When one heads north out of Bucharest (by either road or rail), it takes a considerable amount of time for the city to “fall away.” When that finally does happen, you find yourself out on the Wallachian plain – which is very flat, now nearly treeless, and (in summer) very hot. The cityscape and traffic of Bucharest are replaced by scenes of peasant farmers transporting wood, hay, and other agricultural substances in horse-drawn carts – often doing so while chatting on their mobile phones.
But between Bucharest and the Carpathian foothills, just 35 miles north of Bucharest, the transportation corridor runs just by the western edge of the small city of Ploesti. Just to the west of the road and the rail line looms the large and venerable Ploesti oil-refining complex.
Today, Ploesti and its environs are peaceful – and almost bucolic.
But on this day 66 years ago, Ploesti was anything but peaceful. In the short span of 30 minutes, the Ploesti refinery was engulfed in flames, and the cornfields of the Wallachian plain were littered with the burning remains of aircraft – following one of the most unusual and brutally-courageous air attacks in history.
The tale is told below the fold.
Europe is famously devoid of petroleum resources. When the “petroleum age” dawned in the latter part of the 19th century, crude oil could be found in only one place in all of Europe – outside the small town of Ploesti.
During the early years, the methods for the collection of crude oil at Ploesti were, well – crude. This was done mostly with hand-dug pits, which were allowed to fill up with crude oil – which was then collected by hand with buckets.
As demand for petroleum products grew, the more sophisticated methods that were being employed around the world for collecting crude oil came to the plains around Ploesti. However, the Romanians pioneered much of the chemical engineering innovation that really made petroleum a multifoliately-useful material – one that could be “cracked” and refined into a much wider variety of products. Ploesti saw the development of what was arguably the world’s first modern refinery operation.
By the time that World War 2 broke out in Europe, Romania was already a key German ally – thanks to the ideological sympathies and inclinations of Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu.
But the Germans were equally anxious to have Romania as a close ally for an obvious reason – unique in Europe, only Romania could supply crude oil and other petroleum products for German industry and the German military. Romania (via the Ploesti oil fields and refining complexes) supplied near all of Germany’s “normal” petroleum products – with the balance largely coming from “synthetic” methods of producing close-enough products from other starting resources (such as coal, which Germany had in abundance).
Gasoline, oil, and other petroleum products were obviously very critical to the highly-mechanized German military – on land, at sea, and in the air. This need was so critical – and the vulnerability to problems was felt so keenly in Berlin – that Hitler had directed the German summer-1942 offensive not at Moscow, but at Baku.
All of this made Ploesti a very, very critical facility to the German war effort. As a result, Ploesti was very heavily defended – by large concentrations of anti-aircraft guns (crewed by some of Germany’s best anti-aircraft gunners) and three full squadrons of Luftwaffe fighter planes.
Equally, the strategic importance of Ploesti made it a very tempting target for Allied war planners.
During 1942 and 1943, strategic bombing was still seen as something that could land devastating and crippling blows on key aspects of an enemy’s war infrastructure. As such, American planners gave very high priority to identifying – and attacking – “high-value” targets – “panacea targets” whose destruction would have a catastrophic effect on Axis war-making capabilities.
Not surprisingly, Ploesti appeared high on any such list of targets.
With the defeat of Rommel’s Afrika Korps and the complete ejection of Axis forces from north Africa, the Allies moved on to attack Sicily – and then Italy itself. To support these activities, the Ninth Air Force had slowly begun to be set up in North Africa – centered on the Libyan port city of Benghazi.
The Ninth Air Force’s heavy bomber arm consisted mostly of B-24s – in contrast to the situation with the Britain-based Eighth Air Force, which was built mostly around the more famous B-17.
The B-24 was a strange aircraft. Its wings – an innovative, low-drag design – were long and narrow. They were mounted along the top (rather than the bottom) of the plane’s fuselage; the design also included a very distinctive twin-ruddered tail. The fuselage was almost bulbous; many of the flyers derisively noted that in flight, the B-24 had the appearance of a pregnant cow.
The B-24 could not fly as high as its more famous cousin, the B-17. But it could carry a heavier load, and – crucially – it had a longer range.
Given the range of the B-24 and the temptation of Ploesti as a “panacea” target, it was inevitable that those two factors would converge. If a B-24 could be tweaked slightly – to carry an extra fuel tank in the bomb bay, at the cost of carrying a slightly-decreased bomb load – Ploesti was within range of the American air base at Benghazi.
By June of 1943, in great secrecy as “Tidal Wave,” plans were made for a strike on Ploesti – and B-24 squadrons were marshaled at Benghazi. In addition to the Ninth Air Force’s B-24 squadrons, several Eighth Air Force B-24 squadrons were transferred from Britain to Benghazi. In addition, several other brand new Eighth Air Force B-24 squadrons, fresh from flight school in the United States, were sent to Benghazi rather than to Britain. For these completely-green flight crews, the attack on Ploesti would be their first combat mission.
During July, the aircrews began their training – with absolutely no knowledge of what the target was that they were training to attack. But their training had one very odd feature about it. The B-24 was a four-engine strategic heavy-bomber – designed to fly to its targets at an altitude of some 20,000 to 25,000 feet. The flyers now found themselves practicing for a mission which would have them flying at very low altitude – no more than 200 feet off the ground. Before their July training, it wasn’t even known if there would be unforeseen complications that would render efforts to fly a massed formation of B-24s at such low altitude impossible; it wasn’t until the intensive July training was nearly over that such a strategy was even considered feasible.
This novel approach was one that was beginning to be developed, and which would continue right up into the 1980s, with the B-1 – which was designed to penetrate Soviet air defenses by flying at a ground-hugging (and computer-controlled) altitude of some 100 feet.
It was hoped that by flying at such a low altitude and using a careful flight path, the attacking force would be able to slip in unnoticed and achieve complete surprise. In addition to taking the target area by surprise – and getting in and out before German and Romanian fighter planes could get into the air – it was hoped that a surprise, low-level attack would leave too little time for the German anti-aircraft crews to reset the air-burst elevation on their shells from high altitude to low altitude.
These expectations indeed seemed far-fetched. But given the comparatively remote location of Ploesti, American planners had clearly underestimated the defenses that the attacking B-24 crews would face.
The plan of attack was relatively simple, as this map shows:
The first leg of the journey would carefully cross the Mediterranean to avoid German-occupied Greece – with its many islands and observation posts. Instead, the plan was to make landfall on the Albanian coast just north of Korfu, and then to turn inland over the sparsely-populated mountains. Crossing those mountains would bring the attacking force out over Wallachian plain, where one more small turn would bring them roaring into Ploesti.
That, at least, was the plan…
As the first hints of dawn broke over Benghazi on the morning of Sunday August 1st, 1943, 178 B-24s – carrying a total of some 1780 flyers – prepared to take off for the 2700 mile round to trip to Ploesti. With the extra fuel tanks in their bomb bays, each plane carried 4000 pounds of bombs – less than a normal bomb load, but still a combined collection of more than 350 tons of explosives.
Burdened to their carrying limits with fuel and bombs, the ungainly B-24s struggled into the air and formed up for the long and dangerous journey ahead.
Of the 178 aircraft that took off, 10 soon encountered mechanical problems that forced them to turn around and return to Benghazi.
But of more serious import, over the Mediterranean the lead aircraft for the mission – carrying the critical lead mission navigator – suddenly dropped out of formation and plunged into the ocean. The second-in-command aircraft, carrying the second navigator dropped down to make a pass to look for survivors – to whom a life raft could be dropped; but found nothing but a smoke plume. Worse, the still-overloaded B-24 couldn’t climb back up and rejoin the formation; this plane was also forced to return to Benghazi.
Still on course, the attacking force reached Korfu and the Albanian coast, and made its turn inland. Not surprisingly, it was spotted by coast-watchers – who relayed that information up the command channel. At that point, it was clear that a big raid was underway, even if the target remained unknown; however, some German air defense officers already had suspicions that Ploesti might be the target.
Moving inland, the attacking force would have to gain altitude to clear the mountains that ran down the middle of the Balkan peninsula. With the crest of the ridge reaching some 9,000 feet, the attacking force split into two vertical groups to keep apart. Again, things went unexpectedly wrong; the group that climbed up to 16,000 feet caught an unexpected tail wind and was wafted over the mountains, while the group that went over at 12,000 feet ran into strong head winds and was badly slowed down. Maintaining radio silence to avoid detection, the attacking force had now inadvertently been split in two.
Even more ominously, as they crossed the mountains, the lower, slower group noticed that they were being shadowed by a small group of Bulgarian fighter aircraft. Though no direct threat to the big bombers, their presence meant that there was now no chance for surprise. The German and Romanian air defense would be alert and ready – waiting for the B-24s to appear over Romania, no matter what the unknown (to the defenders) target might be.
Finally leaving the mountains behind, the B-24s followed the contour of the decreasing elevation of the land as they flew out over the Wallachian plain – and began to drop down to their attack altitude of some 200 feet.
The target was drawing closer, but things continued to go wrong – as they always do in war.
There was one final navigation checkpoint – a small town – ahead; here, the attacking planes were to make one final small right turn and head straight for Ploesti.
Unfortunately, the navigator of what was now (due to the weather problems in the mountains) the lead element of the attack force mistook the wrong small town for the turning point; turning too soon, the first half of the attack force turned and headed directly for Bucharest – rather than for Ploesti. When what was now the second part of the attack force came along, they picked out the correct ground checkpoint, and headed (properly) for Ploesti.
As the lead force roared low over the flatlands toward Bucharest, they began to encounter the unexpectedly-thick concentrations of anti-aircraft guns – and B-24s began to fall from the sky. Visibility was restricted at that low altitude, but when the skyline of Bucharest – rather than of Ploesti – came into view ahead, the navigational error became cruelly apparent.
Improvising and using their maps well, the pilots turned their B-24s in a sharp left turn – intending to follow the rail line running north from Bucharest, to guide them right into Ploesti. But now they would be coming at the target from a completely unexpected direction – and were now not properly lined up for their intended targets.
After all of these difficulties and problems, around noon the B-24s coming up from the south finally began to reach Ploesti. An atrocious and heart-rending 30 minutes was about to begin.
As the B-24s approached Ploesti, the anti-aircraft fire they faced – and the losses they suffered – grew worse and worse. Unable to properly find their intended targets and with no opportunity to set up as planned, the order went out to aircraft crews to attack whatever “targets of opportunity” presented themselves. So the lead wave of aircraft attacked whatever targets seemed most suitable.
Meanwhile, what was now the trailing force was rapidly closing in on Ploesti from the west, as planned – coming into the target at right angles to the direction taken by the improvising lead force.
As the “trailing force” flyers approached Ploesti, they were surprised to see low clouds and rain over the target – the meteorologists in Benghazi had assured them that fine weather prevailed over southeastern Europe. It was only as they drew closer that they realized that the “low clouds and rain” were actually the acrid smoke rising from the strikes of the inadvertent lead force.
Due to the navigation errors and the “targets of opportunity” order, the lead force actually attacked many of the targets that had originally been assigned to what became the trailing force. The trailing force aircraft were now going to have to try to find their targets through the smoke and fire left by the lead force – and do this while the aircraft of the now-exiting lead force were zipping across in front of them from right to left.
By now, the carefully planned and well-thought-out plan-of-attack against Ploesti had turned into total chaos. Coming in low, many of the B-24 gunners fought virtual duels with anti-aircraft gun crews on the ground only some 200 feet below. The heat from the fires was so intense that many pilots, strapped to their seats in their cockpits, had the hair singed off their forearms. In the eloquently-descriptive words of the great historian of World War 2 in the air, Edward Jablonski:
The great B-24s, twisting and turning to avoid balloon cables and chimneys, wallowed like so many winged whales in a fiery sea.
Over the target.
The close-in intensity of the attack is well-recounted by Edward Jablonski in his description of the events that would earn Lloyd Hughes the Congressional Medal of Honor – posthumously:
Hughes’ [B-24] Liberator had been struck by flak as it approached the drop point. A wide stream of fuel poured out of a ruptured bomb bay tank, twisting and flashing under the big plane like a liquid ribbon of fuse. Now on his bomb run, Hughes did not attempt to land or evade the wall of flame which stood in his path. In an instant Hughes’ Liberator was set afire. The bombs fell into the target, but the stricken plane, a white sheet of pure fire streaming from the left wing, had no chance. Obviously still under control, Hughes seemed headed for a streambed for an emergency landing. A bridge loomed ahead in the path of the burning plane, but the plane rose above the obstruction, lowered again – and then a wing tip brushed the riverbank. The blazing Liberator whirled across the earth, spattering molten wreckage and scarring the meadow in its scorching death throes; all but two men in the plane died in the crash.
In all, the Ploesti raid was to produce five Medals-of-Honor (see below).
As B-24s became stricken around the target area, the pilots who were still able to control their aircraft did their best to belly-land their damaged planes in the corn and wheat fields around Ploesti.
Local Romanians rushed to the scenes of many of the crashes, attempting to extricate survivors. And despite the fact that Romania was at that time formally at war with the United States, many of the Romanians attempted to hide the American flyers from the German and Romanian troops who were coming to take them prisoner – as this remarkable story recounted by the then-six-year-old Corneliu Iliescu attests:
While my father and I were heading northwest toward Ploesti, we scanned the sky for bombers. As we were approaching the village, my father spotted a smoking B-24 bomber flying at low altitude. It looked like the plane was going to crash-land on the highway right in front of us. As it descended, the plane veered toward a cornfield that ran alongside the highway. The B-24 crash-landed, but there was no explosion or fire. My father jumped out of the car with me in his arms and rushed to the wreckage. He placed me on the B-24 outer wing so he could go into the plane to rescue any crewmembers who needed help. He was able to extract three aviators and rushed us all into the wooded area nearby. My father then went back to the aircraft to see if he could save the rest of the crew. As he returned, he saw – too late – that Romanian soldiers had arrived at the crash site. I was now hiding in the woods with the three American crewmen. One of them gave me a pair of pliers to play with and then told me to be very quiet. I did as I was told, and he rewarded me with my first Hershey’s candy bar. We were still hiding when my father and the rest of the crew from inside the bomber were arrested. We four were eventually found in the woods by a Romanian army search party and arrested, too. The Americans were taken prisoner and I was taken to the local police station to spend the night. My father was released the next day and found me – still at the police station with my new American friends and the pliers they had given me as a toy. (I still have those 15th [sic – ed.] AF pliers today) After a few minutes of talking to my father in the police station, one of the Americans told me in English that I “was a tough kid.” I did not understand what he said until one of the Romanian officers translated it from English for my father. In turn, my father explained to me that the Americans had given me a high compliment.
By 12:30pm – scarcely 30 minutes after the attack had begun – the last bombs were dropped into 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 voyage back to Benghazi.
Getting the heck out.
Many of the aircraft were too badly damaged to make the trip all the way back to Benghazi; some managed to reach Allied bases in Malta, Sicily, and Cyprus, while a few resorted to the desperate measure of landing in neutral Turkey.
Meanwhile, much of the Ploesti complex was in flames; but by early afternoon, the Wallachian plain was once again quiet.
It was evening before the surviving B-24s began to reach Benghazi, landing as best they could. Many of the planes had flown so low that back in Benghazi it was discovered that they had cornstalks stuck in their bomb bays.
It was only after the last planes had landed that the total cost of the Ploesti mission could be tallied.
Of the 178 B-24s that had taken off from Benghazi that morning, 164 had managed to reach the target area. Of these, 41 were lost due to enemy action. Six aircraft had been lost due to non-combat-related causes, while 8 others were in neutral Turkey – where they and their crews were to be interned for the remainder of the war. In addition, 23 B-24s had landed – in various states of disrepair – in Malta, Sicily, and Cyprus. Of the aircraft that had managed to make it back to Benghazi, fewer than 30 were now airworthy.
In total, 310 American airmen were killed in the attack. The official tally counted 50 wounded – but that did not include airmen who were now either interned in Turkey or prisoners of war in Romania. In total, some 100 surviving airmen were taken prisoner on the ground in Romania, and spent the rest of the war as POWs there.
The flames and smoke produced during the attack had given the impression that the attack had been a great success. But sadly, this was actually not the case. Much of the smoke and flame had come from the ignition of storage tanks that held finished products – not from the destruction of the main capabilities of the facility itself. The Ploesti complex had indeed been hit hard – and it was badly damaged. But the damage was reparable – and by that time, the Germans had available as labor a nearly limitless pool of POWs from the eastern front. The damage at Ploesti was rapidly repaired, and the complex remained in operation until it was overrun by advancing Soviet troops – in August 1944, a year after the American raid.
Edward Jablonski summed up the Ploesti raid this way:
In short, the men who undertook Tidal Wave had attempted the impossible. Their true achievement could be measured only in courage and not in decisive results. For the tragedy of Ploesti is that there were no decisive results.
But it seems that this was actually a case of “Right church, wrong pew.”
Up to that point, “strategic bombing” had been perceived as a way to strike cataclysmic blows at the enemy’s few most critical holdings – basically, the idea was that if you could knock out just a few such ultra-high-value targets, the damage to the enemy war effort would be immediate and almost decisive.
That was tried – at Ploesti, in the celebrated British “dam-busters” attack in the Ruhr, and in the horridly-costly Eighth Air Force B-17 raids on what was thought to be the panacea target of the German ball-bearing-production facilities at Schweinfurt.
But it quickly became clear that this strategy was wrong. The losses were far too excessive (they would quickly render the bombing squadrons inoperable due to lack of men and planes), and the attacks were unable to produce anything even close to the expected decisive results.
But the sinews of modern, industrialized warfare run broad and deep in a belligerent country. There are a vast number of important facilities in play – and a well-functioning transportation network is required to move supplies, equipment… and men.
Chastened, American strategic bombing commanders completely changed their strategy. Rather than hitting the big “glamour” targets, they began to hit seemingly less-important targets. By suffering much lower loses in the effort, the bomber groups were able to maintain a very high tempo of operations – and aircrews gained experience and became very, very good at what they did. The vast European transportation network – so critical to the Axis war effort, and so obviously critical to Germany, with its “inside position” – was so vast that it was in toto indefensible.
The new strategy, while not spectacular, was frightfully effective – and the Germans soon realized this. As Edward Jablonski notes,
But inside Germany, unknown to Allied air leaders arguing about the cost of daylight missions and the foolishness of panacea targets, there was serious consternation. The bombing was taking on a serious pattern, no longer the derring-do of knocking out a dam, or a foolhardy low-level attack on an oil field. The bombing was beginning to look more business-like, less haphazard.
In particular, although Ploesti (and the German “synthetic” facilities) continued to operate, Allied (chiefly American) air action so disrupted the transportation network that the Germans found it increasingly difficult to simply get fuel to their units. The German Luftwaffe was increasingly hard-hit by fuel shortages, and found it more and more difficult to get planes into the air. Naturally, this process fed back on itself – the less the German planes could fly, the more the Allied air forces came to dominate the skies over Europe; due to that domination, the transportation infrastructure was squeezed even further.
By the time of the Normandy landings on June 6th, 1944 – barely ten months after the Ploesti raid – the main fear of Allied invasion planners was that there would be so many Allied planes in the air that they were more likely to shoot each other down by mistake than to be shot down by German aircraft. As a result, all Allied aircraft were garishly painted – on wings and fuselage – with broad black and white stripes, so that they would be clearly identifiable to all their friends. Such a notion would have been almost suicidal had the Luftwaffe been able to fly. And indeed, the fuel shortages suffered by the Luftwaffe were so great that on the day of the Normandy invasion, exactly two German aircraft got into the air – making one quick flight over the beaches (where they did no damage) and then returning to their base.
The strategic bombing campaign against Germany had (at first) been badly-thought-out – and had been able to accomplish anything at all due solely to the courage of the airmen who flew the big bombers. But once the strategy had been adjusted and the airmen got the knack of their tasks, the results were – finally – catastrophic indeed.
It was a long way from the 164 B-24s that had appeared over Ploesti on that hot August day in 1943.
Recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, Ploesti, August 1st, 1943:
- Addison Baker (posthumous)
- Lloyd Hughes (posthumous)
- John Jerstad (posthumous)
- Leon Johnson
- John Kane
(Photo by the author, from the road, October 2008.)
(Reference: Edward Jablonski, “Tragic Victories,” Volume II of his “Airwar” series; this invaluable four-volume series describing World War 2 in the air was published by Doubleday in 1971 – and has (sadly) long been out of print.)