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.’