15th Airforce in the Balkans III

Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, Maj. Gen. F. L. Anderson, Spaatz’s deputy for operations, was still hopeful that a few good days might be vouchsafed to them, although his weather experts cheerfully assured him that the chances were 8 to 1 against it. In spite of this dubious prediction, on the 11th he wrote to General Laurence S. Kuter, one of the authors of AFWD/1 and currently on the air war planning staff in Washington, D.C., that he was “now in the midst of preparing a plan which will best exploit the destruction of the aircraft and ball-bearing factories.” His confidence was justified. The atmospheric conditions took a turn for the better; on the 17th, Anderson was informed that a stretch of relatively good weather seemed to be shaping up. With this long-awaited gift of fortune almost in his hands, General Spaatz began to set in motion the machinery for a combined offensive by the Eighth and Fifteenth, when suddenly a new obstacle appeared.

As this study has already pointed out, the directive, which provided for the control of the Fifteenth, permitted the theater commander to make use of the strategic air arm in case of an emergency. The battle at the Anzio beachhead, which had been going on since 22 January, was reaching a climax. On the night of 15-16 February, the Germans launched a heavy counterattack with intensive air and artillery preparation. The situation was critical, and General Mark C. Clark, commanding General of the Fifth Army in Italy, and Maj. Gen. John K. Cannon of the tactical air force felt the need of assistance from the heavy bombers of the strategic force. This was of course the possibility foreseen in the directive giving many months before to Allied Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean General Harry Wilson when received the authority to temporarily withdraw the Fifteenth from POINTBLANK to assist in the land attack.  Nevertheless, General Eaker, for the sake of precedent, wished to prevent a situation where an official demarche by General Wilson would be necessary. Consequently, when it was apparent that a combined operation was to take place on the 20th, General Eaker signaled Spaatz on their private wire as follows:

“Re your mission assignment to Fifteenth for tomorrow, here is our situation: (a) Clark and Cannon believe tomorrow will be critical day in beachhead: both hope for full heavy bomber help. Cannon believes some heavies must help. (b) Our weather prophets believe we have little chance for visual targets in South Germany. You speak of area targets.

We have no H2X as you know. In view of foregoing, we face this problem:

Shall General Wilson declare emergency under CCS directive and employ heavies. I hope to avoid this. Will you therefore tell me as soon as possible whether your other planned attacks require our help as diversion even with no prospect of visual bombing. In that event we must make a split and send five or six groups on one or two targets you name and put at least four on beachhead support. In view of our dilemma, please give me desires.”

General Spaatz immediately gave Eaker a release from the combined operation, but he was concerned for fear a continuous emergency at the beachhead might interfere with POINTBLANK. During the next two or three days, the favorable weather conditions, which had been so anxiously awaited for almost three months, might occur. Consequently, although he appreciated the emergency conditions at the beachhead and was willing to release the Fifteenth from participation in the POINTBLANK operation scheduled for the 20th, he hoped nothing “would prevent heavy force of Fifteenth Air Force from being utilized against POINTBLANK targets Monday and Tuesday (21 and 22 February) if weather permits.”

In this way the power of the Fifteenth was made available to the ground forces without the necessity of General Wilson’s intervention under the provisions of the CCS directive. In fact, such action was never necessary because this procedure set the pattern for the future. There were at least six occasions when the effort of the heavy bombers was swung to the side of the ground forces; on each occasion, the cooperation was secured on a request basis. As a result of the arrangement with General Spaatz, the Fifteenth dispatched 105 bombers to the beachhead on the 20th, while another force of 126 attempted to reach Regensburg but was prevented by the weather which, in south Germany at least, failed to live up to expectations. It was not until the 22nd that a combined operation was possible.

Meanwhile, the Fifteenth force had at last been able to get its planes into southern Germany.  While the Eighth was struggling with weather and the Luftwaffe, the Fifteenth was attacking the great Messerschmitt complex at Regensburg.  Sixty-five Flying Fortresses dropped 153 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs on the Messerschmitt factory; weather prevented an accurate appraisal of the bombing. At the same time, 118 Liberators attacked the aircraft factory at Regensburg/Obertraubling with GP and incendiary bombs. Here again, poor photos and bad weather prevented an estimate of the results, although visual observations during the attack indicated that the target area was hit—and one considerable explosion was noted. At the same time, 28 unescorted B-17’s dropped 81 tons of 500-lb. GP bombs on the Zagreb (Yugoslavia) airdrome with fair results.

Although the operations of 22 February were not among the most successful of the so-called Big Week, they are of special interest because of the fact that both the Eighth and the Fifteenth were able to run coordinated missions.  Those who have struggled along with the author of this study so far will recall that one of the arguments for the creation of the Fifteenth Air Force was based on the idea of combined operations with the Eighth. Nevertheless, bad weather and the demands of the land battle in Italy made such coordination relatively rare. In this particular case, it is not clear whether or not the combination was of much assistance to either force. The heavy losses of the Eighth do not appear to have been greatly affected by the attack on Regensburg or the Zagreb airdrome; nor was the operation against the Regensburg factories of sufficient weight to divert many of the fighter groups from central Germany. The one-two punch against the German aircraft industry by both the strategic air forces was still something to be worked out in the future.

Italian production of aero-engines was estimated at 150 per month, and it was believed that some of the Daimler-Benz machinery had been shipped to Italy.

Meanwhile, additional Me-109 output was being developed at Brasov, Rumania, and Gyor, Hungary. The Hungarian Car and Machinery Works in Gyor had been manufacturing a wide variety of war equipment since 1941. According to ground intelligence, plans for 1944 production called for a monthly output of 50 Me-109’s; it was believed that the Germans were sending production machinery to Gyor to avoid the bombing further west. 

These new developments in German aircraft production were largely within the Fifteenth’s sphere of operation. With its principal POINTBLANK effort directed against Messerschmitt production, it had attacked the Weiner Neustadt complex on 2 November and stopped work there for several months.  By the end of March, the Fifteenth was ready to turn its attention to the second unit of the complex, the Machinery Werke aircraft factory in the Vienna area, and to the new production centers at Gyor and Brasov. In addition, attacks were planned for other vitals of the complex now dispersed to plants in Austria and Yugoslavia, including a network of smaller plants in the Vienna area. As February ended, a new target priority was received at Fifteenth Air Force headquarters; accordingly, the following priorities were set up:

 Szigetszentmiklos, Hungry (ball-bearings)

 Stuttgart (ball-bearings)

 Fischen, Germany (Me-109)

 Budapest (Me-109)

 Schwechat, Austria  (Me-209)

 Friedrichshafen, Germany (Do-217)

 Friedrichshafen, other plants

 Frankfurt (Me-109)

Additional information on the eastward dispersal of the GAF was soon forthcoming.  Photo reconnaissance of the Budapest/Weiss airfield revealed an assembly plant that seemed to be engaged in the final assembly of the Me-410, possibly in connection with the plant Szigetszentmiklos (Hungary). The Macchi aircraft plant at Varese, Italy, was now confirmed as an active producer of the single seat MC-205 fighter, with monthly output estimates at 50 aircraft. Since the Big Week, the Italian aircraft industry had increased in importance, and it was believed that the Luftwaffe would have to use some Italian fighters to make up for their losses. On 5 March, General Eaker informed the commander of the Fifteenth, General Twining, that photo reconnaissance indicated large concentrations of enemy aircraft at six German fields including Oberpfaffenhofen and Poker. These fields were to be hit whenever the opportunity offered, but such problems should not be allowed to interfere with primary objectives.

Unfortunately, the incredibly bad weather, which had hampered the operations of the Fifteenth Air Force ever since its activation, persisted throughout much of the spring of 1944. Although the weather in northern Italy was not too bad, there were few POINTBLANK targets in this area. Storms in the trans-Alpine region frequently prevented the deep penetrations that the more important POINTBLANK objectives required. Consequently, the Fifteenth devoted most of its operations during March to the support of the land battle in Italy, especially the Anzio and Monte Cassino actions.

Airfields were also the target for the Fifteenth. On the 3nd of March, small forces bombed Viterbo, Canino, and Fabrica di Roma without conspicuous success.

On the 7th, the Fifteenth returned to the airfields in the Rome area, striking Fabrica di Roma, Orvieto, and two fields at Viterbo. Only at Fabrica di Roma and the main Viterbo field was assessment possible, with bursts showing on both those landing grounds. Clearing weather over northern Europe permitted the Eighth to make another attempt at the Berlin area on the 8th, and 620 bombers dropped 940.5 tons on the ball-bearing plant targeted. The excellent visibility permitted accurate bombing, and General Spaatz believed the target had been completely destroyed. Once again the Luftwaffe put up a sturdy defense as the loss of thiryt-seven bombers and seventeen fighters indicated.  Total bomber and fighter claims came to 123-26-41.

While the Eighth was engaged in the skies over southern Germany, the Fifteenth was carrying out one of the most brilliantly planned aerial maneuvers of the European war. The target was a group of airfields and landing grounds located in the area surrounding Udine at the northern tip of the Adriatic. This “pocket of enemy air power,” as a tactical mission report described it, operated directly against the most convenient routes from Italy to targets in Austria and southern Germany. It was a constant source of irritation to the Fifteenth Air Force. Recognizing the strategic importance of these bases, the Luftwaffe began to concentrate considerable strength on them early in 1944. The photo reconnaissance of 29 January showed approximately 170 fighters present in the area. The highly successful raids of 30 January reduced this number to about 70 undamaged planes; however, due to the important part these airfields played in the defense of southern Germany, the destroyed and damaged planes were replaced and fighter strength was gradually built up again. Recent photos of the fighter airfields at Lavariano, Maniago, Gorizia, Udine and  Ossoppo, Italy, showed a total of 235 enemy aircraft, and it was known that the Villaorba landing ground was the main base for the German bombers harassing allied shipping in and around Anzio-Bettuno area. (When this photo reconnaissance was conducted, the Maniago field actually showed a drop from fifty to twenty aircraft present. However, at this time a raid was going on in the Vienna area, and it was assumed that some of the Maniago planes were taking part in the battle.)

To neutralize these fields and destroy the maximum number of enemy planes, a series of carefully planned and timed operations was worked out, and was mounted on the morning of 18 March. The first phase occurred when 95 P-38’s took off at 0720 hours, rendezvoused at 1,000 San Severo, then flew off down the Adriatic at approximately 75 feet above the water to avoid radar detection. Nearing the coast, they rose to 6,000 feet and separated to perform their parts in the developing action. One group circled over Treviso, strafed trains and airfields, made a short patrol north to the mountains, and then flew to Venice to continue its nuisance activities. Others carried out a fighter sweep in great force at 0920 in the Udine/Villaorba area and succeeded in holding most of the enemy fighters on the ground.

Meanwhile, 113 B-17’s had been flying up the Yugoslav coast making a feint toward southern Germany and flushing up the fighters based in the Klagenfurt and Graz areas.  When the bombers reached a point northeast of Fiume, instead of continuing into southern Germany, they turned sharply west drawing the Klagenfurt/Graz attacking forces with them.  Shortly afterwards, at 1013 hours they dropped 20 lb. fragmentation bombs on the Villaorba and Udine landing grounds.  Just as the bombing ceased, the Klagenfurt/Graz fighters, who had considerably extended themselves, had to land to refuel; however, because of the damage to the fields just bombed, they had to come down at other near-by bases. 

The stage was thus set for the final phase. While the enemy aircraft normally based in the area were concentrated on the ground, together with the fighters from the Klagenfurt and Graz areas, three task forces of 72, 67, and 121 Liberators swept in to blast the fields at Gorizia, Lavariano, and Maniago between 1059 and 1111 hours. The effect was devastating: a total of 32,370, 20 lb. fragmentation bombs dropped; only two enemy aircraft were able to get off the ground to intercept the B-24 forces. This raid was a heavy blow to enemy air power in northern Italy. In the official report, the task forces were credited with destroying or damaging fifty-eight aircraft on the ground. Bomber claims for the aerial battle were 23-7-9, and the fighters claimed 33-3-3. Losses were extremely light: of the 498 bombers and 176 fighters that went out, 7 and 4, respectively, failed to return.


The Fifteenth Air Force was equally handicapped by some of the worst weather observed in years; however, unlike the Eighth, it was also involved in occasional support of ground battle. A certain amount of time and effort were spent on the Anzio operations, on the Cassino battle, and in attacks on rail communications in the peninsula. Theoretically, POINTBLANK remained the top priority for the Fifteenth, but for the aforementioned reasons, little could be done against the aircraft factories located across the Alps in Austria and southern Germany. Instead, counter-air operations took the form of attacks against airdromes. This not only satisfied General Arnold’s instructions to hit the Luftwaffe in the air and on the ground but also gave support to the ground battle. A total of 1,731 tons was dropped on these targets during the month, as compared with 417 tons dropped on similar objectives in February; however, the March tonnage on aircraft and components factories was 894 tons.  Losses were considerably less than in the previous month, being only 2 percent of the 4,201 effective sorties. Joint bomber and fighter claims of destroyed enemy aircraft came to 210.

Naturally the many demands on the Fifteenth Air Force sometimes produced disagreements in the high places. Something like this took place toward the end of March.  General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, the theater commander, had ordered the strategic force to proceed against the marshalling yards at Bucharest, Ploesti, and other Italian targets, although Air Marshal Sir Charles Portal had decided that Ploesti was not to be bombed. General Spaatz requested General Arnold to straighten the matter with the higher authorities, stating that it seemed there were too many people giving orders to the Fifteenth, and that he could not accept responsibility for the control of the strategic force until the matter was clarified.

This cable produced some deliberation and action. General Arnold at once protested to Air Marshal Portal against the diversion of the Fifteenth into Balkan operations. It was his understanding that General Spaatz should control the strategic air forces under Portal’s direction, as provided for by the Combined Chiefs of Staff. At the same time, General Anderson and General Charles P. Cabell, director of plans for the USSTAF protested against the apparent desire of the British to give the theater commanders the right to direct strategic attacks against political objectives – for example, the desire to attack partisans in the Balkans– whenever desired.

In his reply to Arnold, Portal stated that he respected the command arrangements made and did not wish to deviate from them, but the British believed a very favorable situation existed in the Balkans, and he wished to exploit it. He urged the theater commander in the Mediterranean be given authority to order the Fifteenth to attack certain Balkan targets. The matter came before CCS almost immediately and their decision was in favor of the British request. Arnold continued to insist, however, that Balkan’s targets should be attacked only when weather prevented attacks against primary objectives. He concluded by requesting Portal assure him “the advantages and disadvantages of all diversions from the main effort are carefully weighed by you.”

Following the decision of CCS, a new order of priority for the Fifteenth Air Force was set up. First place was given to the requirements of the battle of Italy, second went to POINTBLANK and third was given to targets in southeastern Europe. It was also stated that when the occasion warranted, General Wilson and General Spaatz could deviate from the established priorities to attack other targets of current political and military importance. The ban on attacking targets in Hungary was abolished. 

After these basic policies had been formulated, detailed operational instructions were received at Fifteenth Air Force headquarters on 29 March. Ten major targets were listed in the following priority:

Steyr-Daimler-Puch factory and ball-bearing plant, Steyr, Austria

Fischamend, Austria, first unit of the Me-109 complex at Wiener Neustadt

Wiener Neustadt Werke I

Bad Voslau, Austria factory and airdrome

Duna aircraft plant, Me-210 and me-410,  Szigetszentmiklos, Hungary and the Budapest/Tokol factory and airdrome, Hungry

Hungarian Wagon and machine works, Gyor, Hungary

The aircraft factory at Brasov, Rumania

Messerschmitt factory at Augsburg

Oberplaffenhofen factory near Munich, Germany

Schwechat factory, Austria

Aalthough in second place, the Fischamend plant was believed to be the largest remaining unit of the Wiener Neustadt Messerschmitt complex, and was probably producing wings and other Me-109 components. Werk I at Wiener Neustadt was reviving and was presumably assembling at least 75 Me-109’s per month. It was linked with the Bad Voslau plant. The Dana and the Tokol factories were supposed to be assembling both Me-210’s and -410’s. The facilities at Brasov, Augsburg, and Oberpfaffenhofen were involved in the production of the Me-410, while the Schwechat plant was supposed to be making a few jets and possibly assembling the Me-219 night fighter. 

In case weather prevented attacks on the primary targets, secondaries were listed as follows:

Macchi aircraft factory at Varese, Italy

Fiat factory and airfield at Turin

Breda gun works at the Bresso/Milan airfield

The extension of the Wiener Neustadt complex at Klagenfurt, Austria, and

Its extension at Zemun, Yugoslavia, where the Ikarus and Rogerzarski factory was producing and repairing Me-109’s

Muller ball-bearing factory at Nuremberg

The next three operations of the Fifteenth against POINTBLANK targets were on a smaller scale. On 3 April 1944 a force of 112 Fortresses bombed the Budapest/Tokol aircraft factory with 331.75 tons. Although enemy attacks were aggressive, only four bombers failed to return. Strike photos showed 350 craters within the precincts of the factory, but only two buildings received serious damage.  On the night of 3-4 April 7, Liberators and 70 Wellingtons dropped high explosives and incendiaries on the Manfred Weiss works at Budapest. A good concentration of bombing was reported with two large explosions and many fires. On the 6th, a force of 97 bombers was sent to the Zagreb, Yugoslavia airdrome; however, only 19 Liberators were able to attack due to a heavy overcast. No bombing results could be observed.