U.S. OPERATION TIDAL WAVE A STRATEGIC FAILURE

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 this date, 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

B-24 Liberators bomb and burn oil refineries, Ploesti, August 1, 1943 Low-altitude-flying Liberators, Ploesti, 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.

"The Sandman", a B-24 Liberator, muscles through smoke columns and cracking towers, Ploesti, August 1, 1943 Largely intact Columbia Aquila Refinery at Ploesti after bombing

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


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