The Ploesti Oil Fields
Beginning of the Campaign
The Ploesti Oil Fields
Located 35 miles north of Bucharest, the capital of Rumania, Ploesti was a massive complex consisting of seven major refineries, storage tanks and related structures covering 19 square miles. The importance of Ploesti can be judged by the fact that it supplied Germany with 1/3rd of its entire fuel oil needs. It’s not too surprising than that it was also the first target in Europe bombed by American aircraft.
First Strike June 12, 1942
In May 1942 Colonel Harry A. Halverson led 23 factory-fresh B-24s from Florida on an epic flight that was supposed to finish in China. Known as HALPRO (Halverson project) the unit was going to bomb Tokyo in a follow-up to the Doolittle raid. When HALPRO reached Egypt however, the crews were ordered to stay put and prepare to bomb the oil refineries at Ploesti. The mission (the first US raid of the European war, top secret at the time and later overshadowed by the disastrous low-level Ploesti raid of 1943) was set for June 12th.
The aircraft took off individually between 10:30 and 11:00 pm on June 11th, arriving over the target at dawn the following day. Ten bombers hit the Astra refinery at Ploesti, one B-24 attacked the port area of Constanta, the remaining two B-24s struck unidentified targets. Three ended up interned in Turkey, the rest manage to reach friendly bases in Iraq. Damage turned out to be minimal but the mission was considered a success.
Tidal Wave August 1, 1943
Operation Tidal Wave was designed to be an all-out maximum effort against the Ploesti oil fields. Colonel Jacob E. Smart, a member of the Advisory Council first came up with the idea of striking Ploesti at low-level with heavy bombers. It was a gutsy some felt suicidal plan but it went up the chain of command and got the backing of General ‘Hap’ Arnold and the president. Planning was meticulous including two full-scale practice missions against a replica of Ploesti built in the desert. Since Ploesti was located north of heavily defended Bucharest it forced any attacking force to divert around the capital to have any chance of reaching the target unmolested. This was a key feature of Operation Tidal Wave and it called for precision navigation and strict radio silence.
376th BG B-24 Ninth AF
98th BG B-24 Ninth AF
93rd BG B-24 Eighth AF
44th BG B-24 Eighth AF
389th BG B-24 Eighth AF
|Target||Refinery||No. of Key Installations||Order of Importance||A/C Alloted||Place in Formation||Flight Plan over Target||Group Assigned||Commander and Leader|
|White I||Romana Americana||6||3||24||1||4 waves of 6 a/c||376th||Col. Compton
|White II||Concordia Vega||6||2||21||2||3 waves of 6 a/c
1 wave of 3 a/c
|93d||Lt. Col. Baker
|White III||Standard Petrol Block
|3||5||12||3||4 waves of 3 a/c||93d||Lt. Col. Baker
|White IV||Astra Romana
|10||1||40||4||4 waves of 10 a/c||98th||Col. Kane
|White V||Columbia Aquila||6||7||15||5||5 waves of 3 a/c||44th||Col. Johnson
|3||6||18||6||3 waves of 6 a/c||44th||Lt. Col. Posey
|7||4||24||7||8 waves of 3 a/c||389th||Col. Wood
Concern over the tree-top bombing altitude continued and shortly before the mission date of August 1, 1943 the five group commanders and the head of 9th Bomber Command, Major General Uzal Ent, signed a letter to Brereton asking to be allowed to go in at high altitude. Major General Brereton ordered the low-level bombing attack to take place as planned.
The Ploesti mission was based on 154 participating aircraft. Actually, 177 successfully took off. Each of the 23 spares was loaded with four 500-lb. bombs with 45-second tail delay fuse and four clusters of American-type incendiaries. The spares appear to have been distributed among the seven target forces, as follows: White I, 4; White II, 4; White III, 0; White IV, 6; White V, 2; Blue, 2; Red, 5.
|Target Force||No. A/C||1000-lb. Dem. Bombs
Tail Delay Fuse
|500-lb. Dem. Bombs
Tail Delay Fuse
|Total Bombs||Incendiary Bombs|
|1-6 Hrs.||1 Hr.||1-6 Hrs.||1 Hr.||45 Sec.||Br.-Type||Am.-Type|
|White I||24||24||-||36||-||72||132||48 Boxes||-|
|White II||21||-||48||-||-||54||102||42 Boxes||-|
|White III||12||-||24||-||-||36||60||24 Boxes||-|
|White IV||40||-||120||-||-||60||180||80 Boxes||-|
|White V||15||-||36||-||-||36||72||60 Boxes||-|
|Totals||177||24||364||36||48||386||818||290 Boxes||140 Clusters|
|Total Bomb Load Carried (excluding incendiaries): 623,000 lbs|
A/C – Aircraft
Dem. Bombs – Demolition Bombs
Br.-Type – British-Type Incendiaries
Am.-Type – American-Type Incendiaries
White I – Romana Americana Refinery
White II – Concordia Vega
White III – Standard Petrol Block Unirea Speranta
White IV – Astra Romana Refinery Unirea Orion
White V – Columbia Aquila Refinery
Blue – Creditul Minier (Brazi)
Red – Steaua Romana (Campina)
Spares – Spare aircraft that would fill in for planes that turned back or aborted.
Across the Mediterranean
Despite careful preparation the operation was marred by bad luck from the start, one B-24 crashed on take-off. Since the mission was flown in radio silence the bomber groups became somewhat separated on the long flight across the Mediterranean. Then just off Corfu, Greece the lead aircraft carrying the route navigator inexplicably plunged into the water. A second plane of the 376th with the deputy route navigator followed down to see if there were any survivors. Unable to regain formation the bomber turned back to base. This left the lead bomber group without the expert navigators to guide them through the difficult low-level approach to the target.
Thick clouds greeted the incoming bombers as they approached the mountains. While the two lead groups threaded their way through or under the cloud layers the 98th, 44th and 389th crossed at various altitudes. By the time these three bomber groups were formed up and heading for the first IP (Initial Point) they were 29 minutes behind the 376th and the 93rd.
Confusion and Bravery at Ploesti
Meanwhile not knowing if the other bomber groups were forced to turn back or not the 376th and 93rd made their turn at the first IP of Pitesti toward the final IP of Floresti. However, halfway to the real IP the 376th mistook the town of Targoviste for Floresti, an error that wasn’t discovered until they were on the outskirts of Bucharest. At that point Major Gen. Uzal Ent broke radio silence and ordered the two groups to turn north and attack targets of opportunity in the complex of refineries.
The carefully worked out bombing plan was foiled as bombers struck the wrong refinery or attacked any target that looked good.
German fighters pursued the bombers as they left bringing down more than a few damaged aircraft. Of the 177 bombers that took part in the mission 54 were lost, a further 53 planes were heavily damaged. It was a costly victory by any measure. The damage to Ploesti was significant but offset by its spair refining capacity and the fact that a raid like this could not be mounted again for quite some time.
The Medal of Honor presented to Col. John Riley “Killer” Kane (1907-1996) is one of five presented for the mission, the most ever awarded for a single action. Three of the awards were posthumous: 2nd Lt. Lloyd H. Hughes (-), a native of Alexandria, Louisiana; Lt. Col. Addison Baker (-); and Maj. John L. Jerstad (-). The other Medal of Honor presented to a living recipient for that day’s battle was to Col. Leon W. Johnson (1904-1997).
Beginning of the Campaign April / May 1944
May 18, 1944 – the 15th made its first direct attack on the refineries.
Lightning Raid June 10, 1944
On June 10, 1944 46 P-38s took off from Vincenzo to attack the Franco-Americano oil refinery at Ploesti. The 46 P-38s carrying one 1,000 lb bomb apiece, 8 planes soon aborted, the rest pushed on. 36 bombs were dropped successfully and a oil-cracking plant, oil tanks, and other facilities are damaged or destroyed as well as a variety of ground targets that are strafed by the Lightnings. Losses are heavy included 14 1st Fighter group P-38s and eight 82nd Fighter Group P-38s. 33 Axis fighters were downed during this mission.
2nd Lt. Herbert B. Hatch, a P-38 pilot 1st FG 71st Fighter Squadron became an ace-in-a-day by shooting down five and possibly six Romanian Air Force IAR.80 fighters over a Romanian airfield near Ploesti. 1130 hours.
1st Lt. Armour C. Miller, P-38 pilot 1st FG 27th Fighter Squadron achieves ace status when he downs a Bf 109.
June 23, 1944, in one of its major strikes, the Fifteenth sent 761 bombers to Romanian oil targets.
July turned out to be the costliest month for the 15th Air Force and the height of its bruttle campaign against Ploesti.
August 19, 1944 – last mission to Ploesti.
August 30, 1944 – Red Army troops capture the burned and twisted wreckage of Ploesti.
AIR FORCE MAGAZINE August 1988 “Into the Mouth of Hell” by John L. Frisbee
(article available at www.afa.org)
USAF Museum WWII History Combat Europe: The Ploesti Mission
Big Bombers of WWII by William N. Hess, Frederick A. Johnson, Chester Marshall
Winged Victory The Army Air Forces in World War II by Geoffery Perret
Air War Europa America’s Air War Against Germany in Europe and North Africa by Eric Hammel