Stuck in the USSR

Ralph Sims

Ralph Sims

By George Morris

In 32 missions as a B-17 tail gunner during World War II, Ralph Sims had his share of memorable moments — fighting off attacking German fighter planes, being rocked by anti-aircraft fire,occasionally wondering if the plane would make it back to England.

Sims’ most interesting mission, however, was a little-known bombing and goodwill run named Operation Frantic.

Although bombs and diplomacy are not a natural mixture, it made sense in this case. In World War II, the Soviet Union was extremely wary of its Western allies, and vice versa.

Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin made Germany’s conquest of Western Europe possible. He signed an agreement with Adolf Hitler in which they agreed not to attack each other, and the two countries conquered Poland in 1939. Germany overran Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium,Luxembourg and France in 1940.

Their friendship only ended when Hitler double-crossed Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. From then on, as German troops marched deep into the U.S.S.R., Stalin demanded that his new allies attack German-held territory in the West to relieve the military pressure. Although American and British forces attacked Italy in 1943, Stalin didn’t get his wishes until the June 6, 1944,invasion of France.

Thus, Operation Frantic was conceived to demonstrate harmony among the Allies. On June 21, 1944, the 452nd Bomb Group, which included Sims’ plane, took off from Deopham Green Air Base in England, bombed a synthetic oil refinery in Ruhland, Germany, and landed in Poltava,Ukraine, which then was part of the Soviet Union. The 1,700-mile trip lasted almost 12 hours.

It was the first time such direct military cooperation had been attempted with the Soviets. According to the plan, the American airplanes would be rearmed and refueled for another bombing mission on the next day’s return trip to England.

Germany had other ideas. That night, German aircraft attacked the base in the Ukraine, an event that Sims — despite the danger — found fascinating.

“They weren’t trying to shoot up our tents,” Sims said. “They were aiming at the defense guns that the Soviets were manning and trying to knock them out, and they succeeded in doing that. But it was like fireworks. I just lifted the side of the tent and was watching, and the rest of the guys scrambled out of there and ran for some type of trench.

“Foolishly, I stayed behind until part of a leg came flying through the air and came through the tent. That’s when I decided it was time to get the hell out of there.”

Out of the tent, that is. Getting out of the U.S.S.R. would have to wait. The Germans destroyed all the American bombers in the raid.

“We were stuck there, no way to get out,” Sims said. “We had to sit around and wonder and wait for word of how we were going to get out. Otherwise, we’d be confined to drinking vodka and eating caviar for the rest of our lives.”

Curiously, Sims said, both items were available, despite shortages of other food and supplies. Germany had once occupied this part of the Ukraine, and as the Soviets retreated, they employed a “scorched earth” policy of destroying everything that might be useful to the invading army. When the Germans retreated, they did the same thing.

While the Americans were stuck there, Sims said, the Russians tried to entertain the guests by singing, playing the balalaika,dancing and offering vodka. Hospitality, though, had its limits.

“I can recall that while we were there, a friend and I tried to walk around and take a look at something, but there were guards everywhere. We were not allowed to stray very far away from our base. … They were very secretive about everything.

“Even though we had this Allied relationship, we were told in briefings not to take any publications like Time magazine or anything of that sort, not to talk politics, not to ask them about Finland (which had held off a much larger Soviet invading force in 1939). We weren’t supposed to talk about anything but, ‘Hello. How are you? Nice to be here. Thank you’ and so on.”

After six days, Sims said, American transport planes arrived to ferry them back to England. The route was circuitous — through Tehran, Cairo, Tripoli and Casablanca. That was something of a sightseeing trip. The airmen had escape kits in case they were shot down, and the kits included money from various countries.

“I found that in Cairo and Casablanca I could spend any kind of money,” Sims said. “So, there happened to be a happy side of it. I got to see the pyramids and the Sphinx and look for Rick’s Bar and Humphrey Bogart, but I couldn’t find that in Casablanca.”

After finding his way back to England on July 2, Sims flew 10 more missions before Germany surrendered. He was scheduled to be transferred to the Pacific to fly in B-29s, but Japan surrendered before that happened.

In 1995, Russia sent Sims its 50th Anniversary Victory in the Great Patriotic War medal, which it gave to foreign citizens who aided the Soviet war effort.

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