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Fire in the Steppe:
Romanian Air Power

Romania founded an air force, the Fortele Aeriene Regale ale Romaniei (or FARR) in 1913. During the Great War the FARR made little contribution, as its obsolete foreign-made aircraft could not be repaired or replaced. Afterwards, the Romanian government decided to build up its own aircraft industry, so as not to be at the mercy of foreign suppliers.

While the policy appeared sound on paper, in practice it proved much more difficult to execute. Large amounts of money disappeared or were wasted on useless projects. When Romania finally entered the Second World War in June 1941, most of the FARR’s aircraft were foreign made — French, Italian, Polish, German or British.


A Stuka in Romanian livery.

For the initial campaign, the FARR concentrated its striking power in the Combat Air Group (Gruparea Aeriana de Lupta, or GAL). The GAL had 205 combat-ready aircraft, including the FARR’s best planes — German-made Bf109E fighters, Italian-made SM.79 bombers (or the Romanian license-built version, the JRS79), Polish PZL 37 medium bombers and PZL 23 light bombers, and French Potez 633 bombers. Plus three squadrons operated the new Romanian-built IAR-80 fighter-bombers, a modern all-metal monoplane designed by Ion Grosu and Ion Cosereanu.

During the campaign in Bessarabia and the siege of Odessa, Romanian pilots with the bravado typical of their caste in every country claimed 597 enemy aircraft destroyed — slightly more than the total deployed in the theater by the Red Air Force. Against this score, the FARR lost 40 airplanes. But even allowing for exaggeration, the FARR did well in air-to-air combat.


An IAR-80 fighter on the flight line.

What greatly inhibited the FARR in the 1941 campaign was a great lack of mobile base facilities. The squadrons could not easily be supported near the front, and had to fly longer and longer distances as the Romanian army penetrated into Soviet-held territory. All branches of the Romanian military lacked motor vehicles, and the FARR had not equipped itself to move into the Soviet Union. In any future war, its leaders expected to wage the entire conflict from their pre-war bases. Trucks had to be borrowed from the army, which did not have nearly enough for its own needs. Romanian squadrons operating in the Soviet Union did so almost exclusively from former Soviet bases or German ones.

Romania also did not have a dedicated ground-support plane in the war’s early months. Squadrons with IAR-80 fighters flew support missions, as did bomber squadrons of all types. Not until 1943 did the Germans supply modern attack craft, when Ju-87D dive bombers and Hs.129 attack planes were loaned to the FARR. To make up for the lack, a variant of the IAR-80, the IAR-81, went into production as a dive bomber.


An IAR-81 is prepped for a mission.

Romania had tried to order fifty Ju-87B dive bombers in 1939, but the Germans refused the order. In July 1940, the home-grown IAR-37 biplane dive-bomber was finally declared a failure, though the plane would be used for light bombing and reconnaissance duties during the war. In May 1941, IAR experimented with an IAR-80 fighter fitted with dive brakes and a large bomb cradle slung low under the aircraft. Though not a very satisfactory dive-bomber, it was better than the IAR-37 and all the FARR had. The first planes went to the front in late October 1941, just after the fall of Odessa.

In 1943, with the loan of much better German aircraft to the FARR, the IAR-80 and IAR-81 aircraft returned to Romania and fought against American bombing raids until Romania joined the Allies in August 1944. They did well against American P-38 Lightning fighters at low altitude and brought down a number of B-24 bombers, but had no chance at higher altitudes against American P-51 Mustang fightere and suffered heavy losses.


A JRS-79 with crew.

Without a decent attack plane, the FARR also used its best medium bombers in the ground-support role. The JRS-79 originated from an order for Italian-made SM-79 bombers. The Romanians liked the plane, a tri-motor monoplane with much more modern characteristics than its appearance implies, but wanted a version with two more powerful engines and a glassed-in nose. This model, the JRS-79, did not appear until August 1941. Eight of these came from Savoia-Marchetti in 1941, 36 more from IAR in 1942 and 30 in 1944 (with six more being delivered in 1946).

The SM-79 was a fine torpedo plane in Italian hands and an adequate medium bomber; for close-support it proved very vulnerable to ground fire and the FARR lost two of them on their very first sortie. But lacking anything better, the FARR kept them flying in this role until 1943, when German-made planes took over the duty. They returned to action during Romania’s war against the Nazis, and the last JRS-79 lost in action was shot down on 21 Aprtil 1945.

In Panzer Grenadier: Fire in the Steppe there’s one Romanian aircraft piece. One side has an SM-79, the flip side is an IAR-80. Since the IAR-80 didn’t print well (the counter is perfectly usable; it’s just not pretty enough for our tastes) we have a replacement here in our free download.

We’ve also provided two more aircraft pieces, though the Romanian player is never allowed to draw more than one in any scenario — the FARR did not provide support on anything like the scale of the Luftwaffe or even the Red Air Force. But this will add a little more variety, and aid in creating fantasy scenarios for those Romanophiles out there (well, at least the one who’s written in to us).

Don’t wait to put Fire in the Steppe on your game table! Join the Gold Club and find out how to get it before anyone else!

Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.