Article by Colonel Basil Ioannou in Athinaika Nea newspaper, 4th May 1953
So much nonsense has been talked about the American raid on Ploesti ten years ago, in April 1943, that I feel the time has come for me to correct some of the misconceptions around my part in it, and the part played by the men under my command. The occasion for this is the display in Athens of the painting The Interception by Mr. Barclay, together with some of the commentary that has accompanied it. Particularly egregious in this respect was the exalted nonsense written by Mr. Hines, of New York, which has been translated and reprinted in several Athens journals, whose editors should know better...
…the painting certainly was created with the noblest of intentions, and executed with consummate skills. But it does not present an accurate picture of the air battle in which I and my comrades fought, and the commentary around the battle not only confuses the issue but misses its significance. Perhaps some background is in order, since contradictory accounts of the events have appeared in print.
Most of the readers of this newspaper will recall how, in early 1943, “the day of the Americans” transformed Attica, already a vast armed camp, into a vast airfield also. Three wings of USAAF heavy bombers came in during January. They sought to achieve an annihilating blow against the vital Axis fuel supplies from Ploesti, in Romania. Earlier efforts by the British and French in this direction had proved unavailing. Now it was the Americans’ turn.
My squadron had recently been withdrawn from frontline service, after much action in the skies above Thessaly, during the glorious liberation of that beautiful region. In passing, I should note that the story of our air-fight with the Germans above Mount Olympus, in February, has also received much ornamentation. We were not in fact outnumbered twenty to three on that occasion, nor did we destroy more than (at most) four of the enemy ourselves; British fighters shot down several more. But all allowances must be made for the difficulties of accurate reporting and the stories inspired by wartime propaganda.
We handed over our beloved but hard-worn Type 81s to a training unit, and received instead new P-38s, the great gift of the USA to the freedom-loving nations, the same type that the French “Storks” had made famous. With some emotion we beheld them painted in our national colours. Here, we all felt, was a machine indeed, with which we could write a glorious page in our history. We spent some weeks getting to know our new machines, which took much getting used to after the nimble Type 81. We found that new machines needed new tactics. In between times I and my pilots took the opportunity to visit loved ones. At the end of March we received our orders: we were to return to the fight. We guessed we would soon have occasion to fight alongside the Americans, as their planes were flying into Attica continually.
We deployed to a fresh base near Olympus, according to our unit diary, on the 5th April. We shared with a British unit, 92 Squadron, with whom our Air Force maintains fraternal connections to this day. During the second week of the month we carried out several aggressive patrols over Bulgarian airspace, without any serious encounters until the 14th, when we engaged the enemy - Me109s - in the vicinity of Plovdiv, shooting down two without loss, though we suffered a sad loss on our return to base when Lieutenant Mikellides crashed on landing. He had been a friend of mine since our days in training, and we had often walked together with our wives along the coast near Megara, his home town. Even now I write this with emotion.
On the morning of the 18th, we received orders to fly to a point thirty kilometres due east of Sofia, and rendezvous there with friendly aircraft returning from a raid on Ploesti. Only when we arrived did we realise the full scale of the raid: we saw dozens and dozens of American aircraft shining in the bright sun. Some, though, were glowing with an altogether more sinister light, the light of burning engines, and others trailed behind. Attacking them were enemy fighters, some single-engined types and some twin-engined, with yet others approaching the scene. Among these latter we recognised some as Me210s. Our intelligence had warned us of their likely presence, but this was our first encounter with them. They bore Bulgarian markings.
As I said to begin with, several misconceptions have accreted around these events, and Mr. Barclay’s fine painting does not appear to dispel them. The painting depicts only four of my squadron engaging the enemy, though in fact there were ten of us present. The particular Me210s we engaged were not in fact blazing away with all their guns at the B-24s, but were some way distant. The battle emphatically did not take place in the sky above Sofia, as repeated ad nauseam in all the Athens newspapers, but, as I said above, some thirty kilometres to the east. Although I am certain that we made several kills - I was credited with two, and my comrades claimed four more between them - we did not ‘wipe out’ the enemy, as Mr. Hines states. In fact most of the enemy disengaged quickly. Post-war analysis has shown that the Bulgarian Me210s lost only three machines that day, though several suffered heavy damage. This phenomenon of over-claims affected all sides.
I cannot escape the feeling that in both Greece and the United States this event received more attention than it deserved, I believe for propaganda reasons. The fact is that the raid on Ploesti, despite the large preparations, achieved less success than hoped, albeit more than earlier efforts. The bombers found the target intermittently obscured by low clouds and smokescreens, and the enemy had prepared formidable defences. The German formation with responsibility for the Balkan theatre was Luftflotte 4 (4th Air Fleet), which also covered the southern portion of the Eastern Front. At this point (that is, in April - May 1943) the Germans had stationed an actual majority of the fighters in Luftflotte 4 near Ploesti, along with many Romanian machines. Therefore, for all their courage and skill, few of the bombers managed to bomb accurately, and many suffered damage. Historians differ on this point, but I side with those who believe that enemy spies in Athens had given detailed early warnings of the operation. In any event, the operation disappointed expectations. Not long after the B-24s were all sent to Italy, where they found other employment, due to the heavy German counter-attack against the Americans, the notorious battle of Valmontone. Thus, for more than one reason, the need for a positive story to emerge from the raid of the 18th.
When all is said and done, I do not really begrudge the celebration of this event. All concerned did their duty nobly, and that deserves celebration. What I will say is this: my unit achieved a success in immediate tactical terms, both in damaging the enemy and preventing further losses to our allies, but we achieved greater tactical successes on many other occasions, which have received little or no attention. Most of all I regard as foolish the nickname ‘Boulgaroktonos’ which I received, since this was almost the only occasion when we engaged Bulgarian aircraft. After all, by war’s end I had received credit for seventeen kills, all the rest of them German.