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.’