Poltava, Ukraine SSR, Soviet Union June 22, 1944

Since mid-1942 U.S. Army Air Forces brass had pro­posed to the Soviets an expan­sion of shuttle bombing mis­sions that would strike hard-to-reach tar­gets in Cen­tral and Eas­tern Europe. The con­cept of shuttle bombing was straight-forward: Allied bombers and fighter escorts would launch them­selves from one air­field, unload their bombs over Axis rail­roads, bridges, high­ways, air­craft and arma­ment plants, etc., and land at a second air­field, or termi­nal, on the other side of other­wise unreach­able targets. At the second air­field the war­birds would refuel, rearm, and bomb their way back to the orig­i­nating air­field or to a third air­field. The early stra­tegic and tac­ti­cal shuttle bombing mis­sions had been success­fully demon­strated using air­fields in England and Italy. But to make shuttle bombing more effec­tive would require the mission scope be stretched east­ward to encom­pass targets in Hun­gary, Roma­nia, Bul­garia, Czecho­slo­va­kia, and Poland. The rub of course was coaxing the Soviets into placing some of their air bases in the West’s shuttle hopper. Pre­dict­ably, the sus­pi­cious Soviet dic­ta­tor Joseph Stalin said “Nyet” to that. In Febru­ary 1944 he changed his mind.

By mutual agree­ment new shuttle termini would be opened in areas of the Ukraine recently liber­a­ted by the Soviet Army. In March 1944 Oper­a­tion Frantic was born and Pol­tava, Mir­go­rod, and Pyriatyn air­strips, each about 50 miles apart, became the new eastern termi­ni. Pol­tava doubled as the U.S.-Soviet head­quar­ters for the three termini under the on-site super­vision of the freshly created U.S. East­ern Com­mand. On June 2 Pol­tava wel­comed scores of four-engine Boeing B‑17 Flying For­tresses and long-range P‑51 Mus­tang fighter escorts flying in from U.S. Fif­teenth Air Force bases around Foggia, Italy. Hours ear­lier Amer­i­can fly­boys had bombed the Hun­ga­rian rail hub of Debrecen before setting course for the Ukrai­nian air­strips. The heavy bombers landed at Pol­tava and Mir­go­rod air­fields, the fighter escorts at Pyriatyn. On June 6 U.S. air­craft left their Ukrai­nian bases to attack a Roma­nian air­field, only to return to base. On June 11 the Fif­teenth Air Force bade fare­well to their Ukrai­nian hosts and concluded the first Frantic mission.

Frantic II was assigned to the U.S. Eighth Air Force resi­ding in Eng­land. Squad­rons of bombers and fighters touched down at Ukrai­nian ter­mini on June 21, 1944, after assaulting a syn­the­tic oil plant and two rail yards in East­ern Germany. Early the next morning, on this date, June 22, 1944, dozens of German and Hun­ga­rian air­planes flew over Pol­tava, dropping deadly pay­loads for almost two hours and destroying 47 Eighth Air Force air­craft while severely damaging most of the remaining 26. Twenty-one Red Air Force single-engine Yakov­lev Yak‑9 and Yak‑7 fighters were among the casual­ties. Stores of pre­cious fuel and ammu­ni­tion were also set ablaze. The Pol­tava fiasco was the ser­en­dip­i­tous off­spring of a lone Heinkel He 111 multi-engine recon­nais­sance plane that had tailed the U.S. air­craft to their Ukrai­nian bases following the raiders’ attack on East German installations the day before.

During the summer of 1944, the U.S. Eighth and Fif­teenth Air Forces flew seven shut­tle bombing mis­sions, the last on Sep­tem­ber 18–19. Mea­sured against the pro­gram’s orig­i­nal objec­tives and modest suc­cesses, the later mis­sions were bur­dened by growing Soviet dist­rust and intran­si­gence that nega­tively affected air oper­a­tions. Espe­ci­ally irk­some was Stalin’s delay in okaying Frantic VII, the U.S. air­drop of sup­plies to Polish insur­gents in War­saw that were needed to expel German occu­piers from the capi­tal, and his nixing Frantic VIII, a second Warsaw supply mission. Pain­ful too was a kick in the nether regions when the Soviets told Amer­i­cans their assis­tance was no longer needed. These events, among others, prompted the United States Army Air Forces to sus­pend future Fran­tic shut­tle mis­sions. A care­taker con­tin­gent of U.S. personnel vacated Poltava in June 1945.

Operation Frantic (June–September 1944) Extends Range of Allied Bombing to German-Occupied Central and Eastern Europe

Operation Frantic: Red Army women laying pierced-steel matting at Pol­tavaOperation Frantic: First B-17s land at Poltava, June 2, 1944

Left: Initially the Americans proposed six shuttle bombing air bases on Ukrai­nian soil and a ground crew of 2,000. They settled for three sites and half the num­ber of ground crewmen. With Ukrai­nian labor and virtu­ally all Amer­i­can mate­riel and sup­plies, Pol­tava’s existing con­crete air­strip was lengthened by over a mile to accom­mo­date long-range bombers (the Soviets had none) using pierced-steel matting as shown in this photo­graph. The air ­base was cramped, making it hard to disperse the aircraft after arrival.

Right: A U.S. Fifteenth Air Force B‑17 Flying Fortress is guided to a safe landing by a flag-waving sol­dier (center) as other sol­diers watch, Pol­tava Air­field, June 2, 1944. B‑17s squad­rons were split between Pol­tava and Mir­go­rod air­fields, while escort fighters took up resi­dence at Pyriatyn Air­field. Secu­rity at all three air bases was pro­vided by the Red Army, which pro­mised round-the-clock fighter protec­tion but instead delivered truck-mounted machine guns. Air-raid shel­ters consisted of twisting earthen trenches. The U.S. commu­ni­ca­tions center was overseen by the Soviets.

Operation Frantic: Eighth Air Force remains, Poltava, June 1944Operation Frantic: Sentry guards Eighth Air Force remains, Poltava, June 1944

Left: On June 22, 1944, beginning at 12:35 a.m., dozens of Luft­waffe bombers, mostly twin-engine Heinkel He 111s and Junkers Ju 88s, plastered the Pol­tava air base with more than 110 tons of high explo­sives and frag­men­ta­tion and incen­diary bombs. After a brief lull, broken by exploding air­craft and muni­tions, another wave of Luft­waffe planes swooped in at low level, machine guns blazing. Their loads included thou­sands of small anti­per­sonnel mines called Butter­flies for their stubby wings, which opened and armed the mines. At 2:20 a.m. flash bombs lit up the air­field anew for a recon­nais­sance plane to photo­graph the damage done. Soviet anti­aircraft guns con­tinued firing for 15 min­utes after the last German planes left for their base near German-occupied Minsk in Belarus, roughly 400 miles to the north­west. Neither Soviet nor Amer­i­can fighters rose to chal­lenge the Axis war­birds—the Amer­i­cans would have needed Soviet per­mis­sion any­way. Intense Soviet truck-mounted 50‑cali­ber anti­air­craft can­non fire had no effect on wave after wave of enemy planes dropping their loads on the airfield.

Right: A lone Soviet soldier guards the twisted car­cas­ses of U.S. Eighth Air Force B‑17s that were sitting ducks for the sur­prise June 22 Luft­waffe night­time air raid. According to East­ern Com­mand’s damage report, 47 B‑17s, 2 Douglas C‑47 trans­ports, and a Lock­heed F‑5 (photo-recon­nais­sance ver­sion of the P‑38 Light­ning fighter) were “destroyed or damaged beyond econo­mi­cal repair.” Every other For­tress and two F‑5s received some form of damage. It was the worst drubbing inflicted by the enemy on the U.S. Army Air Forces since Japa­nese air­men wiped out Gen. Douglas Mac­Arthur’s Far East Air Force on Decem­ber 8, 1941. Three days later just 9 Pol­tava air­craft were oper­a­tional thanks partly to sal­vaged parts. Eighth Air Force B‑17s at Mir­go­rod and P‑51s at Pyriatyn fled to Soviet air bases farther to the east, which saved them from destruc­tion when German bombers hit the two air bases on June 22/23 and 23/24 in night­time enact­ments of Pol­tava right down to the non­appear­ance of Soviet fighter inter­ceptors. Mir­go­rod’s fuel and ammu­ni­tion stores were set ablaze. Air­crews ren­dered redun­dant by the Pol­tava disas­ter were ferried back to England. On June 26 the Mir­g­orod- and Pyriatyn-based air­craft were ser­viced, rearmed, and refueled for a bomb run on an oil refi­nery and rail yard at Droho­bycz, Poland (now part of Ukraine). The squad­rons landed in Foggia, Italy, where they joined the Fif­teenth Air Force on sev­eral mis­sions before returning to their English bases.

Operation Frantic’s Shuttle Bombing Focuses Primarily on Axis Targets in Path of Soviet Army