Born: 1 January 1919, Roman
Combat missions: 306
Victories: 17 confirmed + 2 probable + 7 on the ground
Died: 14 June 2002, Bucharest
Picture courtesy of mr. Dan Antoniu
Lt. av. Vasile Gavriliu
Vasile Gavriliu was born in Roman on 1 January 1919. He finished high-school in Iasi and was admitted in the Electrical Engineering Faculty. After only one year he quit and joined the air force. He graduated from the Air Force Officer School on 10 May 1941, with the rank of sublocotenent (2nd lt.) and in 1942 was assigned to the newly formed 9th Fighter Group, in the 47th Fighter Squadron, which was equipped with IAR-80s.
In 1943, the group started training on the Bf-109G. Because of the 7th Fighter Group, which was on the front, badly needed replacements and the 9th wasn't completely ready to take over, it was decided that only 10 pilots that have finished the course to be sent on the front. Among them was also slt. av. Vasile Gavriliu.
They arrived at the Kramatorskaya airfield on 14 August. During the first night, the Soviet harassment squadrons attacked, giving the newcomers a taste of the life on the front. The next day, the "rookies" flew their first war missions.
Because of the frequent dawn air attacks, on 17 August, a patrula (Romanian for Schwarm) took off to meet the Il-2s and their escorts before they reached the airfield. It was under the command of of. echip. cls. III av. Ioan Milu. Slt. av. Vasile Gavriliu was his wingman. The other two were slt. av. Ioan Dobran and adj. av. Botnar. They soon were engaged in a stiff dogfight with Yaks and La-5s, but without results. The formations broke apart and Dobran joined Milu on the way back to the base. Their wingmen were nowhere in sight. Botnar collided with a La-5 and had to make a belly-landing on a field and came with an Army car to the airfield. He reported that he saw slt. av. Gavriliu going down with a Soviet behind him. But, after 12 hours, "Chitu" Gavriliu appeared. He got lost in the confusion and landed on a field 70 km north of Mariupol, refueled and came back.
The first victory, a Yak, came on 2 September during a bomber escort mission and the second one, also a Yak, on 29 September. Slt. av. Vasile Gavriliu and a wingman were providing cover for a Romanian Ju-88A4 formation. They spotted 4 Yaks, in a single file, trying to sneak up behind them. "Chitu" attacked the first one, but he was too far away and missed. He closed up and fired on the second one. This time the Soviet fighter was hit, entered a spin and soon hit the ground.
The day of 1 October 1943 was very busy. At 15:40, slt. av. Gavriliu and his wingman, adj. av. Emil Balan, took off on a patrol mission. Soon they were announced that the airfield was under attack. They returned and followed the Il-4s and their escorts, which, as usually, were heading towards the sea. They remained behind them, in the sun, for a while, until the Soviets seemed to to feel more secure. And that's when they attacked. Gavriliu approached to within 150 m of one of the two Airacobras on the left side of the bomber formation and fired. The P-39 went down with a smoke trail behind it. The 4 Airacobras on the right observed them and headed towards them. The Romanian Bf-109s saw that it was time to retreat.
At the end of October, the 9th Fighter Group replaced the 7th Fighter Group, which returned home after seven months long campaign. However some of the experienced pilots remained to strengthen the newcomers of the 9th FG. Slt. av. Vasile Gavriliu was assigned to the 56th Fighter Squadron. The weather got worse and there were fewer missions and fewer engagements in November and December 1943.
The fourth victory came on 1 February 1944, when slt. av. Gavriliu shot down one of the Il-2s which were attacking the airfield. The same day the VVS lost another Il-2 and 2 Yaks over the Romanian airbase at Lepetika.
On 13 February, the group was reorganized. The new commander was the leading ace cpt. av. Alexandru Serbanescu. Under his leadership, the 9th Fighter Group will fight its most fierce battles in the summer of 1944 against the VVS and USAAF.
One of these was during the Battle of Tg. Frumos, in early May 1944. The front had already reached Romania and 9th Fighter Group operated from bases on national territory from April. On this occasion lt. av. Vasile Gavriliu (he had been promoted on 23 March) shot down one Yak on 2 May and a second one on 5 May, both during a free-hunting missions, reaching ace status.
On 11 May, the group flew several free-hunting missions over Bessarabia. A formation of Bf-109Gs, including lt. av. Vasile Gavriliu, engaged in a dogfight with La-5s. Soon he scored his seventh victory. The eighth came later that day. Lt. av. Gavriliu was the leader of a formation of five Gustavs in a fighter sweep near Grigoriopol. His wingman spotted several Yaks at a higher altitude. The lieutenant decided to continue to climb and when they reached 5000 m they dived on the four unsuspecting Yak-9s. These eventually saw the Bf-109s and tried to escape. Because of his superior speed lt. Gavriliu quickly caught up with the last one and fired. Smoke started to come out of the Yak and soon the pilot bailed out.
On 20 May he was again on patrol. They encountered 12 Yaks and engaged them. He fired on one of the Soviet fighters, but without effect. As Gavriliu was trying to gain some altitude, his wingman announced that a Yak was climbing behind him. He continued, because the Soviet didn't seem able to keep up with him. After the Yak stalled and turned on the left side, Gavriliu also turned, dived after it and fired. Soon after that, the Yak hit the ground. The pilot was probably already dead.
His tenth victory came only two days later. Several Bf-109s from the 9th Fighter Group engaged in a dogfight with Airacobras, after escorting Romanian Ju-88A4s and JRS-79Bs in bombing mission against Soviet positions. Four P-39s were shot down, of which one by Gavriliu.
In April, the USAAF started its devastating raids over Romania. The 9th Fighter Group was, however, confined to the front in Moldavia and was forbidden to engage them except if they entered their area of operations. This happened for the first time in June, during Operation Frantic. On one such occasion, on 22 July, 16 Bf-109Gs, under the command of cpt. av. Alexandru Serbanescu, took off to meet a large P-38 formation. During the engagement, six Lightnings were shot down by the Romanian fighters. Thus lt. Vasile Gavriliu scored his 11th kill (and 12th victory, according to the Romanian point system). This was his last pro-Axis victory.
Lt. av. Vasile Gavriliu was part of the few remaining pilots of the 9th Fighter Group that engaged the American fighters for the last time on 18 August 1944, the day when cpt. av. Serbanescu was killed in action. He was also hit by the Mustangs and the engine stopped. However, he managed to make a belly landing in a field. He later counted 40 bullet holes in his aircraft.
After 23 August 1944, when Romania quit the Axis and declared the armistice, the Germans started bombing Bucharest, from airfields close to the capital, which were still in their hands. The two Bf-109 equipped groups, the 7th and 9th, were brought in to defend the capital. On 25 August, lt. av. Gavriliu and his wingmen spotted a German Ju-87 formation from I/SG 2 and attacked it. Soon after that, he scored his first Luftwaffe kill. The next day, the German bombers came back. Lt. av. Gavriliu intercepted a lone He-111H from I/KG 4, which was trying to escape by hiding in the clouds. He closed in and fired. The right engine caught fire and the Heinkel was on its way down. He followed it as it descended and soon observed a Ju-52/3m transport that heading for the Stefanesti airfield, which was in German hands. He attacked it and the "Tante Ju" had to make a belly landing next to a corn field. About 20 Germans in flying suits got out of it, probably pilots, who were supposed to fly the airplanes parked on the Stefanesti airfield to more safe bases. Lt. Gavriliu headed towards the German airfield. There he found another two Ju-52s on the ground and and destroyed them after several passes. During those he observed a Ju-34 parked at the edge of the nearby forest. So he turned, attacked and destroyed it. His airplane was, however, hit by ground fire and the engine stopped. He had to make a forced landing in a corn field, but escaped unscratched. By nightfall, he returned safely to his group.
The 9th Fighter Group absorbed the 7th, because of the lack of available Bf-109s. According to the new organization, lt. av. Vasile Gavriliu was appointed commander of the 56th Fighter Squadron. The group was sent to the front in Transylvania were the battles with the the German and Hungarian armies had just begun.
On 15 September, six Bf-109Gs lead by Gavriliu performed a low-level attack on the Axis airfield at Someseni. He destroyed a Fw-58, while his wingmen set on fire another 3 German Gotha gliders, one Hungarian Re-2000 fighter and several trucks. None of the Romanian Bf-109s suffered any damage. He returned the next day with his patrula, but didn't find any airplanes on the ground and settled only with a fuel truck.
The weather didn't allow very much activity during late autumn and winter of 1944 and spring of 1945, but every effort was made to help the ground troops in need of assistance. The Luftwaffe wasn't a very common sight in this period, because of the little importance given to this part of the front. Most of the Romanian losses in Hungary and Czechoslovakia were due to the AA artillery and accidents.
At the end of the war lt. av. Vasile Gavriliu had 17 confirmed victories, 2 probable and 7 on the ground. He had flown 306 missions and engaged in 65 dogfights. Five of the 17 victories the Axis and all 7 victories on the ground were scored against the Axis, thus making Vasile Gavriliu the Romanian pilot who destroyed the most aircraft after 23 August 1944: 7 airplanes (1 Ju-87D, 1 He-111H, 1Ju-34, 3 Ju-52/3m, 1 Fw-58).
In 1958, lt. col. Vasile Gavriliu retired at only 39 years old. He was among the last royal army officers that remained in the new "people's" army. In the meantime he obtained an agricultural mechanical engineering diploma. But in 1967 he returned to work in the aviation, but in the civilian sector, as a professor in the Aeronautic Personnel Training Center. After the Revolution that overthrew the Romanian communist regime, he was promoted, as it should have been done earlier, to major general.
General de divizie aeriana (maj. gen.) Vasile A. Gavriliu passed away on 14 June 2002.
Bibliography: Top Gun Special Romania, no. 34 (7/2002); Tudor Nicola, Ion Marin, "Zburatorii Grupului Serbanescu", Editura MODELISM, 2000; Ion Dobran, "Junalul locotenentului Dobran", Editura MODELISM, 1998; Vasile Tudor, "Un nume de legenda - Cpt. av. erou Alexandru Serbanescu", Editura MODELISM, 1998; Dénes Bernád, "Rumanian Air Force, the prime decade 1938-1947", Squadron/Signal Publications, 1999.