Ploesti (Ploiești), Romania • August 1, 1943
Allied war planners had long favored a second, much more damaging attack on the Ploesti (Ploiești) oil complex, the center of Romania’s natural oil industry some 30 miles north of the capital, Bucharest. In mid-June 1942, 13 U.S. B‑24 Liberators lifted off from a British airfield in Egypt, crossed the Mediterranean and Black Seas, and attacked Ploesti’s oil installations for the first time. The first-ever American bombing mission over Europe encountered minimal resistance and caused only minor damage to just one oil installation.
Tied by treaty with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, Romania provided roughly 30 to 35 percent of the petroleum requirements of the Axis war machine—nearly a million tons of oil a month. After the 1942 pinprick raid the Germans turned Ploesti’s dozen oil refineries into a fortress ringed by fast-firing antiaircraft cannon and machine guns. Fifty thousand Wehrmacht (armed services) personal manned the fortress’s defenses. Moreover, the Luftwaffe had dozens of Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Bf 110 fighters stationed at nearby airfields, adding to a slew of Romanian IAR‑80 fighter aircraft. An early warning antiaircraft system stretched south and southeast from Ploesti to Axis-occupied Greece and Yugoslavia.
On Sunday, August 1, 1943, just after dawn 177 B‑24s carrying 1,725 airmen from the U.S. Ninth and Eighth Air Forces took off from runways near Benghazi, Libya, flew north across the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas and then northeast over Albania and Yugoslavia. The Wehrmacht duly noted the heavy bombers’ intrusion as cloud cover and strict radio silence disrupted the Allies’ plan of all five air groups attacking their targets simultaneously. A wrong turn by the two leading groups toward Bucharest further complicated the mission to Ploesti. The remaining three groups roared headlong toward Ploesti, now at full alert, at 50 feet off the ground, hoping to avoid radar and antiaircraft fire but still managed to run into a metal curtain. B‑24s were turned into torches by ack-ack fire that raked their wing and bomb bay fuel tanks. Liberators managed to drop their payloads onto petroleum storage tanks, exploding their contents into volcanic sheets of fire and greasy smoke that concealed balloon cables and towering cracking chimneys. Red-hot tops of storage tanks flipped into the air as though they were part of a bizarre coin toss. Bombers that escaped the smoldering conflagration were set upon by waves of Axis fighters.
The intrepid airmen who took part in Operation Tidal Wave took a terrible beating. Forty-four Liberators of the 178 that left Benghazi were shot down, and 58 were badly damaged. Only 88 of the original 162 Liberators that reached their seven targets succeeded in returning to their Libyan bases. Overall losses—dead, wounded, captured, or interned by neutral Turkey (78)—came to 660 fliers out of the 1,725 who started the mission. It was the second-worst loss of men and aircraft ever suffered by the U.S. Army Air Forces on a single mission. Worst of all, the damage to the Ploesti refinery complex turned out to be minor. Some of the targeted refineries were largely untouched, and others that sustained damage were repaired within weeks, after which the net output of Ploesti’s refineries was greater than ever.
Deadly Tidal Wave: The U.S. Air Raid on the Ploesti (Ploiești) Oil Complex, August 1, 1943
Left: Early Sunday morning, August 1, 1943, five bomber groups—178 B‑24s carrying 1,780 flyers—comprising Operation Tidal Wave lifted off from airfields around Benghazi, Libya, for the 2,700 mile round trip to Ploesti, a city of 100,000 inhabitants. Ringing Ploesti were close to a dozen oil refineries that provided a reliable third or more of the petroleum that fueled German aircraft, tanks, battleships, and U‑boats. Ploesti was the “taproot of German might,” said British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Estimated to shorten the war by six months if successful, the epic August 1 air raid—the biggest staged to date—turned out to be one of the costliest for the U.S. Eighth (transferred from England) and Ninth Air Forces. For several Eighth Air Force B‑24 squadrons, fresh from flight school in the United States, the August attack would be their first and last combat mission. In this photo a half-dozen huge four-engine, easy-to-hit B‑24Ds muscle their way through Ploesti’s extensive air defense arrays.
Right: By the time the U.S. air armada had crossed into Romanian air space, Ploesti’s air defenses were coming to full alert. They included several hundred 88mm (3.46‑in) and 105mm (4.1‑in) antiaircraft guns. Many more small-caliber guns were concealed in barns, haystacks, railroad cars, and mock buildings. In addition the Luftwaffe had three fighter groups within flight range of Ploesti assisted by some Romanian fighter aircraft. On top of these dangers, balloon cables, tall cracking towers, raging oil fires, heavy acrid smoke, secondary explosions, and delayed-fuse bombs from the strikes of the lead bomb groups increased the risks facing succeeding waves of B‑24s flying at tree-top level, an unprecedented employment of heavy bombers. Many of the planes that returned home had flown so close to the ground that cornstalks were stuck in their bomb bays.
Left: This iconic image, one of the most famous of World War II, shows The Sandman, piloted by Robert Sternfels, as it emerges from a pall of smoke, barely clearing the stacks of Astra Romana refinery, the heaviest-producing refinery in Europe. The refinery suffered 50 percent destruction. Scarcely 30 minutes after the U.S. air raid had begun, the last bombs were dropped by the 167 B‑24s that had reached Ploesti. The surviving B‑24s fled west with all the speed they could muster, trying to form up as best as they could for the long return flight to Benghazi. Only 88 out of the original 178 B‑24s made it back, and of these 55 were battle damaged by heavy antiaircraft defenses and Axis fighter aircraft. August 1, 1943, was later referred to as “Black Sunday.” Some B‑24s were forced to ditch in the Mediterranean Sea. Eight landed in neutral Turkey, while 23 were diverted to airfields on Malta, Sicily, and Cyprus. Three hundred and ten crewmen were killed, some hitting the ground before their parachutes could open. After crash landing in Romania, another 108 flyers became prisoners of war, of which 70 were wounded. The 78 who landed in Turkey were interned.
Right: Columbia Aquila refinery after the air raid, bomb-cratered but largely intact, was out of service for eleven months. That said, an overall appraisal of the bomb damage at Ploesti indicated no long-term curtailment of overall production output, only a drastic reduction in storage capacity. Much of the observed smoke and flames came from burning storage tanks that held finished products, not from the destruction of cracking towers, steam plants, and critical pipeline junctures. Given the large and unbalanced loss of aircraft and crewmen and the limited damage to the complexes (only one refinery stayed out for the duration of the war), Operation Tidal Wave was deemed a strategic failure. However, when the Red Army captured Ploesti thirteen months later, on August 30, 1944, the Soviets reported that the refineries were idle and ruined thanks to continued U.S. bombing raids.
Severing Hitler’s Oil Pipeline: The Allied Bombing Campaign Against Romania’s Ploesti Oil Complex