The Frontier and Mountain units were the elite troops, composed of experienced professional border guards. The Cavalry Corps also performed with skill and élan. In fact, Romania fielded the largest horse-mounted cavalry contingent in Europe, and half of the 8-million-head national herd was lost in the war.
Equipment was a hodgepodge, much of it of World War I vintage. Some 1,000 Romanian artillery pieces were fitted with barrel sleeves to standardize on 75 mm ammunition. The frontline Romanian infantry was armed with Czechoslovakian ZB30 light machine guns and ZB24 rifles, the Czech version of the German Mauser, and Romania produced many weapons of its own, including the respectable Orita submachine gun. Although the Germans promised modern equipment, they generally delivered only older weapons.
On 2–3 July 1941, following the start of the invasion of the Soviet Union, Romanian and German troops crossed the flooded Prut River to reclaim lands seized from Romania by the Soviet Union the previous year. The Soviet Ninth, Twelfth, and Eighteenth Armies opposed them. In northern Bukovina, elements of Third Army encountered weak opposition, and by 9 July, they secured that province, which had also been seized by the Soviet Union in 1940. To their southeast, the Romanian Fourth Army lost 9,000 men vainly trying to enlarge a bridgehead at Falciu, but it successfully crossed into Bessarabia near Iasy (Jassy) and advanced on the capital of Kishinev (Chisinau to Romanians).
The Soviet II Cavalry Corps, led by tanks, counterattacked savagely in the Cornesti Massif highlands on 10 July, smashing Romania's 35th Reserve Division. Crack troops of the Frontier Division halted the breakthrough, and the 1st Armored Division turned the Soviet flank. By 26 July, Romania again possessed Bessarabia and northern Bukovina, at a cost of 22,000 casualties. Most Romanians believed their war was over.
Instead, the Romanian government dispatched 18 divisions to capture the Soviet Black Sea port of Odessa. The siege of Odessa, from early August to mid-October, cost 70,000 to 100,000 Romanian casualties, but it was the most significant victory ever achieved independently by an Axis satellite. Romanian soldiers fought in the Crimea, the Caucasus, and the southern USSR. The Germans sometimes had to rescue their allies, but on other occasions, Romanians saved German troops, as at the Kuban bridgehead on 7 April 1943.
Romanian engineers helped build the bridge over the Dnieper at Berislav, the longest bridge ever constructed under fire. On 1 September 1942, the Romanian 3rd Mountain Division and the German 46th Infantry Division captured beachheads on the Kerch (Kersch) Peninsula in the largest amphibious assault undertaken by the European Axis powers during the war. Romanian Brigadier General Ion Dumitrache won Germany's Knight's Cross for capturing Nalchik on 2 November 1942, the farthest point of Axis advance in the Caucasus. At least 16 Romanian officers received the Knight's Cross, more than were awarded to any other non-German Axis power. Additionally, 25 soldiers won the Order of Michael the Brave, Romania's highest award for valor.
Performance declined as disgruntled soldiers increasingly believed they were fighting Adolf Hitler's war. They failed to construct adequate defenses at Stalingrad, and the Soviet armored counteroffensives tore through their lines. Although they then repeatedly blunted the Soviet advance, they lacked the means to halt it. Flaws in the army had become glaringly apparent after Odessa. Its 75 mm artillery and 37 mm antitank guns lacked sufficient range and firepower. The infantry had not been trained to cooperate with the tanks, and it did not have motorized transport to keep up with them. The lack of a mobile reserve remained one of Romania's greatest military deficiencies throughout the war, and supplies and equipment were often carried by horses. Although obsolete Czech R-2 and French R-35 tanks were gradually replaced with upgraded German PzKpfw IIIs and a few PzKpfw IVs, plus captured U.S. Lend-Lease M-3 tanks and Soviet T-60s, virtually all were inadequate against Soviet heavy tanks.
Two-thirds of Romania's field army was lost at Stalingrad. Demoralized replacements, many recruited from prisons, were pushed steadily back toward the Prut. On 23 August 1944, Romania renounced its membership in the Axis pact. Soon, more than a half million Romanian soldiers were fighting against their former allies.
Using outdated tactics and weapons against powerful, modern enemies cost Romania approximately 410,000 casualties, 120,000 of them during the war's final eight months. Another 130,000 troops disappeared into Soviet prison camps, where many died.
Gerald D. Swick
Axworthy, Mark. Third Axis, Fourth Ally: Romanian Armed Forces in the European War, 1841–1945. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1995.; Bennighof, Mike. "Romania on the Offensive: The Eastern Front, 1941–42." Strategy & Tactics, no. 206 (November-December 2000): 4–15.; Butler, Rupert. Hitler's Jackals. Barnsley, UK: Leo Cooper, 1998.; Tarnstrom, Ronald L. Balkan Battles. Lindsborg, KS: Trogen Books, 1998.