B-24s over Ploesti on 1 August 1943.  The raid on Axis oil facilities in Romania resulted in heavy lossess of planes and crews, but paved the way for later, successful missions that largely destroyed enemy fuel supplies (Wikimedia photo) 

Seventy years ago this week–on August 1, 1943–more than 170 B-24 bombers lifted off from American airbases near Benghazi, Libya.  Heading east, they struggled against the desert heat and the weight of their bombs and fuel load.  Operation Tidal Wave had begun.

It was an audacious plan; barely one year into the combined bomber offensive against Nazi-occupied Europe, Allied planners hoped to deal a devastating blow, by crippling the enemy oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania.  While German scientists had already developing a process for producing synthetic oil, the Ploesti refineries represented a vital cog in the enemy war machine, delivering more than one-third of the gasoline, diesel fuel and aviation gas used by Axis forces.

Ploesti’s importance was not lost on Allied commanders; in fact, the first bomber mission flown by American crews in Europe during World War II was against the refinery center, in June 1942.  The raid inflicted minor damage, and air planners longed for another crack at the oil center and its various  facilities.  Interrupting the flow of fuel and lubricants from Ploesti would slow Hitler’s armies and (possibly) shorten the war.

By the spring of 1943, the Army Air Corps had five B-24 groups available for a massive attack on Ploesti.  The planned operation was under the command of Major General Lewis Brereton, one of the more controversial air corps leaders of the Second World War.  Appointed chief of U.S Air Forces in the Far East in November 1941, Brereton pushed General Douglas MacArthur to launch air strikes against Japanese bases on Taiwan, after learning of the attack on Pearl Harbor.   As MacArthur and his staff considered the proposal, Brereton launched all of his aircraft to prevent them from being destroyed on the ground.  As their fuel grew low–and General MacArthur gave permission to prepare for a raid on Taiwan–Brereton ordered his planes to return to base.  Unfortunately, their landing came just moments before the Japanese sturck, and Brereton’s air force was largely destroyed on the first day of the war.

Though Omar Bradley considered him only “marginally competent,” Brereton was re-assigned to lead American air units in the Middle East, as the Germans threatened the Suez Canal.  After the subsequent British victories at El Alamein (and U.S. landings in North Africa), Brereton got the green light to go after Ploesti, which would become one of the early blows in the Allied “oil campaign,” aimed at crippling the German war effort.

Brereton delegated raid planning to a highly capable officer, Colonel Jacob Smart (who would eventually retire from the Air Force as a four-star general).  Leading the raid would be Brigadier General Uzal Ent, the experienced commander of 9th Bomber Command.  Ninth Air Force would supply three of the B-24 groups assigned to bomb Ploesti, while Eighth Air Force provided three more.  Four of the five groups were considered “experienced,” so planners had a reasonable expectation of success, though they warned casualties could be high.  Brereton himself prediced loss rates approaching 50%, but said the raid would be worth the risk, given its potential to disrupt Nazi oil supplies.

Smart’s plan called for a long-distance, low-level over the eastern Mediterranean and the Adriatic; through Albania’s Prindus Mountains, across southern Yugoslavia and into Romania.  The 2,400-mile round-trip required the installation of extra fuel tanks in the B-24’s bomb bay.  Much of the mission would be flown at low altitude, in an effort to evade German radar coverage.  Crews assigned to the raid spent weeks practicing low-level flying across the North African desert, honing their skills before the strike on Ploesti.

But the concept–and tactics–were fatally flawed.  Colonel Smart’s operational plan was heavily influenced by the 1942 raid, the so-called Halverson Project (after the officer who led that mission).  The small bomber force that raided the refinery complex a year earlier had encountered little enemy opposition and with virtually no updated intelligence to go on, Smart and his team assumed that enemy air defenses around Ploesti remained light, which would facilitatte a daylight attack, at low level.

It was a fatal calculation.  In fact, the earlier raid set off alarm bells throughout the German High Command, who figured (correctly) that American bombers would eventually return, and in far greater numbers.  The job of beefing up Ploesti’s defenses fell to one of the Luftwaffe’s most able commanders, General Alfred Gerstenberg.  He was dispatched to the area in the weeks following the 1942 raid, and spent the months that followed building some of the heaviest air defenses in Europe. 

By the time Tidal Wave’s B-24 crews began their mission, Ploesti’s various refineries were ringed with hundreds of large-caliber anti-aircraft guns, included the dreaded 88mm and larger 105mm weapons.  Gerstenberg also installed even larger numbers of smaller AAA guns, and more than 100 enemy fighters (German and Romanian) were based in the Ploesti region.  Additionally, the Luftwaffe commander had regular reports from German signals intelligence (SIGINT) stations in Greece, which had been monitoring the build-up of Allied airpower in North Africa, and an extensive visual spotter network.  While there is no evidence Gerstenberg had advance knowledge of impending raid, he knew a large bomber formation was heading in the general direction of Ploesti, and his defenses were on full alert.

As the five B-24 groups headed across the Mediterranean, they suffered an unexpected–and critical–loss.  The bomber carrying the raid’s lead navigator suddenly began flying erratically and plunged into the sea before any of the crew could bail out.  A B-24 carrying the deputy navigator descended to look for survivors and found none; by the time it finished circling the crash site, it was too late to rejoin the formation; the job of keeping the formation on time and on track fell on a much less experienced navigator, but there was no thought of turning back.

Approaching Ploesti, problems continued to mount.  General Ent and one of his group commanders, Colonel Keith Compton, aligned their formation on the wrong railroad track at the initial point, about 65 miles south of the target.  As they flew in the direction of Bucharest (instead of Ploesti), confusion reigned among the bomber crews.  Some broke radio silence to discuss the navigation error and query other pilots about the correct heading.  If there was any doubt in Gerstenberg’s mind about the target, it was probably erased with the burst of American chatter over flight frequencies, in close proximity to Ploesti.

What followed was a slaughter.  The 93rd Bomb Group lost 11 aircraft over the target; the other groups suffered similar, heavy losses.  Some of the bombers flew less than 50 feet above the ground, dodging smokestacks, barrage balloons and other obstacles.  Gunners on the B-24s reported firing up at enemy anti-aircraft guns on nearby hillsides.  But the crews never wavered; despite withering AAA fire, steady attacks from enemy fighters and heavy smoke that made flying even more difficult, the American crews pressed home their attacks, at great sacrifice.  Five Medals of Honor were awarded to aircew members on the Ploesti raid, three of them posthumously.

Results were disappointing; most of the refineries were back in service within a week, although one didn’t resume production until after the war.  The cost was staggering; only 88 of 177 B-24s returned to Benghazi later that day, after more than 12 hours in the air.  Forty-four aircraft had been downed by enemy air defenses; the rest ditched in the Adriatic or Mediterranean, or were interned in neutral Turkey when badly damaged Liberators landed there.  All told, 440 American airmen had been killed, and 200 more were missing or prisoners of war.

But, as Robert Zubrin notes in the current issue of National Review, the allies didn’t lose their nerve–or their focus on Nazi oil production.  One year later, with the addition of more bomber groups, access to bases on the Italian peninsula, and the availability of long-range P-51 escort fighters, American bombers returned to Ploesti and Germany’s Leuna synthetic oil complex in May 1944; two months later, 98% of Hitler aviation fuel production plants were out of operation.  While the Nazis continued to produce armaments at a remarkable pace, they were virtually useless due to a lack of fuel.

As Zubrin observes, the lessons of Ploesti are two-fold; first, the selflessness and courage of the B-24 crews is astounding, even 70 years after the raid.  Against terrible odds, they took the fight to a distant enemy target and many of them paid the ultimate price.  But they did not die in vain; the men who followed them to Ploesti in 1944 learned the lessons of that first, large-scale raid; subsequent missions were flown at medium altitude, and with Mustangs protecting their formations, the Germans could inflict only minor losses.

The second lesson of Ploesti is a central tennet of modern warfare: powers who depend on distant oil supplies–often controlled by unreliable allies–are at a terrible disadvantage.  With the eventual loss of Romanian fuel supplies and synthetic oil plants, Hitler’s war machine ground to a halt.  Japan suffered a similar fate when U.S. submarines sank most of the tankers carrying crude oil from the East Indies to refineries in the home islands.  B-29 raids on those same facilities administered the final coup de grace.

Eight decades after Ploesti, the U.S. remains dependent, to some degree, on unreliable foreign sources of oil to fuel its military.  Making matters worse, we spend billions defending those complexes while some of the oil producers (read: Saudi Arabia) use part of the profit to finance global jihad that threatens our security and has led to the deaths of thousands of Americans.

That is why we must control our energy destiny, expanding proven resources to fuel our economy and our military.  That’s why the lessona of Ploesti are as relevant today as it was on that summer day in 1943.