Bombing Bulgaria

Bombing Sofia – April, 1944

Sofia Bulgaria – City March, 1944

The modern aerial bomb, with its distinctive elongated shape, stabilizing fins, and nose-fitted detonator, is a Bulgarian invention. In the Balkan War of 1912, waged by Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia, and Montenegro (the Balkan League) against Turkey, a Bulgarian army captain, Simeon Petrov, adapted and enlarged a number of grenades for use from an airplane. They were dropped on a Turkish railway station on October 16, 1912, from an Albatros F.2 biplane piloted by Radul Milkov. Petrov afterward modified the design by adding a stabilizing tail and a fuse designed to detonate on impact, and the six-kilogram bomb became the standard Bulgarian issue until 1918. The plans of the so-called Chataldzha bomb were later passed on to Germany, Bulgaria’s ally during the First World War. The design, or something like it, soon became standard issue in all the world’s first air forces.

Petrov’s invention came back to haunt Bulgaria during the Second World War. On November 14, 1943, a force of ninety-one American B-25 Mitchell bombers escorted by forty-nine P-38 Lightning fighters attacked the marshaling yards in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. The bombing was spread over a wide area, including three villages. The raid destroyed some of the rail system, the Vrajedna airfield, and a further 187 buildings, resulting in around 150 casualties. A second attack ten days later by B-24 Liberator bombers was less successful. There was poor weather across southern Bulgaria, and only seventeen of the force reached what they hoped was Sofia and bombed through cloud, hitting another seven villages around the capital. The attacks were enough to spread panic through the city. In the absence of effective air defenses or civil defense measures, thousands fled to the surrounding area. The Royal Bulgarian Air Force, though equipped with sixteen Messerschmitt Me109G fighters supplied by Bulgaria’s ally Germany, could do little against raids that, though not entirely unexpected, came as a complete surprise when they happened.

The raid in November 1943 was not the first attack on a Bulgarian target during the war, though it was the heaviest and most destructive so far. Bulgaria became a target only because of the decision taken in March 1941 by the Bulgarian government, after much hesitation, to tie the country to Germany by signing the Tripartite Pact, which had been made among the principal Axis powers, Germany, Italy, and Japan, the previous September. When in the spring of 1941 German forces were based in Bulgaria to attack Greece and Yugoslavia, the RAF sent a force of six Wellington bombers to bomb the Sofia rail links in order to hamper the concentration of German troops. A British night raid on April 13 made a lucky hit on an ammunition train, causing major fires and widespread destruction. Further small raids occurred on July 23 and August 11, 1941, which the Bulgarian government blamed on the Soviet air force. Although Bulgaria did not actively participate in the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, it gave supplies to Germany and allowed German ships to use the major ports of Varna and Burgas. On September 13, 1942, a further small Soviet raid hit Burgas, where German ships laden with oil-drilling equipment were awaiting the signal to cross the Black Sea to supply German engineers with the materials they would need to restart production once the Caucasus oilfields had been captured. The Soviet Union was not at war with Bulgaria and denied the intrusions in 1941 and 1942, for which it was almost certainly responsible, but the attacks were of such small scale that the Bulgarian government did not insist on reparations.

The handful of pinprick attacks in 1941 and 1942 were enough to make Bulgaria anxious about what might happen if the Allies ever did decide to bomb its cities heavily. Bulgaria’s position in the Second World War was an ambiguous one. The tsar, Boris III, did not want his country to be actively engaged in fighting a war after the heavy territorial and financial losses Bulgaria had sustained in the peace settlement of 1919 as punishment for joining with Germany and Austria-Hungary in the First World War. Only with great reluctance and under German pressure did the prime minister, Bogdan Filov, declare war on Britain and the United States on December 13, 1941. Aware of Bulgaria’s vulnerability, the government and the tsar wanted to avoid an actual state of belligerence with the Western powers, just as the country had refused to declare war on the Soviet Union. Bulgaria’s small armed forces therefore undertook no operations against the Allies; instead they were used by the Germans as occupation troops in Macedonia and Thrace, territories given to Bulgaria after the German defeat of Yugoslavia and Greece in 1941. By 1943 it was evident to the Bulgarian government and people that they had once again backed the wrong side. Much of the population was anti-German and some of it pro-Soviet. In 1942 a left-wing Fatherland Front had been formed, demanding an end to the war and the severing of links with Germany. Partisan movements in the occupied territories and in Bulgaria itself became more active during 1943, and in August of that year they launched a major recruitment drive. The partisans were chiefly communist and campaigned not only for an end to the war but for a new social order and closer ties with the Soviet Union. In May 1943 and again in October, Filov authorized contacts with the Western Allies to see whether there was a possibility of reaching an agreement. He was told that only unconditional surrender and the evacuation of the occupied territories could be accepted.

It is against this background that sense can be made of the Allied decision to launch a series of heavy air attacks on Bulgarian cities. Knowing that Bulgaria was facing a mounting crisis, caught between its German ally and the growing threat of a likely Soviet victory, Allied leaders were encouraged to use bombing as a political tool in the hope that it might produce a quick dividend by forcing Bulgaria out of the war. The idea that bombing was capable of a sudden decisive blow by demoralizing a population and causing a government crisis had been at the heart of much interwar thinking about the use of airpower. It was the logic of the most famous statement of this principle, made in 1921 by the Italian general Giulio Douhet in his classic study The Command of the Air (Il dominio dell’aria). The principle was also a central element in the view of airpower held by the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, who had previously applied it to both Germany and Italy. It was not by chance that in a meeting with the British chiefs of staff on October 19, 1943, it was Churchill who would suggest that in his view the Bulgarians were a “peccant people to whom a sharp lesson should be administered.” Their fault was to have sided once again with the Germans despite, Churchill claimed, his efforts to get them to see sense. Bombing was designed to undo the cord that bound Bulgaria to her German patron.

The sharp lesson was to be a heavy bombing attack on Sofia. Churchill justified the operation on political grounds: “Experience shows,” he told the meeting, “that the effect of bombing a country where there were antagonistic elements was not to unite those elements, but rather to increase the anger of the anti-war party.” Others present, including Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, chief of the air staff, and the chief of the imperial general staff, General Alan Brooke, were less keen and insisted that leaflets should be dropped along with the bombs explaining that the Allies wanted Bulgaria to withdraw its occupation troops and surrender (in the end leaflets were dropped with the curious headline “This is not about Allied terror, but about Bulgarian insanity”). But the idea of a “sharp lesson” quickly circulated. The American military chiefs thought that Sofia was so low a military priority that an attack was scarcely justified, but they were impressed by the possible “great psychological effect.” Both the British and American ambassadors in Ankara urged an attack so as to interrupt Turkish-German commercial rail traffic. On October 24 the Anglo-American Combined Chiefs of Staff directed General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander in the Mediterranean, to give such a lesson as soon as this was operationally practical. The Turkish government approved, hopeful perhaps despite neutrality to profit from Bulgaria’s discomfiture in any postwar settlement. Churchill wanted Stalin’s say-so as well, because Bulgaria was clearly in the Soviet sphere of interest, and on October 29 the British foreign minister, Anthony Eden, who was in Moscow for negotiations, was able to report back Stalin’s comment that Sofia should certainly be bombed, as it was nothing more than “a province of Germany.”

The Bulgarian government had expected bombing for some time. While the regime struggled to come to terms with internal dissent, the Soviet presence in the east, and Allied demands for unconditional surrender, it also sought ways to appease the Germans in case they decided to occupy Bulgaria. In the course of 1943 the deportation of Jews from the occupied areas of Thrace was completed, and despite the hostility of the tsar, the German authorities in Sofia persuaded the Bulgarian government to deport native Bulgarian Jews as well. It was agreed that they would first be transferred to twenty small towns in the hinterland around Sofia, and in May 1943 some 16,000 Jews were taken at short notice from the capital and parceled out among eight provinces. The Filov government linked the Jewish policy with bombing. When the Swiss ambassador asked Filov on humanitarian grounds to stop sending Thracian Jews to Auschwitz, Filov retorted that talk of humanity was misconceived when the Allies were busy obliterating the cities of Europe from the air. Moreover, when he failed to take up a British offer in February 1943 to transport 4,500 Jewish children from Bulgaria to Palestine, he feared that Sofia might be bombed in retaliation. Once the Jews of Sofia had been deported to the provinces, anxiety revived again in Bulgaria that the Allies would now no longer hesitate to bomb for fear of killing Jews. In the end the Jews of Bulgaria escaped not only deportation to Auschwitz but also the bombing, which left much of Sofia’s Jewish quarter in ruins.

It was not the Jewish question that invited Allied bombing in November 1943, though many Bulgarians assumed that it was. The first raids seemed to presage an onslaught of aerial punishment, and the population of the capital gave way to a temporary panic. Yet the first two attacks in November were followed by two desultory operations the next month and nothing more. Some 209 inhabitants in Sofia had been killed and 247 buildings damaged. The “sharp lesson” was not sharp enough for the Allies, because it did little to encourage Bulgaria to seek a political solution, while the military value of the attacks was at best limited, hampered by poor bombing accuracy and gloomy Balkan weather. On Christmas Day 1943, Churchill wrote to Eden that the “heaviest possible air attacks” were now planned for Sofia in the hope that this might result in more productive “political reactions.” On January 4, 1944, a large force of 108 B-17 Flying Fortresses was dispatched to Sofia, but with poor visibility the attack was aborted after a few bombs were dropped on a bridge. Finally, on January 10, 1944, the first heavy attack was mounted by 141 B-17s, supported during the night of January 10–11 by a force of some forty-four RAF Wellington bombers. This attack was devastating for the Bulgarian capital: there were 750 dead and 710 seriously injured, with widespread damage to residential housing and public buildings. The air-raid sirens failed to sound because of a power cut. This time the population panicked entirely, creating a mass exodus. By January 16, 300,000 people had left the capital. The government abandoned the administrative district and moved out to nearby townships. It took more than two weeks to restore services in the capital, while much of the population abandoned it permanently in fear of a repeat attack. On January 23 the German ambassador telegraphed back to Berlin that the bombing had changed completely the “psychological-political situation,” exposing the incompetence of the authorities and raising the danger of Bulgarian defection. The government ordered church bells to be pealed as an air-raid warning, in case of further power cuts.

The second major raid, of January 10, did pay political dividends. While Filov tried unsuccessfully to persuade a visiting German general, Walter Warlimont, deputy for operations on Hitler’s staff, to mount a revenge attack on neutral Istanbul—the consequences of which might well have been even more disastrous for Bulgaria—most Bulgarian leaders had come to realize that the German connection had to be severed as soon as possible and a deal struck with the Allies. The bishop of Sofia used the occasion of the funeral for the victims of the bombing to launch an attack on the government for tying Bulgaria to Germany and failing to save the people from war. That month an effort was made to get the Soviet Union to intercede with the Western Allies to stop the bombing, but instead Moscow increased its pressure on Bulgaria to abandon its support for the Axis. In February the first informal contacts were made with the Allies through a Bulgarian intermediary in Istanbul to see whether terms could be agreed upon for an armistice. Although hope for negotiation had been the principal reason for starting the bombing, the Allied reaction to the first Bulgarian approach following the raids was mixed. Roosevelt wrote to Churchill on February 9 suggesting that the bombing should now be suspended if the Bulgarians wanted to talk, a view shared by British diplomats in the Middle Eastern headquarters in Cairo. Churchill scrawled “why?” in the margin of the letter. He was opposed to ending the bombing despite a recent report from the British Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), which observed that the first bombing in November 1943 had achieved no “decisive political result.” He had already authorized the bombing of the Bulgarian ports of Burgas and Varna, which were added to the list of priority targets, subject to political considerations. In January 1944 the British War Cabinet, in the event of a German gas attack, considered the possibility of retaliatory gas bomb attacks against Germany and its allies, and included Bulgaria on the list. On February 12, Churchill replied to Roosevelt that in his view the bombing had had “exactly the effect we hoped for” and urged him to accept the argument that bombing should continue until the Bulgarians began full and formal negotiations: “If the medicine has done good, let them have more of it.” Roosevelt immediately wired back his full agreement: “Let the good work go on.”

Some of the evidence coming out of Bulgaria seemed to support Churchill’s stance. Intelligence reports arrived detailing the rapid expansion of both the communist partisan movement and the Fatherland Front. The partisans contacted the Allies through a British liaison officer stationed in Bulgaria, encouraging them to keep up the bombing in order to provoke the collapse of the pro-German regime and help expand support for the resistance. The partisans sent details about the central administrative area in Sofia, bordered by the recently renamed Adolfi Hitler Boulevard, which they said was ripe for attack; at the same time, partisan leaders asked the Allies not to bomb the working-class districts of Sofia, from which most of their recruits were drawn. By March the partisans were finally organized by the Bulgarian communists into the National Liberation Revolutionary Army. As a result of the evidence on the ground, the Western Allies, with Stalin’s continued though secret support (the Soviet Union did not want Bulgarians to think they had actively abetted the bombing), accepted Eden’s argument that by “turning on the heat” on Bulgarian cities it might shortly be possible either to provoke a coup d’état or to batter the government into suing for peace. On March 10, Sir Charles Portal told Churchill that he had ordered heavy attacks on Sofia and other Bulgarian cities as soon as possible.

On March 16 and then on March 29–30 the Allies launched the most destructive attacks of all on Sofia, as well as subsidiary attacks on Burgas, Varna, and Plovdiv in the interior, designed to disrupt rail communications and sea traffic for the Turkish trade with Germany. The attacks were aimed predominantly at the administrative city center of Sofia and carried a proportion of incendiaries, 4,000 in all, in order to do to Sofia what had been done so effectively to German targets. The raid of March 16 burned down the royal palace; the heavy raid of March 29–30 by 367 B-17s and B-24s, this time carrying 30,000 incendiaries, created a widespread conflagration, destroying the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the National Theater, several ministries, and a further 3,575 buildings, but killing only 139 of the population that had remained. The last major raid, on April 17 by 350 American bombers, destroyed a further 750 buildings and heavily damaged the rail marshaling yard. During 1944 the death toll in Sofia was 1,165, a figure that would have been considerably higher had it not been for the voluntary evacuation of the capital. The incendiary attacks hastened the disintegration of Bulgarian politics and increased support for the Soviet Union, whose armies were now within striking distance. But only on June 20, 1944, several months after the bombing, did the new government of Ivan Bagryanov begin formal negotiations for an end to Bulgarian belligerency, still hoping to keep Bulgaria’s territorial spoils and avoid Allied occupation. By this time the Allies had lost interest in bombing Bulgaria, which slipped further down the list of priority targets as the bombers turned their attention to Budapest and Bucharest in the path of the oncoming Red Army.

By the summer of 1944 the Allies had other preoccupations, and it seemed evident that Bulgarian politics had been sufficiently destabilized by the bombing to make further attacks redundant. Nevertheless, the final assessment of the effects of the bombing was ambivalent. In July the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff prepared an evaluation of the Balkan bombings which suggested that the psychological effects desired had largely been achieved; the report nevertheless suggested that the enemy had sustained an effective propaganda campaign about the high level of civilian casualties, which had undermined the prestige of both the United States and Britain in the eyes of the Bulgarian people. The chiefs directed that in the future any attacks in the region had to be confined to “targets of definite military importance” and civilian casualties minimized. The British chiefs of staff rejected the American claim, and, in defiance of what they well knew to be the case, insisted that only military targets had been subject to attack, even if this had involved damage to housing and civilian deaths. Their report concluded that Allied bombers ought always to be able to act in this way and that operations “should not be prejudiced by undue regard for the probable scale of incidental casualties.” This was a view consistent with everything the RAF had argued and practiced since the switch to the deliberate bombing of German civilians in 1941.

For the historian the judgment is more complex. Bombing almost certainly contributed to the collapse of any pro-German consensus and strengthened the hand both of the moderate center-left in the Fatherland Front and of the more radical partisan movement. But in the end this did not result in a complete change of government until September 9, 1944, when the Soviet presence produced a Fatherland Front administration dominated by the Bulgarian Communist Party (a political outcome that neither Churchill nor Eden had wanted from the bombing). Moreover, other factors played an important role in Bulgarian calculations: the crisis provoked by Italian defeat and surrender in September 1943; the German retreat in the Soviet Union; and fear of a possible Allied Balkan invasion or of Turkish intervention. Where Churchill saw bombing as a primitive instrument for provoking political crisis and insisted throughout the period from October 1943 to March 1944 that this was the key to knocking Bulgaria out of the war, the American military chiefs continued to give preference to the bombing of Italy and Germany and were less persuaded that a political dividend was certain. For them the bombing fitted with the strategy of wearing down Germany’s capacity for waging war by interrupting the supply of vital war matériel and forcing the diversion of German military units from the imminent Normandy campaign. There was also a price to pay for the bombing. In September 1944, following the Bulgarian surrender, some 332 American air force prisoners of war were sent by air shuttle to Istanbul and then on to Cairo; some had been shot down while bombing Bulgaria, others on their way to or from attacks on Romanian targets. An American report suggested that the prisoners had been badly maltreated. Two air force prisoners were killed by the Bulgarian police, and an estimated 175 American war dead were presumed to be on Bulgarian territory, although only eighty-four bodies could be located.

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