Monday, August 10, 2015

Bombing Bulgaria II

Dimitar Spisarevski (19 Jully 1916-20 December 1943) was a Bulgarian fighter pilot known for taking down an American bomber by ramming it during the bombing of Sofia in World War II.

It was not the Jewish question that invited Allied bombing in November 1943, though many Bulgarians assumed that it was. The first raids seemed to presage an onslaught of aerial punishment, and the population of the capital gave way to a temporary panic. Yet the first two attacks in November were followed by two desultory operations the next month and nothing more. Some 209 inhabitants in Sofia had been killed and 247 buildings damaged. The “sharp lesson” was not sharp enough for the Allies, because it did little to encourage Bulgaria to seek a political solution, while the military value of the attacks was at best limited, hampered by poor bombing accuracy and gloomy Balkan weather. On Christmas Day 1943, Churchill wrote to Eden that the “heaviest possible air attacks” were now planned for Sofia in the hope that this might result in more productive “political reactions.” On January 4, 1944, a large force of 108 B-17 Flying Fortresses was dispatched to Sofia, but with poor visibility the attack was aborted after a few bombs were dropped on a bridge. Finally, on January 10, 1944, the first heavy attack was mounted by 141 B-17s, supported during the night of January 10–11 by a force of some forty-four RAF Wellington bombers. This attack was devastating for the Bulgarian capital: there were 750 dead and 710 seriously injured, with widespread damage to residential housing and public buildings. The air-raid sirens failed to sound because of a power cut. This time the population panicked entirely, creating a mass exodus. By January 16, 300,000 people had left the capital. The government abandoned the administrative district and moved out to nearby townships. It took more than two weeks to restore services in the capital, while much of the population abandoned it permanently in fear of a repeat attack. On January 23 the German ambassador telegraphed back to Berlin that the bombing had changed completely the “psychological-political situation,” exposing the incompetence of the authorities and raising the danger of Bulgarian defection. The government ordered church bells to be pealed as an air-raid warning, in case of further power cuts.

The second major raid, of January 10, did pay political dividends. While Filov tried unsuccessfully to persuade a visiting German general, Walter Warlimont, deputy for operations on Hitler’s staff, to mount a revenge attack on neutral Istanbul—the consequences of which might well have been even more disastrous for Bulgaria—most Bulgarian leaders had come to realize that the German connection had to be severed as soon as possible and a deal struck with the Allies. The bishop of Sofia used the occasion of the funeral for the victims of the bombing to launch an attack on the government for tying Bulgaria to Germany and failing to save the people from war. That month an effort was made to get the Soviet Union to intercede with the Western Allies to stop the bombing, but instead Moscow increased its pressure on Bulgaria to abandon its support for the Axis. In February the first informal contacts were made with the Allies through a Bulgarian intermediary in Istanbul to see whether terms could be agreed upon for an armistice. Although hope for negotiation had been the principal reason for starting the bombing, the Allied reaction to the first Bulgarian approach following the raids was mixed. Roosevelt wrote to Churchill on February 9 suggesting that the bombing should now be suspended if the Bulgarians wanted to talk, a view shared by British diplomats in the Middle Eastern headquarters in Cairo. Churchill scrawled “why?” in the margin of the letter. He was opposed to ending the bombing despite a recent report from the British Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), which observed that the first bombing in November 1943 had achieved no “decisive political result.” He had already authorized the bombing of the Bulgarian ports of Burgas and Varna, which were added to the list of priority targets, subject to political considerations. 

In January 1944 the British War Cabinet, in the event of a German gas attack, considered the possibility of retaliatory gas bomb attacks against Germany and its allies, and included Bulgaria on the list. On February 12, Churchill replied to Roosevelt that in his view the bombing had had “exactly the effect we hoped for” and urged him to accept the argument that bombing should continue until the Bulgarians began full and formal negotiations: “If the medicine has done good, let them have more of it.” Roosevelt immediately wired back his full agreement: “Let the good work go on.”

Some of the evidence coming out of Bulgaria seemed to support Churchill’s stance. Intelligence reports arrived detailing the rapid expansion of both the communist partisan movement and the Fatherland Front. The partisans contacted the Allies through a British liaison officer stationed in Bulgaria, encouraging them to keep up the bombing in order to provoke the collapse of the pro-German regime and help expand support for the resistance. The partisans sent details about the central administrative area in Sofia, bordered by the recently renamed Adolfi Hitler Boulevard, which they said was ripe for attack; at the same time, partisan leaders asked the Allies not to bomb the working-class districts of Sofia, from which most of their recruits were drawn. By March the partisans were finally organized by the Bulgarian communists into the National Liberation Revolutionary Army. As a result of the evidence on the ground, the Western Allies, with Stalin’s continued though secret support (the Soviet Union did not want Bulgarians to think they had actively abetted the bombing), accepted Eden’s argument that by “turning on the heat” on Bulgarian cities it might shortly be possible either to provoke a coup d’état or to batter the government into suing for peace. On March 10, Sir Charles Portal told Churchill that he had ordered heavy attacks on Sofia and other Bulgarian cities as soon as possible.

On March 16 and then on March 29–30 the Allies launched the most destructive attacks of all on Sofia, as well as subsidiary attacks on Burgas, Varna, and Plovdiv in the interior, designed to disrupt rail communications and sea traffic for the Turkish trade with Germany. The attacks were aimed predominantly at the administrative city center of Sofia and carried a proportion of incendiaries, 4,000 in all, in order to do to Sofia what had been done so effectively to German targets. The raid of March 16 burned down the royal palace; the heavy raid of March 29–30 by 367 B-17s and B-24s, this time carrying 30,000 incendiaries, created a widespread conflagration, destroying the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the National Theater, several ministries, and a further 3,575 buildings, but killing only 139 of the population that had remained. The last major raid, on April 17 by 350 American bombers, destroyed a further 750 buildings and heavily damaged the rail marshaling yard. During 1944 the death toll in Sofia was 1,165, a figure that would have been considerably higher had it not been for the voluntary evacuation of the capital. The incendiary attacks hastened the disintegration of Bulgarian politics and increased support for the Soviet Union, whose armies were now within striking distance. But only on June 20, 1944, several months after the bombing, did the new government of Ivan Bagryanov begin formal negotiations for an end to Bulgarian belligerency, still hoping to keep Bulgaria’s territorial spoils and avoid Allied occupation. By this time the Allies had lost interest in bombing Bulgaria, which slipped further down the list of priority targets as the bombers turned their attention to Budapest and Bucharest in the path of the oncoming Red Army.

By the summer of 1944 the Allies had other preoccupations, and it seemed evident that Bulgarian politics had been sufficiently destabilized by the bombing to make further attacks redundant. Nevertheless, the final assessment of the effects of the bombing was ambivalent. In July the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff prepared an evaluation of the Balkan bombings which suggested that the psychological effects desired had largely been achieved; the report nevertheless suggested that the enemy had sustained an effective propaganda campaign about the high level of civilian casualties, which had undermined the prestige of both the United States and Britain in the eyes of the Bulgarian people. The chiefs directed that in the future any attacks in the region had to be confined to “targets of definite military importance” and civilian casualties minimized. The British chiefs of staff rejected the American claim, and, in defiance of what they well knew to be the case, insisted that only military targets had been subject to attack, even if this had involved damage to housing and civilian deaths. Their report concluded that Allied bombers ought always to be able to act in this way and that operations “should not be prejudiced by undue regard for the probable scale of incidental casualties.” This was a view consistent with everything the RAF had argued and practiced since the switch to the deliberate bombing of German civilians in 1941.

For the historian the judgment is more complex. Bombing almost certainly contributed to the collapse of any pro-German consensus and strengthened the hand both of the moderate center-left in the Fatherland Front and of the more radical partisan movement. But in the end this did not result in a complete change of government until September 9, 1944, when the Soviet presence produced a Fatherland Front administration dominated by the Bulgarian Communist Party (a political outcome that neither Churchill nor Eden had wanted from the bombing). Moreover, other factors played an important role in Bulgarian calculations: the crisis provoked by Italian defeat and surrender in September 1943; the German retreat in the Soviet Union; and fear of a possible Allied Balkan invasion or of Turkish intervention. Where Churchill saw bombing as a primitive instrument for provoking political crisis and insisted throughout the period from October 1943 to March 1944 that this was the key to knocking Bulgaria out of the war, the American military chiefs continued to give preference to the bombing of Italy and Germany and were less persuaded that a political dividend was certain. For them the bombing fitted with the strategy of wearing down Germany’s capacity for waging war by interrupting the supply of vital war matériel and forcing the diversion of German military units from the imminent Normandy campaign. There was also a price to pay for the bombing. In September 1944, following the Bulgarian surrender, some 332 American air force prisoners of war were sent by air shuttle to Istanbul and then on to Cairo; some had been shot down while bombing Bulgaria, others on their way to or from attacks on Romanian targets. An American report suggested that the prisoners had been badly maltreated. Two air force prisoners were killed by the Bulgarian police, and an estimated 175 American war dead were presumed to be on Bulgarian territory, although only eighty-four bodies could be located.

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