The Largo, a 1950s legacy of the area cleared as a result of Allied bombing in 1943/44. Photo: Tsvetelina Angelova
Photo: US Air Force
A bombing operation in Romania. Apart from operations specifically targeted at Sofia and other cities, the Allies sometimes dropped surplus bombs on Bulgaria en route to their bases in Italy. Photo: US Air Force
A B17 Flying Fortress Photo: US Air Force
A B24 Liberator bomber Photo: US Air Force
New Zealand Wellington bombers at a base in England, 1939 Photo: Royal Air Force
Photo: Tsanko Lavrenov/lostbulgaria.com
Her hair is iron-grey and her face deeply lined but recollection lights up her eyes as she recalls that Easter day with her mother in Plovdiv: "We were inside the house, and the sheer noise of the bombing was tremendous. We said, ‘they’re bombing Plovdiv’. But we looked outside, and we were wrong – they were bombing Sofia".
She leans forward a little, chin out, waving a hand: "Where is Plovdiv, and where is Sofia?" Her rhetorical question makes the point. The two cities are about 140km apart, and yet the rain of destruction from Allied bombers, in the episode she recalls from her childhood, felt as if it was falling on Bulgaria’s second city.
The old woman, whose name was not given, was appearing in a report-within-a-report on Bulgarian National Television on January 10, the 67th anniversary of a day that saw one of the most cataclysmic bombing raids on Sofia, in a series that had begun in November 1943 and would continue until April 1944.
The raids left somewhere between 1300 and 1700 people dead, saw an estimated 300 000 people evacuated, and the destruction of buildings – notably in Sofia’s historic centre – was so widespread (the count exceeds 12 000) that it left the city forever changed. And that last point is made with the benefit of hindsight. At the time, some believed that the city would not recover at all.
Allies and enemies After having tried to stay out of the war, Bulgaria joined the Axis powers in March 1941 and at the insistence of Hitler’s Nazi Germany, declared "symbolic war" on the United States and the United Kingdom in December 1941. Boris III’s regime had declined to declare war on the Soviet Union, but in an Axis operation, took part in April 1941 in the occupations of Yugoslavia and of Greece.
In 1941, Sofia’s decision to ally with Hitler’s Germany brought some Allied air raids, but nothing of the scale that was to follow in 1943 and 1944. It is in the latter context that an American airman is said to have told a Bulgarian after World War 2, "We didn't mind your 'symbolic' declaration of war any more than you minded our 'symbolic' bombing of Sofia".
By the latter part of 1943, the situation in the European theatre had changed significantly, and the Allies had embarked on large-scale bombing of strategically important industrial installations, as well as bombing intended to obliterate morale.
This put Sofia on the bombing route, for both reasons. Allied bombing of the Ploieşti oil fields in Romania had begun in 1942, but intensified in 1943 after the Allies acquired new bases in Italy. The Ploieşti bombings were intended to deny Nazi Germany badly-needed fuel. With Bulgaria en route, practice was to drop unused bombs on Sofia and other cities and towns. It was a major operation, with the United States and Royal Air Force intensively involved, along with air force crews from other Allied countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa.
The military cemetery in Sofia has war graves of Allied airmen from these times, when Ack-Ack and Bulgarian fighters found their mark.
Heavy bombers November 13 1943 saw the first of the new series of large-scale raids on Sofia, when 91 B25s attacked the city.
RAF Wellington bombers attacked the railway marshalling yards while Blenheim bombers attacked the railway line from Bulgaria to Greece.
A further raid followed 11 days later, when 60 B24 Liberator bombers hit the city, concentrating on the area around the main railway station.
There were three raids in December 1943, with targets including the railway station and marshalling yards, Sofia Airport and central parts of the city.
By the end of the year, these five raids had cost at least 110 deaths in the city, while more than 300 buildings lay in ruins.
January 10 and 11 saw the return of the Allies, the US Army Air Force coming in first with 143 B17s in a day raid, followed by 44 Royal Air Force Wellingtons at night.
‘Off the map’
Quoted in a book by Vera Brittain, the Ankara correspondent of the Evening Standard said on January 15: "Two more bombings like those of Monday will ‘wipe Sofia off the map’ said travellers who arrived today from Bulgaria.
"The centre of the capital is already almost destroyed, and Sofia has ceased to be as a city."
The report said that it was impossible to assess the total number of casualties because corpses were still buried under debris. The high number of casualties was ascribed to the people of Sofia not having been given a proper air raid warning.
Indeed, notwithstanding the heroic defence offered by Bulgarian air force legends like Dimitar Spissarevsky and Stoyan Stoyanov, among others, (see the article, ‘We defended you, Sofia’, published in The Sofia Echo on November 20 2003) the Bulgarian capital was not always sufficiently well-served by those who should have been acting to protect it, going by some memoirs.
Stancombe N Smith, reporting recollections of operations with the Royal Air Force, says that "Sofia was a favourite target".
"It was always lit up like a spider’s web until you were on top and the first bombs had been released, when the lights went out, or you could also home in on the loop aerial as their radio station was always on the air. Sometimes we had dropped our bombs and Radio Sofia was still transmitting…"
Defences were always poor at Sofia, according to Smith’s book, and "night fighter activity was almost negligible".
As a small and compact city, Sofia was an easy target, historian RJ Crampton points out.
A mission report by the US Air Force’s 450th Bombardment Group on a raid on central Sofia on April 17 1944, in a section on "enemy resistance" describes fighters as "not aggressive", adding that firing was from a range of about 1000 to 1200 yards. On that raid, of 39 B24s in the group, only one aircraft was damaged. The raid being reported on was the one known in Bulgarian memory as "Black Easter".
‘Black Easter’ March 30 1944 was among the most severe raids. As noted, the target was the centre of Sofia. About 370 US bombers flew in, leaving casualties not as severe as in other raids – this time, there had been large-scale evacuations – but leaving 3575 buildings destroyed.
Among buildings damaged in the 1943/44 raids are many that remain landmarks today – the Ivan Vazov National Theatre, the National Library, the Baths, the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Sofia University’s theological department and the Natural History Museum. Some were restored to their previous appearance while others were altered during repairs. Going by the record, however, the three major houses of worship, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia Synagogue and the 16th century Banya Bashi Mosque, were unscathed.
April 17 1944 was the "Black Easter" raid, the one recalled at the opening of this story as having given a young girl the impression that Plovdiv was being bombed (the second city was not left untouched; there were also bombing raids on Doupnitsa and Vratsa).
About 350 bombers were involved, B17s and B24s, with about 2500 bombs dropped, including on the railway marshalling yards. About 750 buildings were destroyed.
The final tally, death toll aside, was the destruction of about 12 500 buildings. US bombers alone had dropped about 40 000 bombs on Sofia.
An aim had been demoralisation, and indeed prime minister Dobri Bozhilov, in office since September 1943 (at this point Bulgaria was ruled by a regency, after the August 1943 death of Boris III, whose successor Simeon Saxe-Coburg was too young for the throne) had embarked on clandestine negotiations about switching sides. Eventually, Bulgaria did, but only to fall to the Soviets and end up in the thrall of a doctrinaire communist government.
Aftermath The issue of memorialising that time continues.
Though there is no label, an obvious memento of the bombing is that the destruction in the centre of the city allowed the communist authorities to order in 1951 the construction of the Largo, for which the remaining structures in the area were cleared in 1952. It is the area that today houses the Cabinet office, the Presidency and the Party House, the latter completed in 1955, with the central department store Tsum following in 1957.
Nearby Parliament, there is a monument to the Bulgarian air force defenders and in October 2010, a monument to the US air force fliers who died during the World War 2 operations was put up at the American embassy.
Vesselin Stoyanov, son of air ace Stoyan, spoke at the dedication ceremony, saying "Today, winners and defeated are friends and allies and stand under the same flag."
Of the US and other allied military personnel who lost their lives, Vesselin Stoyanov said, "May their sacrifice remain in the memory of our two peoples, as an example of heroism and faithful service to their country".
At the same event, US ambassador James Warlick spoke on the theme of duty.
"And what about our duty?" Warlick said. "What do we owe to the heroes who paid this terrible price?"
"First of all, remembrance," he said.
"Remembrance is the debt that the living owe to the dead. In gathering here today, we are fulfilling our duty to those who sacrificed for us. What a fitting tribute to those men it is, that today we stand as Allies, side by side, at this ceremony.
"If we have come this far, how much more can we accomplish together? My friends, we must strengthen our bonds and try together to make a world worthy of the price they paid. The young men we honour today would probably say to us that this is our duty. We can never do more than our duty, and we should never wish to do less," Warlick said.
Remembrance On some Bulgarian internet forums, there were bitter comments that US airmen were commemorated formally but the Bulgarians who had died in the bombings were not. Some of the more acerbic comments reflected on the American bombers being called Liberators, when all that awaited Bulgaria after the end of World War 2 was tyranny.
The issue was taken up most recently by Vili Lilkov, a city councillor for right-wing party Democrats for Strong Bulgaria, who appeared on the Bulgarian National Television discussion on January 10.
Lilkov has proposed a monument to the innocent victims, in his phrase, of the bombings and hopes that his fellow city councillors will endorse the idea.
Asked where the monument should be located, he said that this was a matter for discussion with all interested parties. Recalling the heroism of Bulgaria’s air force, who took on the Allied crews with a negligible number of fighters, he said that it was such stories, along with those of "Black Monday" (January 10) that "we need to take steps to tell".
History professor Plamen Tsvetkov, appearing on the same programme, agreed.
"We are allies now, with the US and the UK, but it is a question of honouring the memory of the innocent victims," Tsvetkov said. "Everyone who lost someone knows about his individual bereavement, but the loss of all of them must be marked by Bulgaria."
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