Bombing Bulgaria

By MSW Add a Comment 27 Min Read
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

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

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.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Exit mobile version