air attacks from his superior Antonov. Antoniv communicated with Soviet field commanders to determine if the American missions interfered with their operations. Antonov then relayed everything back through the same chain. This was not the ideal means of coordinating air missions with the Red Army.[6] Nevertheless, while deeply flawed, the system did allow for the Soviets and Americans to coordinate a bombing campaign in Romania.

Starting in June 1944, the Fifteenth Air Force began to carry out air support operations once again for the Red Army in Romania at the direction of Spaatz. The first area of focus was the Luftwaffe in Romania. One of the critical factors for German success in the First Iași-Chișinău Offensive was that German air power had checked the Red Air Force.  From May to June 1944, the Luftwaffe regained a level of air superiority in the skies over northern Romania. A series of intense air battles took place over the town of Iași between German and Soviet airmen for control of the skies. In Red Phoenix Rising, Von Hardesty and Ilya Grinberg state that the air battles over Iași were some of the most intense of the air war on the Eastern Front. Due to the strategic importance of the Romanian oil refineries, the Luftwaffe transferred some of their most experienced air units to aid in defence of Iași. On 28 April alone the Luftwaffe flew 807 sorties over Iași. The following day the Germans flew another 1,181 sorties against the Soviets. During the entire week, the Germans launched 4,000 sorties against Soviet troops located in the Iași sector. By comparison, the Soviets only carried out 1,970 sorties of their own during that same period. [7]

The Soviet Fifth Air Army tried to enlarge its own air operations to counter the Germans throughout May. Starting on 28 May, forward units of the Soviet Fifth Air Army attempted to reverse the gains made by the Luftwaffe. They attacked German and Romanian airfields located at Roman and Khushi. The goal was to destroy 200 Axis aircraft located at these two locations. Romanian and German forces located the attacking force. The raid only destroyed 35 German and Romanian aircraft. The Germans responded on 30 May. The Luftwaffe flew 2,082 sorties against the Second Ukrainian Front, countered by only 703 sorties flown by the Soviet Fifth Air Army. Throughout the fighting over Iasi, German fighters continued not only to carry out close air support missions of their own but also disrupted those of the Soviet Fifth Air Army.[8]

Operation Frantic
A Badly damaged US B-17 bomber and Russian soldiers in Poltava, Russia, on 22 June 1944 during Operation FRANTIC. (Source: National Museum of the USAF)

As this was happening, the Soviets relayed their struggles against Luftflotte IV to the Americans. On 13 May, the head of USSTAF intelligence, Colonel L.P. Weicker, and Red Air Force General D.D. Grendal met as a part of a conference between the USSTAF air staff and the Red Army to discuss the air war on the Eastern Front. The Soviets provided the Americans with their analysis of the deployment of the Luftwaffe on the Eastern Front. According to Soviet air intelligence, the Germans had concentrated 500 of their 900 bombers on the Eastern Front in the south-facing the Second and Third Ukrainian Front. Additionally, the Luftwaffe deployed 240 of its 650 fighters on the Eastern Front in the south. At the same time, approximately half of the German aerial reconnaissance aircraft were also deployed on the Soviet Southwest Front. In total, 970 of the 2,090 aircraft deployed on the Eastern Front were arrayed against the Soviet Second and Third Ukrainian Front. [9]  During the same meeting, Grendal informed the Americans that many German aircraft began operating from Romania after they retreated from the Ukraine. Those at the meeting recalled: ‘The Soviets estimate that at present the Germans have in excess of 1,000 aircraft on the Roumanian territory.’[10] With this information, the Soviets and Americans were now able to eliminate the threat that Luftflotte IV presented to ground operations.

One means of providing more direct aid to the Soviet advance was through shuttle bombing missions, codenamed Operation FRANTIC. During these missions, American bombers from bases either in the United Kingdom or Italy would fly attack a German target on the Eastern Front, then continue east and land at Soviet airfields. FRANTIC I’s planning and execution was designed to aid the Soviet air power in the Iasi-Chișinău sector. In the 22 May draft of FRANTIC I, the Americans contemplated ‘an operation from Foggia against airfields in the Galatz area, followed by 3 operations from Russian bases against targets selected by the Russians.’[11] The Americans believed that attacking Axis airfields in Romania could alleviate the pressure on the Second and Third Ukrainian Fronts. On 27 May, the commander of the Mediterranean Allied Air Force (MAAF), Lieutenant General Ira Eaker, laid out the proposed plan to Twining. He wrote: ‘Fifteenth Air Force will conduct its first FRANTIC bombing operation on the first day weather permits after June first. Force will consist of 130 B-17s and 70 P-51s.’ Eaker then briefed Twining on the preferred targets that the USSTAF wanted to strike, which included the Galatz airfields, an aircraft factory at Mieléc, and an aircraft factory at Riga.[12] While the factories at Mieléc and Riga were on the list, the Galatz airfields had a more immediate effect on air operations in Romania. According to a briefing memo dated 28 May 1944 for the Fifteenth Air Force: ‘The German Air Force in the Southeast, Luftflotte IV, has been forced to withdraw its aircraft to a small number of fields in the Foscani-Galatz area. While recent coverage of this area is not complete, latest photography indicates over 550 aircraft (principally fighters, ground support and bombers) on five fields in the area, of which 450 are on the two Foscani landing grounds and Zilistea.’[13] The primary objective of FRANTIC I was the destruction of these airfields.

On 2 June 1944, the Fifteenth Air Force carried out FRANTIC I. The 2nd, 97th, 99th, and 483rd Bomb Groups, struck the Debreczen marshalling yards before continuing to the Russian airfields located at Poltava in modern-day Ukraine. This had been a last-minute request by the Soviets. Therefore, the Americans added to their first mission as a part of FRANTIC I.[14] With the first leg complete, the Fifteenth Air Force then prepared to strike at the target that American and Soviet planners wanted to get in Romania, Axis air power.

Operation Frantic
Russian pilots and ground crew stand in front of a Petlyakov Pe-2 at Poltava, Russia, during Operation FRANTIC in June 1944. The American is Technical Sergeant Bernard J. McGuire of the 348th Bomb Squadron, 99th Bomb Group. (Source: National Museum of the USAF)

We can take two lessons away from the failures of the First Iași-Chișinău and the period afterwards. First, the Allies recognised the reasons for the shortcomings of the offensive in the air and on the ground. Remarkably, they were able to figure out what went wrong with the offensive in a matter of days and weeks. As a result, the Allies spent the following month, May 1944, working to fix the problem. That problem, the threat posed by Luftflotte IV, became the main topic of discussion when planning the FRANTIC shuttle missions between the Americans and the Soviets. At the end of these planning sessions, both sides agreed that the Fifteenth Air Force needed to pour more resources into defeating Luftflotte IV before the next major ground offensive. This set the stage for the air superiority campaign that would begin on 2 June 1944.

Dr Luke Truxal is an adjunct at Columbia State Community College in Tennessee. He completed his PhD in 2018 from the University of North Texas with his dissertation ‘Command Unity and the Air War Against Germany.’ His previous publications include ‘Bombing the Romanian Rail Network,’ in the Spring 2018 issue of Air Power History. He has also written ‘The Politics of Operational Planning: Ira Eaker and the Combined Bomber Offensive in 1943’ in the Journal of Military Aviation History. Truxal is currently researching the effectiveness of joint air operations between the Allied air forces in the Second World War. He can be reached on Twitter at: @Luke_Truxal.

Header Image: American and Russian soldiers in 1944 during Operation FRANTIC. In the background is a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber and a C-47 Dakota transport aircraft. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] For a comprehensive history of the First Iasi-Chișinău Offensive, see David Glantz, Red Storm Over the Balkans: The Failed Soviet Invasion Spring 1944 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2006), pp. 60-70, 76-100. Glantz is the first historian provide a detailed analysis of the Red Army’s failed first attempt to take Romania. He argues that the history of the campaign was forgotten because of its shortcomings. Glantz also covers the Second Iasi-Chișinău Offensive in David Glantz and Jonathan House, When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1995), pp. 218-21. See also Rob Citino, The Wehrmacht’s Last Stand: The German Campaigns of 1944-1945 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2017), pp. 307-12.

[2] Wesley F. Craven and James L. Cate (eds.), The Army Air Forces in World War II, Volume 6: Europe, Argument to VE Day, January 1944 to May 1945 (Chicago, IL: The University Press of Chicago, 1951), pp. 280-7. Examples of other historians who have also focused only on the oil bombing in Romania include Donald Miller, Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006), pp. 312-21. While Miller is a popular historian, the influence of his book on the public at large has influenced how many outside the academic community view the air war against Romania. Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas About Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), pp. 236-43.

[3] For more scholarship that covers the bombing of Romania outside the spectrum of oil see Mark Conversino, Fighting with the Soviets: The Failure of Operation FRANTIC, 1944-1945 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1997). For an analysis of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces’ attacks against Romanian rail targets and the mining of the Danube see Robert S. Ehlers Jr., The Mediterranean Air War: Air Power and Allied Victory in World War II (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2009), p. 364 and pp. 373-7; Conrad Crane, Bombs, Cities, and Civilians: American Air Power Strategy in World War II (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1993), pp. 95-8. To date, the best analysis of the attacks against Romanian civilians is Richard Overy, Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe, 1940-1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), p. 8, 404, and 413. For further analysis of attacks against the Romanian infrastructure see Luke Truxal, ‘Bombing the Romanian Rail Network,’ Air Power History 65, no. 1 (2018). For a short summary of American and Soviet coordination during the Second Jassy-Chișinău Offensive see Luke Truxal, ‘Forgotten Fights: The Second Jassy-Chișinău Offensive and the Destruction of German Sixth Army,’ National World War II Museum, 14 September 2020.

[4] Ike Skelton Combined Arms Research Library Digital Library, US Army Command and General Staff College, Army Air Force Evaluation Board, ‘Army Air Force Evaluation Board Report VI: Ploesti,’ n.d., , p. 21.

[5] US Library of Congress, Personal Papers of General Carl Spaatz, 30 Mission Moscow to AFHQ, Combined Chiefs of Staff, and British Chiefs of Staff, 20 April 1944. See also Truxal, ‘Bombing the Romanian Rail Network,’ pp. 17-8.

[6] John R. Deane, The Strange Alliance (London: John Murray, 1947), pp. 127-8. See also Truxal, ‘Bombing the Romanian Rail Network,’ p. 18.

[7] Von Hardesty and Ilya Grinberg, Red Phoenix Rising: The Soviet Air Force in World War II (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2012), pp. 286-7.

[8] Hardesty and Grinberg, Red Phoenix Rising, pp. 287-9.

[9] United States Air Force Historical Research Agency (USAFHRA), Call 622.430-6, Fred Anderson to Carl Spaatz, ‘Report on visit to Russia by Mission of USSTAF Officers,’ Exhibit D. Williamson Murray places Luftflotte IV’s numbers at 390 ground attack aircraft, 160 single-engine fighters, and 45 twin-engine fighters. William Murray, Strategy for Defeat: The Luftwaffe, 1933-1945, (Montgomery, AL: Air University Press, 1983), p. 285.

[10] USAFHRA, Anderson to Spaatz, ‘Report on visit to Russia by Mission of USSTAF Officers,’ Exhibit B.

[11] USAFHRA, Call 622.430-6, To Spaatz, ‘Plan for Operation “Frantic,”’ 22 May 1944.

[12] USAFHRA, Call 622.430-6, Ira Eaker to Nathan Twining, 27 May 1944.

[13] USAFHRA, Call 622.430-6, 1. Headquarters Fifteenth Air Force, ‘Annex No. I Combat Operation Enroute Fifteenth Air Force Plan for Operation ‘Frantic Joe’ Part One,’ 28 May 1944.

[14] USAFHRA, Call 622.430-6, ‘Debreczen-Damage Assessment’; USAFHRA, Call 622.430-6, Headquarters Eastern Air Command, ‘Eastern Command Narrative of Operations: 1st Italy-Russia Shuttle Operation-2 June 1944.’

Attacking Refugees for Military Effect during the First Iasi-Kishinev Offensive

Attacking Refugees for Military Effect during the First Iasi-Kishinev Offensive

By Dr Luke Truxal

Allied air campaigns against Axis petroleum have dominated the discussion of the bombing of Romania during the Second World War. Less exists in the current scholarship regarding assaults on targets other than oil such as attacks against railways, airfields, and the aerial mining of the Danube River.[1] One aspect of the American bombing campaign against Romania that has not received enough attention is the attacks against Romanian refugees during the First Iasi-Kishinev Offensive from 8 April to 6 June 1944. In the spring of 1944, the Allies realised that exploiting the Romanian refugee crisis aided the Red Army’s advance into the Balkans. As a result, the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces (MAAF), under the command of Lieutenant General Ira Eaker, identified a series of crucial transportation targets that had the greatest potential to inflame the refugee crisis. Throughout April and May of 1944, the MAAF bombed key transportation targets that included rail stations and bridges to prevent refugees from escaping Romania. The Allies hoped the influx of refugees would impede the movement of Axis forces and supplies to the front lines throughout the First Iasi-Kishinev Offensive. While further research is needed to ascertain the full effects of the bombing on refugee targets, preliminary evidence shows that attacks succeeded. For example, during the Second Iasi-Kishinev on 20 August 1944, Romanian troops had to use the roads to retreat because rail centres could not handle civilian and military rail traffic.[2] This indicated that at some level, the attacks against Romanian refugees had the desired effect.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-J24359,_Rumänien,_Kolonne_von_Panzer_V_(Panther).2
Vehicles and Panther tanks of the German Grossdeutschland division in Romania, c. April 1944. (Source: Wikimedia)

On 8 April 1944 the Red Army’s Second Ukrainian Front, under the command of Field Marshal Ivan Konev, advanced towards Iasi, Romania. Soviet forces encountered the Romanian Fourth Army and the German Eighth Army under the command of General Mikhail Racovita and Field Marshal Otto Wöehler. Initially, the Russians gained ground at Tirgu Frumos, but a German counterattack repulsed the Soviet advance. Konev tried to resume his offensive with an attack on Podu Iloaie, but his forces were once again stalled by a desperate defence made by the Axis forces. At this point, Konev directed his left wing forward toward the city of Kishinev, which was defended by the German Sixth Army under the command of Field Marshal Karl-Adolf Hollidt. The fighting around Kishinev, much like the fighting around Iasi, saw limited Soviet success and ended with a well-coordinated German counterattack that repulsed the Soviets.[3]

As the military situation on the Eastern Front deteriorated for Axis forces, refugees flooded into the interior of Romania as they fled the advance of the Red Army. The Soviets posed a significant threat to Axis civilians living in Romania: in 1945, they deported 70,000 to 97,762 people living in Romania into forced labour camps.[4] The majority of the refugees were Romanians fleeing the Soviet advance in Moldova and Bessarabia. In early April 1944, the Romanian Fourth Army retreated into Moldova. Roads became crowded with refugees who fled the advance of the Red Army, which impeded the retreat of the Romanian Fourth Army. Additionally, Racovita encouraged civilians within six kilometres of his sector to evacuate.[5] In Bessarabia alone, 82,580 Romanians fled the oncoming Soviet advance during the spring of 1944.[6] This created a flood of refugees that placed strain on Prime Minister Ion Antonescu’s fascist government.

Supporting the Soviets

The Second Ukrainian Front’s advance toward Bessarabia provided the MAAF with the chance to assist the Soviets. On 21 March 1944 the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, informed the commander of the United States Strategic Air Forces in Europe, Lieutenant General Carl Spaatz, that bombing Bucharest must become a top priority in light of the reports of the deterioration of the Romanian rail system.[7] The following day, Portal notified Spaatz that he was authorised to bomb the rail lines at Ploesti only. Furthermore, Portal emphasised that attacks should focus on transportation target because the Soviets had advanced into Romania.[8] On 23 March, Spaatz told the commander of the United States Army Air Forces, General Henry H. Arnold, that he intended to prioritise air attacks on Romania soon. He said:

It is of crucial importance to the situation on the Eastern Front and in Romania to act immediately and in the fullest possible strength with the Fifteenth Air Force.

He also informed Arnold that he planned to attack Ploesti and Bucharest as soon as the weather cleared.[9] On 25 March, Portal communicated orders to Spaatz and the Supreme Commander Mediterranean Theater of Operations, Field Marshal Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, that instructed them to attack – at the earliest available opportunity – the Bucharest railway centre, Sofia, and other towns in Bulgaria. Spaatz inquired about using this as an opportunity to attack Romanian oil but was rebuffed.[10]

The First Attack

On 4 April 1944, the Americans attacked the Bucharest main railway station dropping 863 tons of explosives on the target area. The raid resulted in the deaths of refugees from northern Moldova. Mihail Sebastian wrote in his diary on 8 April 1944:

From the railroad station to Basarab Boulevard, no house was left unscathed. The view was harrowing […] I couldn’t get beyond Basarab, I went back home with a feeling of disgust, horror and powerlessness.[11]

Conductor Emanuel Elenescu recalled:

A tram still standing was leaning against a house, and the rail was bent. All the dead people were untouched by the bombs, all died from the shock wave.[12]

On 5 April 1944, American strategic bombers of the Fifteenth Air Force struck the Ploesti marshalling yards that serviced key lines into Moldova. The field order itself stated:

The Ploesti [Marshaling Yard] is a key point in rail lines to Moldova. Current tactical situation on Russian Front makes this target an important and active communications center for the Germany Army.[13]

The two attacks resulted in 7,600 dead, 7,600 injured, and the destruction of 46,523 homes. The bombing affected many Romanian officers who were given leave to care for their families.[14]

Exploitation

Shortly after the bombing, Allied air leaders sought to exploit the attacks on Romanian rail and refugees. Spaatz revealed to the commander of the MAAF, Eaker, on 6 April 1944 that he felt ‘it of utmost importance that these attacks be continued to attempt complete interruption of rail traffic.’[15] On 11 April Portal sent a message to Spaatz and Wilson detailing the prospect of attacking refugees to aid the Soviet advance. He wrote:

[The] Russian advance into Roumania has created [a] chaotic refugee movement south-westwards […] Maximum possible bombing effort in the Balkans until further notice should be concentrated on Roumania, where German military position weakest, German economic interests greatest and the Government most shaken.[16]

Romanian civilians and Axis refugees now represented a secondary target that the Allies were willing to exploit.

On 24 April 1944, the MAAF produced a paper outlining the potential targets of an infrastructure bombing campaign against Romania. Along with an in-depth analysis of the military effects of the bombing, the paper pointed to the benefits of targeting civilian rail lines to aggravate the ongoing domestic problems within Romania.  Group Captain J.C.E. Luard, who wrote the analysis, argued attacking civilian rail lines placed increase pressure on Romania, which might knock the key German ally out of the war. Luard argued that attacks against civilian rail had the most significant potential for creating unrest in Romania. He argued that:

[t]heir destruction or damage leads to the dislocation of internal distribution of food, fuel, and other essentials for the civilian population.[17]

Slowing the Axis forces’ ability to supply their frontline troops in Bessarabia and the ensuing panic of civilians represented Luard’s defence for centring on civilian and refugee targets. Ultimately, he hoped to force Romania, a key German ally, out of the war.

Luard stressed that the strike on rail stations and bridges should focus on those transportation centres leading westward out of Bucharest to hinder the flight of the refugees. He gave the Bucharest rail centres the highest priority for American bombers. Aside from the military impact, Luard argued that bombing caused internal unrest. He noted that there was:

[c]onfusion created during a recent raid at the Bucharest North Station by the presence of crowds of refugees from Bessarabia and Transnistria awaiting trains to the west.[18]

In addition to Bucharest, Luard listed Craiova as a priority target due to the refugees that flowed through the city. Luard assessed that refugees from Bessarabia were being evacuated from Bucharest through Craiova. He believed that an attack against Craiova might clog rail traffic in western Romania. [19]

Along with marshalling yards, Luard identified one highway for bombing, Route Three. Route Three connected Bucharest westward to Caransebes, and its destruction had the potential to cause the most significant harm to Axis road traffic entering and exiting Romania. Six bridges were identified as critical targets. According to the report:

[t]he destruction of bridges closer to Bucharest would impede the movement of refugees west and complicate the dispatch of repair supplies from Budapest, Vienna, or Germany.[20]

Both Route Three and the rail lines from Bucharest to Craiova were the primary routes in and out of Romania. Damaging these two means of evacuation meant flooding the country with refugees.

The Air Campaign

For a brief period, the MAAF launched an effective air campaign aimed at bridges, rail lines, and other transportation targets listed in Luard’s planning document. The attacks against the Romanian rail lines were devastating. According to a report compiled by the Romanian General Staff on behalf of the United States Office of Strategic Services after the war, the air attacks against the Romanian rail network and supply lines from 4 April to 18 August 1944, crippled the ability of the Romanians to move troops and equipment throughout the country. During this period the Americans destroyed 157 locomotives, 619 passenger cars, 3,010 cars carrying goods, 1,525 tanker cars, and ten auto motors.[21] Months after the First Iasi-Kishinev, Antonescu warned the Adolf Hitler, of the danger posed by the continued bombardment of his country by the MAAF. On 5 August 1944, Antonescu told Hitler:

We have concluded that if Germany does not give us the possibility to defend ourselves, Romania cannot keep up this position infinitely, because it would [lead] to her total catastrophe.[22]

He also informed Hitler that the attacks against the Romanian infrastructure significantly weakened the Romanian civilian and military transportation network.  By August 1944 follow up attacks after the First Iasi-Kishinev Offensive had brought rail and road traffic to a complete standstill.[23]

Bucharest_bombed_April_4,_1944_2
The bombing of Bucharest on 4 April 1944. (Source: Wikimedia)

As the First Iasi-Kishinev Offensive subsided, so did the attacks on Romanian military and civilian transportation targets. With the Red Army’s advance stalled, Spaatz received permission to shift the focus of the air war in Romania to oil production facilities. On 10 May 1944, the Soviets told the United States military representative in Moscow Major General John Deane that due to the stabilisation of the Romanian front, they would be more amenable to the resumption of attacks on the Ploesti oil facilities.[24] On 16 May the Soviet emphasised that while they remained open to the Americans launching a strategic air campaign against the Romanian oil refineries, they wanted the Americans to continue their air attacks against the Romanian transportation targets, which included refugees. While much of the bombing during June and July 1944 focused almost entirely on attacks against the refineries, there were occasional moments when the Americans returned to targeting refugees. On 4 July, the 450th Bomb Group of the American Fifteenth Air Force attacked one of the six major railway bridges servicing refugees who were fleeing Bucharest westward at the town of Pitesti. The bridge spanned the Arges River and allowed the trains to move west to Craiova. At 10:17, 23 B-24s of the Fifteenth Air Force dropped 57.5 tons of bombs on the bridge destroying it.[25] Even in the height of the oil offensive against Romania, refugees remained a target.

Conclusion

During April and May 1944, the MAAF conducted an aggressive air campaign against Romania’s infrastructure to support the Soviet Union’s advance into Romania. As the situation in Romania deteriorated, the Allies expanded their bombing campaign to aggravate a refugee crisis inside the country. They hoped that the bombing would both destabilise Romania politically and the refugees themselves might impede Axis rail and motor traffic to the front. American bombers struck rail stations, lines, and bridges used by refugees to flee the Soviet invasion of Romania. While this article highlights the bombing of Romanian refugees during the First Iasi-Kishinev Offensive, more research is needed to better grasp the extent and nature of the air attacks against Axis refugees on the Eastern Front.

Considering the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, it is tempting to romanticise the Allied efforts to liberate Europe during the Second World War. While defeating Nazi Germany and its allies were paramount, it does not excuse overlooking actions taken by the Allies that can only be described as war crimes. The Romanian refugees were civilians, not military combatants. Nontheless, the Allies chose to turn them into weapons to achieve a strategic goal: the defeat of Romania. It is important to have a public discourse about all actions taken by the Allies to win the Second World War. Without such a dialogue, future policymakers are likely to make mistakes by examining the Allied experience through the ‘good war’ narrative.

Dr Luke Truxal is an adjunct at Columbia State Community College in Tennessee. He completed his PhD in 2018 from the University of North Texas with his dissertation ‘Command Unity and the Air War Against Germany.’ Luke received the Outstanding Dissertation in Military History award from the University of North Texas. His previous publications include ‘Bombing the Romanian Rail Network’ in the Spring 2018 issue of Air Power History. He has also written ‘The Politics of Operational Planning: Ira Eaker and the Combined Bomber Offensive in 1943’ in the Journal of Military Aviation History. He can be reached on Twitter at @Luke_Truxal.

Header Image: B-24H-5-CF ‘Dixie Belle’ of the 719th Bomb Squadron, 449th Bomb Group. It was lost on the mission to Bucharest on 4 April 1944. (Source: American Air Museum, Duxford)

[1] For more recent scholarship that covers the bombing of Romania outside the spectrum of oil see Mark Conversino, Fighting with the Soviets: The Failure of Operation FRANTIC, 1944-1945 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1997). For an analysis of the MAAF’s attacks against Romanian rail targets and the mining of the Danube see Robert S. Ehlers Jr., The Mediterranean Air War: Air Power and Allied Victory in World War II (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2009), p. 364 and pp. 373-7; Conrad Crane, Bombs, Cities, and Civilians: American Air Power Strategy in World War II (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1993), pp. 95-8; To date, the best analysis of the attacks against Romanian civilians is Richard Overy, Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe, 1940-1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2014), p. 8, 404, 413. For further analysis of attacks against the Romanian infrastructure see Luke Truxal, ‘Bombing the Romanian Rail Network,’ Air Power History, 65:1 (2018).

[2] Ehlers, The Mediterranean Air War, p. 374.

[3] For a comprehensive history of the First Iasi-Kishinev Offensive, see David Glantz, Red Storm Over the Balkans: The Failed Soviet Invasion Spring 1944 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2006), pp. 60-70, 76-100. Glantz is the first historian provide a detailed analysis of the Red Army’s failed first attempt to take Romania. He argued that the history of the campaign was forgotten because of its shortcomings.

[4] For an analysis of the military setbacks that prompted the evacuation see Robert Citino, The Wehrmacht Retreats: The German Campaigns of 1944-1945, (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2017), pp. 303-4; For the numbers of refugees in Romania who were deported after the defection of Romania to the Allies, see Janos Krustof Muradin, ‘The Deportation of Germans from Romania to the Soviet Union in 1944-1945,’ Acta Universtatis Sapientiae, European and Regional Studies, 7 (2015), p. 43.

[5] Citino, The Wehrmacht Retreats, 527-528, 532.

[6] Alesandru Dutu ‘Drama of Bessarabian and Bucovinian Romanian Refugees,’ Alesandrudutu.wordpress.com, 7 July 2017.

[7] Library of Congress (LoC), Personal Papers of General Carl Spaatz, Air Ministry to USSAFE and AFHQ Algiers, 21 March 1944.

[8] LoC, Spaatz Papers, Air Ministry to MAAF and USSTAF, 22 March 1944.

[9] LoC, Spaatz Papers, Carl Spaatz to Henry Arnold, 23 March 1944.

[10] LoC, Spaatz Papers, Air Ministry to USSTAF and AFHQ Algiers, 25 March 1944.

[11] For tonnage of bombs, see Combined Arms Research Library, Technical Subcommittee on Axis Oil, ‘Oil as a factor in the German war effort, 1933-1945,’ p. 173. For first-hand accounts of those who survived the bombing, see Steliu Lambru, ‘The Bombing of Bucharest in April 1944,’ Radio România Internaţional, 29 April 2013.

[12] Lambru, ‘The Bombing of Bucharest.’

[13] Jay A. Stout, Fortress Ploesti: The Campaign to Destroy Hitler’s Oil (Havertown, PA: Casemate Publishing), PP. 99-102.

[14] Grant Harward, ‘Holy War: The Romanian Army, Motivation, and the Holocaust, 1941-1944’ (PhD Thesis, Texas A&M University, 2018), pp. 533-4.

[15] LoC, Personal Papers of General Ira Eaker, Ira Eaker to Nathan Twining, 6 April 1944. See also Luke Truxal, ‘Bombing the Romanian Rail Network,’ p. 15.

[16] LoC, Spaatz Papers, Charles Portal for Henry Maitland Wilson and Carl Spaatz, 11 April 1944.

[17] LoC, Spaatz Papers, Group Captain J.C.E Luard, ‘The Balkan-Situation-Possibilities of Air Attack,’ 24 April 1944, p. 2.

[18] Ibid, p. 7. The mission that Luard referenced was the 4 April 1944 attack on the Bucharest rail stations.

[19] Ibid, p. 8.

[20] Ibid, p. 9.

[21] Truxal, ‘Bombing the Romanian Rail Network,’ p. 19.

[22] Dinu C. Giurescu, Romania in the Second World War (1939-1945), translated by Eugenia Elena Popescu (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), p. 133; See also Truxal, ‘Bombing the Romanian Rail Network,’ p. 20.

[23] Citino, The Wehrmacht Retreats, p. 310.

[24] LoC, Spaatz Papers, John Deane to Spaatz, 10 May 1944.

[25] For the military intelligence analysis of the importance of the Pitesti bridge in relation to refugees see Luard, ‘The Balkan-Situation-Possibilities of Air Attack,’ p. 9; For a brief mission summary of the attack against the Pitesti bridge see 450th Bomb Group Memorial Association, S-2 Reports, ‘Mission Date: 4 July 1944, Mission NBR. 96.’