The Allies Take Tunisia

The desert pendulum had at last stuck, pointing west. There were now only two more battles for 8th Army to fight, and by this time the Allied air forces were so strong–during March an average of more than 700 sorties were flown every day– that the Luftwaffe was unable seriously to challenge them for mastery of the air. Allied superiority was not confined to one particular sphere of operations. It was all-embracing. Attacks on Axis aircraft on the ground, in the air, neutralizing airfields, sinking convoys at sea, to say nothing of the support given to the advancing Armies. ‘Never before,’ said de Guingand, ‘had our Desert Air Force given us such superb, such gallant, and such intimate support.’ The Axis command was compelled to admit that they could put up no effective fight against such relentless concentrations.

While 8th Army was battling its way through the Mareth Line, Patton’s II US Corps was not idle. Indeed they greatly helped Montgomery by drawing 10th Panzer Division away from Mareth. By 17 March II Corps had occupied Gafsa. Patton’s unconventional and flamboyant methods were recalled by Alan Moorehead. When he first saw Patton he noted the weather-beaten face, the pearl-handled revolver and the remark he made to his ADC–‘Go down that track until you get blown up, and then come back and report.’ In fact the Germans had already evacuated Gafsa, and the Americans simply motored into it. El Guettar, 15 miles further east, was entered next day, and Maknassy on 22 March. A week later Alexander directed II Corps to drive forward to the Gabes road, a mission well suited to Patton’s thrusting spirit. He in turn gave the job to the 1st us Armoured Division. The United States Official History shows how the Americans were to learn, as the British had before them, that armoured strength, however courageously pressed forward, could not prevail in the face of a properly organized anti-tank defence.

The task was given to Benson Force which contained two tank battalions, a reconnaissance unit, two artillery battalions, some engineers, two infantry battalions and a tank destroyer unit. The attack began on 30 March, but did not get far. It was a familiar story. The German artillery and anti-tank weapons, well sited, mobile and used in conjunction with minefields, were just too strong. By day the leading American tanks were knocked out, and the only way to get on was to clear lanes through the mines with infantry at night

Even Patton was reluctant to order tanks to advance against such successful and expensive enemy tactics, although he toyed with the idea of sacrificing a complete tank company to blast a hole in the defences. Instead he instructed Benson to wait for air support and coordinate his attacks accordingly. In fact Benson made slow, costly progress in a series of tank-infantry actions, but the fact was that in ground so totally unsuitable for decisive fire and movement, sheer weight of artillery and numbers of tanks could not do the trick. Such skilled and determined resistance imposed on the Americans a bit by bit advance. There was no question of grand armoured exploitation.

The fact that Patton’s Corps did not make much progress was less important than the threat which they offered to the right flank of General Messe’s 1st Panzer Army, a threat which brought about the move of 21st Panzer Division to reinforce 10th Panzer Division opposite Patton, and so lighten the defensive capacity of Wadi Akarit, which Montgomery now had to overcome. The dividend of Alexander’s ability to ring the changes, thrust right-handed, left-handed or both-handed as he chose, was about to be reaped.

8th Army closed up to the Wadi Akarit position on 29 March. Montgomery decided on yet another set-piece attack by 30th Corps with 10th Corps held ready to dash forward once the last natural obstacle to his breaking into the Tunisian coastal plain had been removed. His proposal to attack on the night 4–5 April fitted well with Alexander’s plans for getting hold of the Gabes gap. Alexander intended first that Montgomery should be assisted once more by pressure from US II Corps, and then to use his main reserve, 9th Corps, to capture the Fondouk gap and get behind von Arnim’s southern corps. As might have been expected at a time when things were going badly for them, Axis counsels were divided. Kesselring wanted to hold Akarit as the last defence line in the south, and beat off any threat to the area east of Maknassy-El Guettar with armoured counter-attacks. Mussolini, on the other hand, had already authorized withdrawal to Endfidaville. Von Arnim meanwhile declared that without the fuel and ammunition, which, like Rommel before him, he so urgently needed–on 1 April he mentioned 8,000 and 10,000 tons for these two commodities as being essential requirements by German forces alone–defeat was unavoidable. He even admitted to ‘squinting over his shoulder for ships’. Like Rommel he had to make do with promises. Nevertheless the Akarit position was held, and strongly. In addition to two Panzer Grenadier Regiments, 90th and 164th Light Divisions were in the line together with four Italian divisions. 15th Panzer Division was in reserve.

The ground was mountainous, and once again it was necessary to blast a hole through the defences. Manoeuvre by itself would not do the trick. Here in these mountains was to be seen yet another change in the conduct of a battle. Montgomery’s History of Warfare contains a curiously relevant passage in which he discusses Greek tactical ideas in relation to mountainous country. He condemns the battles as mere slogging matches in which fire and movement played no part. There was no opportunity for manoeuvre, no master planning, no skilful generalship. This is not inapposite when we examine what happened at Wadi Akarit, except, of course, that there was, as customary in a Montgomery battle, plenty of fire–450 guns’ worth–and that at the lower level, notably General Tuker’s with his famous 4th Indian Division, generalship was sound. Tuker did not like Leese’s Corps plan, which was to go for and seize Roumana, and pointed out that Djebel Tebaga Fatnassa, being the key to the whole position, must be taken first. Furthermore, since the enemy was weak in infantry, the very thing needed to hold these mountainous features, whereas 8th Army was strong, and his own 4th Indian Division peculiarly suited by temperament and training to mountain fighting, Tuker guaranteed that he would take Fatnassa. 50th and 51st Divisions could then capture Roumana and the positions between Roumana and Fatnassa. All this was good advice. It was adopted, and as things turned out the decision to attack Fatnassa first, then the other objectives, with three divisions at night with no moon and as early as 5–6 April surprised the enemy. Montgomery’s signal to Churchill of 6 April contained this sentence: ‘I did two things not done by me before, in that I attacked centre of enemy position, and in the dark with no moon.’ The Nelsonian ace of using his subordinates’ ideas was up Montgomery’s sleeve too, and much of the credit both for the concept of this attack and its execution must go to Tuker and his magnificent Division.

1/2 Gurkhas were in the van of 7th Brigade and almost at once struck into the Italians of Pistoia Division. In helping to open the door which led to Axis defeat, Subedar Lalbadur won the Victoria Cross:

The dense darkness of that boulder-studded ravine hid a great feat of arms. Under command of Subedar Lalbadur Thapa, two sections of Gurkhas had moved forward to secure the only pathway which led over the escarpment at the upper end of the rocky chimney. This trail reached the top of the hill through a narrow cleft thickly studded with enemy posts. Anti-tank guns and machine guns covered every foot of the way, while across the canyon, where the cliffs rose steeply for some 200 feet, the crests were swarming with automatic gunners and mortar teams. Subedar Lalbadur Thapa reached the first enemy sangar without challenge. His section cut down its garrison with the kukri. Immediately every post along the twisted pathway opened fire. Without pause the intrepid Subedar, with no room to manoeuvre, dashed forward at the head of his men through a sheet of machine gun fire, grenades and mortar bombs. He leapt inside a machine gun nest and killed four gunners single-handed, two with knife and two with pistol. Man after man of his sections were stricken until only two were left. Rushing on, he clambered up the last few yards of the defile through which the pathway snaked over the crest of the escarpment. He flung himself single-handed on the garrison of the last sangar covering the pathway, striking two enemy dead with his kukri. This terrible foe was too much; the remainder of the detachment fled with wild screams for safety. The chimney between the escarpments was open, and with it the corridor through which 5th Brigade might pass. It is scarcely too much to say that the battle of Wadi Akarit had been won single-handed several hours before the formal attacks began.

By 0830 on the morning of 6 April most of Fatnassa was in the hands of 4th Indian Division. On their right 51st Highland Division’s attack had also gone according to plan, and Roumana was captured. 50th Division’s progress had been slower, but even so Horrocks, commanding 10th Corps, was sufficiently satisfied that a big enough hole had been made by 30th Corps for his own to pass through. He asked Montgomery for permission to do so, permission that was granted, yet it did not happen, at least not in time to finish off 1st Panzer Army at Wadi Akarit. Once again they were allowed to get away. German skill in plugging gaps with tanks and anti-tank guns obliged 10th Corps to pause, and as so often before the Axis commander authorized withdrawal just at the time when 8th Army issued orders for continuing the advance. It was a story often repeated during 8th Army’s successful exit from Alamein. Time after time the door seemed to have been pushed open by one formation for another, and equally time after time they somehow or other did not manage to get through it. There were three explanations possible for such failure. Either the door had not been properly opened, or the exploiting units were not sufficiently pushing, or the problem of dealing with the enemy’s rapidly thrown together anti-tank screen, well beyond the door, unsuspected, unanticipated and thus unplanned for, simply had not been tackled, still less solved. Of the three, the last is most likely to hold water. This omission reflected two weaknesses in the higher echelons of command–inability either to cope rapidly with the unexpected or to call for their almost overwhelming close air support at the critical moment which arbitrated between partial and complete success.

Yet Wadi Akarit had once more taken heavy toll of the Axis forces. Messe had withdrawn them back to Enfidaville, but in admitting to serious losses gave his view that it had not been una bella battaglia. From 8th Army’s position in the ring, it might have been a good battle; the three divisions of 30th Corps had all fought well. But of them all it was the Indians’ exploits in the mountains which rang loudest through the world. Even Tuker, who knew his men so thoroughly, marveled at their skill and courage. Good battle though it was, however, it was another win on points. The knock-out eluded them still.

But the ring was tightening. It was Army Group Africa which was at bay now. 1st and 8th Armies had linked up near Gafsa on 7 April and again near Kairouan four days later. Their operations became even more closely reciprocal, and with the Axis forces thus besieged, one of the questions facing Alexander was with which hand the final blow should be delivered. Montgomery understandably enough wanted his own Army to be the one, and as he closed up to Enfidaville on 11 April, he sent a signal to Alexander asking for another armoured division so that he would be strong enough to direct the next main operation. He requested that 6th Armoured Division be put under his command at once. Alexander thought differently. He wished to make use of the easier country in front of 1st Army and go for Tunis from the west. By this means he hoped to cut the Axis forces in half, drive some of them to the south to be further mauled by 8th Army, and allow the remainder to be mopped up in the north. His reply to Montgomery, therefore, far from giving 8th Army another division, took one away, 1st Armoured Division was to reinforce 9th Corps for part of the main effort by 1st Army, while 8th Army exerted maximum pressure to help. Alexander’s directive of 16 April laid down that offensive operations to destroy or take all enemy forces in Tunisia would now get under way, and that the pressure would be such that together with naval and air forces, no enemy would be able to withdraw by air or sea.

Alexander’s plan was that, whilst 8th Army contained Messe’s forces at Enfidaville, 5th and 9th Corps of 1st Army would conduct the main attack up the Medjerda Valley to Tunis; meanwhile II US Corps would make for Bizerta and the French for Pont du Fahs. 1st Army, in short, and more particularly 5th Corps, was to provide the relentless pressure, although before it was all over, 8th Army had to hand over still more reinforcements. Naval and air forces had a good deal to congratulate themselves on. It was not just that they were now required to prevent the enemy’s withdrawal–a mission they accomplished with almost total success; it was that they had been of infinite consequence in bringing about the very situation where the enemy had no alternative, except annihilation, but to attempt the withdrawal which they were to prevent. All Hitler’s efforts to increase the monthly tonnage of supplies to Tunisia failed. The principal reason for more and more sinkings was that the Allied air forces, notably those of the United States, had grown so strong that in March 1943 two thirds of the Axis ships sunk by air attacks were accounted for by us aircraft. Allied submarines also enjoyed many kills off Sicily and the west coast of Italy. Nor was this all. British and American aircraft were savaging the Axis air transport fleet. On 22 April, for example, out of 21 of the huge Messerschmitt 323s carrying ten tons of fuel each, losses from the interception of Allied fighters were so heavy–16 of them were ‘hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky’–that Göring vetoed all transport flights to Africa, until Kesselring persuaded him to relax so absurd a ruling. But only a quarter of the former sortie rate was ever again realized. The effect of all this was that in March and April sea tonnages transported were 43,000 and 29,000 compared with an average of 60,000 to 75,000 in previous months. The measure of the shortfall becomes clear when we read that even these latter, higher figures were as much as 100,000 tons per month lower than what was actually needed. Air transport, which managed 8,000 tons in March, 5,000 in April, could not make up the sum. Some reinforcements of soldiers got to Africa, but far from being able to turn the Axis tide, they at once created the need for yet more supplies, and in the end simply swelled the Prisoner of War camps.

On the other hand Allied supplies flowed in with a regularity that spoke highly of their leaders’ cooperation and machinery. Malta’s days of starvation were over for good, and having been so instrumental in winning the battle for North Africa, the island was now to figure largely in the next great Allied enterprise in the Mediterranean–the invasion of Sicily. If by severing Axis sea communications, whilst preserving their own, Allied naval and air forces had made an overwhelming contribution to the armies’ operations, their reward was in sight. The armies’ clearing of the North African shores, the opening of the Mediterranean to Allied shipping, not having to sail to the Middle East and India via the Cape of Good Hope, the advantage gained from those precious commodities, time and tonnage–the value of these prizes was incalculable. Naval forces under Admiral Cunningham had yet one more great moment of triumph just ahead of them. They stopped the enemy escaping. The entirety of Cunningham’s success is recalled for us on the last page of Heinz Schmidt’s memoirs: Six hundred and sixty three escaped. They went by air.

Before they went, however, and before the gigantic haul of men and material fell into Allied hands, there were three weeks of hard fighting to be done. This was to be an Army Group battle –the first in North Africa. In fact it was a series of smaller ones. Alexander’s general offensive, Operation Vulcan, allotted these tasks to his subordinates:

First Army will:

(a) Capture Tunis.

(b) Cooperate with 2 US Corps in the capture of Bizerta.

(c) Be prepared to cooperate with Eighth Army should the enemy withdraw to Cap Bon Peninsula.

2nd US Corps will:

(a) Secure suitable positions for the attack on Bizerta, covering the left flank of First Army.

(b) Advance and capture Bizerta with the cooperation of First Army on the right flank …

Eighth Army will:

(a) Draw enemy forces off First Army by exerting continuous pressure on the enemy.

(b) By an advance on the axis Enfidaville-Hammamet-Tunis prevent the army withdrawing into the Cap Bon Peninsula. …

This was what was supposed to happen and very broadly it was what did happen, but not without much shifting of weight, pausing, re-grouping and trying again. 8th Army took Enfidaville on 20 April, 1st Army re-took Longstop Hill on 26 April, and the 1st us Armoured Division captured Mateur on 3 May. Then Alexander made his arrangements for the last attack. In the north was the whole of II US Corps, in the south 8th Army less 4th Indian Division, 7th Armoured Division and 201st Guards Brigade, and in the centre 1st Army, with 9th Corps comprising the three formations taken from 8th Army, plus the 4th Infantry and 6th Armoured Divisions. It was 9th Corps under Horrocks which was to deal the final blow. On 6 May, it did, supported by over 2,000 bomber and fighter bomber sorties and more than 1,000 guns. It was blitzkrieg on the grand scale. Ironmongery of this sort could hardly miscarry. Tunis was occupied the same day, Bizerta the next. Finally 6th Armoured Division broke through the Hammam Lif to Hammamet.

8th Army’s battle for Djebel Garci and Enfidaville preceded Vulcan by four days, and in these actions 4th Indian Division and the New Zealanders showed again what matchless soldiers they were. At Garci 5th Indian Infantry Brigade was invited to capture the Djebel itself, and during the savage fighting for it, Jemadar Dewan Singh sustained one of the bloodiest and most exciting encounters which even the famed Gurkha warriors could boast. It was while he was scouting forward by himself:

I was challenged in a foreign language. I felt it was not the British language or I would have recognized it. To make quite sure I crept up and found myself looking into the face of a German. I recognized him by his helmet. He was fumbling with his weapon so I cut off his head with my kukri. Another appeared from a slit trench and I cut him down also. I was able to do the same to two others, but one made a great deal of noise, which raised the alarm. I had a cut at a fifth but I am afraid I only wounded him. Yet perhaps the wound was severe, for I struck him between the neck and the shoulder.

I was now involved in a struggle with a number of Germans, and eventually, after my hands had become cut and slippery with blood, they managed to wrest my kukri from me. One German beat me over the head with it, inflicting a number of wounds. He was not very skilful, however, sometimes striking me with the sharp edge but oftener with the blunt.

They managed to beat me to the ground where I lay pretending to be dead. The Germans got back into their trenches.… My platoon advanced and started to hurl grenades among the enemy. But they were also falling very near me, so I thought that if I did not move I really would be dead. I managed to get to my feet, and ran towards my platoon. Not recognizing me, I heard one of my platoon call: ‘Here comes the enemy ! Shoot him!’ I bade them not to do so. They recognized my voice and let me come in.

My hands being cut about and bloody, and having lost my kukri, I had to ask one of my platoon to take my pistol out of my holster and put it in my hand. I then took command of my platoon again.

Battles for Tunisian Djebels were apt to be costly, and the Garci-Enfidaville affair caused 8th Army many casualties. All battalion commanders in Kippenberger’s brigade, for example, were wounded. Nor did 1st Army find the steep, bare hills north of Medjez, such memorable features as Tangoucha, Longstop, the Kefs and the Djebel Ang, easier going. 38th Infantry Brigade, part of the renowned 78th Division, had much savage fighting to do there. The brigade commander, Russell, described the battle area as a series of ‘impossible fortresses’. When he later went over the battle-field accompanied by the Corps Commander, the general asked him how on earth the men had managed it. He found himself equally at a loss, but was convinced that it never would have been done at all but for first class troops led by the very best junior commanders.

Brigadier Russell might have added that his brigade was composed of Irish riflemen and fusiliers.

Further north II US Corps advanced and went on advancing. The US 1st Armoured Division, off the leash at last, swept into Mateur on 3 May, with its eye on Ferryville and beyond, whilst the 9th Infantry Division was directed on Bizerta. Perhaps the most spectacular and tactically valuable stroke was that of the British 6th Armoured Division in penetrating the German defences at Hammam Lif and driving on to Hammamet, so frustrating enemy hopes of evacuation from the Cap Bon Peninsula. Even before this was done, scenes of victory, so often to be repeated in the towns of Europe, were being enacted. A troop leader of the 17th/21st Lancers remembered being amongst the first British soldiers to reach St Germain. The fact that the enemy were only 2,000 yards away and sending shells at them and that he in his tank was firing back did not deter the French civilians. They climbed on to his tank, put flowers round it, thrust roses and bottles of wine at him. One girl even embraced him from behind while he was giving a fire order to his gunner. Outside the tank delighted watchers picked up the empty shell cases as they were thrown through the revolver port and sent a flow of wine bottles back in. Flags waved, tricolours were unfurled, women wept, firearms were discharged in the air. The hysteria of liberation took over.


Hitler’s Counter-Measures in Italy – 1943

On 18 May 1943, Adolf Hitler launches Operation Alaric [later called Operation Achse], the German occupation of Italy in the event its Axis partner either surrendered or switched its allegiance.

This operation was considered so top secret that Hitler refused to issue a written order. Instead, he communicated verbally his desire that Field Marshal Erwin Rommel should assemble and ultimately command 11 divisions for the occupation of Italy to prevent an Allied foothold in the peninsula.

The Salerno landing (Operation Avalanche) was not the first by the Allies on the Italian mainland. On 3 September Montgomery’s Eighth Army had crossed the Straits of Messina to take Reggio Calabria as a preliminary to the occupation of the toe of Italy. Hitler had nevertheless decided to discount this move as unimportant, a view shared by Montgomery, who was disgruntled at being shunted into a secondary role. The Salerno landing, by contrast, stirred Hitler to order Operation Alarich to begin. Although he failed to prevent the sailing of the Italian fleet to Malta as required by the armistice terms, the Luftwaffe did succeed in sinking the battleship Roma en route by release of one of its new weapons, a guided glider bomb. In almost every other respect, Operation Alarich (now codenamed Achse) worked with smoothness.

Washington was reluctant to commit forces to Italy because it was determined the Alliance should launch an invasion of north-west Europe without avoidable delay. Accordingly, it was very much to Hitler’s advantage that Eisenhower’s lack of landing craft and divisions had obliged him to go ashore so far to the south. In consequence Hitler was able to use the divisions which had escaped from Sicily to concentrate against the Avalanche forces, while he deployed those brought from France and elsewhere (the 1st SS Panzer Division was temporarily transferred from Russia for the mission) to occupy Rome and subdue the Italian army in the centre and north of the peninsula. Before the invasion he had received contradictory advice: Rommel, one of his favourites, had warned against trying to hold the south; Kesselring, the general on the spot and an acute strategic analyst, had assured him that a line could safely be established below Rome. He now employed both men’s talents. While Rommel took charge of the divisions which had been rushed through the Alps to put down military and civilian resistance in Milan and Turin (and to recapture the tens of thousands of Allied prisoners liberated from captivity on Italy’s defection), Kesselring organised the Tenth Army in the south to check and contain the Salerno landing.

German troops elsewhere moved rapidly to disarm and imprison Italian troops or extinguish their resistance when it was offered. The areas of Yugoslavia under Italian occupation were brought under German control or that of their Croat (Ustashi) puppets. Italian-occupied France was taken over by German troops (with tragic consequences for the Jews who had found refuge there). Sardinia and Corsica, regarded as indefensible, were both skilfully evacuated, the former on 9 September, the latter by 1 October after a Free French invading force had come to the rescue of the local insurgents, who had risen in revolt on news of the armistice. In the Italian-occupied sectors of Greece the Germans actually scored a remarkable success against the run of strategic events. Encouraged by an outbreak of fighting between the Germans and the Italian garrison of the Ionian islands on 9 September (brutally put down by the Germans, who shot all the Italian officers they captured), the British, in the teeth of strong and wise American discouragement, invaded the Italian-occupied Dodecanese islands on 12 September and, with Italian acquiescence, took Kos, Samos and Leros. Sensing an easy success, offered by their local command of the air – as the Americans had perceived but the British refused to acknowledge – the Germans assembled a superior triphibious force, retook Kos on 4 October, forced the evacuation of Samos and seized back Leros by 16 November. The Dodecanese operation, painfully humiliating to the British, was then extended into the Cyclades. By the end of November the Germans directly controlled the whole of the Aegean, had taken over 40,000 Italian and several thousand British prisoners, and had actually set back the likelihood of Turkey’s entering the war on the Allied side – Churchill’s justification for mounting his second Greek adventure in the first place.

These were not the only chestnuts plucked by Hitler from the fire raised by Italy’s defection. On 16 September an airborne task force, led by an SS officer, Otto Skorzeny, rescued Mussolini from the mountain resort in the Gran Sasso where he was currently confined. Mussolini at once proclaimed the existence of an ‘Italian Social Republic’ in the north of the country; after 9 October it was to have its own army, formed from soldiers still loyal to him and led by Marshal Rudolfo Graziani, once governor of Libya and Wavell’s opponent in Egypt. The creation of Mussolini’s successor state to fascist Italy ensured that the growing resistance to German occupation of the north would swell into a civil war, with brutal and tragic consequences. To those consequences Hitler was entirely indifferent. Italy’s change of alliance relieved him of the obligation to supply a large part of the country with the coal on which it depended for energy; it added a captive labour force to the body of Italian volunteer workers in German industry; and it brought him nearly a million military prisoners who could also be set to work for the Reich.

Meanwhile the strategic effort to minimise the effect of the Allied invasion of the mainland was developing to his satisfaction. Rommel’s deprecation of the chances of defending Italy south of Rome had proved ill founded. Kesselring, by affiliation an officer of the Luftwaffe but by training and background a product of the general staff elite, had correctly argued that the Italian terrain lent itself admirably to defence. The peninsula’s central mountain spine, rising in places to nearly 10,000 feet, throws numerous spurs east and west towards the Adriatic and Mediterranean. Between the spurs, rivers flow rapidly in deep valleys to the sea. Rivers, spurs and mountain spine together offer a succession of defensible lines at close intervals, made all the more difficult to breach because the spine pushes the north-south highways into the coastal strip, where the bridges that carry them are dominated by natural strongpoints on the spurs above.

Salerno, the spot chosen by the Central Mediterranean Force staff for the main landing in Italy, falls exactly within this topographical pattern. Although the coastal strip is unusually wide and level (the factor recommending the beaches to the planners), it is dominated on all sides by high ground and the exit northward is blocked by the massif of Mount Vesuvius. Had Kesselring had sufficient force available at the outset, he might have formed the line across the peninsula that he had assured Hitler was militarily feasible, perhaps as far south as Naples. Commanding as he did, however, only seven divisions in his Tenth Army, of which the 16th Panzer alone was at full strength, he was obliged to commit what strength he had against the northern edge of the bridgehead with the aim of denying the invaders a swift exit towards Naples, and thus win time to construct a front above the city (eventually to be known as the Winter Position).

Despite the Tenth Army’s immediate weakness, it nevertheless gave the Avalanche force a bad time in the first week of the invasion. Mark Clark, the American general commanding the Fifth Army, had two corps under his command, the British X and US VI. Supported by overwhelming naval and air bombardments, both got easily ashore on 9 September. They were slow to exploit their initial superiority, however, and next day came under heavy counter-attack from German reserves, including those from the toe of Italy who had escaped Montgomery’s army. Counter-attacks by the 16th Panzer Division were particularly effective. On 12 September it retook from the British the key village of Battipaglia, close to their boundary with the Americans; the next day, together with 29th Panzergrenadier Division, it redoubled the pressure, threatening to break the bridgehead in half and cut the British off from the Americans who lost Altavilla and Persano and were preparing to re-embark their assault divisions. The Allies managed to stabilise the bridgehead by unleashing a tremendous weight of firepower on the advancing Germans. While the infantry of the US 45th Division took to their heels, the division’s artillerymen stuck to their guns and, with naval and air support, eventually halted the German Panzergrenadiers in their tracks.

By 15 September, thanks to the landing of British armour and American airborne infantry in the bridgehead, the crisis had passed. General Heinrich von Vietinghoff, in direct command of the Tenth Army, recognised that the balance of force had now shifted against him, and Kesselring accordingly sanctioned a fighting withdrawal towards the first of his chosen mountain lines further north. Montgomery’s Eighth Army had been reinforced by the British 1st Airborne Division, which on 9 September had landed at Taranto. On 16 September spearheads of the Eighth Army, advancing from Calabria, made contact with the Americans in the bridgehead south of Salerno. Two days later the Germans began their withdrawal, covering it by blowing the bridges in their rear as the Fifth Army pursued them. On 1 October British troops entered Naples. Meanwhile the Eighth Army had pushed two divisions, including the 1st Canadian, up the Adriatic coast to capture the complex of airfields at Foggia, from which it was intended to mount strategic bombing raids into southern Germany. In early October the Fifth and Eighth Armies established a continuous line across the peninsula, 120 miles long, running along the Volturno river north of Naples and the Biferno river which flows into the Adriatic at Termoli.

The Dimensions of German Aid to Japan

Japanese Type B submarine visits Germany in 1942 

To give a quantitative picture of German assistance to the Japanese is impossible. It is clear that German deliveries were drastically limited by the shipping problem, just as were shipments from the Far East to Europe. The chief means of transport, in the absence of Japanese vessels, were the German and Italian blockade-breakers which went to the Far East to pick up raw materials for Germany. There is evidence that some of these ships departed for the Far East without being fully loaded. Presumably, the delay in negotiating the Japanese requests in Berlin or in obtaining delivery from the German manufacturer explained this situation. Since the ships were German and Italian and not Japanese, it is understandable that they followed a shipping schedule determined by German rather than Japanese needs and departure times.

During the 1941-1942 shipping season, eight ships reached the Far East; they carried a total cargo of 32,500 tons. During the 1942-1943 season, another eight ships reached the Far East, with a total cargo of 24,447 tons. No tabulation of losses incurred en route to the Far East is available. Originally, seven ships were slated to leave for the Far East during the 1943-1944 season, but in view of the heavy losses of ships returning from Asia during the previous shipping season and the general hazards of blockade breaking at the time, it is unlikely that more than one or at most two ships left. Whether any arrived is not known.

After the second half of 1943, a total of twenty submarines reached the Far East in order to take cargo back to Europe. As some of the boats carried out assignments in the Indian Ocean before going to Japan, they could not have carried a full load of cargo. Nor did any of the Japanese submarines used in blockade breaking succeed in making the return trip to Japan. The total number of boats being limited, their capacity small, and the imports desired by the Japanese difficult to crate and pack on a submarine, Japan must have derived little benefit from this phase of blockade breaking.

The maximum freight that reached Japan by sea during the period 1941-1944 was therefore in the neighborhood of 60,000 tons, roughly two-thirds of the amount that reached Germany on the more numerous voyages from the Far East. How much Germany had sent to Japan over the Siberian route prior to its closing is not known, but the amount probably did not match what the Germans received, since the Japanese government’s program was only presented in early 1941 and not acted upon for another fifteen months.

Because of the kind of commodities acquired by the Japanese, a description in terms of amounts would be less informative than similar information about the German imports. A full description by type, though it would mean more, cannot be given, since the German and Japanese data are incomplete. It is possible, however, to indicate the general areas in which Japanese purchases were strongest, to list some of the more important German products disclosed and sold to the Japanese, and to indicate in very general terms the value which these purchases seem to have had for the Japanese war economy.

The Germans shared with Japan a number of manufacturing techniques useful to the Japanese war economy—such as a special Krupp process for making cartridge steel and methods for the construction of barrel linings and for electric welding in the construction of naval vessels. Among finished war implements, the Japanese requested and obtained several pieces of artillery—the 10.5-centimeter and the 12.8-centimeter antiaircraft guns, Germany’s famous 8.8-centimeter antiaircraft and antitank guns, and a 7.5-centimeter antitank piece. Some lighter artillery, including two types of machine guns, was also acquired by the Japanese. In view of Japan’s general inferiority to Germany in artillery, all these acquisitions had great potential value to Japan. The value of the 10.5-centimeter antiaircraft gun was enhanced when Germany made available to her ally the combination radar-optical range finder and director which went with this caliber and which the Japanese could not match in quality.

Though it is not known what use Japan made of them, articles from the German optical industry must have been of great value to her. The German records disclose that numerous Leica cameras were given to the Japanese for reconnaissance, especially air reconnaissance, though manufacturing licenses and blueprints seem not to have been divulged, at least not by Leitz. The Japanese acquired a bombsight (specifications unknown), which was probably better than their own, though not as good as American models. A German stereoscopic range finder was also of great potential value.

Germany shared with Japan some of her developments in the radar field and in anti-enemy radar devices. Copies of the Würzburg and Rotterdam sets were turned over to the Japanese as was a homing device (unidentified).

In 1944, a Tiger tank was sold to Japan. The Allies commanded the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic, so underwater shipping was the only way to get the Tiger to Japan, but few vessels could carry a 30-ton hull. Submarine aircraft carriers that had corresponding characteristics were not complete, and the Tiger would have trouble reaching Japan. Most optimistic estimates put its arrival in December of 1944.

Despite these difficulties, the tank was sent to a Bordeaux port In February 1944, and the Japanese paid for the order: officially coming into possession of the Tiger, but not able to use or reverse engineer it. With no way to ship it, the tank remained in France until the summer of 1944, when the Allies landed in Normandy and put Germany on the spot.

On September 21 1944, on the authority of the Supreme High Command of the German Army, the Japanese Tiger was leased (or requisitioned, according to other sources) and passed to the field forces where it was lost somewhere on the Western Front. In view of Japan’s inferiority in armor, reproduction of the Tiger tank in Japan might have become significant in the event of an Allied landing and protracted fighting on the Japanese home islands.

Among items for the Japanese navy, the Germans turned over a gun stabilizer for surface ships. This should have been very beneficial to the Japanese, who, though generally competent in gun control, were outclassed in this respect by the Germans. For that reason, too, the Japanese may have benefited from a torpedo fire control unit for surface ships which should have enabled them to make better use of their already excellent torpedoes. Further, Germany made available a 750-ton submarine hull, which probably aided Japanese ship designers since the German model was more pressure-resistant than any Japanese design. Finally, the Japanese acquired the German navy’s automatic E-switch, a control device for computing and adjusting fire against enemy aircraft. Its use would have remedied a pronounced Japanese weakness.

Equipment for the Japanese air force would seem to have been of less value. Japan acquired specimens of the fighter planes Me-109 and FW 120, which probably were better than her own comparable types, although the United States had learned halfway through the war to cope with these planes on the European theater. A pursuit plane, the Me-163, and the jet Me-263 were also given to Japan. However, like Germany herself, Japan did not obtain and produce the jet early enough in the war to enable its superiority to offset the enemy’s greater numbers.

During the early war years, the Germans released to Japan only those items which had passed beyond the development stage. Japan was offered access to V-1 and V-2 data but refused the latter. Whether she acquired data on the submarine Schnorchel is not known.

It is difficult to measure the benefit which Japan derived from the German samples she acquired and the occasional manufacturing data she procured. Reproduction of the German-made items in Japan seems to have presented greater difficulties than either Germany or Japan at first expected. Possibly this was because Japanese engineers were not skillful enough and German technicians were sent to Japan only in rare cases. Shortages in labor and raw materials may also account for Japan’s failure to make better use of the German samples and data.

Two examples illustrate this point. In 1943 Germany had presented Japan with two submarines. These were to be examined and copied to enable Japan to wage a more effective warfare against enemy merchant shipping, presumably mainly in the Indian Ocean. Of the two boats one was lost en route to the Far East, the other one was gratefully received, and even acknowledged in a personal telegram from Hirohito. Production of the boat, however, was never begun in Japan.

Another notable example of the failure of technological assistance is the case of the German jet plane Me-263, then the only military jet in the world. A specimen of the Me-263 was acquired by the Japanese in 1944. When the plane and the accompanying Messerschmitt technicians were lost en route from Singapore to Japan, the Japanese tried to construct the plane from the blueprints, which had been flown ahead. Numerous delays occurred and instead of having the plane in production by March 1945, as they expected, the Japanese only flight-tested the first craft in July. It crashed. The story is told best in the words of the director of Mitsubishi’s aircraft production division:

Investigation disclosed that the engine failure was due to fuel feed stoppage. This was explained as follows: Because of the need for hurrying the test, Yokosuka airfield was used. This was known to be too small for safety so a minimum of fuel was loaded. So small an amount was loaded that, with high acceleration and steep angle-of-climb soon after take-off, the fuel surface dropped below the outlet level and the flow of fuel failed. As a result of this finding the whole fuel system had to be redesigned. The drain part was relocated and enlarged and a jet pump was installed. Before the next prototype engine could be built, however, the Japanese surrender occurred.

Perhaps the Japanese were more successful in copying German products of less revolutionary design. Their representatives in Berlin certainly continued right up to early 1945 to send samples and blueprints to Japan—either by submarine or eventually by military courier via Turkey and the Soviet Union. Since the Japanese did not have to pay for manufacturing licenses and data after March 1944, however, it may well be that their sustained interest in German manufacturing methods reflected what the Germans chose to call “industrial espionage” rather than the expectation of concrete military benefits.

If German technical aid was of limited value to the Japanese services and Japan’s wartime industry, one explanation can certainly be found in the lateness of the aid. The attempt to make up for lost time played a fatal role in the crash of the test jet. Loss of time and delay of negotiations in Berlin also meant that the German designs reached Japan when she was no longer able to take full advantage of them. By 1944, when many of the most important German designs reached Japan, her industry was already too badly disrupted by her disastrous supply situation and the massive American air raids to permit her to put German-made items into serial production.


How Germany’s Victories weakened the Japanese in World War 2


On the morning of August 1, 1943, Consolidated B-24 Liberators attached to the IX USAAF Bomber Command were winging their way over the Eastern Mediterranean Sea toward Romania. Their target was supremely important, so much so, its obliteration could drastically affect the entire course of the European War. Ploiesti was the enemy’s chief source of petroleum, averaging 450,000 tons per month. If production could be curtailed, the Wehrmacht on every front must grind to a halt.

The Romanian oilfields had been struck once before, almost a year to the day earlier, when a dozen Liberators flying from Fayid, Egypt, staged a dawn raid that caused negligible damage, but the Americans suffered no casualties. Ground fire had been weak, and no defending aircraft were encountered, leading Allied strategists to conclude that Axis personnel and equipment were almost entirely engaged in fighting on the Eastern Front. German forces at the time were embroiled in the gigantic and distant Battle of Kursk, so no serious opposition was anticipated. Sufficient numbers of heavy-bombers were not available for follow-up raids on Ploiesti until after the close of the North African Campaign in May 1943, when planning for Operation Tidal Wave could begin. It called for a sustained aerial offensive that must level the Romanian city before the Luftwaffe could recall enough of its fighters from Russia to put up an adequate defense. The Romanians themselves were dismissed as an insignificant, pre-industrial people incapable of offering real resistance.

Liberators of August 1943 approached the Romanian border with Bulgaria, drawing close to combine their firepower and dropped down into a low-level attack mode for maximum accuracy. Ploiesti had no sooner come into view, however, when the most ferocious ground fire they ever encountered erupted within their formation. Before they reached the target area, 15 bombers had been shot down in rapid succession, and many others were damaged, some too seriously to proceed.

As the remaining B-24s initiated their bomb run, they were beset by Messerschmitt-109G fighters of the I./JG 4 and twin-engine Bf 110s interceptors from a Romanian night-fighter squadron. Joining the fray was an aircraft new to the Americans, and some of them guessed it was a variant of the Luftwaffe’s Focke-Wulf-190. It was not a German fighter, however, but the Romanian-designed and manufactured Industria Aeronautica Romana 81, or IAR 81, the foremost bomber-killer of the Fortelor Regal ale Aeriene Romana (FRAR), the Romanian Air Force. Although not particularly fast at 317 mph, the IAR 81 could climb to 16,400 feet in just six minutes and was exceptionally maneuverable at low altitudes.

The IAR 81s and Messerschmitts tore into the B-24s, throwing off their attack, which missed the crude oil pumping plants. Some refineries were damaged, but all of them were back operating at their former out-put shortly thereafter. During the engagement, the Romanians lost 2 planes but claimed 25 enemy aircraft destroyed. Of the 178 U.S. bombers that set out for the raid,1 crashed on takeoff, 15 lost their bearings en route to the target, 22 went astray or AWOL to land at neutral and other Allied airfields, and 51 were lost in combat. Just 89 Liberators returned to their base; 110 USAAF personnel had been captured by the enemy.

The Romanians’ vigorous defense of the skies over their homeland was rooted in a love of aviation that went back to the first years of the 20th century. Various flying clubs that sprouted throughout the country were often founded and led by cavalry officers, who eventually pooled their experience and resources to form the Fortelor Regal ale Aeriene Romana in 1913. During the years thereafter, three companies-the Societates Pentru Exploatari Technice, the Industria Aeronautica Romana, and Interprenderes de Constructii Aeronautice Romanesti-produced original designs and built foreign aircraft under license, a remarkable achievement for a predominantly agrarian nation.

The Romanian Air Force suddenly swelled with the addition of more than 250 Polish aircraft escaping from the German Blitzkrieg of September 1939. While most would serve as much-needed trainers and transports behind the lines, among them were about 60 fighters. These were examples of the PZL P.11, the world’s best fighter at the time it entered service during 1934. In the six years since then, it had been outclassed by the Messerschmit-109, but could still hold its own against many contemporary aircraft, and was superior to more than a few, thanks chiefly to its excellent handling capabilities and pilot visibility.

Romania was now a real air power in the Balkans, her squadrons a mix of indigenous aircraft and imports mostly from France and Poland, with fewer examples from Britain and Italy, as support for a strong army. These armed forces were unable, however, to deter Soviets annexation of Bessarabia and northern Bukovina on June 28, 1940. More Romanian lands were lost to Hungary and Bulgaria, further compromising national self-esteem. The crisis sparked by these seizures and the Kremlin’s intimidating posture brought about a fundamental change in the Bucharest government.

The former Minister of Defense, Marshal Ion Antonescu, was appointed Prime Minister by King Carol II, who was promptly deposed and replaced by Crown Prince Mihail, a virtual figurehead for the new dictatorship. In what Atonescu regarded as an inevitable confrontation between the USSR and Europe, he believed that alliance with the Third Reich would not only help end the growing Communist menace, but result in the return of his country’s territories parceled out to other countries by the framers of the Versailles Treaty after World War I, the despised Bulgarians and Hungarians, and Stalin. Accordingly, Romania joined the Tripartite Pact on November 23 and began building up her military strength.

Benefitting the FRAR were new arrivals from Germany. Heinkel’s 112 had lost out in Luftwaffe competition to the Messerschmitt-109, because the latter was faster, more reliable, and easier to mass produce. But the HE-112 was its superior in structural strength, handled better, and 30 specimens received by the Fortelor Regal ale Aeriene Romana joined its mixed company of British Hawker Hurricanes, Polish PZL high-wing fighters, Italian Fiat CR-42 biplanes, French Potez-63B2 light-bombers, and indigenous Romanian designs.

In mid-May 1941, these and all FRAR aircraft were painted with a new national insignia-a yellow cross outlined in blue and white with a blue dot at the center encircled by a red ring. This Maltese design was formed by a connected quartet of the letter “M;’ after the vainglorious but neither especially intelligent nor resolute King Mihail. Antonescu nonetheless tolerated him as a transitional figure to the folkish totalitarian society he envisioned for Romania. That goal seemed virtually achieved on September 14, 1940, when the new Prime Minister shared power with the Iron Guard in the creation of a National Legionary State. Founded 13 years earlier, the fascist Garda de Fier had become a powerful political phenomenon before the close of the 1930s. It was, however, made up of too many uncompromising hot-heads, whose disciplinary problems fatally sabotaged not only their own movement and Antonescu’s plans, but contributed to Romania’s ultimate betrayal by King Mihail, whose conspiratorial monarchy they inadvertently strengthened through their unruly behavior.

By the time Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, began on June 22, 1941, the FRAR fielded 253 warplanes in 17 fighter squadrons and 16 reconnaissance squadrons. Fourteen bomber squadrons were a mixed bag of patently outdated hand-me-downs from a dozen foreign air forces, plus 40, aging Junkers Ju.87B-2 Stuka dive-bombers received from Germany the year before. All Romanian aircraft participating in the Eastern Campaign belonged to the Gruparea Aeriana de Lupta, but those directly involved in combat operations were combined in their own unit as the Corpul Aerian Roman, the “Romanian Air Corps:” However, several dozen machines were either undergoing conversion or being repaired, allowing only 205 warplanes available for actual combat.

Like all Axis aircraft participating in the opening phase of Barbarossa, their engine cowlings were painted bright yellow. An identically colored band encircled the rear fuselage and covered the underside wing-tips for recognition purposes. One of these newly adorned warplanes was flown the second day of the Campaign by Lieutenant Agarici Horia in company with seven other Hawker Mk.1 Hurricanes of the 53rd Fighter Squadron patrolling the Black Sea port-city of Constanta. Sometime into the flight, oil spewed over his windscreen, and he returned to the airfield.

While mechanics attended to a ruptured gasket, air raid sirens announced the approach of Soviet bombers. Horia jumped back into the cockpit and cranked up the Hurricane’s unrepaired 1,030-hp Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. At 6,000 feet, he closed on the lead intruder, an Ilyushin DB-3. Squinting through the oil rising again over his windscreen, he surprised the medium-bomber to squeeze off an accurate fusillade from his eight, 303-inch Browning machine-guns on one of his target’s twin 950-hp Nazarov M-87 radial engines. It was abruptly consumed in fire, sending the Ilyushin out of control and into the sea.

Defensive fire from another DB-3’s trio of 7.62-mm ShKAS machineguns and 20-mm cannon could not save the Romanian lieutenant’s second victim from crash landing outside Constanta, where its crew was taken prisoner. The third bomber turned away and fled, but Horia took up the pursuit and shot it down in flames. Unnerved by these swift kills, Ilyushin pilots of another in-coming formation aborted their attack and circled back into the East. After Horia was able to land his oil-coated Hurricane, he was awarded the Virtutea Aerinautica Order Gold Cross. Before the year was out, he rose to the status of “ace” by destroying two more Soviet aircraft. He was flying an IAR-80 with the 58th Fighter Squadron on April 4, 1944, when he claimed a B-24 Liberator of the 15th Air Force, and went on to survive the war with 10 confirmed, plus 2 probable “kills:”

As early in the Campaign as was Horia’s success, it had been preceded several hours by Sit av Teodor Moscu in the Escaclrila 51 vdnatoare’s attack on Bulgarica airfield, in southern Bessarabia. His gray Heinkel-112 was jumped by five Polikarpov Ratas, three of which he shot down in such quick succession; the remaining two bolted from the scene. Soviet ack-ack offered fierce resistance, destroying 11 Romanian warplanes, 4 of them irreplaceable Bristol Blenheims. But the FRAR pilots, known as vknatori, got in the first strike, strafing 40 aircraft parked in the open at Bulgarica, and claiming another 8 in combat.

On July 12, the Red Army mounted a powerful counteroffensive to cut off Romanian forces battling for Bessarabia. As an immediate response, FRAR commanders ordered into the air 59 bombers-mostly Italian and Polish hand-me-downs-covered by 54 IAR-80s, Heinkel112s, Hawker Hurricanes, Fiat Falcons, and PZL P.11s. This mixed assortment armada swept the Soviets from the skies, then decimated enemy artillery, troops, transports, and tanks gathering in large numbers east of the Falciu bridgehead.

The bombing and strafing were unrelenting, and the desperation of the fighting was exemplified by the vknatori themselves. After expending all ammunition for his IAR-80’s twin 7.92-mm machine-guns in destroying three of the six Ratas attacking him, Sit av Vasile Claru rammed an 1-16 flown by Lieutenant Ilya M. Shamanov, a Soviet deputy squadron commander. Neither man survived the collision. On the ground, the Red Army counter-offensive had been reduced to a smoldering salvage dump.

By July 26, the FRAR established air supremacy over Bessarabia and northern Bukovina, having flown 5,100 missions at the cost of 58 aircraft shot down and 18 pilots killed. Against these losses, the vdnatori destroyed 88 enemy warplanes in aerial combat, together with another 108 on the ground, plus 59 brought down by flak. Romanian anti-aircraft gunners were among the deadliest of World War II, a reputation they would re-enforce later in defending the Ploiesti oil fields against USAAF raiders. Elsewhere, however, the Romanians were badly outnumbered in the air, as they would be for the rest of the war.

During an early morning patrol east of the Dnestr River on August 21, Sit av Micrea Dumitrescu was beset by eight Polikarpov I-16s. During the ensuing melee, his ex-Polish PZL fighter outmaneuvered the Soviet monoplanes to escape, but not without incurring significant damage.

Fresh from their victories in Bessarabia and northern Bukovina, Corpul Aerian Roman crews supported the Romanian 4th Army’s struggle for Odessa, the Black Sea’s primary harbor and communications facility. Stalin insisted that this vitally important center must not fall under any circumstances, but Axis commanders were no less determined to take it, as affirmed by the massive artillery barrage they hurled at the fortified city on August 8. The defenders continued to hold out for more than a month, waiting for a promised Soviet counter-offensive that would break the siege. It came during the night of September 21, when Red Army troops established a bridgehead at Chebanka-Grigorievka, from which they were about to attack the Romanian 4th Army’s weaker right flank.

Before they could move, 32 FRAR bombers escorted by 62 fighters, supplemented by another 23 Italian warplanes of the Regia Aeronautica, dove on the Soviet serpent as it was about to strike. A few Italian fighter pilots actually served with Romanian squadrons, such as Capitano Carlo Maurizio Ruspoli, Prince of Poggio Suasa, flying a Macchi C.200 Saetta “Thunderbolt” After 10 hours of nonstop bombing and strafing, the Red Army bridgehead was pulverized, and Stalin’s counteroffensive turned into a demoralized withdrawal. More than 20 Russian aircraft had been destroyed for the loss of a single FRAR fighter in aerial combat, plus four more to ground fire, which additionally claimed an Italian Savoia-Marchetti bomber. Odessa managed to hang on for another three weeks, but its capture on October 16 represented Romania’s greatest conquest of the war.

During these first few months of Operation Barbarossa, the FRAR’s most successful fighter squadron had been Escadrila 53 vdnatoare. Its pilots flew only Hawker Hurricanes, with which they accounted for nearly 100 enemy warplanes for the loss of just one comrade, five-kill ace, Cpt av loan Rosescu, before Odessa fell. Their prominence was something of an embarrassment to Hermann Goering, who learned that a British-built fighter had out-performed Germany’s own Heinkel112 in the hands of the Reich’s allies. Accordingly, he immediately donated specimens of the more up-to-date Messerschmitt-109E to FRAR squadrons, whose pilots were to prove that his Emil could indeed surpass the Hawker Hurricane in combat.

With the fall of Odessa, the vdnatori flew cover for the 3rd Army in its advance through Ukraine and then into the Crimea. They also operated the 101st and 102nd Seaplane Squadrons equipped, respectively, with 24 German Heinkel-114C1s and a dozen Italian CANT Seagulls for reconnaissance and anti-shipping duties over the Black Sea, with their main base at Mamaia. The Heinkel had been originally manufactured just prior to the outbreak of war specifically for the Kriegsmarine, performing spotter-plane duties aboard German warships. Armament consisted of a single, 7.92 mm MG 15 machine-gun on a flexible mount for the rearward observer, plus two, 110-pound bombs.

More important was the seaplane’s BMW 132K nine-cylinder radial engine, which delivered 960 hp for an operational range of 571 miles. The antiquated but sturdy aircraft carried out numerous reconnaissance flights, even attacks on Soviet shipping. Twenty one years after the type’s maiden flight in 1939, the last Heinkel-114 was retired from active duty with the Romanian Air Force, during May 1960. By early 1943, the doughty biplanes were being joined by another German contribution to FRAR operations over the Black Sea. With an effective range nearly 100 miles greater than the He-114, the better known and far superior Arado Ar. 196 began equipping the Romanian Escadrila 102 operating out of conquered Odessa.

Larger than the twin-float twin-place Arado was Italy’s CANT Z.501 flying boat. The aircraft’s prodigious range, together with its payload of 1,411 pounds of bombs, served Black Sea operations well. A turret mounted midway atop the 73-foot, 10-inch wing, while extremely unorthodox, afforded an almost unprecedented 365-degree field of fire for its 7.7-mm machine-gun. Outstanding was the sinking of two Soviet submarines by a single Gabbiano in August 1941, the surrender of an armed merchantman to a flight of Heinkels the following October, and effective cover provided to retreating Romanian forces during early summer 1944 by low-flying Arados. Other operations were less spectacular but quite useful. More often, the Romanian-crewed seaplanes were busy monitoring the whereabouts and movements of the Red Navy for Luftwaffe dive-bombers, which, with participation from Escadrila 102, extirpated Soviet submarines from the Black Sea by late fall 1941.

Throughout 1942, the Corpul Aerian Roman was part of the Axis advance that swept irrepressibly across Russia toward the Don River Basin. Although its pilots continued to score heavily against the Red Air Force, they faced a growing crisis in the shortage of parts and aircraft. Before year’s end, most of their mounts were worn out beyond operational use, and the homeland’s industrial production of IAR 80s could not keep pace with the rate of attrition. Polish PZL fighters, now totally obsolete, were retired from frontline positions and relegated to training duties. Once lost or badly damaged, British warplanes in service with the Romanians could not be replaced after they opened hostilities against the Western Allies. The Wehrmacht, in its conquest of Greece, captured some Hawker Hurricanes, Bristol Blenheims, and Supermaine Spitfires, and these were duly dispatched to Grupl Aerien de Lupa squadrons on the Eastern Front.

The Germans also contributed all the Potez and Bloch bombers that survived 1940’s French Campaign in reasonably good condition, but these measures could not entirely meet replacement needs. Repeated requests for Luftwaffe aircraft were turned down on the grounds that the Geschwaeder were themselves inadequately equipped. In truth, Hitler did not share his best weapons with the Romanians, because he knew that their inveterate hatred for fellow Axis ally, Hungary, could flare into armed conflict at any moment, thereby jeopardizing the entire Campaign. His mistrust of them softened only because of their energetic participation in the debacle at Stalingrad, when he allowed Reichsmarschal Goering to send the first of 115 D-series Stukas to the FRAR.

Both on the ground and in the air, the Romanians accompanied German and Italian forces toward the infamous city. Based at Karpovka from early September to mid-November 1942, Corpul Aerian Roman fighter pilots escorted Axis bombers. Four or five missions were flown daily, although enemy opposition was rarely encountered, because Red Air Force losses over the previous 15 months had drastically reduced its effectiveness, and Stalin was hording surviving warplanes for a decisive offensive he planned to spring on the invaders. Their intensive bombing of his namesake city made him lose his temper, and he prematurely threw a powerful wave of interceptors at the relentless enemy overhead.

These consisted mostly of Russia’s best fighter, the Yak-lb, a step up over earlier variants with heavier armor, a control column copy of the Messerschmitt-109’s stick, and retractable tail-wheel that allowed for slightly increased speed. Its Klimov M-105PF liquid-cooled, V-12 engine generated 1,880 hp for a maximum speed of 368 mph but stalled when negative-G forces pinched off the flow of fuel-unfortunately for Soviet pilots, because negative-G forces were by then part of aerial confrontations.

The plywood warplane built on a steel frame, not surprisingly, suffered structural problems, which could lead to its mid-air disintegration under stressful maneuvers. Vibration additionally caused the spot-welded fuel tanks to leak, leading to on-board fires (not a good thing in a wood airplane), and pilots were unable to open the canopy at high speeds, preventing them from bailing out once the aircraft went into a dive. Their short-range radio was so unreliable they often ditched it to save weight, contributing to the Russians’ already chaotic field communications dilemma. Despite these considerable drawbacks, the Yak was better at the time than any other fighter in the Red Air Force-faster and quicker, delivering a powerful punch with its 20-mm ShVAK cannon and single 12.7-mm Berezin UBS machine-gun.

In five days-from September 12-17, 1942-the Romanians shot down 38 Soviet interceptors, mostly Yak lbs, for the loss of just one IAR-81, the victim of a desperate ramming attack. Thereafter, Axis bombers resumed their devastation of Stalingrad unmolested.

The situation changed radically on November 19, when Stalin’s winter offensive fell with all its overwhelming fury on the Romanian 3rd and 4th Armies, which were quickly surrounded. While repeated bombing and strafing runs were conducted to save their fellow countrymen on the ground, the airmen were in danger of having their own base overrun by the enemy. After sunset on November 22, a Russian reconnaissance vehicle was destroyed by Romanian flak guns as it approached the airfield, alerting its defenders to impending attack. In the predawn hours of the next day, as a veritable horde of tanks rumbled toward Karpovka, radios and as much armor as possible were stripped from each of the 16 Messerschmitt-109Es to make room for another pilot or mechanic in the cockpit.

The airmen had not been trained in night-flying techniques, but the approaching T-34s left them no alternative. The tanks fired on and hit the first Emil endeavoring to take off, and two other aircraft collided in the darkness. Abundant flames rising from these calamities sufficiently illuminated the airstrip for the other 13 fighters to take off. Their escape was covered by the suppressive fire of the flak gunners left behind, who fought to the death at Karpovka.

Throughout December 1942, Romanian transports undertook as many as 50 flights per day to relieve their fellow countrymen and Germany’s 6th Army trapped by the Russians. Braving appalling weather conditions and interdiction by Red Air Force fighters, civilian pilots and planes from LARES, Romania’s national airline, continued relief efforts after too many military transports were lost. Every IAR 81, an improved variant of the “80” additionally armed with a pair of Mauser MG 151/20 20-mm cannons, of Grupl 6 threw themselves on enemy ground forces in repeated low-level attacks from December 12-13, as Panzergruppe Hoth attempted a breakthrough to the encircled 6th Army.

The Soviets responded with a new offensive against the understrength Italian 8th Army, and the entire front burst like a lanced boil. On Christmas Eve, the Red juggernaut over-ran the Grupi Aerien de Lupa’s main airfield at Tazinskaya, effectively crippling Romanian air operations on the Eastern Front. Surviving aircraft operated over Stalingrad to the last day and virtually the last pilot. On February 20, 1943, just three fighters remained for evacuation from Grupi 7 behind the lines to Stalino. It was a tragic end to the vdnatori on the Eastern Front. Although the Gruparea Aeriana de Lupta was to soldier on in Russia, undertaking a variety of missions from liaison and transport to bombing and reconnaissance duties, the fighters were recalled home to protect their Motherland from anticipated Anglo-American raids.

Hitler wholeheartedly endorsed the Romanians’ departure, because they were necessary to protect the Ploie~ti oil fields, upon which his entire war machine depended. Impressed by the Romanians’ contribution to the battle, he allowed them to operate modern Luftwaffe aircraft for the first time. By early spring, the backbone of the German bomber force, the Heinkel He. 111 H-3, began appearing in growing numbers with Grupul 6 of Romania’s Corpul1 Aerien then operating throughout the Ukrainian Zaporozh’ye area.

The Fuehrer encouraged Mussolini to join him in assisting the Romanians, whose 3rd Air Corps received the first 24 of 48 SavoiaMarchetti SM.79-JRs from Italy. This was a twin-engine version of the trimotor Sparviero. Versatile beyond its original role, the JR version was powered by a French pair of 1,000-hp W Gnome-Rhone Mistral Major 14 K engines for mostly transport duties. Its long range (2,110 miles) and rugged construction were so favored by the Romanians, they built another 16 Sparrowhawks themselves under license.

In June, Grupl 3 was outfitted for the first time with Junkers Ju-87D Stuka dive-bombers on behalf of operations over the Straits of Kerch, on the eastern tip of the Crimea, where German and Romanian troops were endeavoring to hold the Kuban bridgehead. The same Grupl also received the latest version of Henschel’s Hs 129, the B-2/R2, purpose-built for the tank-busting role. Armed with two MC 151/20 20-mm cannons, a pair of MG 17 7.92-mm machine-guns and a single MK 101 30-mm cannon slung under the fuselage, the twin-engine aircraft featured a windscreen made of 75-mm armored glass and an armor-plated nose section. In the hands of Grupl3 pilots, the Hs.129 became the scourge of Russian ground forces. An aviation writer, Werner Neulen, observed, “its operations were to bring Soviet tank and infantry attacks to a halt time and again.

In late October 1943, Grupl 8 flew to the rescue of the Romanian 24th Infantry Division, which had been cut off on the isthmus between Perekop and Genitsesk. IAR 81 pilots softened up the Soviet encirclement sufficiently to allow for the breakout of 10,000 of their comrades on the ground. A far greater challenge of a similar kind came just a few days later, on November 1, when seven Romanian divisions and the entire German 17th Army were cut off from the Crimea by a Red Army offensive against the Dniepr. A Luftwaffe-FRAR air bridge of mostly Junkers-52 trimotors evacuated 21,937 troops, until the Crimea fell six months later, in early May 1944.

By then, German assistance had grown generous, allowing the Grupl Aerien de Lupa to receive enough of the latest Messerschmitt Bf 109Gs to completely make up for all fighters lost in action. But these additions, however welcome, could not stem the Red tide flowing westward. As some measure of the desperation that characterized the Axis at this time, Executive Officer Ian Milu’s Messerschmitt Gustav destroyed three LaGG-3s in two different engagements involving 10 Soviet interceptors on May 6 after he completed a successful bombing run. Milu would go on to down 52 enemy aircraft, becoming his country’s third, top-scoring ace and achieving a record number of “kills”-five Soviet warplanes-in one day.

On May 14, Grupl 3 Stukas destroyed a bridge about to be crossed by Soviet troops over the Prut River, Romania’s pre-war boundary with the USSR. On the 30th, Grupl 6 transferred from Krosno, in Poland, to participate in joint sorties against enemy armor and artillery, flying 93 missions in 24 hours. June 1 saw 69 Romanian Stukas blast the serried ranks of T-34 tanks to begin a week of non-stop attacks. The lull in action that followed was just the quiet before the storm, however, as the battered but immense Soviet Army Group South Ukraine prepared its offensive for subjugating the Balkans. Meanwhile, opposition elements-including a Moscow-directed underground-in the monarchy at Bucharest plotted to extricate their country from impending invasion.

Romanian Armed Forces in the Second World War     



A far more apparent, if distant, threat had suggested itself on May 8, 1943, when the Anglo-Americans conquered North Africa, thereby putting the Balkans within striking range of enemy bombers. Less than a month later, the Corpul1 Aerian Roman was officially activated during an impressive and popularly acclaimed parade of its crews through Kirovograd before Marshal Antonescu. The first day of August was their baptism of fire, when a flight of in-coming American heavy-bombers was detected by German Freya radar. Luftwaffe and FRAR pilots were waiting for them at altitude, but were surprised to observe not only the lumbering enemies’ low pass at just 500 feet, but their singular color scheme: all 133 Liberators had been painted entirely pink-to what end, the Axis airmen could not imagine.

Recovering from their astonishment, they promptly dispatched nearly 40 B-24s, severely damaging another 12, for the loss of a single IAR-81 and one Romanian-flown Messerschmitt-110. The Germans lost another twin-engine “destroyer,” plus a Gustav. The object of the raid-the Ploiesti oil fields-escaped serious damage. Far from having been “knocked out;’ as the Americans claimed, production was uninterrupted, and returned to pre-attack levels before the end of the month.

By spring 1944, the Allied advance through Italy made possible the construction of forward bases, bringing Romanian territory itself within easier striking distance. On April 4, Bucharest was raided for the first time by a flight of Consolidated Liberators from the 14th Air Force to bomb a civilian housing district. The capital’s medical personnel and morticians were overwhelmed with 2,673 non-combatants killed and almost as many wounded.

“The Americans appeared so quickly, most of us were caught out in the streets, and didn’t have time to seek shelter;” Maria Kleinover tells how her grandmother, Ana, remembered that day: “We heard and saw them coming over very low, and could plainly see the white stars on their wings. They made directly for the city hospital which had been draped in a huge, Red Cross banner, and we thought, `They’re just using it to get their bearings: But then, bombs fell on the hospital building. We couldn’t believe it, because an entire ward had been set aside for Jewish patients, like my son. Some people ran into the burning building and carried out as many of the living as possible. I climbed the stairs and found my boy had not been directly hurt, although he suffered smoke inhalation. Most other patients, doctors and nurses seemed dead or wounded. There were dismembered bodies and screaming people everywhere”

The 15th Air Force’s alleged targets-Gara de Nord, Bucharest’s main railway station, and its adjacent marshalling yard-were unscathed, while the 57 vknatori and Luftwaffe pilots that had been scrambled destroyed 11 B-24s for the loss of three Axis airmen.

The next day, 334 Liberators and B-17 Flying Fortresses from the 449th Bomber Group escorted by 119 twin-engine fighters, P-38 Lightnings, took off from Foggia, in Allied-occupied Italy. But most of the pilots got lost in deteriorating weather conditions, and just 32 bombers found their way to Romania. Many fell between ground fire and Luftwaffe and FRAR defenders. Ploiesti escaped unscathed.

The American flyers’ reputation as “sky terrorists” was not helped when they machine-gunned four-victory Lieutenant Flaviu Zanfirescu while he was hanging helplessly in his parachute harness. His death was by no means an exception, as U.S. fighters routinely shot Romanian pilots bailing out of their stricken aircraft. The best-known victim was the wing commander of Grupl1 vdnatoare, Captain laon V. Sandu, the highest ranking FRAR officer to die in aerial combat, when he was killed suspended beneath his parachute by a U.S. fighter pilot. Such atrocities required none of the usual propaganda embellishments to engender a profound loathing and contempt for Roosevelt’s “Liberators;’ while stiffening resistance at all levels of Romanian society.

By this time, the Romanians were supplementing their meager resources with a growing number of captured American and Soviet aircraft. These at first included a Lockheed P-38 Lightning, Consolidated B-24D heavy-bomber, several Polikarpov Po-2 general purpose “Mules;’ and many more 1-16 “Rats:” Other downed Allied warplanes would help replenish FRAR stocks.

In the face of their Balkan disappointment, the Americans marshaled another raid on April 14, when more than 150 fighters escorted 448 heavy-bombers to strike at railroad yards, factories, communication centers, and troop concentrations across Yugoslavia and Romania. They were joined by RAF units, which engaged in nighttime raids against the same targets. These operations were eventually suspended after the loss of too many twin-engine Wellingtons. German and Romanian night-interceptors were by then equipped with Al radar sets, which allowed them to infiltrate the British formations unnoticed, then shoot down the venerable medium-bombers at will.

April 21 was a black day for the vdnatori, when they met long-range USAAF P-51B/C Mustangs for the first time. Although the Romanians were out-classed and out-numbered, losing a dozen aircraft, they clawed their way against overwhelming odds to destroy six Liberators.

Over the next two months, the Americans amassed more than 600 bombers protected by hundreds more P-51s and P-38s in six additional raids against Romanian targets. These overwhelming numbers prevented the relatively meager forces of the Luftwaffe and FRAR from achieving much in the way of defense. Attrition and continual repairs had reduced their interceptors to no more than 120 machines, all that remained with which to defend the entire country.

As a consequence, the Anglo-Americans’ stepped-up, intensive bombing campaign went on to take the lives of 7,693 civilians, although few war plants were destroyed. Indeed, Allied photo reconnaissance revealed that Ploiesti was still functioning at near normal capacity: most of the bombs meant for the refineries and crude oil pumping plants had gone wide of the mark. Since Flying Fortresses and Liberators did not have the pin-point accuracy necessary to strike these specific targets, it was reasoned that P-38s, each carrying a single 500-pound bomb, would be better suited for scoring direct hits on such detailed objectives.

Accordingly, on the morning of June 10, 46 Lightnings of the 82nd Fighter Group out-fitted as dive-bombers were escorted by an additional 39 twin-engine fighters to the great oil depot. They were detected by Romania’s Freya and Wuetzburg radar network in time for home defense interceptors to achieve altitude, falling on the low-flying Americans approaching Grupl 6 vknatoare’s base at Popest-Leordeni. The Lightnings’ own attack was their undoing, however, because the IAR 81 could outperform them at low altitude.

The Romanians flew rings around the P-38s, additionally encumbered as they were by 500-pound payloads, shooting down 24 Lightnings in 12 minutes. Some tried to escape at tree-top level and crashed into the ground, while others collided with each other. Luftwaffe pilots downed five more, and flak claimed three. None of the enemy’s 500-pound high-explosives found their way to Ploiesti, and the “Forked-Tail Devils” never returned as would-be bombers. One quarter of their formation had been destroyed, “the highest loss ratio for any mission flown by a significant number of P-38s in World War Two;’ according to aviation historian, Denes Bernad. Three Axis fighters were lost in the engagement, though none to the enemy: two suffered accidents, and one was mistakenly brought down by friendly ground fire.

On July 22, the vdnatori bounced an enemy formation approaching Bucharest, shooting down seven Lightnings at no loss to the defenders. They were themselves surprised, however, and traded seven of their own fighters lost, when the Americans, returning from a shuttle raid, attacked unexpectedly from the east with more than 100 P-51s and P-38s to the Romanians’ 17 interceptors. The American air offensive was relentless and gradually eroded all FRAR stocks of fighters. By August 18, attrition had whittled their numbers down to just 46 Messerschmitt Gustavs. These were nonetheless scrambled to oppose at least twice as many P-51s above the Carpathian Mountains, when Luftwaffe Major Juergen Harder shot down a Mustang, the day’s only Axis kill.

The FRAR had been decimated. Ploiesti’s defense now lay primarily in the hands of its anti-aircraft gunners, who continued to knock down enemy aircraft, but never enough to deter the many hundreds of Liberators and Flying Fortresses that dominated the skies over Romania. For all their sustained operations, however, the Americans never succeeded in demolishing the great refineries, which continued to supply Axis forces, although at a diminished productivity, until Ploiesti was overrun by the Russians late in the war.

On August 19, after elements of the 15th Air Force blasted the refineries for the fourth consecutive day, the USAAF headquarters in Italy received a request from the Soviet high command to cease all further attacks on Ploiesti. The Red Army was about to launch its major offensive against Romania, and Stalin wanted to capture as much of the enemy’s oil capital intact as possible. The Americans obliged him, thereby ending their prolonged, ultimately unsuccessful attempt to obliterate Ploesti or, at least, prevent its petroleum from reaching Hitler’s Panzers.

In defending this essential resource, the Romanian Air Force played a major role in the Axis war effort. From 1943’s Operation Tidal Wave to the last raid against Ploiesti in August 1944, the FRAR lost 80 interceptors, but shot down, with the help of Romania’s renowned flak gunners, 223 Anglo-American bombers and 36 fighters. Luftwaffe pilots scored an additional 66 aerial victories. Allied casualties amounted to 1,706 killed, with another 1,123 taken prisoner.

While a handful of Luftwaffe fighters remained in charge of protecting the skies over their country, remnants of the FRAR were hurriedly transferred to the Jassy-Kishinev sector of the Eastern Front, where massive Soviet forces were storming the Romanian border. The Reds were covered by 1,952 warplanes pitted against a combined FRAR-Luftwaffe resistance of 250 serviceable machines. As testimony to their skill and determination during this extremely uneven confrontation, the vdnitori destroyed one Lavochkin-5FN, almost an equal to Germany’s Messerschmitt ME.109G and Focke-Wulf-190; two Lavochkin7s-by then, Russia’s best fighter, the only one to have shot down a German jet; one P-39; plus 10 more Soviet aircraft of various types in 48 hours.

The loss of just five IAR 81s was greater than these low numbers suggested, however, because Alexandru Serbanescu was among the fallen. Although Romania’s second-highest-scoring ace, he achieved the extraordinary feat of shooting down one Soviet bomber and five Aircobras, two of them in 24 hours, during the last 10 days of May 1943. Serbanescu was an expert hunter of Shturmoviks, the Russian nemesis of Axis ground forces, accounting for 14 of these “cement bombers;’ plus 41 other Allied warplanes, before he was killed by an American P-51 on August 18, 1944.

Four days later, King Mihail informed Antonescu that he believed immediate, unconditional surrender was their only alternative to annihilation. The Marshal emphatically objected, telling him that “the land battle for our country has only just begun. What will the world and history – future generations-think of us, if we give up now without a fight? Signing unconditional surrender with the Reds is like jumping out of a plane without a parachute! No matter how desperate our situation, so long as we resist, there is always hope. Throwing ourselves on the tender mercies of the Bolsheviks must condemn our people to mass-murder and slavery. Given his reputation, how long do you imagine Stalin will allow you and your royal family to live, once we’ve turned ourselves over to him?”‘

But the lecture went unheeded. At a given signal from the King, soldiers arrested Antonescu and his cabinet members, all of them taken in charge by Communist partisans with whom the monarchists were cooperating. That same evening, Mihail broadcast a cease-fire, but it did not prevent the Soviet offensive from crashing into Romania. He pleaded with his people to offer no resistance, urging them instead to appease the invader by taking up arms against their German ally, who had not been informed of his decision. The King’s announcement threw his country’s armed forces into utter chaos. While some were paralyzed with inaction, others continued to fight the on-going Russian offensive beside their German comrades of the previous three years. In the skies overhead, FRAR pilots were no less confused.

While Captain Lucian-Eduard Toma was the first Romanian to shoot down a Luftwaffe aircraft-an unarmed Junkers-52 transport, its crew oblivious to King Mihail’s pronouncement-Lieutenant Stefan Florescu destroyed a Soviet Pe-2, the last kill ever made by a Messerschmitt-109 Emil. Red Air Force crews referred to Petlyakov’s dive-bomber sardonically as the Peshka, or “Pawn:”

With the collapse of any organized resistance, Soviet forces swept into Bucharest on August 31. Part of the deal Mihail cut with them was to turn over all German officers and men, including wounded, none of whom were seen again. With a stroke of his pen, the Fortelor Regal ale Aeriene Romana was abolished, absorbed by the 5th Soviet Air Army, and former FRAR flight crews were obliged to continue the war against Germany, as were all armed forces personnel.

On September 22, they were part of a Red Army offensive aimed at smashing an already attenuated Panzer corps defending the Turda region. Most Romanian soldiers followed orders under duress, but their heart was not in the fighting. They felt shamed by their weak King’s opportunistic betrayal to the despised Communists. The formerly vigorous conquerors of Bessarabia and Odessa had been reduced to reluctant cannon fodder, some 30,000 of them falling over the next nine months at the behest of their Soviet taskmasters.

Desertions to the German side were common on both the ground and in the air. First of the vdnatori to defect was Adj av loan Vanca on September 9, followed by a steady stream of his comrades until war’s end. On March 26,1945, after Corporal Virgil Angelescu and Subaltern Aurelian Barbici landed their fighters behind the lines at Trentschin, they “expressed their willingness to fight against the Bolsheviks on the German side, in their view the only force capable of stopping the spread of Communism over their homeland;’ according to interrogators.’

Defections grew to such proportions that desperate measures were employed to curtail them. When the Romanian pilot of a Henschel-129 broke formation to head for German-occupied Hungary on February 9, 1945, a fellow Romanian, Corporal Gheorghe Crecu, shot him down. Crecu was awarded the “Order of the Red Banner” by his Soviet superiors. There were other vdnatori who had no compunctions about turning on their former allies. Virtually all of them were ideologically indifferent, acting under orders supposedly of their King, who continued to play the role he knew best: as a compliant figurehead for whoever controlled his country at the time. Others regarded aerial combat as nothing more than a sport, in which an opponent’s insignia was irrelevant.

The FRAR’s top-scoring ace, Prince Constantin Cantacuzino, with 56 “kills;’ was such a huntsman, although even this wealthy playboy came to regret his participation with the Voenno-Vozdushnye Sily, the USSR’s “Military Air Forces;’ by defecting less than three years later to Franco’s Spain. Already low vdnatori morale was further depressed by the Soviets’ own behavior. Incalcitrant demands that Romanian fighter pilots use impossibly muddied airstrips resulted in them losing a third of their available numbers in take-off and taxiing mishaps. Other losses were not so obviously “accidental:”

On September 8, the first day of supposedly joint operations between the newly reformed Corpul 1 Aerian Roman and the V.V.S. got off to an ominous start when Adjutant Gheroghe Buholtzer was shot down and killed “by an over-zealous female Soviet flak gunner,” according to Bernad. “This was only the first of a series of fatal incidents in which Soviet flak crews erroneously (or deliberately) shot down German-built aircraft flown by Romanian pilots:”‘ Tension between vdnatori and Russian airmen was so high by war’s end, they came to blows on May 4, 1945, when Lieutenant Dumitru Baciu and Executive Officer loan Milu were attacked by a pair of Soviet fighters flying over northern Hungary. Trying to evade confrontation, Milu crashed in Austria, but Baciu turned to destroy one of the Yak-3s, then landed near the town of Kremsler. Baciu was murdered shortly after the war.

Romanian fighter pilots who had flown so effectively against Russian and Anglo-American opponents from 1941 to 1944 performed far less admirably when faced by German opponents during the war’s last eight months. In less than two weeks, Unteroffizer Heinrich Tammer alone shot down 10 Romanian aircraft flying for the Soviets, thereby exceeding the combined score of the vdnatori in operations against their former comrades-in-arms. Another Luftwaffe ace, Leutnant Peter Duettmann, destroyed three IAR 80s in just 12 minutes. During 25 aerial battles together, the Romanians could claim just 3 kills for the loss of 17 of their own. Even these meager successes were mostly achieved over aircraft less able to defend themselves, such as Lieutenant Ion Dobran’s destruction of a Junkers-188 in September 1944. Return fire from the medium-bomber also brought down its attacker.

The FRAR’s last mission was no less dismal. Although the Germans had already surrendered on May 9, 1945, their anti-Communist allies in the Russkaya Osvoboclitel’naya Armiya still offered stiff resistance to the Soviet occupation of Czech territory. Attrition of V.V.S. aircraft had by then left their commanders with so few warplanes, they drafted what was left of the Romanian pilots to wipe out the Russian Liberation Army. In 1,160 sorties flown against ROA troops lacking air cover, the vdnatori achieved little for the loss of 10 fighters to ground fire.

In the days that followed, King Mihail predictably fled into exile when Ana Pauker (born Hannah Rabinsohn), the postwar Stalinist premier, abolished his monarchy and brought Romania solidly into the Soviet Bloc. There it would remain as an impoverished tyranny until the regime of Nicolae Ceaucescu was overthrown by popular revolt in 1989.

During the 44 years of that unrelieved nightmare, even aircrews that flew for the Reds after August 1944 were regarded with suspicion by the Moscow-dominated authorities. All of them, save those few pilots who ostensibly embraced Communism, were expelled from the service without pension and forbidden to fly. Many found themselves jailed for “conspiracy against the social order;” a retroactive charge aimed at criminalizing their wartime experiences prior to the Soviet occupation. Among these hounded veterans was Dan Valentin Vizanty. Released from prison, Romania’s fourth-ranking ace and leading destroyer of Anglo-American bombers was prevented from earning anything more than a subsistence living as late as 1977, when he finally escaped to France.

In the course of their World War II flight operations, Vizanty and his fellow fighter pilots destroyed more than 1,200 enemy aircraft in the air and on the ground, for the loss of slightly more than 100 of their own killed in action.

Although the vdnatori are largely unknown to the outside world, every year since the day Alexandru Serbanescu died in 1944, his comrades hold commemorative ceremonies at the Ghencea Military Cemetery grave site of Romania’s extraordinary airman. Elsewhere in Bucharest, traffic today moves along Alexandru Serbanescu Boulevard.

Dutch SS

The Germans invaded Holland on 10 May 1940, which surrendered after only four days, giving rise to widespread panic and confusion among the population. The Dutch, who are related both linguistically and racially to the Germans, were taken aback by the confrontation. Prior to World War II, Holland had some 52,000 German residents who lived and worked in the Netherlands. It is not surprising, therefore, that a number of imitation Nazi movements emerged during the 1930s. The largest was founded on 14 December 1931 by Anton Adriaan Mussert. It was called the Nationaal Socialistische Beweging (NSB – National Socialist Movement). It was a strictly nationalistic Dutch fascist movement, and proved ultimately to be the most successful.

On 18 May 1940, Arthur Seyss-Inquart became Reich Commissioner of the Netherlands, which was declared to be a Reich Commissariat. With complete control of the country’s entire resources, which he exclusively directed towards the demands of the German war machine, Seyss-Inquart ruled authoritatively, answering only to Hitler. He generally followed the “carrot and stick” method of rule, though his rule was more stick than carrot. In March 1941, he had bestowed upon himself the power to administer summary justice, at least pertaining to dissension or suspected resistance. He levied swingeing fines, confiscating the property of all enemies of the Reich, including Jews, and instigated severe reprisals for acts of subversion and sabotage. He forced five million Dutch civilians to work for the Germans, and deported a total of 117,000 Jews to concentration camps.

Under these conditions, the main exponent of collaboration was the NSB, a party that was extremely well organized. The NSB was now to come to the fore, and on the tenth anniversary of its foundation was granted an exclusive political monopoly in the Netherlands by the Germans. All other parties were faced either with merger or disbandment. The NSB had its own stormtroopers, the Weer Afdeelingen (WA – Defence Section), but on 11 September 1940 it took a bold step by establishing its own SS within the party framework. J. Hendrik Feldmeyer, the former leader of the Mussert Garde, was the initiator of the plan; he had visions of it becoming the equivalent of the German Allgemeine-SS. It was at first simply known as the Nederlandsche SS, which was replaced by the more general term Germaansche SS en Nederland (or the Germanic SS in the Netherlands) on 1 November 1942. Until then it had been one of the paramilitary sub-formations of the NSB. Himmler gave orders that it was now to become part of a greater Germanic SS. Mussert’s control was now marginalized, with an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler being taken by the Dutch SS men. Its membership, which stood nominally at 3727 (five regiments plus an SS police regiment), was constantly depleted by voluntary enlistment into the Waffen-SS. There were possibly up to a further 7000 Dutch volunteers in the Germanische Sturmbann, an SS formation raised from the large pool of Dutch and other Nordic workers in Germany. Seven battalions were recruited from the industrial cities of Berlin, Brunswick, Dresden, Düsseldorf, Hamburg, Nuremberg and Stuttgart. In effect, the Germanische Sturmbann was never anything other than a recruiting agency for the Waffen-SS.

Never before seen interesting picture showing a Dutch NSKK volunteer wearing the rare NSKK Honor Badge from the collection of Dian Notebaert.

The Dutch NSKK
It would be wrong to state that all foreign volunteers were recruited into the more “glamourous” organizations within the SS. There were others formations that absorbed volunteers for the German war machine. These included the Nationalsozialisches Kraftfahrkorps (NSKK – National Socialist Motor Corps), Reichsarbeitsdienst (RAD – National Labour Service) and the Kriegsmarine. The NSKK, for example, was almost as voracious in the recruitment of Dutchmen as the SS. The invasion of Russia in 1941 led to additional loads being placed on the already overstretched German military transport system – and so the occupation authorities were always searching for foreign drivers. The WA, the Dutch equivalent of the German SA, had its own transport arm – the Motor WA – which provided the usual source of drivers for service on the Eastern Front. The Dutch drivers were passed through a unit called the Alarmdienst, which was created to provide the German forces in Holland with auxiliary transport. Its members were kitted out with Motor WA or other NSB uniforms. The service was rechristened the Transportactie on 12 January 1943, and thereafter its members sported German field-grey uniforms.

The German Army also raised a small unit of Dutch civilian drivers, which was known initially as the Kraftfahrt Transport Dienst. This was mainly to help with work on military construction projects, and after April 1942 it was renamed the Kraftfahrzeugüberführungs Kommando (KUK). When the need arose, some KUK drivers had to be coerced to serve in the Soviet Union in German rear areas. Due to the partisan threat they were permitted to carry arms for their defence, being kitted out in ex-French Army uniforms.

In November 1943, the Higher SS and Police Chief in the Netherlands, Hans Albin Rauter, upon being informed that the NSKK was proving very successful in drawing into its ranks young Dutchmen, was forced to issue an order forbidding the NSKK from accepting anyone below the age of 30. Volunteers under the age of 30 were to be directed into the Waffen-SS instead.

Most of the Dutch NSKK volunteers came under the jurisdiction of the Luftwaffe, with volunteers in the following formations: NSKK Gruppe Luftwaffe, NSKK Staffel WBN (Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief Netherlands) and NSKK Todt/Speer. The Organization Todt was the construction formation of the Nazi Party, auxiliary to the Wehrmacht. It was named after its founder, Dr Fritz Todt, who was replaced by Albert Speer following Todt’s death in 1942. It should not be confused with the Organization Speer, which was a separate body concerned with engineering. Like many similar agencies in Hitler’s Reich, they competed with each other for power and resources.

In January 1942, NSKK Gruppe Luftwaffe was created under Luftwaffe General Wilhelm Wimmer in Brussels, which brought together under one command all Dutch, Flemish and Walloon NSKK members. The Dutch NSKK saw active service in Russia as the NSKK Regiment Niederland. Luftwaffe General Kraus reported to Hermann Göring on 6 August 1942: “We have thousands of Dutchmen in transport regiments in the East. Last week one such regiment was attacked. The Dutch took more than 1000 prisoner and were awarded 25 Iron Crosses.” Scores of Dutch NSKK men fought and died at Stalingrad as part of the German Sixth Army in 1942–43. In October 1942, the NSKK Todt and the NSKK Speer were merged to become NSKK Transportgruppe Todt; then NSKK Gruppe Speer; and, finally, in 1944, Transportkorps Speer. The Transportkorps Speer and KUK were made part of the NSKK Staffel WBN in the autumn of 1943. Volunteers wore field-grey uniforms with NSKK rank and other insignia, and signed on for one year or for the duration of the war, whichever was shorter. It is conceivable that 8–9000 Dutchmen served in the various branches of the NSKK in total during World War II.

The Dutch had a labour service of their own but also provided volunteers for the RAD. The number was small, possibly around 300, but was enough for an all-Dutch unit to be formed known as Gruppe Niederland. Dutchmen also graduated as RAD officers, such as those of the Oostkorp (East Corps) of the Niederland Arbeits Dienst (NAD – Dutch Labour Service). Gruppe Niederland saw active service between May and October 1942 on the Eastern Front, behind the German frontline. Normally, RAD personnel were unarmed, but due to partisan activities guards were permitted to carry rifles or pistols.

For a nation with a distinguished maritime tradition, it is surprising that perhaps only about 1500 Dutchmen served in the Kriegsmarine. This may be because the first appeal was not made until May 1943, for naval volunteers in the 18–35 age group.

If the Netherlands was considered a Germanic nation by the Nazis, then the situation in Belgium was not as straightforward. Belgium is really two countries and a German region, all joined together in a single political unit. One part, Flanders, is Germanic in language and racial origin. The other, Wallonie, is French speaking whose racial origins are a mixture of Celtic and Roman. The only strong bond between the two is a common religious faith: Roman Catholicism. The quiet town of Eupen, only 10km (6 miles) from the German border, had a population of 17,000 citizens in the 1930s, most being ethnic Germans. It is the capital of German-speaking Belgium, a region where about 65,000 people lived in the 1930s. Control of the territory has shifted many times between France, Germany and Belgium throughout history. After escaping the clutches of the Burgundian dukes in the fifteenth century, it was a German princedom, before being annexed by France after the revolution in 1789. It reverted to German control after the Napoleonic wars, but then switched back to Belgium in 1919 as part of the Versailles settlement. After the invasion of 10 May 1940, Hitler declared it to be part of the Reich. The Nazis always drew a clear distinction between the two ethnic peoples of Belgium, who initially favoured the Flemings, their racial “cousins”. However, they eventually came to view the Walloon leader, Léon Degrelle, as being a more valuable asset to their cause.

A feeling of resentment had been nurtured by the people of Flanders against the French-speaking state created in 1830 and dominated by the Walloons. The German occupation of Belgium in World War I gave Flemish nationalism, which until then had been mainly intellectual, the impetus to become a political movement in its own right. Under German patronage, a Council of Flanders was set up in Brussels in February 1917. It consisted of some 200 Flemish autonomists, and was granted the status of a provisional government.

The Frontbeweging or Front Movement, an influential separatist faction, was founded which later became the Frontpartij or Front Party. The leaders of the Council of Flanders were tried for high treason after the war, though none was executed and all were set free by an act of clemency in March 1929. The ranks of the Frontpartij began to rupture in the early 1930s as the new ideology of fascism increased the demand for autonomy and manifested itself with the formation in October 1931 of a breakaway party known as the Verbond van Dietsche Nationaal Solidaristen (Union of Netherlandish National Solidarity). This was abbreviated to Verdiaso or simply Dinaso. Joris van Severen, a young lawyer, was the leader of Dinaso. He was a former army officer who had been stripped of his commission when his nationalist sympathies became apparent. Dinaso’s first demand was that the Flemish part of Belgium should join Holland in a Greater Netherlands community, but in 1934 van Severen discovered that the Walloons shared a common Frankish descent with the Flemings. There was thus a complete reorientation of policy, and he now favoured the continued existence of the Belgian state. Dinaso had its own stormtroopers known as the Dinaso Militie until 1934, when they were renamed the Dinaso Militanten Orde (DMO).

What was the fate of those foreign nationals who had fought for Hitler? In Western Europe, the process of dealing with collaborators began as soon as the war ended. In Holland, special courts were established to enable the many thousands of collaborators, as well as those who had served in the German armed forces, to be tried, and the death penalty was reintroduced for the first time since its abolition in 1873. In all, 138 death sentences were pronounced, although only 36 were actually carried out. Anton Mussert was brought to trial at The Hague in November 1945 on a charge of high treason. On 12 December, he was unsurprisingly found guilty and sentenced to death. Eighteen Germans also received death sentences for crimes in Holland but only five, of whom one was Rauter, were executed.

The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg dealt with Reich Commissioner Seyss-Inquart. The tribunal stated that he had been “a knowing and voluntary participant in war crimes and crimes against humanity which were committed in the occupation of the Netherlands”. He was hanged on 16 October 1946.

Between 120,000 and 150,000 persons were arrested in Holland in the immediate post-liberation period but, by October 1945, only 72,321 men and 23,723 women remained in prison. Thirty-five special courts consisting of five judges each were set up to deal with major cases of collaboration, while smaller tribunals comprising one judge and two laymen dealt with less serious offences. Some 60,000 persons were deprived of their Dutch citizenship for entering foreign military service, and also had their property seized by the state. This was applied to all those who had served in the German Army, Navy, Air Force, the Waffen-SS, the Landstorm Nederland, German police or security formations, the guard companies of the Todt Organization and the German Labour Service (RAD). However, it did not include service with the Dutch Germanic SS or the German state railways. On the whole, the Dutch treated their collaborators with tolerance and humanity, though perhaps the very magnitude of the problem prevented harsh judgements.

The Baltic Part I

Interpretation of the Gustloff’s final moments by Irwin J. Kappes

The Soviets, with a little help from their Scandinavian neighbours, made up their mind for them in the Baltic. On 27 September 1944, the neutral Swedish government announced that its Baltic harbours were no longer open to German shipping of any kind and a couple of days later the Finns led the first three of fifteen Soviet submarines from the Gulf of Finland past the defence posts on Hangö and Abo out into the Baltic beyond where they could begin operating off the Latvian, Lithuanian and Polish coastlines. On 29 September the Soviets reinforced the message that the Germans were unwelcome in these waters by landing troops on Moon Island. A German retreat to Ösel (Hiiumaa) swiftly followed. Dagö was taken next on 3 October and a further withdrawal from Ösel to the Sworbe Peninsula on the island of Saaremaa followed later in the month. In an effort to arrest this breakthrough into the Baltic, the Germans employed their heavy cruisers, Lützow and Prinz Eugen, three destroyers and four torpedo boats against the new Soviet positions on the coast between Libau (Liepāja) and Memel (Klaipẻda) in the second week of the month and then used some of these vessels to bombard the enemy troops on the Sworbe Peninsula on 22–24 October. Few could have doubted that these were merely delaying tactics by the Germans for the war in the Baltic States had moved inexorably against them. Much of Estonia had gone, entry into the Gulf of Riga had been secured and Latvia’s ‘liberation’ was at most only weeks away. As part of these measures, the final attack on the Sworbe Peninsula was made by the Soviet 8th Army on 18 November, with fire support coming from three gunboats and eleven armoured cutters gathered off the east coast. Despite putting up some naval resistance over the next few days, the game was essentially up for the Germans and the arrival of the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer, along with a task force of two destroyers and six torpedo boats, was merely designed to slow the advance of the 8th Army and cover the latest evacuation that took place during the night of 23–24 November.

In the Baltic in the new year [1945], the writing had been on the wall for Dönitz and the Kriegsmarine from mid-January onwards when the Soviets had opened their three-front drive on East Prussia from Pultusk in the south and Gumbinnen (Gusev) and Tilsit (Sovetsk) in the north. This move had prompted the Germans to evacuate their XXVIII Corps from Memel (Klaipẻda) across the ice to the Kurische Nehrung over a four-day period (24–28 January) and to withdraw the injured, sick and refugees by boat from Memel before either Soviet submarines or the men of the 1st Baltic Front from Tilsit could prevent them from doing so. Unless the Soviets were stopped in their tracks, all hope for Germany would be lost. Staring defeat in the face, the Germans responded by organising a series of counter-attacks in an effort to restore land communications between Königsberg (Kaliningrad) and its port of Pillau (Baltiysk). Dönitz was obliged to support these efforts from offshore and did so by deploying the heavy cruisers Admiral Scheer, Lützow and Prinz Eugen, a couple of gun carriers, together with a handful of destroyers and torpedo boats to provide as much artillery bombardment as possible against the advancing Soviet troops around Königsberg. It was never going to be anything more than a mere delaying tactic, but it was vital if the Germans were to succeed in organising a massive evacuation from the Baltic States and East Prussia to the western ports of Germany. Generaladmiral Oskar Kummetz and the Marineoberkommando Ost/Ostsee (German Naval High Command East) were given overall responsibility for planning and delivering what was to become the largest evacuation exercise ever attempted. Faced with the enormity of this problem, Kummetz and his team needed to utilise as many ships of a decent size as they could lay their hands on. This vital task was entrusted to Konteradmiral Conrad Engelhardt, the Wehrmacht’s naval transport commander and he became responsible for procuring the evacuation vessels. Fourteen large passenger ships, a dozen of which were over 13,000 tons, twenty-two freighters of over 5,000 tons, unknown numbers of smaller vessels, as well as auxiliary warships and escort vessels were all pressed into service over the course of the next few months as the scale of the military crisis became increasingly more evident as time went by. Organising convoys was difficult enough at the best of times, but under real pressure from an advancing army the logistical complexities became even more horrendous than normal. In order for their scheduling system to work efficiently, Kummetz and Engelhardt needed more than organisational discipline and great stoicism. They also needed a monumental slice of luck – not least because the Soviet submarine fleet had every intention of disrupting the evacuation as and when it could. Lacking the cutting-edge of a suitable number of destroyers and other anti-submarine vessels until the latter half of February, the Germans were left with making the best of the flotillas of minesweepers, patrol boats, submarine chasers, heavy and light gunboats, gun ferry barges, naval fishing cutters, naval ferry barges, converted trawlers and many small fishery vessels that were available to them in Baltic waters.

A start was made to the evacuation on 25 January when three passenger ships sailed from Pillau with the first batch of 7,100 refugees. Within three days some 62,000 people had been moved westwards away from the Red Army, but merely boarding the boats that ranged alongside the dockyards was no guarantee that safety was assured. Apart from the Soviet submarines that initially concentrated on the sea route from Courland, and their larger boats which congregated in the area of the Stolpe Bank and off the Danish island of Bornholm, the greatest threat to these evacuees came from the RAF dropping a total of 3,220 air mines in the western Baltic and as far east as the Pomeranian coast in the first three months of 1945. These mines were to reap a rich harvest of shipping victims. In all some 137,764 tons of German shipping was sunk and 71,224 tons was damaged in this mining blitz. Although the mines were completely undiscriminating – taking out hospital ships as well as transports, destroyers and minesweepers – it could have been much worse had the Soviet Air Force been actively involved. Instead they were largely deployed on land operations and so Kummetz and Engelhardt were given an extended opportunity to continue evacuating large numbers of Germans from the dwindling Eastern Front. Each of the large passenger ships involved in these operations could take 5–9,000 passengers on board and the freighters could hold up to 5,000 at a time. It was crucial, therefore, that these ships should be pressed into making as many return journeys as possible to extricate the largest number of evacuees from the Baltic States. Unfortunately, not all of these ships could be escorted to and fro and occasionally a passenger vessel or a freighter sailing independently was discovered by a submarine and sunk with impunity. In this way the third largest passenger ship used in the evacuation operation, Wilhelm Gustloff, a liner of 25,484 tons with 10,582 people on board, was sunk off the Polish coast on 30 January by S-13 with the loss of over 9,330 victims making it the largest maritime disaster of all time. S-13, loitering with intent off the Stolpe Bank, also managed to evade two escorts in order to sink the tenth largest passenger ship General Steuben on 10 February with the loss of another 3,608 lives.

Complications set in with the Soviet advance on Eastern Pomerania in late February since some of the ships and naval ferry barges as well as the Gun Carrier Flotilla being used in the East Prussian and Courland evacuations were now needed off the Pomeranian coast to take more refugees from the port of Kolberg (Kolobrzeg), or to support the heavy cruiser Admiral Scheer, three destroyers and a torpedo boat in defending the bridgehead at Wollin (Wolin). Desperate measures resulted in another 75,000 refugees, soldiers and wounded being withdrawn from this front by 18 March. They had not even finished this tricky assignment when the Germans were forced to respond to yet another setback – this time the opening of a Soviet drive from Marienwerder (Kwidzyn) to Gotenhafen (Gdynia) and Danzig (Gdańsk). Once again, naval firepower was needed to keep the Soviet 2nd White Russian Front from breaking through before refugees could be evacuated. On 10 March the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen was pressed into service and five days later the obsolete battleship Schlesien along with three heavy auxiliary gunboats and a gunnery training vessel also battered the Soviet positions from offshore. After Schlesien ran out of shells, the heavy cruiser Lützow and two destroyers replaced her on 23 March and the light cruiser Leipzig was added to the bombardment force. Evacuations of refugees began from the naval base at Gotenhafen and the ports of Danzig and Hela (Hel) as the Red Army moved ever closer to the Gulf of Danzig, but on this occasion two divisions of the Soviet Naval Air Force were also involved in carrying out over 2,000 sorties against the operation. In an effort to neutralise the torpedo-bombers over these ports, Kummetz ordered a group of destroyers, torpedo boats and other warships to stand by and provide an effective curtain of A.A. fire to cover the transports as they took on their passengers and left port with them. Although Soviet aircraft still managed to sink five transports, two minesweepers and a submarine-chaser, many German ships were still able to enter and leave these three ports unscathed. Soviet mine barrages did claim a couple of torpedo boats and a U-boat (U367) and their submarines did sink a freighter, a patrol boat and a tug while on passage, but the vast majority of craft laden with refugees made safe landfall in other German ports further to the west. A day before Gotenhafen fell on 28 March the battleship Gneisenau – a constant and frustrating nemesis of the Allies throughout the war – made an undistinguished exit when she was finally sunk as a blockship. At that late stage this sacrificial act served very little useful purpose. Once Danzig was captured on 30 March, Hela became the operational centre for the evacuation. It became a kind of halfway house for refugees from those ports around the Gulf that hadn’t been occupied by Soviet troops and a total of 264,887 evacuees found their way to the port in a multitude of small boats and naval ferry barges in April alone. Adding to the armada of vessels making for Hela were retreating troops and other refugees from collapsed fronts, such as the Oxhöfter Kämpe bridgehead and Engelhardt’s passenger ships which by now had plenty of practice at being used as evacuation transports. Such was the scale of the operation that by 10 April 157,270 wounded servicemen had left Hela for the west. Increasingly, however, the casualties of this evacuation would grow as Soviet air and sea forces devoted more time and resources to attacking this traffic.