The Air Corps Takes Over
The assembly of aircraft for the USSR under the several protocol agreements, by which the United States in conjunction with the United Kingdom and the Dominion of Canada promised material aid to the Soviet Union, was one of the tasks assigned to the Iranian Mission and continued by its successors. In accordance with the pattern of the 1941 planning period, operating responsibility for aircraft assembly at Abadan was at first exercised by the Douglas Aircraft Company under contract to the U.S. Army Air Corps. During the period of Douglas operation, ending on 31 March 1943, about seventy-five planes on an average were delivered monthly to Soviet pilots who flew them off to the battle lines. During the period of Air Corps operation, from 1 April 1943 through 31 January 1945, when the Abadan aircraft assembly plant was disbanded, deliveries to the Russians averaged 182.9 aircraft monthly. The flow of aircraft from .the United States to the USSR was greatest during the period of the Third ( London ) Protocol, 1 July 1943 through 30 June 1944, when 5,735 planes were delivered by the United States to the Russians at Fairbanks, Alaska, the north Russian ports of Archangel and Murmansk, and via the Persian Gulf. In this year, 2,902 aircraft were delivered by the U.S. Army in the Persian Corridor. During the peak year of American shipments of aircraft to the USSR, Abadan, therefore, accounted for half of all the aircraft delivered, in contrast to its one third share of the total made available by all routes for the entire period of lend-lease deliveries.1
The Pressure of the Protocols
The ability of the American command to raise the average monthly output of assembled planes by almost 150 percent and to handle half
the total world-wide deliveries during ,the peak year can be ascribed to the increase in manpower and resources which followed militarization of the project in April 1943. But this increase was not always commensurate with the flow of incoming aircraft. Throughout the life of the assembly task, the struggle against the backlog remained, as during the period of contractor operation, the chief problem to be surmounted. In ordinary assembly operations where the quantity of materials may vary it is customary to maintain a fairly constant backlog to provide continuity of production. But assembly of aircraft for the USSR was not an ordinary operation. Provision of the maximum number of planes for use against the enemy made the reduction of backlog to zero the desirable but unattainable ideal. Furthermore, the accumulation on the ground of serviceable aircraft was a constant invitation to enemy bombing raids. The fact that no such raids took place did not cancel out the wisdom of providing against their possible occurrence. The battle of the backlog may seem merely of statistical significance, a humdrum matter of figures which ought to balance: so many arrivals, so many assemblies, so many deliveries. (Tables 10 and I1, Appendix A) It was actually anything but humdrum. Creatures of the unexpected and the unpredictable, the figures measure success or failure in the effort to meet inexorable protocol demands.
There was, in the first place, the highly variable rate of arrivals which never could be systematically co-ordinated with the supply of manpower. One reads, for example, the message sent in April 1943 from General Sidney Spalding in Washington to Averell Harriman at London. The Prime Minister had just forwarded to Harry Hopkins a proposal for the British to ship 285 aircraft due from them under the protocols to the USSR via Abadan. The Abadan plant was then in the throes of transition from civilian to military operation; but Washington approved, stating, "This number of airplanes may temporarily overload erection facilities and result in some delay in delivery to Russia. Army Air Force agrees to strengthen Abadan as much as possible to facilitate erection of the 285 airplanes."2 It was up to Abadan after that, whether or not the strengthening was achieved in time or ever.
Then there was the weather, that unappreciated hobgoblin of the Persian Corridor. As of 1 April, when the Air Corps took over Douglas's Cedar Project, what a report calls "unusual weather conditions" had for some time prevented the take-off of completed planes from Abadan with the result that 107 of them waited at the field to be flown away.
This kind of situation offered continuing obstacles to the smooth flow of the assembly and delivery process. To cite a further example of the unpredictable, on 1 April, among the 192 aircraft on hand which were either not yet assembled or not yet put into serviceable condition were 16 P-40's immobilized because their belly fuel tanks had been borrowed by the Russians to enable them to fly out Spitfires delivered to them at Abadan by the RAF without auxiliary tanks. These were among a lot of 50 Spitfires being delivered to the USSR by the RAF in return for 40 Bostons lent by the Russians to the British the previous summer during the crisis in the fighting in Egypt. Not a week passed without its quota of similar problems requiring special adjustment and solution in a hurry. They must be read between the lines of the humdrum story.3
Manpower, Procedures, and Production
On 1 April 1943 Colonel Porter, commanding officer of Abadan Air Base and of headquarters, 82d Air Depot Group, had at his disposal 436 officers and men of the Air Forces, of whom 334 were members of the 17th Depot Repair Squadron which had been on detached service with the 82d Air Depot Group since January, learning from the Douglas civilians the special points of assembly at Abadan. There were also 165 Soviet operatives and 54 native laborers; but of the 193 Douglas civilians at the site on that date, only 125 stayed to the end of the month. Of these only 55 were of the former Cedar Project, the rest being borrowed from the Douglas Project 19 at Gura, Eritrea. Some civilians, their contracts concluded, were returned to the United States. Although this working force delivered 214 aircraft to the USSR in April, a peak figure to that date, the backlog at the end of the month was 235. Progress in one direction was vitiated by backsliding in the other. It was a time for strengthening manpower. But just at this point, on 2 May, the 17th Depot Repair Squadron departed to join the Ninth Air Force in North Africa, leaving Colonel Porter with a serious manpower shortage. An appeal to General Connolly for the loan of 36 enlisted men for thirty days was refused on the grounds of personnel shortage in the command generally; but the visit to Abadan on 16 May of Maj. Gen. George E. Stratemeyer, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army Air Forces, resulted in a requisition being made on Washington to ship 65 men. It did not help the immediate situation that in April the 18th Depot Repair Squadron of 10 officers and 338 enlisted men had been shipped from the United States to replace the 17th. The 18th did not
arrive until 12 July, by which time the backlog had risen to 550. Meanwhile deliveries dropped in May to 152, in June to 96. The backlog exceeded 200. With some Douglas civilians borrowed from Gura to make a total of 185 for June, and with 140 officers and men of the 82d Air Depot Group, Colonel Porter faced the rising backlog with only slightly over half the Americans, military and civilian, that were at Abadan three months earlier. June also brought word from Patterson Field, Ohio, that nearly 300 aircraft would reach Abadan in July for processing. To intensify the crisis, the number that arrived exceeded 490. With its working force cut in half, Abadan faced its biggest work load. Patterson Field advised Colonel Porter to inform the British at Basra that the RAF representatives in Washington had been told that the RAF in Iraq could expect to be called upon to help out at Abadan. This appears something like the "strengthening" mentioned in Washington in April in connection with the extra shipment arranged between Churchill and Harry Hopkins. Colonel Porter, 12,000 miles nearer reality than Washington, replied that the RAF was itself undermanned and could not supply the help it had offered on an earlier occasion.4
The arrival of the 18th Depot Repair Squadron on 12 July would ease matters somewhat after the new men had learned their jobs; but meanwhile Abadan buzzed with a hornet's nest of administrative complications. Command and responsibility at the assembly plant were not clearly defined during the contractor period, nor were they any clearer in early July 1943. The plant came under the Commanding General, PGSC. Immediate administrative supervision over its activities was delegated by him to the commanding officer of the geographical subarea of the PGSC, Basra District. But PGSC came under USAFIME at Cairo, and Abadan was subject in technical matters not only to USAFIME's air officer, but to Air Corps authority in the United States. On 13 July Maj. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton, commanding general of USAFIME, protested to General Arnold by message to Washington that certain orders had gone direct from America to Abadan, as a
result of which "there is a great deal of confusion."5 Brereton insisted that responsibility for aircraft assembly at Abadan must rest with the Commanding General, PGSC. Arnold's reply admitted that direct orders had been sent "in the interest of expediting this important project and thereby assisting your headquarters," adding, "One cannot overstress the importance of the accomplishment of the mission of this establishment for which you are fully responsible," that is, the Commanding General, USAFIME, not the Commanding General, PGSC.6
On 14 July, as a sequel to Colonel Porter's attempts to obtain personnel from Gura, the RAF, and the American command, General Brereton noted, in a message to Porter, the existence of "confusion concerning requests for assistance," arid that Porter had been receiving "functional instructions" direct from the Air Service Command, Patterson Field, Ohio. Brereton added, "Responsibilities and administration of Abadan are a responsibility of CG, PGSC, with direct communication to Air Service Command, Patterson Field on technical matters only."7 On 29 July, Headquarters, PGSC, set forth a clarification, authorized by Washington and Cairo. The Abadan aircraft assembly plant and all related activities on Abadan Island were placed under the "jurisdiction and control of the Commanding General, PGSG, except that direct communication with Patterson Field, Ohio, has been authorized for technical matters only." The Commanding Officer, Gulf District (Basra District was thus redesignated in May), PGSC, was "responsible for supervising and co-ordinating the activities of the Abadan Aircraft Assembly Plant," and was to handle administrative, operational, and supply matters on behalf of the commanding general in the same manner as other assembly plant operations within the command. The Operations Division, Headquarters, PGSC, was made responsible for "general supervision and documentation," and for establishing monthly production targets in consultation with the commanding officers of the plant and of Gulf District. On 24 August the functions of Operations Division respecting Abadan were assigned to its Plants Branch.8 Thus a local modus operandi was established within the framework of the PGSC, itself within the framework of USAFIME, while the Air Corps at Patterson Field kept its finger upon the technical aspects.
While this was going on, the plant raised production in July to
141; but this was highly unsatisfactory to the Russians. On 28 July General Arnold notified General Brereton at Cairo that "Russian officials in Washington" were requesting "immediate action . . . to assure assembly of 300 aircraft per month."9 The Russians complained that assembly was inadequate, and that insufficiently protected planes lying about in crates at Basra and Margil invited local sabotage. It developed that there had been confusion at these landing ports as to the responsibility for the safety of cargoes of U.S. aircraft consigned to the British but to be diverted to the USSR. The Americans assumed the responsibility.
In August, although new arrivals of aircraft had fallen to 275 and deliveries had risen to 204, the backlog exceeded 600. It was now General Connolly's turn to appeal for additional help. In early September he informed General Brereton that he would require 19 officers and 270 enlisted men to meet the new monthly quota of 300 aircraft.10 He did not get them immediately; but Abadan did come in promptly for a visit from Maj. Gen. Ralph Royce who had just succeeded Brereton as commanding general of USAFIME. Washington had inquired why the rate of delivery at Abadan had declined during August. Royce replied that he would report to General Arnold after personal investigation. He radioed on 26 September that Abadan was "a very disorganized installation," with insufficient officers, men, and equipment to complete its mission.11 Colonel Porter, who had borne the burden and heat of the day for the past nineteen months, had been returned to the United States on 11 September. He was followed by four successive commanding officers in three months, after whom two more served out the time that remained until the plant was closed down in January 1945.12 Continuity of operations for a time, therefore, largely depended upon the Douglas civilians, who were veterans of longest service, upon the military force, and upon the supervisory functions exercised by Plants Branch, Operations Division.
The full force of the increased deliveries under the London Protocol now began to reach the Persian Gulf. In September, in spite of the
succession of commanding officers at Abadan, deliveries reached 253 aircraft. But the backlog rose ominously to 670. On 1 October 1943 additional Air Corps personnel reached the site, 100 of them earmarked to move on to India as soon as the state of the backlog permitted. With this extra force at work, October deliveries of 395 aircraft struck the maximum attained at any time during the life of the project; but the inflow of new planes provided an unwelcome reservoir of 829 awaiting assembly on 10 October. This was also a peak figure, and a challenge to the approximately 500 military personnel and 69 Douglas civilians at the plant.13 By their efforts .the figure receded to 607 at the end of the month, and fell below 100 by the end of January 1944. Although it was to rise again by mid-July to 155, the tide turned in October 1943 and the battle of the backlog was finally won.
In Table 10 can be read the story of deliveries to the USSR during the rest of 1943 and the year 1944. Progress during 1944 was such that on 19 July General Marsha]l informed General Connolly that, as soon as aircraft on hand and en route were delivered to the Russians, the War Department planned to disband the plant. After one or two postponements that time came on 1 February 1945, when operational responsibility for remaining work at the plant was assigned, upon its disbandment, to the Air Transport Command. Ninety-one officers and men were transferred to the ATC and 244 shipped to the United States.14
Abadan Air Base
The falling off of shipments of incoming aircraft which occurred after the end of the London Protocol period in June 1944 initiated the declining curve of assemblies at Abadan; but meantime there had been steadily increasing activity at the Abadan Air Base, to which the ATC had moved from Basra in June 1943 when the field at Margil proved too small for its expanding mission. On 12 August 1944, with assembly operations at Abadan entering their last lap, came official recognition that the function of Abadan Air Base had shifted from assembly to air operations. On that date the 82d Air Depot Group and the 18th Depot Repair Squadron were disbanded, and their personnel and equipment transferred to Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron, Abadan Air Base, with an aggregate strength of 26 officers and 502 enlisted men,
plus 100 enlisted men attached additionally as Air Corps unassigned.15 The commander of the base was responsible for remaining assembly operations, while Plants Branch, Operations Division, handled production schedules, processed requisitions, and, with the Gulf District commander, supplied advisory staff functions chiefly relating to over-all production and target obligations. But in all other respects Abadan had become a busy airfield, with its transient planes and passengers and all the elaborate installations required to serve them. By the time the ATC took over completely on 1 February 1945, Abadan was mightily transformed from the relatively unimproved space three miles north of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company refinery to which the first American workers came early in 1942.
That is why, in July 1944, there was a considerable to-do over the report that the AIOC contemplated buying the land on which the Americans had lavished their peculiar talents for doing things on the grand scale. "Without notifying us," General Connolly radioed to Washington,
AIOC . . . has applied to the Iranian Government on this transaction. We have requested the American Embassy to initiate necessary action to stop the purchase of this land until Washington has advised us on the situation. This transaction vitally hampers our possibilities for disposition of our enormous investment or for our postwar rights to mediate in operation of airfields.16
American rights to occupy the land next the refinery were informal, not to say tenuous. The Douglas Aircraft Company came in by virtue of a purely verbal agreement, there being "no lease or any other form of written agreement" between them and AIOC, or between AIOC and the United States Government.17 United States operation of the Abadan assembly plant had of course been a matter of Anglo-American understanding in Washington in January 1942, but the legality of land occupancy had not been established by formal document.18 Much later, after the ATC had moved to Abadan and had undertaken its program to expand facilities there for regular flights, the Commanding General, USAFIME, received on 27 January 1944 from headquarters of the RAF, Middle East, a statement of British willingness to prepare airfields for ATC use which contained no reference to terms, tenure, or
leases. This paper has been described as "the only documentary form of agreement . . . covering U.S. Army use of the subject field."19 The matter became engulfed in the infinite maw of official files on both sides of the Atlantic. The United States remained in occupancy of Abadan until the end of its operations in Iran in 1945, and its property rights in buildings and installations there were duly adjusted as a part of the postwar settlements with the United Kingdom and the government of Iran.
In a story which has necessarily concentrated, as did the sweating men who made their contribution at Abadan, upon the assembly and delivery of thousands of aircraft for Russia, the human factor has been submerged under the facts of human achievement. It was a job by men for men, even though there were times when, as the Russians felt, .the machine, not the man, was irreplaceable and of prime importance. But there were other times when men counted as men: such highlights as the visit of the Shah to the plant in February 1944, and the good-will party also held that month for forty Soviet officers headed by Maj. Gen. Ivan I. Obrazkov, commandant of the Soviet air detachment at Abadan.20 On that night, the oratory, heard over the clinking of glasses, made much of the co-operation of the United States and the Soviet Union in providing craft for Soviet fighters. The echoes of that evening's celebration have long since faded in the clangor and hissing of the near-by refinery. But the fact of that co-operation and its fruits is something time cannot alter.
Tucked away in the files is a mimeographed sheet handed to the men of the 18th Depot Repair Squadron as they arrived in July 1943.21 It cannot now be read as they read it in the burning heat of unfamiliar Abadan but it will serve as a reminder of the human factor:
This depot is an International Settlement. You will work with American Soldiers, highly skilled American civilian technicians, a detachment of the USSR Air Corps . . . RAF, Iranians, Iraqi, Arabians, and Indians. Such success in our work as we have had has been built on the cooperation and mutual understanding among these groups. It is essential that this "good will" be maintained and we count on you to maintain it. Due to the heat, our meal and work schedule is as follows:
3:30 early morning coffee; 3:55 muster at hangars; 4:00-7:30 first work period; 7:30-8:00 second breakfast; 8:00-12:00 second work period; 12:30 lunch; 13:30 bus leaves mess hall for swimming (Sats thru Thurs) ; 17:45 dinner; 20:00 movies (Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday).
If you find this camp a bit rough at first remember that many of us have been here for over a year and raised what we have from the open desert. You will join in completing the new PX and other construction needed, so that we can all enjoy a more comfortable camp. You will be able to make your own barracks more comfortable during your free periods in the afternoons and evenings. Lumber is available .
. . . Every additional aircraft that we can send North now, may save hundreds of American lives next year. Working together we can top our best production records.
page created 17 January 2002
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