Valiant Warriors Caught in the Middle
This article will focus on the Romanian Air Force of World War II.
Romania played an odd role in World War II. At first, the Kingdom of Romania was pro-British and allied to the Poles. The Soviet Union, contrary to many who think it was an innocent victim during the early war years, aggressively demanded and received a large swathe of Romanian territory in Bessarabia as well as from northern Bukovina pursuant to a 28 June 1940 ultimatum.
Naturally, some of the Romanians were not too thrilled about losing prime real estate to their hulking neighbor, the Soviet Union. Pro-German Prime Minister Ion Antonescu in September 1940 engaged in a complicated series of events that led to the deposition of the rightful king, Carol II, and installation of the young crown prince, Michael, as a figurehead replacement ('Michael I').
|A Romanian Bf-109 being prepped.|
|Romania claimed territories to its east based on historical precedent.|
|Romanian army troops occupy Odessa, summer of 1941.|
|The Romanian IAR-80.|
|Romanian ace Constantin Cantacuzino (right) with his air mount, August 1944.|
The huge reverses at Stalingrad, the Crimea and closer to home led to complete invasion and massive losses in the Romanian order of battle. With public opinion turning against Antonescu and the war, King Michael realized that the time had come to take action and sprang into action. He had the palace guard arrest Antonescu (much as King Victor Emanuel of Italy had finally arrested Mussolini the year before) on 23 August 1944. It was a very brave act, and set in train a sequence of events that would have far-reaching and unexpected consequences for his country - and himself.
Hitler, making matters worse to no purpose, ordered the Luftwaffe to bomb Bucharest. King Michael and his followers then declared war on Germany and joined the Allies. It was too late to make much difference in terms of how Romania was viewed by the victorious Allies, but at least Romania finally made things right.
The change of sides had some very direct consequences to Americans. There were many 15th USAAF pilots in captivity in Romania who immediately were set free upon the change of sides. Lt Col James A Gunn III had recently been shot down whilst over Ploesti in mid-August 1944. He was being held in Lager 13 in Bucharest. When Romania changed sides on 23 August, Gunn resolved to return to the 15th with important information that he received from his former Romanian captors about German bombing plans. Captain Cantacuzino personally flew Gunn in his ME-109 (with Gunn tucked away in the fuselage) back to Italy. It was a hazardous flight, as the Germans still held Yugoslavia and Greece. As a reward, Cantacuzino was given a Mustang to fly back to Bucharest.
|A B-24 Liberator called "Sandman" during a bomb run over the Ploiești Astra Romana refinery during Operation Tidal Wave, 1 August 1943.|
|Romanian soldiers manning a ZPU 2 anti-aircraft machine gun.|
|Romanian soldiers marching through Constanta, Romania ca. 1941 (Grund, Federal Archives).|
- Lange Bruno – a mobile (railway) 3 x 280 guns, in the Northern Constanta City;
- Breslau / M III battery – 3 x 170 mm guns, installed in “La Vii” area, just 1 km north of Tirpitz battery;
|A German soldier aiming an MG 13 machine gun. Filmmaker Horst Grund is shown operating his camera, Constanta, Romania, circa 1941 (Grund, Federal archive).|
|Romanian planes over the petrol fields of Ploiesti. The photo was taken in 1941. The Bf 109 with the German cross had not been painted yet in ARR insignias.|
|Luftwaffe flak units defended the Ploesti oil fields right up to the end. They were the only German troops in the vicinity when Romania switched sides in August 1944.|
The Romanian air force was small but capable. It used mostly German equipment but did have a few aircraft designs of its own. The Romanian-designed airplane that made a contribution to the war effort was the IAR 80 (the 'Romanian Big Broom'). It was a fighter which was powered by a Gnome-Rhone 14k radial engine that was built on a license. It was an elegant airframe that loosely resembled the Focke Wulf 190D, but the design was completely Romanian.
The IAR 80 began service in early 1942. It had six machine guns and a top speed of 316 mph, which was about adequate at the start of the war, but completely outclassed by the fighters of 1942. Still, the IAR 80 pilots did not have to contend with US fighters for much of their operational history, and they were plenty fast to take on bombers flying at 150 mph. They shot down many US bombers attacking the oil fields in 1943 and 1944, making the "Ploesti run" extremely hazardous for the 15th USAAF. A total of 137 IAR 80 (some accounts say many more) were built before production switched to building the German Bf 109G fighter under license. The fact that Romania built its own world-class fighter at all is somewhat of an astonishing fact, as generally, only the dominant powers achieved this feat.