The picture of Popescu-Ciocanel is from : Tudor Nicola, Ion Marin,"Zburatorii Grupului Serbanescu", Editura MODELISM, 2000
Gheorghe Popescu-Ciocanel was born on 20 January 1913 at Ploesti, in a family of intellectuals. He went to the elementary school and to high school in his town. On 1 September he was admitted in the Officer School, Aviation/non-flying personel section. After one year he managed to get into the Air Force Officer School, however. In 1937 he graduated and received the rank of sublocotenent (2nd lt).
He was assigned to the 4th Observation Squadron and then, in April 1938, to the 2nd Squadron. In this period he accumulated an important number of hours as a pilot and as an observer. Because of his love for aerobatics he was suspended from flying and even put under arrest for 6 days. He was transferred to the Chemical Weapons Department in the autumn of 1938, for a short course on gas. In 1939 slt. av. Popescu-Ciocanel was the aid of the commander of the 1st Flotilla, gas officer, chief of the Photo Section and instructor. He was also teaching at the Corps' Officer School.
In January 1940 he was named chief of the intelligence and gas bureau and in June he was promoted to 1st lieutenant. But his passion for aerobatics bringed him another 10 days of arrest.
In late 1940 lt. av. Gheorghe Popescu-Ciocanel was assigned to the 19th Observation Squadron, equipped with IAR-39s, with which he would participate in the 1941 campaign.
At 0340 on 22 June 1941, lt. av. Popescu-Ciocanel took off in the IAR-39 no. 6, together with lt. Constantin Dragomirescu (observer) and serg. Gheorghe Grigoriu (machine-gunner). They were flying on the first observation mission of ARR during the war. Although it had to pass through powerful Soviet AAA the biplane (dubbed "Mos Neata" by the Romanian infantry during the war) managed to get to the designated area (Kamensky-Podolskiy), photograph it and return safely to base after three hours, with precious information for the Romanian Cavalry Corps. The same day, he bombed an artillery battery near Hotin. He also destroyed a machine-gun nest and an artillery column the following days. He volunteered for the most difficult missions and on 29 June he was intercepted by an I-16. Lt. Dragomirescu and serg. Grigoriu were killed and the pilot was wounded. However, he managed to bring his badly hit IAR-39 to Botosani airfield.
The 19th Observation Squadron had captured an I-16 Rata, which had landed at Siret. The airplane was brought (towed by truck) to the Botosani airbase, where it was flown by lt. av. Gheorghe Popescu, before being sent to IAR Brasov for study.
After he was released from hospital in July, he went immediately back to his unit and started flying again. He took part in the forcing of the river Dniester around Moghilev and led two raids against fortifications around the city. The 19th Observation Squadron followed the advance of the maj. gen. Mihail Racovita's Cavalry Corps.
On 27 September, during the Battle of the Azov Sea, when the Romanian 3rd Army was going through some very difficult times, lt. av. Popescu-Ciocanel spotted Soviet troops which had broken the front and were infiltrating towards Malaya Beloserka. He managed to land his badly hit aircraft after the dark had set in, but he brought very valuable information. The following days he participated in several other important missions, being mentioned in several citations for his deeds.
The squadron remained in the Ukraine throughout late 1941 and early 1942, being based at Melitopol. There they captured yet another Soviet fighter, a MiG-3 which had been flown there by a deserter.
He returned to Romania and on 22 May 1942 he started the training to become a fighter pilot. He had already received the "Virtutea Aeronautica" Order, Knight class (and the previous classes) and the "Eiserne Kreuz". On 11 December 1942 he obtained his license and in March 1943 he was assigned to the 9th Fighter Group, as CO of the 47th Fighter Squadron.
The group was undergoing a process of transition from the IAR-80 to the Bf-109G. As a part of the pilots finished training they replaced the personnel of the 7th Fighter Group, which was already on the front. In August 1943 he was assigned to the 43rd Squadron (7th Fighter Group).
His first fighter mission was on 26 August. He took off together with slt. av. Ioan Dobran for a free hunt. A funny event took place, as slt. Dobran signalled the presence of Soviet airplanes behind them to the right. But instead of turning to face them, lt. av. Popescu-Ciocanel entered a series of difficult aerobatics in order to escape. They encountered several La-5s later and engaged them, but the nervous wing leader forgot to fire his 20 mm cannon and did not manage to achieve anything with his two machine-guns. After they landed he told his wingman: "You do not know what is in the heart of a observation pilot when he hears that he has enemy fighters on his tail!".
In October 1943, the 9th Fighter Group completely replaced the 7th on the front. Lt. av. Gheorghe Popescu-Ciocanel was the CO of the 47th Fighter Squadron and had been promoted to the rank of captain. In early 1944, the front had reached northeastern Romania. The group was based since 5 April on the Tecuci airfield, in Moldavia.
Cpt. av. Gheorghe Popescu-Ciocanel scored his first kill on 17 April, the second day of Easter, during a bomber escort mission, when several La-5s engaged the Romanian fighters. The second one came eight days later, when his celula (Romanian for Rotte) engaged 8 P-39s over Grigoriopol. On 28 April he scored the third and last kill that month against an Il-2.
On 20 May, at 1330, he led a formation of 12 Bf-109Gs on a free hunt in the Dubasari-Grigoriopol area. They were around Tiraspol at 5000 m, when they spotted Yaks beneath them. Popescu-Ciocanel attacked first (as he was the highest ranking), aiming at the aircraft leftmost in the enemy formation, but he missed. However, he managed to get on the tail of the formation's leader and after several salvoes, the Yak went down in flames. The Soviet pilot jumped out. He then caught another Yak in his sight, firing from beneath. It took a long burst from his weapons and the Soviet started to spin and hit the ground near the river Dniester.
Two days later, during a bomber escort mission he engaged a large formation of Yaks and Airacobras north of Târgu Frumos. Cpt. av. Serbanescu and others joined in, shooting down five American built aircraft, one of which belonged to Popescu-Ciocanel. It was his sixth victory.
On 30 May, cpt. av. Serbanescu led a patrula (Romanian for Schwarm) made up of Ofw. Stengel (as his wingman) and cpt. av. Popescu-Ciocanel and adj. av. Miron in a free hunt mission. After they entered the sector, Serbanescu attacked three P-39s, which were part of a larger Soviet formation (of eight Airabobras). But his windscreen was covered with oil and had to abandon the fight, under the protection of Ofw. Stengel. Popescu-Ciocanel intervened, but the P-39 he attacked managed to escape and get behind him. Ciocanel attacked another P-39, as adj. av. Miron was taking care of his pursuer. However, the second P-39 escaped. But the Romanian ace stumbled soon on another Soviet formation and engaged, even though they were numerically inferior. He followed closely a Yak-9 and set it on fire. Seconds later it exploded in mid air, just as adj. Miron was clearing his leader's tail once again. Then they decided to quit the fight.
In June, the 9th Fighter Group started to take part in the air battle against the US 15th Air Force. On 11 June, cpt. av. Popescu-Ciocanel scored his first kill against the USAAF: a B-17.
On 26 June he intercepted and shot down a Pe-2 flying a reconnaissance mission over Axis positions. Thus he attained the score of 12 victories. It was his last kill before that fateful day in July.
The day of 26 July 1944 remained in the 9th Group's history as the "Black Day". Serbanescu and Cantacuzino were away at Bucharest at a meeting with air force brass, so the formation was led by cpt. av. Gheorghe Popescu-Ciocanel. 18 Gustavs took off to engage a formation of "20 unescorted bombers", as the radar station reported. In fact there were more bombers, which were protected by over 100 P-38s and P-51s. In the following engagement, the Romanian pilots scored 11 victories (one of which was claimed by our ace), but the price was very high: 7 airplanes, three dead pilots and three wounded. Popescu-Ciocanel was found in the wreck of his Bf-109G. His body was completely covered with burns and he lost his legs and some fingers. After agonizing in the hospital for a few more days, he died on 12 August.
On 8 August, during the period he was struggling on the hospital bed, he was visited by the undersecretary of the Air Force, gen. de escadra Gheoghe Jienescu, who gave him the highest Romanian military award: the "Mihai Viteazu" Order, 3rd class. As a last tribute to him, cpt. av. Serbanescu led a formation of Bf-109Gs over the Ghencea Cemetery in Bucharest on 13 August, as his funeral was taking place. Six days later he will join him.
Cpt. av. Gheorghe Popescu-Ciocanel attained the score of 14 aerial victories in an unknown number of missions. He was one of the many Romanian pilots who died in the hot bloody summer of 1944.
Bibliography: Tudor Nicola, Ion Marin, "Gheorghe Popescu-Ciocanel", MODELISM International, no. 2/2001; Ion Dobran, "Junalul locotenentului Dobran", Editura MODELISM, 1998; Vasile Tudor, "Un nume de legenda - Cpt. av. erou Alexandru Serbanescu", Editura MODELISM, 1998.
IAR-39 in winter camuflage.
The IAR-39 is from: Dénes Bernád: Rumanian Air Force, the prime decade1938-1947, Squadron/Signal Publications, 1999
2003.05.10, © WW II Ace Stories.