When the Axis invasion of Russia began in 1941, the Romanian Air Force totaled about six hundred aircraft. In the early phases of the war, the Romanian Air Force flew an unusual collection of British, French, Polish and German-designed aircraft, including the Heinkel-112 fighter that never saw widespread use with the Luftwaffe. Gradually, the British and French-built aircraft were replaced with more modern German fighters and bombers, including the Junkers Ju-88, the Heinkel He-111 and the legendary Junkers Ju-87 Stuka. The Romanians acquired about a hundred and fifty Stukas and used them on the Eastern Front all the way through the 1944 campaign to provide close air support to Axis units.
Some of the Romanian fighter squadrons were equipped with the I.A.R.-80 and 81, a homegrown design capable of speeds up to 350 mph. Rounding out the fighter force were German-supplied Messerschmitt Bf-109’s. Romanian fighter pilots were well-trained and quite capable. During three years of fighting, they claimed over two thousand aerial victories, and several of their aces were credited with sixty kills or more. The USAAF encountered Romanian interceptors many times during the 15th Air Force’s campaign against the Ploesti oil fields.
In August 1944, a coup toppled the pro-Axis government and Romania switched sides. With USAAF support, the Romanian Army held off a German attack against their capital. Fighting raged between once close-Allies as the Romanian Army later went on the offensive and drove the Wehrmacht away from the vital oil fields around Ploesti. By the time the war ended the following spring, the Romanian Army had captured over 50,000 German troops. These POW’s were turned over to the Red Army, where they suffered through years of captivity in Siberia.
In an ironic twist, the Romanian Air Force’s final kill took place between one of its Messerschmitt Bf-109G’s and a Luftwaffe 109K. When the war ended, the Romanians continued to use their 109’s for several years, and the I.A.R.-81’s remained in front line service until 1948. Gradually, though, the wartime aircraft they had acquired gave way to a Soviet-sponsored modernization program. Today, the Romanian Air Force flies an interesting mix of both NATO and Russian aircraft, and is on tract this year to receive its first batch of F-16 fighters.