Bucharest, Romania · November 23, 1940

In September 1940 Field Marshal Wilhelm Kei­tel, chief of the German Armed Forces High Command, an­nounced that Wehr­macht troops were being sent to Roma­nia “in case a war with Soviet Russia is forced upon us.” Early the next month Ger­man troops entered the coun­try osten­sibly to train and re­build the Roma­nian military after King Carol II ab­di­cated in favor of his 19‑year‑old son Michael (Mihai). More accurately, the German pre­sence pro­tected Roma­nia’s dozen oil fields in and around Ploieşti (Ploesti), which lay 35 miles north of Bucha­rest, Romania’s capital. Ploieşti had become vitally im­por­tant to the Ger­man war effort since Ger­many itself pos­sessed virtually no oil out­side syn­thetic oil labo­ri­ously ex­tracted from the nation’s plentiful coal deposits.

On this date in 1940 Roma­nian dic­ta­tor Marshal Ion Anto­nescu followed neigh­boring Hun­gary into the Axis Tri­partite mili­tary pact. The pact, signed at its out­set by repre­sen­ta­tives of Germany, Italy, and Japan on Septem­ber 27, 1940, in the German capital Berlin, pledged mem­ber states to fight any state that declared war on another treaty member.

Anto­nescu’s deci­sion to throw his coun­try’s lot in with other Axis states—Slo­va­kia, a pup­pet state from dis­mem­bered Czecho­slo­va­kia, joined the next day—had devas­tating and long-term con­se­quences for his coun­try when Roma­nia became Adolf Hitler’s prin­ci­pal spear carrier in East­ern Europe. (Roma­nians sent to fight in the Soviet Union exceeded the combined num­ber of all of Ger­many’s other allies com­bined, in­cluding Italy.) In the fighting around Stalin­grad (present-day Volgo­grad) alone (Novem­ber 1942 to the end of Janu­ary 1943), Roma­nian Third and Fourth Army dead, wounded, and missing approached 160,000 men (one source says 200,000), with heavy losses in artil­lery, armor, and air­craft. Some 3,000 Roma­nians entered Soviet cap­tivity. The stag­gering losses effec­tively ended Roma­nia’s offen­sive capa­bility for the remain­der of the war and pushed the coun­try into exploring ways to withdraw from the conflict.

In the fall of 1944, with the U.S. Army Air Forces ham­mering Roma­nia from above, a resur­gent Soviet Union over­ran Roma­nia, forcing an armi­stice. Roma­nia’s defec­tion signifi­cantly hastened the end of the war. Her mineral and agricul­tural resources were hence­forth denied to Ger­many, whereas her armed forces now consti­tuted the fourth largest Allied army. Of the 538,000 Roma­nian soldiers who fought the Axis in 1944–1945 (in Hun­gary, Yugo­sla­via, Aus­tria, and Czecho­slo­va­kia), some 167,000 were killed, wounded, or went missing.

Romanian Armed Forces During World War II

King Mihai I (left) and Gen. Ion AntonescuRomanian troops in the Don-Stalingrad area, mid-1942

Left: As a member of the Axis, Romania joined the inva­sion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 (Opera­tion Barba­rossa). Roma­nian forces played a large role during the fighting in Bessa­rabia, Roma­nian terri­tory that the Soviets occu­pied in 1940 in the wake of the 1939 Molotov-Ribben­trop (aka Soviet-German) Non­aggres­sion Pact, as well as in the Ukraine, Crimea, and Stalin­grad. In this photo­graph King Mihai I (left) and Gen. Ion Antonescu are seen inspecting the Bessa­rabian front in July 1941. Roma­nian troops suffered heavy casu­al­ties retaking Bessa­rabia: 22,765 men and 58 air­craft. Soviet losses were 17,893. On August 21, 1941, as a reward for com­manding the troops that returned Bessa­rabia and neigh­boring North­ern Buko­vina to Romania, Mihai confirmed the rank of Field Marshal on Antonescu.

Right: Romanian troops in the Soviet Union’s Don-Stalingrad region, mid-1942. On July 27 the Romanians reached the Don River, where they began assisting Ger­man troops battling the Soviets. In early August the two armies had broken through Red Army defenses. In Septem­ber the Third and Fourth Roma­nian Armies took up posi­tions around Stalin­grad, as did the Ger­man Sixth Army, the German Fourth Panzer Army, the Ital­ian Eight Army, and the Hun­garian Second Army. At the same time the first ele­ments of the Romanian Air Corps arrived on the Stalingrad front.

Romanian soldiers with Soviet POWs, June 1942Four IAR 80s, main Romanian fighter

Left: Romanian forces took part in the Axis Crimean Cam­paign of 1942. This photo­graph depicts Roma­nian sol­diers with Soviet POWs during a rest period. The fighting around the strate­gi­cally impor­tant Soviet naval base at Sevas­to­pol con­tinued until July 4, 1942, when the cam­paign ended. The Red Army suffered 50,000–60,000 ca­su­al­ties and the loss of about 95,000 taken captive defending the city. Axis armies lost 35,559 men, of which 8,454 were Roma­nian, during the same battle. The total num­ber of casu­al­ties suffered by Roma­nian troops during the 295 days of the Crimean Campaign was about 19,000.

Right: The IAR 80 was the main Romanian fighter during World War II, remaining in frontline use until the 1944 armis­tice. Some 346 units were pro­duced up to Septem­ber 30, 1944. When the IAR 80 entered service in 1939, it was com­pa­rable to the Ger­man Messer­schmitt Bf 109E, the Brit­ish Hawker Hurri­cane, and the U.S. Curtiss P‑40 War­hawk. In the summer of 1943, IAR 80s were transferred to Roma­nia for air defense duties, where they were used in com­bat against low-flying, four-engine U.S. B‑24 Libe­rator attacks on oil refin­ery instal­la­tions at Ploieşti. According to Roma­nian statis­tics, on August 1, 1943, IARs and Messer­schmitts shot down ten B‑24s, with two proba­bles. On June 10, 1944, IAR 80s and German-piloted Messer­schmitts took part in one of the major air battles over Roma­nia when 36 U.S. P‑38 Light­ning dive bombers, carrying one bomb each, attacked Ploieşti. The U.S. lost nearly two dozen P‑38s to the Axis two.

Photo Montage of Romanian Armed Forces on the Eastern Front, 1941–1943