A plan to encircle Berlin sent American bombers into a Luftwaffe ambush in Ukraine.
The afternoon light was bright over eastern Ukraine as the sky filled with giant silver planes. Back in friendly airspace after the black clouds of German flak fields, 74 B-17 Flying Fortresses with U.S. Eighth Air Force markings arrayed in crisp formation above the airfield at Poltava before maneuvering to land and, one by one, taxiing into place on Marsden matting laid over grass. By the time the crewmen of the final Fort to set down on that cramped expanse of Soviet soil had cut their plane’s engines, 45 minutes had passed.
The Forts, their oversize “Tokyo” fuel tanks nearly dry, were not wearing the customary coat of olive drab. To wow the Russians, the Eighth had sent its newest G-model aircraft, their aluminum skin bare, as it had been since early 1944, to reduce weight and drag. From the big deadly birds streamed nearly 800 tired Americans clad in bulky flying gear—but carrying the natty Class A uniforms they would soon don. In their pockets the airmen had maps of the U.S.S.R. and flash cards translating English sentences into Russian and vice versa. As the fliers approached a committee waiting on the field to greet them they replayed in their heads superiors’ warnings not to do anything that might make the United States “look cheap, shabby, or uncouth.”
To mark the occasion, base commander Major General Alexander R. Perminov and his people had arranged a ceremony. By coincidence the date, June 21, 1944, was the eve of an anniversary Russians held in infamy: on June 22, 1941, their and the Americans’ now-shared enemy, Germany, had unleashed Operation Barbarossa—a back-stabbing surprise invasion of the Soviet Union that Hitler planned even as Germany was reaping the benefits of a mutual nonaggression pact with the Soviets. The festivities began amid fumbles. The Americans, now in their Class A getups—dark olive drab wool blouse, tan trousers, brass collar insignia—had trouble interpreting Soviet insignia. Translation problems arose. Asked to make remarks, American commander Colonel Archie J. Old Jr. stood at the microphone. As he began speaking, a female Red Army soldier came forward and pressed a bouquet on him. Flustered, the no-nonsense colonel proceeded to “smell the flowers and talk into the microphone, then smell the microphone and talk into the flowers,” the 3rd Bombardment Division signals officer recalled.
Once the talking was done, Soviet minders whisked their famished guests to a mess hall. As he awaited his meal, First
Lieutenant Stanley Bonda chuckled to hear a Ukrainian woman serving dinner say, “Damn C rations again.” But the young pilot also could see awe on his new comrades’ faces as Russians realized they were in the company of men who had laid waste to the Hitlerite capital. “The more times you bombed Berlin, the greater hero you were in their eyes,” another pilot said. Afterward the Americans retired to tents, with slit trenches nearby; Ukraine was a war zone, after all. On that cool June evening similar scenes played out at two other Ukrainian airfields for the rest of the American contingent.
The sun set just before 9 p.m., ending a long journey that, all in all, had gone well—except that, unknown to the Americans and Russians, the Germans knew precisely where it had ended.
Early that morning an enormous American force had flown from England to drop nearly 2,500 tons of high explosives and incendiaries in what at first appeared to German defenders to be a standard daylight terror raid. Instead of flying back to England, however, a fraction of the American bomber crews had borne on eastward, with P-51 Mustangs providing cover, to land at three Soviet air bases in Ukraine: Poltava, Mirgorod—50 miles northwest—and Piryatin, another 50 miles beyond Mirgorod. One of many western attempts—including the recent invasion at Normandy—meant to encourage the U.S.S.R. to fight on, the effort was known as Operation Frantic. And save for sharp German eyes, a wayward Mustang, and what remained of the Luftwaffe bomber fleet in the East, Frantic might have succeeded.
In late 1943, the Allies’ lack of a fighter able to fly to and from Berlin protecting heavy bombers had left their daylight bombing offensive in jeopardy. American air planners sought to open a second air front from the east; heavy bombers flying out of Soviet bases would threaten the Reich from an unexpected quarter. But the Soviets, mistrustful of their allies and skeptical of the value of long-range bombardment, dragged their feet. The Americans persisted; not only were there diplomatic benefits to be had, but the Soviets maintained air bases in their far east. Access to those facilities and landing fields would permit American bombers to pummel Japan from mainland Asia rather than from the Pacific alone.
In February 1944 Premier Joseph Stalin finally agreed to welcome American crews and planes to Poltava, Mirgorod, and Piryatin. The U.S. Army Air Forces began planning missions that would fly out of England and Italy, hit Axis targets, and continue to Soviet territory to land and refuel before bombing more objectives on the turnaround. Hundreds of American personnel deployed to the Soviet bases to work with Soviet comrades on the “shuttle” project, which eventually would include American planes based on Soviet soil.
The first shuttle of Eighth Air Force planes would take place as part of a regular daylight raid. Cleared for June 21, 1944, that mission would send more than 1,200 B-17s and B-24s from England to Germany, with nearly 1,300 P-51 Mustangs, P-38 Lightnings, and P-47 Thunderbolts riding shotgun to cover the huge bomber formation in relays. After the 775-mile flight from England to the targets, the six shuttle groups—some 140 B-17s guarded by Mustangs with wing tanks—would fly on to Ukraine, a 12-hour, 1,670-mile journey. Air force planners had structured the Berlin-area strikes to draw German defenders away from the shuttle bombers, which hailed from the 3rd Bombardment Division’s 45th and 13th combat wings. Once those crews attacked a synthetic oil plant at Ruhland, 75 miles south of Berlin, they would bear southeast for Ukraine.
Early that day, as fliers across southeast England woke for breakfast, shuttle crews’ excitement outran the usual raid day tension. At Deopham Green in Norfolk, the intelligence briefer addressing the 452nd Bomb Group was in rare form, pilot Stanley Bonda recalled, riffing about “the history our group was going to make,” “pioneers,” and “blazing a trail.”
“My God!” another pilot exclaimed as he studied the map and reality sank in. “That’s a long way from home!”
The 452nd, which was sending 26 heavy bombers to Ukraine and expecting 19 to return to England, would be taking off at 5:45 a.m.; if the schedule held, the last plane on the shuttle flight would land in Ukraine at 4:40 p.m.
The Berlin raid was not a sham but a maximum effort— every B-17 group in the Eighth was in. Formations converged to deploy against more than 15 targets amid a storm of flak. German fighter forces, though depleted, were still capable of seizing an advantage. One presented itself when a portion of the American fighter contingent missed its rendezvous, leaving part of the bomber stream poorly protected. The Luftwaffe threw a task force of twin-engine fighters into the gap, and six bombers fell. Flak as usual was intense and accurate. The Berlin raiders lost 47 bombers, with 502 damaged.
“The bombing itself was below the usual Eighth Air Force standards,” the Eighth’s command declared later.
Things went better for the shuttle force once its bombers reached Ruhland. After they unloaded and headed southeast, production at the hydrogenation plant there did not resume until many weeks later. The Mustang fighters of the 4th and 352nd Fighter Groups would fly cover for the bombers until the formation was safely inside Soviet airspace, then peel off to set down at Piryatin. The 13th Combat Wing would land at Mirgorod. The 45th would fly the furthest, to Poltava.
For all their attention to detail, the shuttle mission’s planners had ignored one significant variable: the Luftwaffe in the East. The oversight was understandable. Since mid-1943 the Germans had pulled many fighter wings from the Eastern Front to contest the American bomber offensive. In addition, Germany’s eastern bomber arm was a shadow of the winged armada that had kicked off Barbarossa in June 1941. Years of tenuous supply lines and costly army support operations against the stubborn, skilled Soviet foe had taken a toll of planes and personnel. Allied intelligence reported that Luftwaffe bomber units in the East were mostly still deploying the Heinkel He 111, a twin-engine middleweight that had first been flown in anger during the Spanish Civil War (see “The Greenhouse Effect,” January/February 2013).
By autumn 1943, however, things had brightened for a few hundred German crews in the East. Soviet factories in the Moscow-Upper Volga region were pouring out materiel. To interrupt that supply chain, the Luftwaffe planned strikes by night against the power plants that kept those factories humming. Five full bomber wings—nearly 350 He 111s—were jerked from the attritive grind of support flying to become Fliegerkorps IV, commanded by General Rudolf Meister. The new unit trained in long-range navigation and target location, and studied pathfinder and target illuminator tactics. Their venerable Heinkels had been updated with the latest avionics, engines, and armament, and crews loved them.
By spring 1944 Fliegerkorps IV, based around Brest Litovsk, was poised to strike—but a winter of Soviet advances and German withdrawals had left key northern bases unusable, placing some targets beyond the Heinkel’s 600-mile operating radius. The Eastern Front, however, had no shortage of objectives—notably Soviet rail lines that had gotten noticeably busier in northern Ukraine. Soviet night air defenses were weak, and Fliegerkorps IV flew dozens of barely opposed night raids against trains, yards, and rails between March and June 1944, working from reconnaissance photos taken by Junkers Ju 188 crews. Although poorly trained and unskilled replacement personnel had most other Luftwaffe units doing hackwork, these Heinkel crews were getting better.
As intended, berlin raid had the indeed kept Luftwaffe Command busy. None-the-less, when the shuttle group continued east after hitting Ruhland, someone noticed. German planes tailed the Americans; Colonel Old saw one dive into a cloud to escape his Mustangs. As the Allied aircraft departed German-held territory, the spotters turned back. The Americans obviously were bound for Russia, but where— and why? When a shot-up Mustang crash-landed in Poland the Luftwaffe got its answers. Aboard the nearly intact P-51 searchers found papers that not only revealed the shuttle flight plan but also named the shuttle bases. Luftwaffe Command relayed the information to Meister with orders to swap that night’s railroad strikes for a rare opportunity.
Meister sent two Ju 188s to photograph the fields at Poltava, Mirgorod, and Piryatin. The high-flying recce planes circled the shuttle bases, easily dodging ineffectual Soviet flak. Pictures showed B-17s at Poltava parked in neat rows—“a peacetime lineup,” as an astonished Meister put it.
Planes were arranged wing to wing at Poltava for the simplest reason: lack of space. The base had only so much Marsden matting—and no blast revetments. At Mirgorod and Piryatin, as enemy reconnaissance crews were photographing other Forts and their P-51 escorts, American personnel spotted the Junkers. Mustang pilots asked permission to pursue. The Soviets said they would handle it. By the time Russian pilots scrambled, however, the Ju 188s were gone. At Mirgorod, the 13th Combat Wing crews refueled in record time and took off for the protection of bases at Kharkov and elsewhere. The 74 bombers at Poltava stayed put—the crews were tired, the Russians seemed unconcerned by the enemy recce planes, and Poltava seemed a safe distance from any German bases.
Meister and cohort applied themselves to the evening’s duties. Three bomber wings, each with three groups of 20 Heinkels, fueled and loaded ordnance. Two wings—some 120 bombers—would attack Poltava, preceded by one group of 20 pathfinders. Other pathfinders would mark Mirgorod for the third wing. Piryatin was not a target; no bombers had landed there, but the shuttle force’s Mustangs, a formidable fighter complement, had. The German pathfinders were based near enough to their objectives to operate from home base; many of the bomber groups had to stage to airfields closer to the front line. At the last minute, one wing of Heinkels, finding itself short of time to refuel and arm, dropped out of the attack, reducing the Poltava strike force by half. Carrying high explosives fuzed to explode on impact, along with incendiary, fragmentation, and SD-2 antipersonnel bombs—the last nicknamed “butterflies” because when open their casings resembled an insect’s wings—Heinkels took off from fields around Minsk in fading light. They arrayed in a “bomber stream,” a tactic borrowed from the RAF in which loose groups of six to eight planes flew in close succession so pilots could swamp enemy defenses at minimal risk of collision. Ahead flew the pathfinders, steering by electronic navigation to the Soviet bases, where they dropped marker flares. The Mirgorod pathfinders, however, fell behind after three and a quarter hours in the air, and unknowingly overflew their target. Spotting markers that other pathfinders had dropped at Poltava, the latecomers assumed they were over Mirgorod and dropped flares as well. The leader of the German bomber wing detailed to attack Mirgorod recognized the error and seized the moment. The entire German bombing assault fell on Poltava.
An alert there had jerked the base’s several thousand Americans and Soviets out of their cots, but not until the flares began falling and the antiaircraft guns opened up did urgency sweep the field. Men pelted to the slit trenches, some tripping over tent ropes. American crews watched transfixed as a single marker flare, without a para chute, dropped onto the center of the main runway. A line of parachute flares stretched east to west, making the silver B-17s gleam. “I can still see the brilliant white flares parachuted by the German bombers, swinging back and forth, lighting up the night like it was high noon,” Technical Sergeant John Chopelas, a radio operator with the 452nd, recalled. The Germans continued dropping flares until light from burning bombers made them unnecessary.
Attacking in several waves, Heinkel crews loosed some 15 tons of high explosives, including five 2,200-pound blockbusters that opened huge craters among the densely packed aircraft. Another 78 tons of fragmentation bombs shredded the B-17s’ aluminum skin, and 17 tons of incendiaries reduced the big bombers to flaming wrecks. In all, some 6,500 individual projectiles fell on the field.
One German group commander noted that the most experienced crews led the attack, carefully lining up on targets and making several approaches before releasing payloads. Crews were supposed to spend only 20 minutes over the target, but pickings were so rich many lingered twice that long.
“They seemed to be flying in a regular traffic pattern,” an American said. “They would make their run, get back into the traffic pattern again, all very casually.”
Below, all was chaos. John Chopelas, who had flown many a bombing run, never forgot the helpless sensation of being on the receiving end of what he had been dishing out. Soviet personnel rushed to the blazing aircraft, trying courageously but futilely to fight fires with shovels and buckets of sand, heedless of the frag bombs carpeting the scene. Poltava’s 450,000-gallon aviation fuel dump caught fire, and one of the bomb dumps produced, in an American’s words, “very pretty fireworks.”
To the Americans, Soviet defenses seemed totally ineffective. Searchlights would “cone” a German bomber, pinioning the plane with beams—but gunners, lacking radar or coordination with light crews, let pilot after pilot escape. The American combat wing’s lead navigator recalled how a German flier was able to “cross the field and methodically drop his bombs with AA fire bursting consistently 50 yards behind its tail.” Poltava base commander Perminov summoned Soviet night fighters but none appeared; those pilots did not report to him. After the He 111s had spent about 90 minutes raking the airfield, the German pathfinder commander gave the signal “Closing time!” With nary a loss, the raiders departed, leaving in their wake a conflagration that a reconnaissance crew documented, dropping flash bombs to get the image on film. “Thewhole aerodrome was ringed with burning and exploding aircraft,” said Wing Commander Hughes, an RAF liaison officer assigned to the base. Only two Americans died, but that night dozens of Russians lost their lives trying to douse flaming B-17s. Others were wounded, and thousands of antipersonnel bombs littered the area, so the defenders decided to leave the desolation until daylight.
The next morning American anger at the poor Soviet showing abated as Russian personnel worked heroically to clear the field, an effort that took days and cost additional Soviet dead and injured. Radioman John Chopelas recalled Russians methodically picking up ordnance along a path to the ruined and damaged aircraft, grinning while holding up unexploded butterfly bombs for the Americans to “admire.”
Of 74 B-17s at Poltava, 47 were total losses; so were two C-47 transports and an F-5 reconnaissance plane. Many B-17s burned to cinders except for the tail. Another 26 were damaged. Counting losses from the June 21 raid on Germany, this was the Eighth Air Force’s costliest single operation of the war.
The Soviets lost several planes, including Perminov’s. The attack had been uncannily precise; 98 percent of German ordnance hit the target area. Four days later, the 13th Combat Wing and the remnants of the 45th left Ukraine to strike a Hungarian railyard en route to Italy and the UK. Most 45th crews, planes in ruins, stayed a week at Poltava before riding American transports to England via the Middle East.
The U.S. Army Air Forces at first slammed the lid—“As if the Germans didn’t know what happened!” Chopelas said— but censorship yielded to writing off the attack as an expensive lesson. By July reporters were being briefed. An official periodical ran a spread of the mess, declaring that the Luftwaffe “CAN STILL TOSS A WICKED PUNCH.”
The 3rd Bombardment Division took comfort in industrial production. Poltava was “a Russian graveyard,” yes, but the losses were only two days of B-17 plant output, a report stated. More than a year later, a report on the P-51’s lost papers warned airmen not to carry sensitive documents into combat. The Poltava affair came to be seen as a stew of inefficiency, confusion, American hubris, and German skill. The Soviets took the raid in stride; the Luftwaffe always merited respect— how odd that the Americans had been caught so flat-footed.
For the Luftwaffe pilots, Poltava briefly harkened to Barbarossa’s early days. The night of June 22, the invasion anniversary, Fliegerkorps IV returned to Mirgorod and Piryatin. They missed Piryatin and hit Mirgorod hard, but the American bombers were still elsewhere. That day, the great Soviet offensive, Operation Bagration, began. Meister’s unit returned to providing ground support, but within weeks its Heinkels were out of gas. By September Fliegerkorps IV no longer existed.
Disaster did not end the shuttle experiment, but the handwriting was on the wall. Missions continued into September 1944, the last one a September 18 attempt to support the Polish underground’s doomed uprising in Warsaw. The next day the B-17s left Poltava for good. As fall cooled into winter, only a skeleton crew of Americans remained in Ukraine, closing up shop at the Operation Frantic bases.
Originally published in the February 2015 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.