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.