Operation Frantic Joe

This was the US first air raid in the ‘Frantic’ series, designed to support the Soviet summer offensive timed to coincide with the ‘Overlord’ invasion of Normandy (2/11 June 1944).

After much preparation at the three Ukrainian airfields of Poltava, Mirgorod and Piryatin by advance elements of the Headquarters, Eastern Command US Strategic Air Forces and Air Transport Command, the ‘Frantic Joe’ first shuttle mission was undertaken by Major General Nathan F. Twining’s 15th AAF from 2 June 1944, when it despatched 130 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers, escorted by 70 North American P-51 Mustang escort fighters, from Foggia in southern Italy to bomb the marshalling yards at Debrecen, Hungary and land in the USSR, the B-17 bombers at Poltava and Mirgorod and the P-51 fighters at Piryatin. One B-17F was lost over the target. Some 27 other B-17 bombers, forced off course en route to the marshalling yards at Oradea in Romania, also attacked Debrecen.

German fighters subsequently made a successful attack on the bombers parked on Soviet airfields after a German reconnaissance aeroplane had located the US aircraft, and the concerns thus raised ended plans for the permanent basing of a large force of US bombers in the USSR.

On 6 June 104 B-17 bombers and 42 P-51 fighters took off from their Soviet bases and attacked the airfield at Galati in Romania before turning back to their shuttle bases in the USSR. Eight Axis fighters were shot down and two P-51B fighter were lost. On 11 June 126 B-17 bombers and 60 P-51 fighters departed their Soviet shuttle bases for Italy to complete the first ‘Frantic’ operation. On the way 121 B-17 bombers attacked the airfield at Focşani in Romania, losing one B-17F.

After the first shuttle mission, the consensus in the USSTAF was that the mission had proceeded satisfactorily, and a second shuttle mission was therefore planned for implementation from the UK by Lieutenant General James H. Doolittle’s 8th AAF, which was to attack synthetic oil facilities in eastern Germany and proceed to the USSR.

On 21 June some 145 of 163 B-17 bombers began shuttle bombing missions with escort by 72 Lockheed P-38 Lightning, 38 Republic P-47 Thunderbolt and 57 P-51 fighters. The target was the synthetic oil facility at Ruhland: 123 B-17 bombers attacked the primary target, 21 the marshalling yards at Elsterwerda and one the marshalling yards at Riesa. The Mustang fighters returned to England, the task of escorting the bombers to Soviet bases then devolving onto 65 other Mustang fighters based in the USSR. Some 20 to 30 Luftwaffe fighters attacked the force, and in the resulting battle one P-51B and six German fighters were destroyed. One B-17F was damaged by Flak and, after losing three engines, diverted to neutral Sweden, where it was interned and later converted into an airliner for Swedish service. Thus 144 B-17 bombers landed in the USSR, 73 at Poltava, and the other 71 at Mirgorod, while the 64 surviving P-51 fighters landed at Piryatin.

What was unknown at the time was that after the raid on Ruhland, the US bombers were shadowed at a distance by a Heinkel He 111 bomber, which was thus able to identify the Ukrainian airfields on which the US aircraft landed.

On the night of 21/22 June the combat wing of B-17 bombers which earlier landed at Poltava sustained severe losses in a German air attack on the airfield. Personnel were alerted at about 23.30 when it was announced that German bombers had crossed the front and were heading in the general direction of Poltava. At 00.30 pathfinder aircraft released flares directly above the airfield, and the first bombs were dropped 10 minutes later. For almost two hours an estimated 75 German bombers attacked the base with great accuracy. A very large majority of the bombs were dropped in the dispersal area where only B-17 bombers were parked, indicating that these warplanes were the attack’s specific target. Of the 73 B-17 bombers which had landed at Poltava, 47 were destroyed and most of the remaining 26 were severely damaged. One US airman was killed and another severely wounded, while several others suffered minor injuries. In addition to the aircraft suffering heavy damage, the fuel and ammunition dumps were also attacked, and large quantities of both were destroyed. Three days after the attack, only nine of the 73 aircraft at Poltava were operational.

As a result of the German attack on Poltava, the B-17 bombers at Mirgorod and the P-51 fighters at Piryatin were moved to Soviet air bases farther to the east on 22 June, the intention being that they would then return to Mirgorod and Piryatin before despatch to bases in Italy as soon as the weather permitted. This movement was fortunate inasmuch as German bombers again attacked both Piryatin and Mirgorod during the night of 22/23 June. However, the dispersal airfields possessed only very short runways and had neither fuel nor munitions for the aircraft.

The crews of the destroyed aircraft were collected by Air Transport Command aircraft and ferried back to UK via Mehrabad airport at Tehran in Iran.

By 26 June the losses and damage resulting from the German attack on Poltava and damage suffered on the flight to the USSR meant that the number of operational B-17 bombers in the USSR was only 73. These were formed into one composite combat wing of three groups for the return mission to Italy. The aircraft at the dispersal airfields were flown back to Mirgorod and Poltava for servicing, rearming and refuelling, and this delayed the mission’s take-off time to the middle of the afternoon, which meant that the aircraft would not arrive in Italy until dusk.

The B-17 bombers rendezvoused with 55 P-51 fighters from Piryatin, bombed the oil refinery and marshalling yards at Drohobycz in Poland and then flew on to Italy with the exception of one machine which turned back to the USSR with mechanical problems. P-51 fighters of the 15th AAF met the formation one hour after the attack and escorted the bombers to Foggia.

It was planned for the 8th AAF’s aircraft to return to their English bases on or soon after 27 June as weather conditions permitted, but unfavourable forecasts persisted. During the period the bombers took part in one 15th AAF mission and the fighters in two missions. On 2 July the 8th AAF’s P-51 group joined 15th AAF fighters to escort 509 heavy bombers on a mission to three objectives in the area of Budapest in Hungary area (marshalling yards were targeted by 253 aircraft, Vecses airfield by 142 aircraft, and the Shell oil refinery by 114 aircraft). Working ahead of the bombers, the fighters undertook a free-lance sweep in the target area. There was determined air opposition, and four P-51 fighters were lost in combat, with another failing to return. Between them, the bombers and fighters claimed to have shot down more than 50 fighters.

On 3 July the 8th AAF despatched 57 B-17 bombers escorted by 38 Mustang fighters in conjunction with the 15th AAF’s force of 44 heavy bombers, to attack the marshalling yards and railway shops at Arad in Romania. On the next day, 5 July, 72 8th AAF bombers completed the second shuttle mission with an attack on the marshalling yards at Béziers in France, in collaboration with Consolidated B-24 Liberator heavy bombers of the 15th AAF, during the last leg from Italy to the UK. Some 42 P-51 fighters return to UK with the B-17 bombers: of the 11 P-51 fighters remaining in Italy, 10 returned to the UK on the following day, and the last several days later.

On their return to England, the US crews reported that the Soviets had failed to put up any effective resistance to the German raid that had destroyed so many aircraft at Poltava. This led to the USAAF’s desire to deploy the 427th Night-Fighter Squadron, equipped with the Northrop P-61 Black Widow, from Italy to Poltava as a means of ensuring nocturnal air defence over the Soviet airfields. The Soviets refused to allow USAAF night-fighters to defend the bomber bases, insisting that air defence was their responsibility.

The shuttle bombing missions were not wholly cancelled, however, but merely suspended until situation on the ground had been clarified and the defence of the air bases improved. Realising that the Soviets could not provide adequate protection of the heavy bombers from night raids, the Americans did abandon plans for the permanent basing of three heavy bomber groups on Soviet airfields.

To keep the ‘Frantic’ programme alive, the 15th AAF undertook the third shuttle bombing mission from 22 July. On this date 76 P-38 and 58 P-51 fighters lifted off from Italy to attacking the airfields at Zilistea (Jiliste) and Buzău in Romania before continuing onward to land at Soviet bases. On 25 July 33 P-38 and 34 P-51 fighters lifted off from Soviet bases to attack the airfield at Mielec in Poland and return to the USSR. On 26 July the fighters left their Soviet bases, strafed German and Romanian aircraft in the area of Bucharest and Ploieşti in Romania, and landed at bases in Italy.

In the fourth shuttle mission, launched on 4 August, the 15th AAF sought to accommodate the first direct Soviet request for USAAF air attacks by despatching more than 70 P-38 and P-51 fighters from Italy to attack the airfield and targets in the town of Focşani in Romania before landing at bases in the USSR. On 6 August some 60 of the 15th AAF’s fighters took off from bases in the USSR, attacked the Craiova marshalling yards and other railway targets in the area of Bucharest and Ploieşti in Romania area, and landed at Italian bases.

After assessing the balance between damage inflicted and damage sustained in this third shuttle mission, the US leadership at the Soviet bases decided to discontinue fighter-bomber operations.

The fifth shuttle mission was allocated to the 8th AAF, and began on 6 August. A force of 75 B-17 bombers was despatched from the UK to attack the Rahmel aircraft factories at Gdynia in Poland before proceeding to bases in the USSR. Escort was provided by 154 P-51 fighters. On 7 August another raid was flown at Soviet request, 55 B-17 bombers and 29 P-51 fighters attacking the oil refinery at Trzebina in Poland without loss before returning to bases in the USSR. On 12 August the second part of this fifth shuttle mission was completed as all the 8th AAF’s aircraft flew from the USSR to 15th AAF bases in southern Italy. On the following day 72 B-17 bombers took off from Italy, though three had to turn back with technical problems, and bombed Francazal airfield just south of Toulouse in France, before continuing to the UK. Some 62 P-51 fighters of the shuttle mission force and 43 more from the UK provided escort, and no aircraft were lost. Totals of 70 B-17 bombers and 58 P-51 fighters landed in the UK, while five B-17 and six P-51 aircraft, either left in Italy or returning there during this mission, returned later to the UK.

The sixth shuttle mission, flown by aircraft of the 8th AAF, began on 11 September when 75 B-17 bombers escorted by 64 P-51 fighters attacked the oil refineries at Chemnitz in Germany before flying on to land in the USSR. Two days later, on 13 September, a force of 73 B-17 bombers and 63 P-51 fighters took off from Soviet bases bombed steel and armament works at Diósgyőr in Hungary, and landed at 15th AAF bases in Italy. On 15 September the 8th AAF launched 110 B-17 bombers from English bases to drop supplies to the Polish Home Army involved in the Warsaw Uprising, and then fly to bases in the USSR. A weather front was encountered over the North Sea, however, and the bombers were recalled. Escort was provided by 149 P-51 fighters, of which two were lost when they collided in cloud. The last element of the sixth shuttle mission took place on 17 September, when 72 B-17 and 59 P-51 aircraft flew without offensive armament from Italy to the UK.

The seventh and last shuttle mission started on 18 September when, after having been compelled by adverse weather to turn back to England on 15 September, the 8th AAF despatched 107 B-17 bombers to supply the Polish Home Army in Warsaw with 1,248 paradropped containers, although fewer than 250 of these landed sufficiently close to the Poles to be collected by their intended recipients. One B-17 was lost, and of the 137 P-51 fighters escorting the bombers 64 continued to the USSR. Two P-51 fighter were lost. On 19 September 100 B-17 bombers and 61 P-51 fighters took off from bases in the USSR, bombed the marshalling yards at Szolnok in Hungary and continue to bases in Italy. The aircraft had to remain in Italy as a result of bad weather until 23 September, when they flew without offensive armament from Italy to the UK.

The raid on the marshalling yards at Szolnok ended the ‘Frantic’ series as the original targets had by now been taken by the Soviets in their rapid advances to the west. Claiming logistical problems and tired of ever-increasing Soviet intransigence, the USAAF suspended the ‘Frantic’ shuttle missions. Stalin reluctantly agreed to a break in shuttle missions during the winter of 1944/45, but they were no resumed as the weather improved in the spring of 1945: by this time the advances of the Western Allies from the west and the Soviets from the east had ended all requirement for shuttle missions, and the ATC evacuated the last US personnel from its headquarters at Poltava in June 1945.