Foggia Airfield Complex, Southeast Italy June 16, 1944

On this date in 1944 nearly 600 B‑17 Flying Fortresses and B‑24 Liberators from the U.S. Fifteenth Air Force took off from bases in Foggia, South­eastern Italy, to attack oil refin­er­ies around Vienna, Austria, and Bra­tislava, Czecho­slo­va­kia. After Romania, Austria was the big­gest Axis crude oil pro­ducer, sending half its crude to local oil re­fin­er­ies and the other half to refin­er­ies in neigh­boring Czecho­slo­va­kia and Hun­gary. Austria’s oil refin­ery at Florids­dorf, on the northern edge of Vienna, had been targeted almost three months earlier, when U.S. heavy bombers carried out their first attack on Aus­trian soil. On this date B‑17s targeted the Florids­dorf and nearby Kagran oil refin­er­ies, while B‑24s struck oil refin­er­ies at Lobau, west of Vienna, Schwechat, south­east of Vienna, and the Apollo oil refinery at Bra­tis­lava. Ten days later and again in August bombers revisited Floridsdorf, Lobau, and Schwechat.

Else­where in Germany and Nazi-occu­pied terri­tories, the Fifteenth and Eighth Air Forces ham­mered Axis petro­leum facili­ties so badly that Nazi Arma­ments Minis­ter Albert Speer told Adolf Hitler in the summer of 1944 that Germany’s avi­a­tion gaso­line pro­duc­tion had been severely com­pro­mised in May and June. If the Third Reich could not pro­tect its refin­er­ies and hydro­gena­tion fac­tories by all avail­able means, it would be im­pos­sible to get them back into working order from the state they were in. He pre­dicted if it came to that, “by Sep­tem­ber we shall no longer be cap­able of covering the Wehrmacht’s most urgent needs.”

Speer’s lamen­ta­tions would have been music to the ears of Gen. Carl Spaatz, head of U.S. strategic air forces in Europe, had he heard them. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Spaatz said that the pri­mary aim of the Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces was to deny oil to the enemy. Between Sep­tem­ber, the critical month Speer had men­tioned in his talk with Hitler, and January 1945, oil tar­gets, including oil storage depots, plants pro­ducing syn­the­tic oil from coal, and pumping stations, became the air force’s high­est priority. Writing in 1970, Speer said that the Allied oil cam­paign “meant the end of Ger­man arma­ments pro­duc­tion.” Luft­waffe general and flying ace Adolf Galland remi­nisced that the Allied oil campaign was “the most important of the combined factors which brought about the collapse of Germany.”

Stephen Ambrose’s The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany is an excel­lent account of the U.S. Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces tethered to the air­crew led by a twenty-two-year-old pilot from the Ameri­can Mid­west named George McGovern. (McGovern later became a United States senator and a presi­dential candi­date.) Ambrose’s gift for weaving real persons into his story-telling is evident here again as he recounts the bravery, skill, daring, and com­radeship of McGovern’s 741st Squad­ron of the Fifteenth’s 455th Bomb Group, a stand-in for just about every other heavy-bomber squad­ron and bomb group in any of the Army Air Forces. In acquainting us with the pilots, co-pilots, bom­bar­diers, navi­gators, gunners, ground crews, opera­tions officers, and group com­manders of the Fifteenth Air Force—Ambrose devotes substan­tial text to devel­oping their personal stories—I gained a deep appre­ci­ation of the spirit and grit that charac­terized these young U.S. air­men (mostly in their early twen­ties but some still in their teens) who were just as likely to not sur­vive as sur­vive their twenty-five, then thirty-five bombing missions over enemy terri­tory. (On average, close to four per­cent of the bomber force was killed or missing in action on each mis­sion.) One seg­ment of the “greatest gener­a­tion” to which these air­men belonged is superbly told in Ambrose’s The Wild Blue.—Norm Haskett

Operation Tidal Wave: Attacking Romania’s Ploiești (Ploesti) Oil Complex, August 1, 1943

Ploiești’s Columbia Aquila refinery burning, August 1, 1943"The Sandman" emerges from Ploiești’s inferno

Left: In 1943, crude and refined oil from Romania’s Ploiești (Ploesti) oil fields pro­vided about 35 per­cent of all Axis oil supplies, five times what runner-up Aus­tria provided. Stra­te­gic planners, mili­tary spe­cialists, and oil-refining author­ities con­cluded that the de­struc­tion of the Axis oil in­dus­try held the key to the Luft­waffe’s defeat and Germany’s as well. In this photo oil storage tanks at the Colum­bia Aquila re­fin­ery, one of eleven in the Ploiești re­fin­ery com­plex, burn after the raid by Libyan-based B‑24 long-range bombers of the U.S. Ninth Air Force, assisted by Liberators from the Eighth Air Force based in Eng­land. The dis­tance flown by the bombers set a record for aerial war­fare broken only in 1944 in the Pacific Theater.

Right: Equipped with special low-altitude bomb­sights, B‑24 Liber­ators flew low (less than 500 ft off the ground) as they approached Ploiești’s oil re­fin­eries to avoid detection by German radar. The heavy bombers dropped some 300 tons of high-explo­sive, mostly delayed-action bombs, as well as clusters of incen­di­aries by the hun­dreds. 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 largest of Ploiești’s refineries.

Operation Tidal Wave: Low-altitude-flying Liberators, Ploiești, August 1, 1943Operation Tidal Wave: Liberators over Ploiești, August 1, 1943

Left: Liberators flew into the mouth of Ploiești’s defenses, which in­cluded several hun­dred 88mm (3.46‑in) and 105mm (4.1‑in) anti­aircraft guns. Many more small-cali­ber guns were con­cealed in hay­stacks, rail­road cars, and mock buildings. In addi­tion the Luft­waffe had three fighter groups within flight range of Ploiești, assisted by some Romanian fighter aircraft.

Right: Despite months of planning, preparation, training, and practice, the August 1, 1943, mission over Ploiești was one of the cost­liest for the USAAF in the Euro­pean The­ater: 53 air­craft and 660 out of 2,000 specially trained air­men were lost. Only 88 B‑24s of the original 178 air­craft returned to Libya. Some landed in neu­tral Tur­key, where the air­men were in­terned, and some landed at an RAF air­field on Cyprus. August 1 was later referred to as “Black Sun­day.” Sadly for the Allies, within weeks most of the damage to the re­fin­eries had been repaired, and the net output of fuel was greater than before the raid.

1943 Newsreel Includes Scenes from Ploiești, Churchill’s Visit to North America, Building Liberty Ships, Navy Men on Leave, and Patton in Sicily