Thursday, August 01, 2013

Tidal Wave: The Raid on Ploesti

Ploesti, Romania (correctly spelled Ploiești, but I will use the common spelling as found in most World War II histories) is, to this day, a center for petroleum production and refining. The first large oil refinery in the world was opened there in 1856-57. Foreign producers, including John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil built and operated facilities there.

Nazi Germany gained control of most of Romania and the Ploesti oil production facilities in 1941. As Germany had little petroleum production of its own, the strategic significance of the city's resources couldn't be underestimated. By the middle of 1943, Germany was consuming up to 22 million tons of oil, but was only bringing in 14 million tons. If the Ploesti facilities could be severely damaged or destroyed, the war in Europe would assuredly be shortened by months and tens of thousands of lives might be saved.

As the war progressed into the summer of 1943, the United States Army Air Forces - progenitor of today's United States Air Force - prepared to execute the first large scale bombing raid against the Ploesti refineries. Five heavy bomber groups would be used, flying from bases in North Africa.

The plan was called Operation TIDAL WAVE. It was scheduled for a Sunday: August 1, 1943 - seventy years ago today. The men who flew the mission and survived came to know their attack on Ploesti by a much grimmer name:

Black Sunday.

Attacking the oil industry targets in Ploesti was a difficult proposition. The target area was out of range from most Allied bases for most of the bombers available to the Americans or the British. The best option to attack there from the only place a mission could be launched from - North Africa - was the Consolidated B-24 Liberator of the United States.

The Liberator was the less-heralded companion bomber to the famous Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. The B-24 actually could fly further, slightly faster, and carry a larger bomb load than the B-17. What the Liberator lacked was the Flying Fortress' ability to sustain punishing battle damage and still fly. Since it had the better range, the Liberator was chosen for the strikes on the Romanian oil fields.

USAAF Liberators first flew a raid on Ploesti on June 12, 1942. The raid, flown by a provisional bomb group called "HALPRO" for its commander, Colonel Harry Halverson flew from Egypt to Ploesti, dropped their bombs with little effective damage as they attacked from high altitude with poor visibility. The raid, however, was the first time American bombers struck a target on the European mainland. Halverson's B-24s faced almost zero opposition from the enemy during their attack.

The Germans, however, were terrified by the raid on Ploesti in June 1942. They had no idea that the city was in range for an attack. They knew that it'd only be a matter of time before the Allies attacked again, with a larger force and better success.

The Nazis turned Ploesti into the most heavily defended city in Europe. More heavy and light antiaircraft artillery, more fighter squadrons, were stationed around Ploesti than there were around the German capital of Berlin.

In November 1942, the western Allies formed the Joint Strategic Survey Committee (JSSC). The JSSC's role was to develop long-range strategic planning for the war against Germany. They developed a list of critical targets for bombing attack. Number one on their list was Ploesti.

Planning for a large-scale attack on Ploesti began in early 1943. The mission planning was conducted not in theater, but in Washington, DC where Army Air Forces commander General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold appointed a staff officer, Colonel Jacob E. Smart, to develop the operational approach.

Ploesti was a difficult target to strike. The refineries weren't centralized, but spread out all around the city's perimeter. In addition to distance, to reach the city from their bases in Libya or Egypt the planes would have to transit mountain ranges, requiring more time and more fuel. The planning staff also determined that attacking the targets from high altitude would require a force of 1,400 bombers to do the job. Bombing just wasn't that accurate in 1943, unless one came in low.

There was another problem: in early 1943, there weren't 1,400 B-24s in the entire Army Air Force, everywhere in the world. At most, they might be able to get together 200 planes for the attack. The decision was made to go in low, in theory to both make it harder for the enemy to detect the attack before reaching the target and to guarantee that the bombers would get their bombs right on the targets, maximizing damage.

The decision for a low-level attack was met with apprehension, to say the least, by the crews that would have to fly the mission when they started training for it. The Liberator was known as a difficult plane to fly, particularly at low altitude. After the plan had been set, and endorsed by General Arnold, General George C. Marshall (the Chief of Staff), General Dwight D. Eisenhower (the American commander in theater), and our British allies (Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in particular, wanted Ploesti attacked), the commander of the Ninth Air Force who had been given the mission, Major General Lewis H. Brereton, knew that if he objected he'd be relieved in disgrace.

Brereton had grave reservations about the attack plan, but had no choice but to go along with his orders. His subordinates, in particular Brigadier General Uzal G. Ent, commander of the Ninth Air Force's bombers, registered their complaints with the plan, and were largely told to shut up, fly the mission, or be relieved. Brigadier General Ent nonetheless put his protest to the plan in writing, and the leaders of the bomb groups that were under his command co-signed. He wrote:
We estimate that seventy-five aircraft will be lost at low level. Fifty percent destruction [of the refineries] is the best we can hope for. You have guessed our recommendation, [that is] to attack at high level until the target is destroyed or effectively neutralized.
Ent's letter never went further than Major General Brereton, who simply returned it to him marked "disapproved."

Brigadier General Ent, knowing that the mission parameters couldn't be changed, took it upon himself to see that the crews that would fly the mission would be as prepared for low-level attack as they could be made - and that he would personally command the mission as it was executed.

The date selected for the attack: Sunday, August 1, 1943.

The following five bomb groups were assembled for the strike on Ploesti. Two of the groups were normally part of the Ninth Air Force; three were detached from the Eighth Air Force in Britain to reinforce Ent's bombers.
  • 44th Bombardment Group (Heavy), "Flying Eight Balls", commanded by Colonel Leon W. Johnson, 36 bombers
  • 93rd Bombardment Group (Heavy), "Ted's Traveling Circus", commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Addison E. Baker, 37 bombers
  • 98th Bombardment Group (Heavy), "Pyramiders", commanded by Colonel John R. Kane, 48 bombers
  • 376th Bombardment Group (Heavy), "Liberandos", commanded by Colonel Keith R. Compton, 28 bombers and the lead group carrying the mission commander, Brigadier General Ent
  • 389th Bombardment Group (Heavy), "Sky Scorpions", commanded by Colonel Jack W. Wood, 29 bombers.
The 389th was a fairly green unit, not arriving in England until early June and being almost immediately dispatched to North Africa to begin training for the Ploesti raid.

The 178 crews who would participate in the attack studied maps, sand table models, and what aerial photographs they had of their targets. The crews were very apprehensive of the lack of current information as to the defenses surrounding Ploesti. Intelligence briefed the crews to expect resistance no more potent than had been experienced by the first small attack a year before. That any fighter opposition, if any, would be less than competent Romanian pilots, not top Luftwaffe squadrons.

When the intelligence officers were asked about the risk to B-24s over the target from barrage balloons, the crews were told, "Well, we think you'll break the cables." Of course, what would hopefully break the cables were the Liberators' wings.

The truth was that the planning and intelligence staffs had absolutely no idea what Ent's bombers would face over Ploesti. Back when the planning started in earnest, Colonel Smart (from DC) ordered that no reconnaissance missions should be flown over Ploesti, lest the Germans be alerted.

As the 178 B-24s revved their four engines to take off on the morning of August 1, every crewman likely worried about the task ahead. If everything went well, they'd be in the air for around 18 hours to get to the target and back. Ploesti lay around 1,300 miles from the bombers' bases near Benghazi, Libya. Every plane was overloaded by the weight of their bombs and the extra fuel they carried to allow them to range to the target and back.

1,751 American servicemen crewed the planes.

Almost right from takeoff, the mission ran into problems. One aircraft had a mechanical failure on takeoff and crashed with a catastrophic explosion, killing all the men aboard. Then, while transiting the Mediterranean Sea, the groups became separated into one pack of two and another of three - because a uniform speed and power for the flight to the target hadn't been agreed upon by Brigadier General Ent and the five group commanders!

German agents remaining in North Africa and other assets that observed the planes as they headed out across the Mediterranean reported that a significant attack was underway. The Allied invasion of Sicily was at its height, and there or mainland Italy was always a possibility for their target, in the view of the enemy. When radar picked up the bombers heading towards the eastern Adriatic coast, they were able to deduce that the target was Ploesti.

Three Luftwaffe fighter groups in the area were alerted, as were the pilots of the Romanian air force.

Hundreds of flak guns - including large 88mm and 105mm cannons - lay concealed in barns, towers, and even a special train the Nazis had outfitted.

The enemy was ready and waiting for the attack.

The speed discrepancy broke down the Americans' unit cohesion. The plan was for all five groups to have the same time-on-target to preserve surprise and prevent any defenders from reacting solely to one group. Surprise was completely lost. The attack plan's insistence on radio silence to preserve security meant that the leaders couldn't communicate to keep their forces together or react to enemy action.

Then, the lead group made a navigational error. The 376th, again with Brigadier General Ent present, made a wrong turn. They started what they thought was their final run towards Ploesti, but they had turned too early and instead were heading for Bucharest.

Several pilots and navigators realized the mistake, broke radio silence, and tried to inform Ent before it was too late and they were too far off course, but the plane Ent flew on had its radios shut off.

The commander of the 93rd, Lieutenant Colonel Baker, initially followed the 376th but realized their mistake and turned back towards Ploesti first. When Ent finally realized they were off in the wrong direction, he ordered the 376th's planes to attack whatever targets they could reach, not necessarily they targets they were assigned. The result was that the lead groups attacked targets that were supposed to be bombed by others - and those groups were now about twenty minutes late to the target.

Nonetheless, the American pilots and their crews flew as low as they dared, some only fifty feet off the ground, screaming across the Romanian countryside to their targets. Their low altitude protected them from enemy fighters, but left them extremely vulnerable to ground fire.

The city's defenders threw everything from rifle and machine gun fire to shells from heavy antiaircraft guns into the air. Many of the refinery targets were also protected by dense barrage balloon arrays. A few planes did indeed cut through the anchor cables. Many did not, and crashed.

B-24s flying incredibly low approaching their Ploesti target
The explosion in the background is a shot-down airplane.
For comparison to the ground, a B-24 is about 68' long with a 110' wingspan.
Group by group, the bombers bore in on their targets. The trailing groups knew by seeing the flames rise from attacks already underway that the plan had completely fallen apart. Not only would they be flying into thoroughly alerted and ready defenses, the fact that their own targets had already been attacked meant that their low-level bomb runs would be made right through the smoke and inferno produced by the earlier planes hitting the incorrect targets.

Not a crew wavered. They all had been told what vital targets the Ploesti refineries were. They had been told that destroying these targets could shorten the war by months if not sooner. They pressed their attack. They flew through everything the Germans and Romanians could throw at them. Those that made it through to their targets got their bombs on them.

Two views of B-24s over targets at Ploesti
The aircraft that survived their bomb runs turned home for North Africa. TIDAL WAVE was to have attacked six major refineries. Of the facilities that were hit, only one was destroyed and put out of production for the remainder of the war. Damage at the others ranged greatly, some took months to repair, others were back in production within weeks.

Of the 177 planes that made it into the air, 162 actually made it to the Ploesti area (several aborted en route for mechanical problems).

Only 93 aircraft landed back at Benghazi. Of those, 60 of them were so badly shot-up and damaged that they never flew again. Nineteen others made it to friendly bases such as on Cyprus. Seven planes landed in neutral Turkey and were interned. Three were lost in crashes at sea.

No fewer than 40 B-24s were shot down over Ploesti. 532 of the 1,751 airmen were listed as killed, captured, interned, or missing in action. 440 of those who survived and returned were wounded.

TIDAL WAVE was a failure.

Even in failure, the fighting spirit and courage in the air of the American warrior did not go unrecognized. Five officers aboard four aircraft were decorated with the Medal of Honor for their valor in the skies over Ploesti.

Please take the time to read all four linked posts. Each of those accounts gives greater insight into what the raid was actually like to the men who lived through it...and for many who did not survive.

All told, 56 men were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, dozens the Silver Star, and hundreds the Distinguished Flying Cross for their actions. It was the most decorated single air mission of World War II.

While this raid did not achieve its objective, and an enormous price was paid in terms of lives and equipment, the effort was not totally in vain. Ploesti would be attacked again, and the importance of intelligence and avoiding low-altitude attacks were hammered home to all commanders.

The blood shed at Ploesti on August 1, 1943 undoubtedly saved lives in the future by affecting how future major bombing raids were conducted. The later success of USAAF strategic bombing against Nazi industrial targets can trace its genesis in part to the events of Black Sunday.

In addition to the sources linked above, this post also drew upon the fantastic book Into the Fire: Ploesti, the Most Fateful Mission of World War II. A future post will list all 56 Distinguished Service Cross recipients from TIDAL WAVE.

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