On this Day: Operation Tidal Wave

On this day in 1943, the Eighth Air Force took part in the Ploesti Raids

The need to cripple the German war machine was always the utmost priority for the Allies. The idea for bombing Ploesti, Romania solidified at the Casablanca Conference in early 1942. Romania produced roughly 35% of the liquid fuel used by the Axis powers and it was imperative that it be disabled. Operation Tidal Wave was planned for August 1, 1943 on nine oil refineries on the outskirts of the city of Ploesti. This mission was not the first nor the last to this region – a previous raid had occurred in June 1942 and the Germans prepared accordingly for future attacks. Hundreds of anti-aircraft guns were placed in and around the refineries (many well hidden in rail cars and fake buildings) and three Luftwaffe fighter units were placed within range of Ploesti. These fortifications helped make Operation Tidal Wave the deadliest single air mission in USAAF history.

Although the 9th Air Force was in charge of planning the mission, the 8th Air Force provided three additional bomb groups – the 44th, 93rd and 389th – all made up of B-24 heavy bombers. In an effort to avoid German radar detection and achieve the crucial element of surprise, it was decided that the bombing would be done at very low altitude, with strict radio silence, and without fighter support. This style of approach would also minimize the time the bombers would be in range of the anti-aircraft guns. The attacking force was made up of 178 heavy bombers, the largest contribution of American planes on a mission to date. After practicing low level bombing over the African desert, they left from Benghazi, Libya and flew across the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas, over the Pindus Mountains of Yugoslavia and into Romania. The 2,000 mile mission got off with an uneventful start with all five groups taking off without incident, but over the Adriatic Sea, things began to fall apart. The lead pilot of the formation suddenly began flying erratically and abruptly plunged into the ocean. The bomber stream continued on but the formation got further spread out on the climb over the Pindus Mountains, which threw off the critical timing. All five groups cleared the first check point and the 389th turned off for their separate, but coordinated attack from a different direction. En route to the next checkpoint, Col. Keith Compton and General Uzal G. Ent made a significant error. Ignoring the advice of their navigator, Col Compton followed the wrong rail line and took his 376th bomb group and 93rd towards Bucharest. Some groups broke radio silence to point out the error but the two groups ended up facing the tremendous anti-aircraft defenses around Bucharest in addition to the defenses surrounding Ploesti. The subsequent chaos and disorganization led to General Ent ordering the 376th to bomb targets of opportunity, while the 93rd bomb group made it to their assigned refineries. Eleven B-24s from the 93rd alone were lost over the target. Some planes flew over their targets as low as 50 feet, with at least one plane that was leaking fuel igniting from the flames below.

In all, only 88 planes made it back to Libya. Operation Tidal Wave remains the most highly decorated military mission in U.S. History. Five Medals of Honor, 3 posthumously, were awarded, the most for any single air mission in history. While some oil production was affected, it only shut down the refineries for a few weeks. Operation Tidal Wave is largely considered a failure from the American perspective for this reason. However, there is some argument that can be made that this delay in production, even if only brief, was a victory for the Allies. It allowed the Red Army to take advantage of the lack of fuel for the panzers and launch two offensives at Smolensk and Dnieper, which helped liberate those previously German controlled areas.