In the midst of the Sicilian campaign, on 1 August 1943, Mediterranean-based heavies executed one of the outstanding air operations of the war. This was the low-level B-24 attack on the Ploesti oil refineries in Rumania-the first large-scale, minimum-altitude attack by AAF heavy bombers upon a strongly defended target and the longest major bombing mission, in terms of distance from base to target, undertaken up to that time. The mission was not perfectly executed-but it heavily damaged the objective and as an example of brilliant conception, painstaking preparation, and heroism during execution, the operation had few if any equals.
Oil had been given a high priority in the planning of the Combined Bomber Offensive, but Ploesti, most inviting of all oil targets, lay beyond the reach of planes based in the United Kingdom. It was estimated that crude oil provided two-thirds of Germany's petroleum resources and that 60 per cent of her crude oil came from the Ploesti fields which was to say, approximately one-third of her total supply of liquid These fields, with an estimated annual capacity of nine million tons, were considered to be of special advantage to the Germans in their operations on the eastern front, and thus an attack on Ploesti offered the means for rendering immediate assistance to the U.S.S.R. The Russians themselves had bombed the fields several times in the summer of 1941 and again in September 1942, but with limited success. Within a month after Pearl Harbor the Americans were studying the feasibility of bombing , Ploesti and AAF planes had struck at it from the Middle East in the ineffective Halverson attack as early as June 1942. Since then the Ninth Air Force had been heavily committed to other operations in the attempt to drive Rommel out of Africa, and the heavies of the Twelfth Air Force, based between Algiers and Constantine, were too far from the target. Only with the impending defeat of the Axis forces in Tunisia had circumstances combined to suggest the possibility of a mass attack on Ploesti from North Africa bases.
Principal contributors to the development of the plan included General Arnold, who, in April, had ordered the Plans Division of Headquarters, AAF to revive the project; Lt. Col. C. V. Whitney of the Ninth Air Force, who evolved a plan for a medium-sized, high-level attack to be mounted from Syrian bases; and Col. Jacob E. Smart of General Arnold's advisory council, who originated the idea of a minimum- altitude, mass attack from the Bengasi area. Colonel Smart's plan was approved by General Eisenhower and by the CCS early in June. But because both Eisenhower and the CCS were unwilling for the operation to deprive HUSKY of too many heavy bomber sorties, the planners agreed that NAAF would furnish only two groups of B-24's to Operation SOAPSUDS (formerly STATESMAN, later, TIDALWAVE) and that the remainder of the striking force would be provided by transferring two groups of B-24's from the Eighth Air Force (93d and 44th) and diverting one group (the 389th) originally scheduled to move to the United Kingdom.
General Brereton, as commander of the Ninth Air Force, had charge of conducting the operation. His was the final responsibility for deciding to launch the raid from Libyan rather than Syrian bases and to attack at low instead of high altitude. Under his direction the detailed plans for the operation were worked out and training conducted.
Final planning for the mission became the responsibility of a special staff at Brereton's advanced headquarters which included, in addition to Colonel Smart, specialists in such matters as low-altitude operations, intelligence, and weather. It was finally decided to hit a limited number of key installations in each of Ploesti's nine major refineries. More than forty distilling units, cracking plants, and boiler houses were selected and grouped into seven general targets, five of which were at Ploesti, one at near-by Brazi, and one at Campina, some eight miles away. Originally, 154 planes were allotted to targets, roughly according to importance and number of key installations; final allotments, however, totaled 177 planes. Forces assigned to the seven general targets were as follows: the 376th Bombardment Group-the oldest group of heavies in the Mediterranean-was given Target WHITE I (the Romana Americana refinery) and the honor of leading the flight; the 93d, which would fly directly behind the 376th, had Targets WHITE II and III (the Concordia Vega, Standard Petrol Block, and Unirea Speranta refineries); the 98th was assigned Target WHITE IV (Astra Romana and Unirea Orion) ; the 44th got Targets WHITE V (Colombia Aquila) and BLUE (Creditul Minier at Brazi); the new 389th, which would fly an individual effort, was responsible for Target RED (Campina).
Other major problems which had to be solved by the planners concerned the type of bombs to be used and the requirement of a different kind of bombsight from the one used in high-altitude bombing. Eventually, it was decided to arm the mission with 1,000-pound and 500- pound demolition bombs, totaling 311 tons, plus 290 boxes of British-type and 140 clusters of American-type incendiaries. The number of demolitions was 170 more than the number estimated as required to insure destruction of the targets; all had delay fuzes, those to be dropped by the first and second waves carrying delays of from one to six hours and those by the last wave of forty-five seconds. The planes were equipped with a new low-level bombsight and with two auxiliary bomb-bay tanks, which gave them a fuel capacity of 3, 100 gallons.
The 93d, 44th, and 389th Groups arrived in the Mediterranean between 26 June and 3 July. There they joined the 376th and 98th in missions on behalf of HUSKY, partly for training purposes and partly to strengthen the air arm during the most vital part of the Sicilian campaign. Between 2 and 19 July, inclusive, the five groups flew 1,183 sorties-more than double the normal effort-against a total of seventeen different targets. These operations reached their climax with the attack on Rome of 19 July. On the following day the five groups were withdrawn from operations for intensive training near Bengasi. Between that date and 1 August the crews practiced flying and bombing from minimum altitude and absorbed great quantities of data dealing with the route to be flown, the targets, enemy defenses, and the dozens of other items which had to be clearly understood and appreciated by the aircrews if TIDALWAVE was to be a success. A dummy target-a flat reproduction of the Ploesti targets laid out in a remote section of the desert-was bombed again and again until, as a crew member wrote, "we could bomb it in our sleep." Strenuous practice in flying virtually wing tip to wing tip and wave on wave was conducted. On 28 and 29 July the entire task force participated in two coordinated and fully successful mock missions; on the second dry run the bombers "completely destroyed" the targets in less than two minutes.
Soon after dawn on 1 August the 177 planes, carrying 1,725 Americans and 1 Englishman, took off under the command of Brig. Gen. Uzal G. Ent. The 376th led the formation, followed (in order) by the 93d, 98th, 44th, and 389th. The route passed the island of Corfu, then swung northeastward across the mountains of Albania and Yugoslavia. Before the formation reached the Danube near Lom in Bulgaria, towering cumulus clouds destroyed its unity. Integrity might have been restored by the use of radio but this would have sacrificed the great advantage of surprise; consequently, the two lead groups reached the target somewhat earlier than the others, which cost the groups the advantage of delivering simultaneous blows and sent the following units over the target after the defenses had been alerted.
The first initial point (IP) was Pitesti, some sixty-five miles from Ploesti. There the 389th left the formation and proceeded to its target at Campina. There, too, all planes dropped to the minimum level of approximately 500 feet. Halfway between Pitesti and the final IP at Floresti (thirteen miles northwest of Ploesti), the commander of the leading 376th mistook the town of Targoviste for Floresti and turned southeast. Followed by the 93d the 376th flew to the outskirts of Bucharest before realizing that a mistake had been made. Unfortunately, Bucharest was the headquarters of Rumanian defenses, which were promptly alerted.
The 376th and 93d now turned northward toward Ploesti. Near the city they ran into such severe fire from ground defenses that the 376th turned east and then north in an attempt to reach its target from a less heavily defended direction. When the group reached a point northeast of Ploesti and in the vicinity of its target (Romana Americana), it met such intense AA fire that General Ent directed the planes to attack any target of opportunity which presented itself. Most of the group's bombs fell in the general target area but only those from six planes led by Maj. Norman C. Appold, which flew directly into Ploesti and emerged covered with soot, were unloaded on an assigned target, the Concordia Vega.
When the 93d reached the outskirts of Ploesti it did not turn east with the 376th but, instead, flew straight against the targets on the south side of the city. In spite of heavy flak and enemy fighters the group, going in at altitudes of from 100 to 300 feet and losing 11 planes over the target, did a good job on the Astra Romana, Unirea Orion, and Colombia Aquila refineries. Unfortunately, these were targets assigned to the 98th and 44th Groups.
Meanwhile, the 98th and 44th, commanded by Cols. John R. Kane and Leon W. Johnson, arrived at the correct IP just after the 93d had finished its run. They found the defenses thoroughly alerted. Equally bad, they had to fly through fires and the explosions of delayed action bombs left by the 93d. The two groups would have been justified in turning back; instead, they drove straight against their targets through intense flak, explosions, flames, and dense black smoke which concealed balloon cables and towering chimneys. B-24's went down like tenpins, but the targets were hit hard and accurately. As the two groups left Ploesti, they were jumped by enemy fighters, and on the way home were attacked by every kind of plane from Me- 109's to unidentified biplanes, the last attacks coming after the Liberators were over the Adriatic. The 98th claimed thirty-three enemy planes destroyed, but it lost twenty-one over the target and on the return trip; the 44th claimed thirteen victories but lost eleven planes.
The less experienced 389th, led by Col. Jack Wood, had some trouble in getting into the right valley for its run against Campina, but it reached the target area with all the aircraft that had been dispatched and completely destroyed its objective. Its losses were the lightest of any of the four groups which actually attacked selected targets.
The bombers could not follow closely the flight plan for the return home from Ploesti because the groups had bombed at different times and in some instances had left the target accompanied by enemy fighters. No attempt was made to resume route formation as a unified force; each group, or part of a group, followed its own course, although the 98th and 44th remained together and most of the sound planes of all the groups followed the prescribed route to Berkovista, Corfu, Tocra, and Bengasi. Planes in distress generally made for Turkey or the nearest Allied fields on Malta, Sicily, or Cyprus. The final count showed that ninety-two planes reached Bengasi, nineteen landed at other Allied fields, seven landed in Turkey, and three crashed at sea.
The Ploesti mission fell short of expectations and entailed heavy losses. Final reports showed that fifty-four planes had been lost, forty-one of them in action. Lost, too-dead, prisoners, missing, or interned -were 532 airmen. On the credit side stood some very accurate bombing and a high degree of damage to the refineries-damage which might have been greater had not many bombs failed to explode. An estimated 42 per cent of Ploesti's total refining capacity was destroyed. Possibly 40 per cent of the cracking capacity was knocked out for a period of from four to six months, and the production of lubricating oils was considerably reduced. But though the over-all damage was heavy, it was not decisive. The Germans made up for lost refining capacity by activating idle units at Ploesti and by speedy repairs to damaged plants. The hope for virtually complete destruction of the selected targets with results enduring for a long period of time had been defeated by errors of execution. No plan had been made for following through with other attacks. Until the late spring of 1944 Ploesti went untouched as tactical operations and strategic targets considered to be of greater priority than oil claimed the attention of the Mediterranean-based heavies.