At the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, the Allied leaders agreed on goals for a strategic bombing offensive against German industry and its population. In the following months, strategic targets were assessed and prioritized according to their importance to the German war machine. Near the top of the list was the complex of oil fields and refineries called “the taproot of German might” by Winston Churchill, at Ploesti (pronounced plo-es-ti or plo-esh-ti), in the East European country of Romania.
On 1 August 1943, 178 B-24 Liberator bombers flew over 1200 miles from a base in North Africa to Ploesti and staged a daring, low level attack that devastated the targets. The raid was not part of any campaign, but stood alone as a singular blow to an important component of German war-making capability. Losses were heavy and the refineries were rebuilt, but the Ploesti raid stands as a magnificent example of a bold plan, well-executed by brave crews and their extraordinary aircraft.
History of the Raid on the German Oil Supply in Ploesti
The oil fields and eight massive refineries that surrounded Ploesti, Romania, spread over about eighteen square miles. They were the source of sixty percent of Germany’s crude oil supply, ten million tons of oil each year, including 90-octane aviation fuel, the highest quality in Europe. Romania was one of the world’s top suppliers of oil before the war and the Germans wasted no time directing its output to the Wehrmacht. The German drive on the Soviet Union directly depended on Ploesti for the huge quantities of fuel and lubricants needed for the mechanized divisions and aircraft on the Eastern Front. Ploesti also kept Rommel’s Africa Korps supplied in the deserts of North Africa.
The obvious target attracted the attention of Allied planners very early in World War II. In fact, destroying Ploesti had been a popular war college exercise. Right after Pearl Harbor, the American attaché in Cairo, Col. Fellers, recommended an attack on Ploesti, calling it “the most decisive objective.”
The Halverson Raid on Ploesti
The first attack on Ploesti by the U.S. Army Air Forces was mounted by an improvised air group under Col. Harry A. Halverson. The group’s original mission had been to bomb Tokyo, but Japanese advances in China after the Doolittle Raid denied them crucial Chinese bases. A hasty revision of objectives put thirteen of Halverson’s B-24 Liberators in Fayid, Egypt on 11 June 1942. From Egypt each B-24 carried a small bomb load toward Ploesti, the first American B-24 combat mission and the first U.S. raid on Europe in World War II. Twelve aircraft made it to Ploesti the next morning (12 June). They hit the target but there were too few planes to do significant damage. Still, the raid did show the feasibility of a long range attack from North Africa. It also alerted the Germans, triggering major improvements to the defenses around Ploesti.
Preparing for Operation Tidalwave
At the same time as the Allies were battling for the liberation of Sicily (Operation Husky), the unique operation was finalized to cripple Ploesti. The raid was planned in the spring of 1943, developed by the Air Staff in Washington, utilizing the newly available bases in North Africa and the Middle East. This plan (called Statesman, then Soapsuds, and finally Tidalwave) consisted of a low-level mass attack, scheduled for 1 August 1943. The plan was approved by USAAF Commander General Arnold, presented at the May 1943 Trident Conference in Washington, and given a final go-ahead by General Eisenhower and the Combined Chiefs of Staff early in June. Major General Lewis Brereton, Commander of the U.S. Ninth Air Force, was given overall responsibility for Tidalwave, with Brig. Gen. Uzal G. Ent in command of the operation itself.
Several immediate decisions shaped the Ploesti mission. First, Benghazi, Libya was chosen as the origin, rather than an alternate site proposed in Syria. Second, although it was never designed for low level bombing, the B-24 Liberator was chosen, as opposed to the B-17 Flying Fortress, due to the Liberator’s greater range. 177 bombers were assembled to ensure that there would a minimum of 155 planes reaching the target. In order not to deprive Operation Husky of bomber support, only two groups of B-24s (376th and 98th) came from forces in North Africa with the remainder obtained by transferring two groups of B-24s (the 93d and 44th) from the Eighth Air Force and temporarily diverting one group (the 389th) on its way to the United Kingdom. All arrived in the Mediterranean in the last week of June and beginning of July 1943.
Extensive training occupied the Tidalwave force as well as tedious maintenance to keep ahead of the damaging desert conditions. A practice target was set up in the desert, highly accurate in detail, which was mock-bombed repeatedly. Intelligence assets were able to supply photographs and detailed descriptions of Ploesti refineries, storage and transportation, including briefings by eyewitnesses who had been to Ploesti as part of the oil business before the war. Everything possible was done to prepare the pilots and crews for the long and difficult mission. On 29 July 1943, three days before the mission, a sobering film was shown to the crews describing the raid and providing instructions on what to do if forced to land or bail out. The dangers were extreme and everyone knew it.
At the same time, the Germans were actively preparing for the raid from a defensive posture. More than 230 anti-aircraft guns were installed along with barrage balloons and smoke generators. Two squadrons of fighters, with German pilots, were stationed nearby. Another unit, staffed by Italians and a few Romanians, had another 200 fighter planes. This well-developed defense was much more than Allied intelligence anticipated.
The Ploesti Raid of 1 August 1943
The direct flight path from Benghazi to Ploesti was 980 miles. The actual flights were mapped to avoid unnecessary interaction with German strongpoints. The resulting total distance was about 2,100 miles round trip, with 1,400 miles over the Mediterranean and the rest over German-controlled territory.
Right after dawn on the morning of 1 August 1943, 177 B-24 Liberator aircraft took off from Benghazi, each bomber group from its own airfield. The planes carried 1,765 men representing every state in the U.S. plus a Canadian volunteer, all primed for an arduous and dangerous mission. They crossed the Mediterranean, flying a path that passed Corfu Island, then over Greece and onward northeast over the mountains of Yugoslavia and Bulgaria before penetrating Romanian airspace. Several planes developed mechanical problems and dropped out of the formation, including the mission navigator.
By the time they were over Bulgaria, the B-24 formations were down to 165 planes. Heavy clouds separated the groups of bombers, and they became widely separated. The formations, somewhat disorganized by the loss of the lead navigator, descended to 500 feet at Pitesti, 65 miles from the targets. As they approached the initial point where the final turn was to be made into Ploesti, the 376th Group, followed by the 93d Bombardment Group, on General Ent’s order, made an erroneous turn southeast toward Bucharest. The other bomb groups, the 389th, 98th, and 44th, continued as briefed. When Ent discovered the error, both groups headed back toward Ploesti. The 376th was told to strike targets of opportunity, and the 93d attacked the original targets from the opposite direction as briefed.
The mission was tracked by German radar, and detected by German intelligence; Romanian defenses were alerted, there was no surprise. Coming in low as planned, the bombers flew into a maelstrom of oil fires, bomb explosions, and defensive fire. As bombers made it through to the other side, German fighters were waiting. Some bombers came in on the wrong heading, flying into bursts from delayed action bombs dropped earlier. Heavy flak made it near impossible to keep on flight path or to execute the planned bomb drops, although the bombers were so low that ground guns had a hard time targeting them. The Germans were amazed at the bravery of the pilots and the precision of the attack; simultaneously the scene appeared out of control to the attackers.
Turning for home after completing their bomb runs, or striking alternate targets of opportunity, the B-24s were pursued by fighters as far as their range allowed. The bomber formation was disorganized and under heavy German fighter attack for much of the return trip.
Results of the Ploesti Raid
The USAAF losses on the Ploesti raid were devastating. In all, fifty-four planes were lost, forty-one of those in combat. Ninety-three planes returned to Benghazi, nineteen landed at other Allied fields, seven landed in Turkey, and three crashed at sea. 532 men were killed, captured, missing, or interned. Every man who flew on the Ploesti mission was decorated. Five Medals of Honor were awarded for Ploesti, three posthumously, more than for any other mission in WW II.
In terms of mission objectives, around forty percent of the Ploesti refinery capacity was knocked out, but three of the refineries were not touched due to the confusion in the attack. The loss of capacity had little practical effect on the German war effort since Ploesti had not been running at full capacity even before the raid. Idle capacity was activated and within a few months production had increased over pre-raid levels. The heavy losses in the attacking force dissuaded the USAAF from any follow up raids. After the war, USAAF historians concluded that “though the over-all damage was heavy it was not decisive.”
The Allies were finally able to mount sustained attacks on Ploesti when airbases in Italy became available in April 1944. These attacks succeeded in reducing production to a relative trickle. Ploesti was liberated by Soviet troops in August 1944 putting an end to the German utilization of the oil.
The 1 August 1943 low-level strike on the Ploesti oil refineries by five B-24 groups has been the subject of a fair number of books. The latest Ploesti volume is this 2007 volume by military writer Duane Schultz for Westholme Publishing. While it recounts the mission in exciting fashion, it can not claim to be the definitive account of that fateful mission.
Operation Tidal Wave pitted five 8th and 9th AF B-24 bomb groups against the very well-defended Ploesti, Rumania refineries. The raid did not deliver the knock-out blow the Allied hoped. Then too the cost was horrendous, 54 out of 177 Liberators were lost, a 30% loss rate!
Schultz’ account of the often heartbreaking experiences of those wonderfully brave men over Ploesti made for compelling reading. I didn’t find all that much new material but INTO THE FIRE was a good read.
I had mixed feelings about Schultz’ research though. I don’t think he dug deep enough. His biggest gaffe is repeating that hoary old chestnut that Flavelle’s ‘Wongo-Wongo’ was the lead ship of the strike and that its loss enroute to the target contributed to the mission’s mixed success. For the record: the 376th BG led the Tidal Wave strike, its lead ship being ‘Teggie Ann’ carrying Compton and Ent. ‘Wongo-Wongo’ was lead ship of the second element which was BEHIND Compton. The only effect its loss had was that it deprived the strike of two B-24s, Flavelle’s bird and that flown by his wingman, who dropped down to check for survivors!
Tidal Wave’s outcome resulted from: (1) a flawed attack plan reflecting a complete lack of U.S. intell on Ploesti’s defenses; (2) Ent’s inability or unwillingness to order all five group commanders to maintain the same cruise settings enroute to the target; and (3) Compton turning at the wrong IP. Those factors resulted in a hopelessly scrambled – and uncoordinated – attack by two separate formations that put lumbering, unarmored bombers directly in the sights of numerous AAA batteries and Axis fighters.
Likewise, INTO THE FIRE’s recreation of Tidal Wave would have benefited if Schultz had done more research on the Axis air units who took such a grim tool of B-24s. He doesn’t give enough credit to – or even identify – those German, Rumanian & Bulgarian units and pilots who engaged Tidal Wave aircraft. The mixed German-Rumanian I/JG 4 along with other ARR units claimed 17 B-24 kills; five more Libs were claimed by the Bulgarian 3.6 Orlyak. Incorporating some of their reminscences into the text would have made for a more balanced – and interesting – account.
INTO THE FIRE’s tale of bravery and dedication will appeal to all military enthusiasts. I recommend it with some reservations. For my money, the best Ploesti book remains Michael Hill’s BLACK SUNDAY: PLOESTI done back in 1993 for Schiffer.