Contributor: David Stubblebine
ww2dbaseOriginally conceived as a means to simultaneously bomb German targets normally beyond the range of American bombers and build trust between the United States and the Soviet Union, Operation Frantic ultimately did little of either.
ww2dbaseBy the fall of 1943, the Germans had moved many of their armament factories eastward, beyond the range of bombers flying from the United Kingdom or Italy. These plants were within range of Soviet air bases but the Soviet Union had not developed a heavy bombing program. In order to reach these plants, the United States Army Air Forces proposed "shuttle bombing" - flying American aircraft into and out of bases in Soviet territory from bases in England or Italy, allowing them to reach what would otherwise be out-of-reach targets in eastern Germany, Poland and the Balkans. The shuttle bombing tactic proved useful earlier in the war when American bombers flew from England to targets deep in southern Germany and then on to bases in North Africa. After reaching the Russian bases, the bombers could then strike other hard-to-reach targets on the flights back to their home bases. Further, it was hoped this arrangement would thin the German fighter dispersal on the western front ahead of the impending Normandy landings. Even more hopeful was the long-range desire the Soviets would allow American bombers to operate from Siberia to bomb Japan (a diplomatically dicey idea since the Soviet Union was not then at war with Japan).
ww2dbaseCode-named Operation Frantic, the shuttle bombing concept was initially proposed through military channels in 1942 but the Russians were unenthusiastic. United States President Franklin Roosevelt liked the idea, however, and discussed it personally with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin at the Tehran Conference in Nov 1943. Roosevelt saw the military advantages but also hoped more face-to-face cooperation with the Russians would be something he could build on diplomatically. After Tehran, the United States ambassador to the Soviet Union, Averell Harriman, and United States military advisors in Moscow continued to negotiate for the program.
ww2dbaseThe British were aware of the proposal and agreed to offer some support but they declined to take part, regarding it as little more than a stunt. Unlike Roosevelt, Winston Churchill was far less optimistic that the overture would do anything to warm Stalin into offering any real cooperation.
ww2dbaseAs Churchill had surmised, Stalin remained reluctant since in nearly all matters, it was his nature to be suspicious and distrusting. There were many obstacles to overcome from Stalin's perspective, however, not the least of which was that he would be allowing a foreign nation's armed forces within Soviet borders for the first time in Russian history. After slow and tedious negotiations, Stalin approved the use of Russian bases "in principle" but at the same time, worked against any swiftness in working out the details. Despite the United States providing massive amounts of war materiel to the Soviet Union via Lend Lease, dealings with the Soviets usually only allowed compromises to go one way: the Americans gave in to whatever the Soviets insisted on.
ww2dbaseThe shuttle-bombing operation ultimately did not begin until Jun 1944 and once again, the Americans had misjudged Stalin and underestimated the Russians' deep distrust of the United States. The Soviets permitted the Americans the use of three airfields in Ukraine. Closest to the front was Pyriatyn (called Piryatin in 1944 American documents), about 90 miles east of Kiev, and Myrhorod (called Mirgorod) 50 miles east of Pyriatyn, and Poltava another 40 miles east of that. The western-most base, Pyriatyn, would be home to the fighter escorts, long-range P-51 Mustangs and P-38 Lightnings, while B-17 Fortresses would fly into Myrhorod and Poltava. The USAAF Eastern Command was also located at Poltava in a joint Soviet-American headquarters. The American forces were put under the command of Major General Robert L. Walsh. The Russians allowed Eastern Command only 1,200 permanent staff at Poltava, which included all ground and maintenance personnel.
ww2dbaseThe bases had been left in ruins by the retreating Germans, who also left behind several booby-traps. All support facilities such as hangars and control towers had to be rebuilt. With no barrack buildings, personnel were billeted in tents. The runways were bare earth and with no time to lay down hard-top runways, 12,393 tons of pierced-steel Marston Mats were installed instead.
ww2dbaseThe steel mats, of course, had to be imported from the United States via the Northern convoys to Murmansk, Russia and then by rail to Ukraine. This was also true of most of the supply chain, from high-octane gasoline to bombs to vehicles to spare parts and most rations (the Soviets supplied meat and fresh vegetables). The Soviets also supplied the labor, which in many cases included women doing heavy work.
ww2dbaseIn a stipulation that would prove critical, the Russians would not allow American fighters to perform air base defense. The three airfields would be protected by Soviet anti-aircraft batteries and Yak-9 fighters.
ww2dbaseBy the time the program was finally ready for implementation, the overall situation had changed in many ways. The Soviet Army had rapidly advanced farther west so the three Operation Frantic bases were even farther from the German lines and their operational value reduced. As the Russians began to sense victory at their own hand, they became even less willing to have foreign forces based in their territory, especially in politically unstable Ukraine.
ww2dbaseDespite the reluctance of the Soviets and the physical improvements needed at the Ukrainian bases, Operation Frantic flew its first operational mission on 2 Jun 1944, barely ahead of the Normandy operations as the Americans had initially hoped. The first mission was called "Frantic Joe" and was flown by the Fifteenth Air Force based in Italy with Lieutenant General Ira C. Eaker in command. Eaker wanted to strike aircraft factories in Latvia and Poland beyond what American bombers could ordinarily reach, but the Russians would not approve those targets. Eaker had to settle for a not particularly important railway yard in Hungary that, ironically, did not require shuttle bombing since it was as close to Italy as it was to Russia, but this was all the Soviets would authorize.
ww2dbase"Frantic Joe" included 130 B-17 bombers and 70 P-51 escort fighters on the a seven-hour flight to Poltava and Myrhorod. Eaker himself flew as copilot on one of the bombers and upon arrival at Poltava, they were greeted by the base commander, Soviet Air Force Major General Alexei R. Perminov, as well as Harriman and his staff from Moscow. The warm welcome was reported by about 20 American, British, and Russian war correspondents who were present taking notes and pictures. The event got worldwide publicity, which displeased Stalin. He was bothered by what he thought were stories describing the Americans as the ones winning the war in the east. He probably did not much like the name "Frantic Joe" either.
ww2dbaseOperation Frantic was conceived from the beginning as two-way bombing missions, bombing on their way into Ukraine and bombing again on their way out. As the return trip for "Frantic Joe" was delayed in Ukraine by bad weather, the D-Day landings took place in Normandy, France. The overall commander of the United States Air Forces in Europe, Lieutenant General Carl Spaatz, instructed Eaker to remain in Russia a few extra days to threaten the German rear and perhaps draw some Luftwaffe fighters away from Normandy. On 6 Jun 1944, at the behest of the Soviets, Operation Frantic aircraft flying from Ukraine attacked an airfield in Galati, Romania and then returned to the bases in Ukraine. Eaker led the bombers back to Italy on 11 Jun 1944, bombing the airfield at Focsani, Romania along the way.
ww2dbase"Frantic Joe" led to high hopes for Operation Frantic but it turned out to be the high point of the entire effort. The second Frantic mission was flown from England on 21 Jun 1944. The 1,550-mile trip to Poltava required using "Tokyo tanks" for extra fuel that extended the range of the 114 B-17s by 40%. The bombers were escorted by 70 P-51 Mustangs and the target was a synthetic oil plant south of Berlin. When retiring toward Ukraine, the Americans saw a lone German Bf 109 fighter keeping pace with them that would duck into the clouds when the fighters went after it. It reported the position of the bombers to the Luftwaffe and an He 177 reconnaissance aircraft was able to photograph the American bombers on the ground shortly after they landed at Poltava. When the reconnaissance plane was returning toward the German lines, it had to fly near the American fighter base at Pyriatyn but the Russians would not allow the American fighters to intercept it.
ww2dbaseIn very short order, the Germans mounted a nighttime bombing strike against Poltava with Heinkel He 111 medium bombers of General Rudolf Meister's Fliegerkorps IV plus a squadron of Junkers Ju-88s, 150 bombers in all. Again, American fighters were not allowed to intercept them. Instead, they were intercepted by Russian Yak-9 fighters but the Germans shot down one and chased the others away. The German bombers were to bomb both Myrhorod and Poltava but a mix-up with the German pathfinders brought the entire force to Poltava. Shortly after midnight on the very night the American bombers arrived, Poltava came under an aerial bombing attack that lasted two hours. The attack was unhampered by anything resembling an effective air defense by the Russians. There were no shielded revetments for the American bombers. German flares lit up the airfield like daylight, allowing for extremely accurate bombing. 43 B-17s were destroyed on the ground along with 15 P-51s and another 26 bombers were damaged. 450,000 gallons of high-octane aviation fuel and most of the munitions in the bomb dump, all requiring great effort to even get to Poltava, were also lost. Almost 30,000 rounds of Russian anti-aircraft fire, aided by searchlights, failed to bring down a single German aircraft. The German raid on Poltava was the costliest enemy air raid for the United States Army Air Force since the Japanese caught Douglas MacArthur's aircraft on the ground in the Philippines on 8 Dec 1941.
ww2dbaseThe other two airfields were struck the following night but with less damage. The surviving American aircraft departed for Italy 26 Jun 1944, striking an oil refinery in Poland on the way. The same day, the USAAF requested permission for a squadron of P-61 Black Widow night fighters to come to Ukraine to defend the bases. The application was delayed in Moscow and shuttled from office to office until it finally just evaporated.
ww2dbaseOne historian would later write, "The German strike on Poltava cast a pall on Frantic ... By July, even transient aircrews who were on the ground for only a few days noticed that relations between the Americans and Soviets were showing signs of tension and strain."
ww2dbaseBecause of the fuel shortages created by the attack, only two fighter-bomber missions were flown in Jul 1944. These were largely placeholder missions to keep the operation alive on some level and were otherwise peripheral to the overall mission.
ww2dbaseThe political pressure to continue the operation was so great that two more bomber shuttle missions were ordered from England for 6 Aug 1944 and 11 Sept 1944 even though there had been no improved provisions for air defense. The Soviet attitudes had changed sharply from the warm welcome offered to General Eaker and "Frantic Joe." Besides being evident in everyday encounters between Russians and Americans, tensions were also expressed in the form of official obstructionism and harassment. The thinking among American officers was that the shift was directed by Stalin himself who was having profound second thoughts about Operation Frantic. Stalin did not want to share credit for the Soviet Army's success or have it appear the Red Army needed help. More importantly, he did not want to share postwar control of the vast territory in eastern Europe then falling under his flag. This would become dramatically apparent in the course of the final Frantic mission.
ww2dbaseAs the Soviet army approached Warsaw in Poland, Polish resistance began attacking the German occupiers in what became the Warsaw Uprising of 1 Aug 1944. The Russians halted their advance and allowed the Germans to turn their full attention to the internal struggle within Warsaw. United States officials in Washington wanted to make supply drops to the resistance fighters in Warsaw but that could not be done without use of the Operation Frantic bases in Ukraine and the Soviets refused. Personal appeals directly to Stalin from both Roosevelt and Churchill made no difference. Stalin did not want to share postwar control of Poland with the Polish; he was satisfied with allowing the Germans to eliminate his competition.
ww2dbaseAfter the Warsaw resistance fighters took a month of pounding at the hands of the Germans, Stalin finally agreed to the supply drop. On 18 Sep 1944, 107 B-17s took off from England bound for Warsaw. 1,284 containers of machine-gun parts, pistols, ammunition, explosives, food, and medical supplies were dropped - but 75% or more did not reach the resistance fighters and were recovered by the Germans. Stalin would not approve another supply drop and by the time the Russian Army resumed its advance, the Germans had killed nearly 250,000 Poles and crushed the uprising.
ww2dbaseThis was the last operational mission of Operation Frantic. Poltava was now so far from the German front that it had little strategic value. The early idea of working with the Soviets to allow bombing missions from Siberia to Japan was politically impossible and strategically unnecessary, since Japan had been brought within bomber range by securing the Mariana Islands. Even so, there were many reasons the Americans wanted to maintain a presence at Poltava. Soviet obstructionism intensified, bogging down all American movements. Every interaction was a struggle. There were some hopes of resuming bombing operations in the spring of 1945 but Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov bluntly told the Americans that the Russians wanted their bases back. The United States ultimately turned over their stockpiles to the Russians who received the goods with the usual lack of grace. One of the transfers was a warehouse full of food, including more sugar and jam than the Russians had ever seen plus thousands of cans of peaches. The Russians later complained that they were shorted 10 cans of peaches from the listed inventory.
ww2dbaseThe last Americans finally left Poltava 23 Jul 1945, shortly after the fall of Germany. During the course of Operation Frantic, American bombers and fighters flew 2,207 sorties to or from Ukraine with combat losses of five B-17 bombers and 17 fighters. The planners had hoped for 800 bombing sorties a month; in four months, the entire operation resulted in just 851 bombing sorties. Adding to the insult, all of the bombing targets could have been struck without using the Ukrainian bases and with less effort. The official USAAF post-war history said, "Some of the attacks would probably not have been regarded as worth making but for the desire to use those [Soviet] bases." Neither did the operation result in the desired diversion of German air defenses; the Luftwaffe did not move any of its fighters east.
ww2dbaseAverill Harriman later said, "From a political viewpoint, President Roosevelt was determined that he could use a wartime friendliness with Stalin to develop a successful postwar relationship." Not only did this wish fall flat at the time, the momentum of the many American concessions and compromises during Operation Frantic carried forward into the Cold War, to the detriment of the west and the benefit of the Soviets. One author said, "Stalin used â€˜Operation Frantic' to probe the Americans to see what manner of men they were and to test their mettle."
Air Force Magazine - 1 Mar 2011
United States Air Force Historical Research Agency
United States Army Signal Corps
Stalin's American Air Force - Operation Frantic 1944; Mark Felton Productions (YouTube)
Warfare History Network
History.net - Blow Out at Poltava; Richard R. Muller, Feb 2015
The Telegraph - 1 Dec 2019
Stars and Stripes - 7 May 2015
Last Major Update: Apr 2021
Operation Frantic Interactive Map
Operation Frantic Timeline
|2 Jun 1944||US suttle-bombing between Italy and the USSR (Operation Frantic) began. Under command of Lieutenant General Ira C Eaker, 130 B-17s, escorted by 70 P-51s, bombed the railway marshalling yard at Debreczen (Debrecen), Hungary and landed in the Soviet Union; the B-17s at Poltava and Myrhorod, the P-51s at Pyriatyn. 1 B-17 was lost over the target.|
|6 Jun 1944||Operation Frantic shuttle bombing continued as 104 B-17s and 42 P-51s (having flown to the USSR from Italy on 2 Jun) attacked the airfield at GalaÈ›i, Romania and returned to Soviet shuttle bases; 8 German fighters were shot down and 2 P-51s were lost.|
|11 Jun 1944||126 B-17s and 60 P-51s departed Russian shuttle bases for Italy to complete the first Operation Frantic operation. On the way, 121 B-17s bombed the FocÅŸani, Romania airfield.|
|21 Jun 1944||145 B-17s began an Operation Frantic shuttle bombing mission between the United Kingdom and bases in Ukraine. 72 P-38s, 38 P-47s and 57 P-51s escorted the bombers to the target, the synthetic oil plant at Ruhland, Germany. 123 B-17s bombed the primary target while the rest bombed secondary targets. The fighter escort returned to England while fighters based at Pyriatyn, Ukraine relieved them. 1 B-17 was lost to unknown causes and 144 B-17s landed in the USSR, 73 at Poltava and the rest at Myrhorod. During the night, the 73 B-17s at Poltava were attacked for 2 hours by an estimated 75 German bombers led by aircraft dropping flares. 47 B-17s were destroyed and most of the rest were severely damaged. Heavy damage was also suffered by the stores of fuel, ammunition, and ordinance.|
|22 Jun 1944||Because of the attack on Operation Frantic B-17s at Poltava, Ukraine the night before, the B-17s at Myrhorod and P-51s at Pyriatyn were moved farther east to be returned before departing to bases in Italy once the weather permitted. The move was fortunate as German bombers struck both Pyriatyn and Myrhorod during the night.|
|25 Jun 1944||At daybreak, B-17s and P-51s were flown from dispersal bases to Poltava and Myrhorod and loaded and fueled with intentions of bombing the oil refinery at Drohobycz (Drohobych), Poland before proceeding to bases in Italy as part of Operation Franticâ€™s shuttle-bombing plan. Bad weather canceled the mission until the following day. The aircraft returned to dispersal bases for the night as precaution against air attacks.|
|26 Jun 1944||72 B-17s departed Poltava and Myrhorod, Ukraine, rendezvoused with 55 P-51s from Pyriatyn, bombed the oil refinery and railway marshalling yard at Drohobycz (Drohobych), Poland (1 returned to the USSR because of mechanical trouble), and then proceeded to Italy as part of Operation Franticâ€™s shuttle-bombing plan.|
|2 Jul 1944||41 P-51s, temporarily in Italy while en route from the USSR to the UK during an Operation Frantic shuttle mission, joined Fifteenth Air Force fighters in escorting Fifteenth Air Force bombers against targets in the Budapest, Hungary area, claiming 9 aircraft destroyed and suffering 4 losses.|
|3 Jul 1944||55 B-17s in Italy on the return leg of an Operation Frantic shuttle mission join Fifteenth Air Force bombers in bombing railway marshalling yards at Arad, Romania. 38 P-51s also on the shuttle run flew escort on the mission. All Operation Frantic aircraft returned to bases in Italy.|
|5 Jul 1944||70 B-17s on an Operation Frantic shuttle mission (UK-USSR-Italy-UK) flew from bases in Italy and attacked the railway marshalling yard at Beziers, France (along with Fifteenth Air Force B-24s) while on the last leg from Italy to the United Kingdom. 42 P-51s returned to England with the B-17s (of the 11 P-51s remaining in Italy, 10 returned to England the following day and the last several days later).|
|22 Jul 1944||76 P-38s and 58 P-51s began the second of the Fifteenth Air Forceâ€™s Operation Frantic shuttle missions, attacking airfields at ZiliÅŸtea (ZiliÅŸteanca) and BuzÄƒu, Romania (claiming the destruction of 56 enemy aircraft) and landing at Operation Frantic bases in Ukraine.|
|26 Jul 1944||Fifteenth Air Force fighters on an Operation Frantic shuttle mission leave Ukraine bases, strafed enemy aircraft in the Bucharest-PloeÅŸti, Romania area, and returned to bases in Italy.|
|4 Aug 1944||In an attempt to comply with the first direct Soviet request for USAAF air strikes, over 70 P-38s and P-51s left Italy, attacked the airfield and town of FocÅŸani, Romania, and landed at Operation Frantic bases in Ukraine.|
|6 Aug 1944||In an Operation Frantic mission, 75 B-17s from England bombed aircraft factories at Gdynia and Rahmel, Poland and flew on to bases in Ukraine. 23 B-17s were damaged. Escort was provided by 154 P-51s. 4 P-51s were lost and 1 was damaged beyond repair. Further, 60 fighters from the previous dayâ€™s strike took off from Operation Frantic bases in Ukraine, attacked Craiova railway marshalling yard and other railway targets in the Bucharest-Ploesti, Romania area, and landed at bases in Italy.|
|7 Aug 1944||In accordance with a Soviet request, 55 B-17s and 29 P-51s of the USAAF involved in Operation Frantic flew from bases in Ukraine and attacked an oil refinery at Trzebinia, Poland without loss and returned to Operation Frantic bases in the USSR.|
|8 Aug 1944||Operation Frantic shuttle missions continued as 78 B-17s with 55 P-51s as escort left bases in Ukraine and bombed airfields in Romania; 38 bombed BuzÄƒu and 35 bombed ZiliÅŸtea. No German fighters were encountered and the force flew on to Italy.|
|10 Aug 1944||45 P-51s in Italy during an Operation Frantic shuttle mission are dispatched with Fifteenth Air Force aircraft to escort a troop carrier evacuation mission.|
|12 Aug 1944||The Operation Frantic shuttle-bombing mission UK-USSR-Italy-UK is completed. 72 B-17s took off from bases in Italy and bombed the Toulouse-Francazal Airfield, France before flying on to England. 62 P-51s (part of the shuttle-mission force) and 43 from the UK provide escort; no aircraft are lost.|
|11 Sep 1944||75 B-17s of Operation Frantic shuttle missions left England as part of a larger raid to oil refineries at Chemnitz along with 64 P-51s that continued on and landed in Ukraine.|
|13 Sep 1944||73 B-17s, escorted by 63 P-51s, continuing the Operation Frantic UK-USSR-Italy-UK shuttle-bombing mission, took off from Ukraine bases, bombed a steel and armament works at DiÃ³sgyÅ‘r, Hungary and proceeded to Fifteenth Air Force bases in Italy.|
|15 Sep 1944||As part of Operation Frantic, 110 B-17s were dispatched from England to drop supplies to Warsaw resistance fighters and then proceed to bases in the USSR but a weather front was encountered over the North Sea and the bombers were recalled. Escort is provided by 149 P-51s and 2 P-51s collided in a cloud and were lost.|
|17 Sep 1944||An Operation Frantic UK-USSR-Italy-UK shuttle mission was completed as 72 B-17s and 59 P-51s fly without bombs from Italy to England.|
|18 Sep 1944||In Britain, crews of US 100th Bomber Group were briefed in the early morning, joined by 355th Fighter Group intelligence officer Danny M. Lewis and 358th Fighter Squadron technical officer Captain E. H. McMillan. They were later joined by Brigadier General Mateusz Izycki of the Polish Air Force. At dawn, starting around 0600 hours, 110 B-17 aircraft loaded with supplies for Polish resistance fighters took off from various bases in Britain with fighters in escort. Preceding them were British Mosquito light bombers, which would arrive over Warsaw, Poland 20 minutes prior to the B-17 bombers to relay weather information and reports on German defense. One of the B-17 bombers developed engine trouble over Torun-Brodnica-Rypin area about 150 kilometers northwest of Warsaw and was forced to dump some cargo containers to save weight; this would provide the Germans some clue as to the mission and destination of this flight. German fighters began attacking over the Szcztno-Zakrocym-Nasielski area at 1237 hours as the first bombers arrived over Warsaw. While many of the containers went into the hands of the resistance fighters, a larger number were captured by the Germans; ironically, food and German ammunition (meant for Polish fighters operating captured German weapons) would be used by German troops.|
|22 Sep 1944||The last Operation Frantic mission ended as 84 B-17s and 51 P-51s return to England from Italy.|
|24 Sep 1944||US Ambassador to the United Kingdom John Winant met with US Army Air Forces generals Carl Spaatz and Ira Eaker to discuss the possibility of conducting another major supply drop for resistance fighters in Warsaw, Poland. They concluded that similar missions should not be conducted due to the closure of US bases in the Soviet Union (the closure was planned for 5 Oct 1944), the shortening of daylight hours, and the rate of aircraft loss.|
|27 Sep 1944||Carl Spaatz authorized a plan for Operation Frantic 8, which called for 72 B-17 bombers, 64 P-51 fighters, and 2 Mosquito aircraft to drop supplies to Polish resistance fighters in Warsaw, Poland on 30 Sep 1944. The Soviets, whose bases were required for receiving the bombers after the operation, agreed only after Winston Churchill personally asserted pressure on Joseph Stalin.|
|28 Sep 1944||In the United Kingdom, US airmen were awarded by the Polish government-in-exile for having dropped supplies to Polish resistance fighters in Warsaw, Poland during Operation Frantic 7. Colonel Karl Truesdell, Jr. received the Virtuti Militari 5th Class personally awarded by Commander-in-Chief General Kazimierz Sosnkowski, while nine other airmen received the Cross of Valor.|
|30 Sep 1944||Operation Frantic 8, a USAAF air mission to supply Polish resistance fighters in Warsaw, Poland scheduled for this date, was postponed to 1 Oct 1944.|
|1 Oct 1944||Operation Frantic 8, a USAAF air mission to supply Polish resistance fighters in Warsaw, Poland scheduled for this date, was postponed to 2 Oct 1944 due to weather.|
|2 Oct 1944||Operation Frantic 8, a USAAF air mission to supply Polish resistance fighters in Warsaw, Poland scheduled for this date, was postponed to 3 Oct 1944 due to weather. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union sent the Americans a falsified report which claimed that the Soviets had evacuated a large number of Polish resistance fighters from Warsaw, Poland, thus the planned airdrop mission would not be necessary.|
|23 Jul 1945||The last USAAF personnel of Operation Frantic left Poltava, Ukraine as the final step in closing the operation.|
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Captain Henry P. Jim Crowe, Guadalcanal, 13 Jan 1943
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