Operation Frantic

This was the US overall designation of the series of shuttle bombing raids by the heavy bomber formations of General Carl A. Spaatz’s Strategic Air Forces (Lieutenant General James H. Doolittle’s England-based 8th AAF and Major General Nathan F. Twining’s Italy-based 15th AAF) and the medium bomber formations of Lieutenant General Hoyt S. Vandenberg’s Italy-based US 9th AAF operating between bases in the UK, Italy and the southern USSR (June/September 1944).

A mere seven such missions were actually flown in 1944/45, and only a small contingent of US troops was based on the Eastern Front to service the bombers at three Soviet air bases near Kiev in Ukraine. At the ‘Eureka’ inter-Allied conference in Tehran during November 1943, the Allied leaders agreed a new form of bombing strategy against Germany: US heavy bombers stationed in the UK and Italy would fly missions deep into Germany or German-occupied eastern Europe and then, rather than turning back to the air bases from which they had taken off, continue onward to secret US air bases (defended by the Soviets) within the USSR. Here they would be rearmed and refuelled to attack another target before touching down in the UK or Italy. The longer-term intention, never realised, was the establishment of three US heavy bomber groups at bases in the USSR.

During the four months of ‘Frantic’, US bombers attacked 24 targets in Germany and German-occupied countries, some of these being objectives which had not, up to this time, been within effective range of the US strategic bomber forces. This shuttle bombing technique complicated the task faced by the Germans in the defence of major targets, but was discontinued as a result of logistical difficulties in supporting USAAF forces in the USSR, and of differences between the USA and USSR at both political and military levels.

The main difficulty encountered by the US forces was inadequate air base protection by the Soviets, for Iosif Stalin steadfastly refused US offers of anti-aircraft artillery and night-fighters which the USA offered to provide so that the Soviets could create an effective defence structure for the bases.

In February 1944 the USAAF received access to six air bases in Ukraine, but of these only three were suitable. The US Strategic Air Forces in Europe rapidly established a headquarters detachment at Poltava airfield, near Kiev, late in April 1944. Poltava was designated as USAAF Station 559 for security purposes, and was one of three Ukrainian installations operated by the Headquarters, Eastern Command USSTAAF. The others were Piryatin airfield (AAF-560) and Mirgorod airfield (AAF-561). Poltava and Mirgorod were to be used by heavy bombers (Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and Consolidated B-24 Liberator machines), and Piryatin by long-range escort fighters (Lockheed P-38 Lightning and North American P-51 Mustang machines). The bases were farther behind the Eastern Front than the USAAF would have liked, and were also in a poor state of repair. This was an inevitable result of the fact that the Germans had undertaken a programme of systematic destruction as they were driven back from Ukraine, but the US officers seeking to create a viable collaborative programme also found themselves dealing with an unfriendly and suspicious Soviet bureaucracy, which seemed happy to raise every possible obstacle.

Heavy equipment and bulky supplies were delivered by sea to Arkhangyel’sk, a major port on the White Sea, and then transported by rail to the airfields in Ukraine. Additional supplies and key personnel were delivered by air by Lieutenant General Harold L. George’s Air Transport Command transports from the ATC base at Mehrabad airport in Iran. Delicate negotiations finally fixed a total of 42 round-trip ATC missions to make the bases operational for the USAAF, and allowed an additional rate of two weekly support missions to sustain the US contingent. The issue of flight communications eventually ended with a compromise, allowing US crews to carry out navigation and radio duties with a Soviet observer resident at all related communications centres. Eventually, the ATC in support of ‘Frantic’ delivered some 450 personnel and 36,000 lb (16330 kg) of cargo by June 1944.