/ Published August 18, 2016
The history of the Fifteenth Air Force (AF) has always been overshadowed by that of the Eighth AF, and while a flood of books on the “Mighty Eighth’s” experience is available, this is not the case for the Fifteenth. Since the nineties, a significant number of studies have examined this numbered air force’s subordinate units at the group—and sometimes even the squadron—level. However, on a larger scale, very little has been published about the Fifteenth from a broader, strategic perspective.
To fill this gap, Barrett Tillman has written Forgotten Fifteenth: The Daring Airmen Who Crippled Hitler’s War Machine. This well-known and respected author is a master storyteller who offers an authoritative and thoroughly researched survey of the role of the Fifteenth in World War II.
The book follows the unit’s history from its formation in November 1943 until the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, presenting the main goals, challenges, and difficulties that it faced. Forgotten Fifteenth is written in an entertaining narrative style, not as a repetitive day-by-day chronology. It is an easily readable book with many first-person accounts.
One strength of the study is that the author highlights the value of both the engineers who built the airfields and the ground crewmen who maintained their aircraft at a high level, despite the frequently rudimentary conditions at many of the air bases. He also gives credit to lesser known formations such as photo and weather reconnaissance units.
Tillman avoids perpetuating unnecessary myths and points out some significant, albeit lesser known, facts related to the Fifteenth. It is worth mentioning, in general, that weather caused many unexpected problems in “sunny Italy” and seriously hampered the unit’s activity. Many people know the importance of the oil-related targets. However, Fifteenth AF’s most difficult and costly target was not the extremely heavily defended complex at Ploesti, Romania, but the industrial area around Vienna. A number of individuals appear in the book as well, from important commanders to aircrew members notable for their extraordinary achievements or exploits.
The author also mentions the opposing side. In this case, not only the Third Reich and its Luftwaffe but also some smaller Axis nations battled the American flyers. Of these opponents, Tillman fails to mention the Croatian fighters, who also engaged the Fifteenth several times (with limited results but significant losses).
It would have been useful had the Forgotten Fifteenth drawn on more native-language sources from the smaller Axis nations since, in most cases, only limited information about them is available in English. By utilizing these references, the book could have avoided errors such as the following:
• American flyers were never reported as “Italians” by their Hungarian opponents (p. 189). (Since the source was not mentioned, I have no idea where the author found this erroneous information.)
• Hungarian fighters were not withdrawn after 22 August 1944 because of their accumulated losses (p. 143) but because of the next day’s events when Romania joined the Allies. Consequently, the strategic situation dramatically changed in that sector.
• In one case, both the cited source and the author confuse the Hungarian and Romanian capitals, referring to Bucharest instead of Budapest as Hungary’s capital (p. 62). In another case, one finds a reference to “Herausschutz” (p. 45), presumably meaning “Herausschuss.” (The latter term was used for a fighter claim if the attacker successfully separated a heavy bomber from the other aircraft, literally shooting it out of its formation.) In German, “Schuss” means “shot”; “Schutz” means “protection.”
Overall, Forgotten Fifteenth: The Daring Airmen Who Crippled Hitler’s War Machine is a valuable addition to our understanding of the air war over Europe in World War II, effectively covering the history and importance of Fifteenth Air Force. I highly recommend it.
Dr. Csaba B. Stenge
"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."