Interview with gen. de escadra av. (VR) Ioan Dobran


Picture from "Jurnalul lt. Dobran" by Ioan Dobran, MODELISM, 1998

Slt. av. Ioan Dobran

This interview was taken by Victor Nitu and Claudiu Stumer one rainy morning in September 2002 in Bucharest.

Claudiu Stumer: When you were a child, did you have any experiences with airplanes. I think you loved aviation since then.

Ioan Dobran: Yes, there isn't a child who does not love airplanes! I used to build models. The first serious contact with aviation was in 35-36, on a field near the military high school, where an airplane had landed. I did what I did and managed to go and see it. I was disappointed. It was only wire and cloth. I don't know what it was. Something really old. Probably a Potez XIV. I was intrigued though by the fact that this wreck could actually get airborne. Then I joined ARPA [the Romanian Association for the Propaganda of Aviation]. I also had subscription to "Cerul nostru" [Our Sky] magazine. I cultivated my taste for aviation. I had technical skills, but at school I did not do to well. The parents tried. i was at the "Sf. Sava" high school [one of the best in Bucharest in that period and even today]. But when I had some spare time, I generally went to workshop nearby where one repaired bicycles and radios. The grades: 4,5, 6 and 7 [in Romania grades are between 1 and 10]. The parents got worried and hired a tutor. How was I going to foul this guy? Well, I told him the lesson I studied that day, not the one I was going to the next day. I had paid attention in class to it and knew it already. "Mrs. Dobran, I don't understand! He seems to know the lesson with me. I do not know why at school he forgets it!" So the parents sent me to the military high school. Discipline, supervision. I said: "Fine! But you will let me join the air force after that!" "You are young! You will get over it!" But after I graduated from high school I was admitted in the Air Force Officer School and on 1st September 1939, the first day of war, I was entering through its gate. We graduated on 10 May 1941 [Romania's national holyday in that period]. All the new 2nd lieutenants were lined up from Victoria Square to the Aviators Statue. Slt. Marius Constantinescu, the first of the 1941 class, an infantryman, presented the honors. The infantry was still the queen of battle. He died later that year during the siege of Odessa. We were then sent to Ghimbav, near Brasov. There they were going to split us among the different branches of the air force. We flew together to a point and then they said: you are going to the fighters, you to the bombers, you to the reconnaissance, liaison etc, according to one's qualities. At Ghimbav we continued the fighter training on the IAR-27, a low-wing monoplane well suited for aerobatics and on the Nardi [FN-305]. This airplane had put the old pilots into offices and was flown only by young enthusiastic pilots. It was highly maneuverable, a helpless penguin on the ground, but perfect in the air. After this we received our license on the PZL P.11, a high wing single engine monoplane, which had two machine-guns. It was a light fighter which fought in the 1941 campaign in Bessarabia and at Odessa, but after that it was withdrawn, because it was obsolete. In October we were sent to the units. I was assigned to the 1st Fighter Flotilla, which was the only flotilla with 3 groups. A fighter group had three squadrons, each with 12 aircraft plus three in reserve. Here we started flying on the IAR-80. Initially we loved this airplane. But before it we also flew a German airplane...

Claudiu Stumer: The He-112B?

Ioan Dobran: Yes, but only for a short while. it was a good plane, but it could not keep up anymore. In 1942 we entered in state of alert, following the first American raid: Halpro. They managed to reach Ploesti [on 12 June 1942]. But they did not come again until 1 August 1943. In 1943 we were sent to Tiraspol to train on the Bf-109. It was a very interesting experience for me. Our instructor was Helmut Lipfert. We flew first on the Bf-109F and immediately after that we passed on the "Gheu" [this is how the Romanian pilots dubbed the Gustav]. I was the first one to fly on it, together with Bazu Cantacuzino, who soon left for the front for the second time [the first time was in 1941]. He was a complete sportsman. The war was more a sport for him.

Anyway, I reached the front on 15 August 1943.

Victor Nitu: I would like to ask I question first. Why were you called "Fakir"?

Ioan Dobran: Lipfert called me this way. We had a contest. He said that he could fly lower than any other pilot in the Luftwaffe. I told him that I could fly in a celulă [Romanian for Rotte] lower than him. He said Ok. We will pass over the airfield and the comrades will tell us who flew lower. The Messerschmitt had a hole in the fuselage through which a rod could be inserted so that the mechanics could move it more easily in the field. Very simple. If during the flight one would position himself so that he could see through the hole, one was a little lower than the lead plane. Lipfert tried to ditch me, but he couldn't, so we finally came in low over the airfield and then we climbed away. But my airplane was slower now and lagged behind. What happened? I had hit the ground with the propeller's end and about 2-3 cm were bent. On the field there were 14 cuts.

Claudiu Stumer: Didn't you feel anything?

Ioan Dobran: No. A little lower and it would have been a lethal accident. We landed and I parked my airplane next to Lipfert's. He came to me and said: "Fakir, you flew lower than me. You are a fakir!" On the back cover of my book there is a cartoon of me as a fakir [it was made by Vasile Scripcaru, an Hs-129B2 pilot, who died in early 1945 in an accident]. I do not know if you noticed, but the bedpan has nails.

Claudiu Stumer: What else can you tell us about Lipfert?

Ioan Dobran: I met him again at Nikolaev, during our long retreat. It's mentioned in the book. He called me "Fakir! Fakir!"/ I did not know who was first.

Claudiu Stumer: I know that you met Rudel and Hartmann.

Ioan Dobran: I saw Hartmann in 1944 in Romania. They were at Husi, where there were two airfields: one for the fighters and one for the Stukas. On the first there were three squadrons. We had to land there and refuel and then I saw him. He was stripped to his waist and was riding the engine of his aircraft. He was working on the machine-guns. But he was wearing the Knight's Cross around his neck! I also saw Rudel as he was being helped by several soldiers to climb into the cockpit. I had met him earlier in 1943 after my landing at Mihailovka. They had taken me to his group and I sat with him at the table. The Germans suffocated me with their courtesy! I was in my flying suit and they were all dressed up in their uniforms as if they were dining at the Ritz! But I was in my lousy flying suit.

Victor Nitu: This was in October 1943, when you were hit in the engine?

Ioan Dobran: The Russian hit me in the engine, but did not realize that he had shot me down. I had to land, because I was losing glycol. I made a nice landing, but I did not know where I was. I parked the airplane at the edge of a forest and then I saw car approaching. It had a W on it, from Wehrmacht. I was in friendly lines. The next day I tried to communicate with my comrades who were searching for me, but I could only hear them and could not get in touch. Probably my emission was weak. A German Fi-156 came and took me, but instead of going south, where my group was, it took me north to Rudel's group. I sat to his right at the table. "Ein Kamerad notgelandet!" A comrade who made a forced landing, that's what they said. They kept me there for two days, with a driver who opened the door for me, etc. I just couldn't take it anymore! Finally Serbanescu came and took me away.

Claudiu Stumer: With what?

Ioan Dobran: With a Bf-108 Taifun. A small limousine with four seats. Very beautiful. He took me to Uman. I took another aircraft.

Claudiu Stumer: Was the other airplane recovered?

Ioan Dobran: No. The front was retreating and the Germans were not in the mood for it. They said about the airplanes that if it had shot down three enemy aircraft it had served its purpose. It was not necessary to go all the way. The life of an engine was 100 hours. After that it was changed.

Claudiu Stumer: How long did a mission last?

Ioan Dobran: It depended. When we had to stop a Soviet attack, together with the assault aircraft, we just went in and fired all the ammo and then came back. It took about 35-40 minutes. I even made five such missions in one day. The long ones lasted up to one and half hour. These were bomber escorts. With an external fuel tank the range could be increased.

Claudiu Stumer: Could you drop the tank?

Ioan Dobran: Absolutely! One used the fuel in it until one met the enemy and then, by pulling a lever, the tank fell off. Where were we?

Claudiu Stumer: I would like to ask another question. I read that you were complaining in one occasion that you had heavier weapons on your aircraft.

Ioan Dobran: Yes, it was on the G-2, on which two additional 20 mm cannons could be added. One lost maneuverability, but gained a lot of firepower. It was useful against bombers.

Victor Nitu: Especially against the Il-2s.

Ioan Dobran: Yes, but also against the US bombers.

The weaponry was perfect. We had ordinary, tracer, incendiary, explosive ammo. In conditions of poorer visibility, I was under the impression that I was using a hose, because of the tracers.

Gen. Ioan Dobran at his desk. Note the pictures of him on the bookshelf and the model of his "22"

Victor Nitu: Tell us something about the Soviet pilots.

Ioan Dobran: They were not much different from other pilots. They had an elite, pilots of great value, who were both good at shooting and at aerobatics. Here I would like to add something. I am going to contradict myself. There are two kind of pilots: one was Bazu Cantacuzino, the other was Serbanescu. Looking at WWI, we could compare them with Guynemer and Fonck. Guynemer was the commander of the Stork Squadron, which fought only in turns. On the other hand, Fonck waited like an eagle, found the favorable position, dived, fired, shot down and disappeared. This two types of air warriors are found in Bazu and Serbanescu. Bazu was the acrobat, Serbanescu was the hawk.

But let's get back to the Soviets. The majority were the herd, with few flying hours, being easy to shoot down on many occasions. What made the difference after Stalingrad were the numbers. With the appearance of the Yak-3 and of the La-5, technically things got on the level. The pilots were the deciding factor. If at the beginning we would engage without problems two against eight, towards the end, two on two or four on four was a fair fight. The forces were balanced.

Claudiu Stumer: Did you meet Airabobras?

Ioan Dobran: Yes. There had nothing special regarding its performance. The 37 mm gun made gave it a distinct silhouette and made it easier to recognize. I once had the impression that I met P-47s. This was a nig airplane, which could reach a very high speed in a dive. We could only reach 850 km/h. The aerodynamic construction did not allow more. The wings broke off. This is how Milu got away after they shot him down and he entered a dive. He could not jump, one hand was dislocated and was hanging outside. After a wing broke off, the airplane had a strange evolution and threw him out. The parachute opened and he fainted. He and adj. Encioiu were the group's safety celulă and were flying higher at 9000 m. They were both shot down. The only thing that he managed to say was: "Attention 9th Fighter Group! The Mustangs are behind you!". Milu fainted again on the ground. He woke up when the wind blew into his parachute and dragged him for a couple of meters. A doctor from a liaison squadron found him and his wingman, who had fallen 500 m from him. Enciouiu was hit in the leg. He then had problems with the leg for the rest of his life. They were taken away in a glider, towed by an IAR-39.

Claudiu Stumer: Were you ever wounded?

Ioan Dobran: Wounded no. But I was hit and really shaken up. A forced landing is very tough. The Bf-109 stalled at 135 km/h. In a dive one can still control it. However, if it is in a level flight, it would fall down like a rock. When one makes a forced landing one has more than 135 km/h. About 170. The contact with the ground is very unpleasant. I had been shot down by Lightnings and I was looking for a field and I finally found one. I "bit" a little from the ground with the propeller and made an 80 m jump, in order to loose speed. I then made contact with the ground. In the moment of the landing, everything moves forward. First the head (the shoulders and waist are immobilized), the eyes, the face. If the belt doesn't brake and one does not hit the gun sight with the head, it's OK. I had 3 such landings (one in Russia and two in Romania). Once I made a regular landing on the landing gear, because I loved the airplane. You know, like the cavalryman loves his horse. I got to the point where I "felt" the airplane so well that it obeyed me perfectly.

Claudiu Stumer: Were there differences between airplanes of the same type?

Ioan Dobran: Yes, there were. There are differences of adjustment of the rudder's and elevators' compensation. One does not feel the same way if one passes from the airplane in which one flew until then in another airplane of the same type. I got used to hearing the engine a specific number of hours. A different airplane would have a different engine with a different number of hours and sound. And I am not even mentioning structure modifications. For example one could have the surprise of not finding a lever in the place one was used to, because the other pilot thought it would be easier to move it in another position.

Victor Nitu: Did each pilot have his personal airplane?

Ioan Dobran: In some manner yes. Because of technical malfunctions we could not use the same aircraft all the time. Generally we tried to keep them, especially because in the first campaign some were painted, like Dicezare with "Hai Fetito" or Vinca with "Nella". After that it was forbidden to. Only victories if one wanted.

Claudiu Stumer: Were there any differences between the Bf-109s made by IAR and the German ones?

Ioan Dobran: None. Actually at Brasov the airplanes were only assembled. Only some of the parts were built there, like the wings.

The majority of the airplanes came from the German Werfts, which were very well equipped front workshops. They were situated 15-20 km behind friendly lines. An airplane could have been reconditioned with pieces from other aircraft.

I haven't told you anything about the wings. If you could have only seen. This aircraft was really beauty. Let me take my 22!

[gen. Dobran got up, left the room and came back with a model of a Bf-109G he flew, no.22]

We thought it was the best airplane in the world. Well, it was a rather subjective opinion. First the cockpit. It was extremely solid and well thought. There were cases when, during a takeoff under attack from a concrete runaway, a bomb exploded, the airplane being at an altitude of 8-10 m. The blast flipped the fighter upside down. It fell back of the runaway and started sliding, cutting with its right wing the undercarriage of other parked airplanes, until it finally stopped. The pilot opened the window and got out like a snake. He was fine.

Claudiu Stumer: Why didn't you have armor protection on side?

Ioan Dobran: Because the possibility of being hit from that angle was very small. Practically it was not necessary. Another time I saw the airplane flip over three times and then the pilot got out without problems.

Everything was in the right place. It was like putting on a glove, which fit perfectly. One wanted to jump out? Very simple. one just had to pull a red ring to one's left and the cockpit window was thrown away. Only the windscreen remained. Then one pushed the stick with one's feet and one was thrown out like a cork.

The fuel tank was under the pilot's seat and behind him. It was made by several layers of synthetic rubber and one layer of natural rubber. If the hole was not too large, the natural rubber dissolved and the plucked in the hole. It was self-sealing. There was also the armor in the back of the seat, the one that I felt during the dogfight on 6 June [1944].

Claudiu Stumer: Tell us more about that.

Ioan Dobran: There is not much to tell. The bullet came from below, passed through the fuel tank and stopped in the armor behind me. I felt something sharp when I leaned back. But I was fine.

The landing gear was more difficult and was made for good pilots. because the wing was very thin... But we started from the wing. This I really wanted to tell you. It was removable. It had here [and he points to the model airplane] a metal plate which could be removed. Then you really got scared. The whole wing was kept in place by two screws: one vertical and one horizontal! It took only 15-20 minutes to replace a wing, because of these two screws.

The radio was of two types FuG-7 and FuG-16, which had a 150 km range. What else can I say? It was excellent. The button which fired the gun was protected by a flap. Anyway, to be able to fire, one had first to make switch some contacts. Then with the thumb one fired the guns and with the forefinger the machineguns. The little finger was used to communicate through radio. It was all on the stick.

The landing gear. This is where the pilot's skill was shown. The power of the engine was large and it tended to create a torque while taxing on the ground. After the tail was lifted from the ground, the gyro effect could not be anymore controlled with the brake, because it was practically airborne, thanks to the torque. This led to the Bf-109's "steal" to the left, which caused a lot of accidents.

Claudiu Stumer: Did it ever happen to you?

Ioan Dobran: No, thanks to my high school mechanics professor.

The maximum ceiling was 10000-10500 m. But up there we flew "hanging" in the propeller. And 2000 m above us were the Mustangs.

Claudiu Stumer: But the Messerschmitt also had a compressor?

Ioan Dobran: Yes, but it had only one stage, which reestablished at 5400 m the horsepower it had the ground. And that was it. The Mustang had a two stage compressor and a larger propeller with four blades.

The fact that one sat on the fuel tank was a life savior. Some said: "What? You put the pilots on the fuel tank?" In the few cases when the plane caught fire in flight the gas leaked behind us. Read about the battle of Britain and you will notice the large number of burns, because they had the fuel tank in front of the cockpit.

Victor Nitu: Like the IAR-80.

Ioan Dobran: Yes. What else interests you?

Victor Nitu: The Americans.

Ioan Dobran: We could not wait to meet the Americans. On 5 April [1944] we left Odessa and landed at Tecuci. It was the first landing in Romania after one year of front. The Soviet offensive had stopped on the Targu-Frumos-Iasi-Dniester line. We were detached on the front in Moldavia. That is when the Americans started to come, with Swiss clock precision. Generally the bombers arrived at Ploesti at about 10:00. They took off from Foggia and were immediately picked up by the Germans on the radar. At Turnu Severin there was a crossroad. If they turned to the left, meant that they were going to Budapest and we got away easily that day. If not they will surely hit Ploesti. The alarm was given, the pilots climbed in the cockpits and waited for the red flare, the one I wrote in my book as the red hand of destiny that reaches out after one or the other. The bombers flew on the line of the Carpathians and then turned south towards Ploesti and flew along the Prahova Valley. The defense of Ploesti was vey well organized by gen. Gerstenberg, who speculated the fact that they generally came from the same direction and at the same hour and used AAA mounted on rail to meet them on the way. Anyway the bombers came at about 8000 m and there only the 88 mm gun could actually do something. Well there were also a few 105 mm guns. Still they managed to shoot down a lot of bombers.

Initially the defense of the territory was insured by the IAR-80s and by the 7th Fighter Group, which had a few Bf-109s. From June, however, the battle moved higher and only the Messerschmitts remained. The numerical difference was huge. For example we engaged 15 to 100 and something. The immediate protection was secured by the Lightnings and the Mustangs flew higher, as a strategic reserve, which could interviene where it was necessary. They also strafed roads and railways to attract enemy fighters. This is how that colonel, the commander of a fighter group from Foggia, fell at Buzau. They were attacking the railway and got over the airfield, where he entered the barrage of the AAA and was hit. He managed to make a forced landing and stopped in a house nearby. The first question was: "Romanians or Germans?" "Romanians" "Good!"

Claudiu Stumer: Would the Germans have shot him?

Ioan Dobran: No, but would have treated him much harsher. But when you fell in the first line, you had small chances of surviving, because the soldiers can be really furious.

The American pilots only had to fly a number of missions, after which they could go home. I remember that I met an American pilot at Focsani or Ramnic. He was sitting on his parachute and was smoking. "Where have I fallen: to the Germans or to the Romanians?" "Romanians" He became more settled down. We asked him how many missions he had. He was towards the end of his tour of duty. We talked and talked and he asked us how many missions we had. We told him that we fly from the beginning until the end of the war. He pitied us. "You are practically condemned to death, because it is very possible that one day your time will come". He was right.

Practically it was very hard to reach the bombers. But still one could have gotten there. They came in formations of 9-11 aircraft, which each had 10-11 machine-guns. It was like a hedgehog of fire. We tried several methods of attack: from the front, from the side, on the vertical etc. From behind it was certain death. With the bombers we actually fought in the first part and anyway we had only a little time with them before the escorts intercepted us. And slowly, on 18 August, there were only 13 pilots left in the group. We were only 13! On 26 July we had lost 7 airplanes: 3 dead, 3 wounded and I who was shot down, but I was fine. It was an uneven battle and I will keep saying until I die that it was not the quality that beat us, but the quantity. It was an extraordinary aircraft and it could keep up until the last day of the war. What else interests you?

Claudiu Stumer: Bazu.

Ioan Dobran: Bazu Cantacuzino was a sportsman. Everything he did he excelled: motorcycle, tennis, ice hockey and, of course, flying. He struggled to reach the front, while others tried to get out. Some active officers did like him very much: "Why is this reservist coming here? What does he want to prove?" He came out of patriotism.

He was an excellent air warrior. Once I was with him in formation and spotted Soviet fighters higher to our right. I told him and he replied that they can't see us, because of their wings. Soon after that the Soviets were shot down.

He also loved women. He was married 4-5 times. The last one was Nadia Herescu, an actress. When the Communists confiscated all his lands and the protection of Ana Pauker, whose personal pilot he was, proved ineffective he decided to flee. He made regular flights to Switzerland, carrying gold. He got to Milan and told the copilot that he will not come back. He was careful to send Nadia before to Italy, with a film or something. However they split up and she left to England where she remarried with an Englishman, Gray. The they moved to Hollywood and had a daughter, Linda Gray, who also became an actress and starred in the show "Dallas".

Bazu then left to France where he met Max Manoilescu, another great Romanian pilot. He flew at air shows, because as I said he was an excellent pilot. I remember what he did with his Bu-133 Jungmeister. He came in for landing and aimed the aircraft on the direction of the German sentinel on the runaway. The soldier was a little fat and had a large belt with flares. The German moved a little to the left. Bazu went after him. The German moved to the right. Bazu after him. And so on. When he got close he made a fast roll, stopped the engine and landed right next to the sweaty German.

The aerobatics did not work well in France and he moved to Spain. There started the health problems, an ulcer or something.

Claudiu Stumer: He didn't die in an airplane crash?

Ioan Dobran: No. He died because of his illness. He ate well, drank well and had lots of women. From countess to cook! He was a man to admire in some respect.


[Unfortunately, gen. Dobran was not feeling very well that morning and we did not want to disturb him further]

[comments are mine - Victor Nitu]

Check out Ioan Dobran's profile in the pilots section. Here


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