If there was a name of a prospective target that caused Allied airmen in the European Theater of Operations to blanch in the fall of 1943 and the spring of 1944, it was Ploesti.
Schweinfurt and Regensburg may have been feared names for Eighth Air Force crews flying from England, but the Romanian city and oil-refining complex had the dubious honor of being the second most heavily defended target in Europe. The first was Berlin and the third was Wiener Neustadt in Austria.
Ironically, the Allies were not aware of the defenses concentrated around the refineries until they found out the hard way on August 1, 1943. Perhaps they should have anticipated that the Germans would mount an aggressive defense of the refinery complex. After all, British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill thought the refineries so important that he believed their destruction would deal a “knockout blow” to the German war effort.
The Ploesti oil-refining complex produced 60 percent of the petroleum products used by the Axis in Europe; the remainder was spread over many small complexes in Germany and the occupied countries. Early in World War II, the Allies identified Ploesti as one of the most important targets in Europe. The problem was that at the time it lay out of range of all of the British and American bombers except one, the Consolidated B-24 Liberator, and until the summer of 1943 there were not enough of them to make an effective strike. The Soviet Air Force had bombers that could reach Ploesti and did attack the refineries a few times, but with negligible results.
Japan’s Response Leaves 250,000 Chinese Dead
The Germans were also well aware of the distances involved and considered the city’s location in the foothills of the Transylvanian Alps to be Ploesti’s best defense. That is, until June 11, 1942, when a small force of American Liberators made an ineffective attack on the refineries. The Liberators were from the Halverson Detachment, a special mission that had been organized early in 1942 for deployment to China to serve as the nucleus of a bomber force that would mount a sustained bombing campaign against the Japanese Home Islands. But the plan for a strategic bombing campaign was thwarted when Japan responded to the militarily ineffective Doolittle Raid by mounting an offensive in China and capturing the regions where the Allies planned to establish bases. The Japanese also killed more than a quarter of a million Chinese civilians in the process. Without a mission in China, the Halverson B-24s were halted in Africa and sent to Palestine to mount a strike on Ploesti.
The British Royal Air Force had been working on a plan to bomb the oil refineries at Ploesti for more than two years, and when HALPRO, as the Halverson Detachment had been designated, arrived in Egypt, their plan was given to the Americans. It called for a strike force to depart from Egypt and fly over the Aegean Sea for a rendezvous near the target at daybreak, with a return to Egypt over the same route.
It was decided instead to return to Habbaniyah, an airfield in Iraq, even though that would mean violating the neutral airspace over Turkey. Late on June 11, 13 B-24s took off from Fayid, Egypt. Twelve airplanes proceeded to the target individually and arrived over Ploesti at dawn. Some crews bombed through a 10,000-foot overcast, while others descended below the clouds to drop their loads. The force was not intercepted, and all 13 crews made it to safety, with four landing at Habbaniyah as planned, three others landing at other fields in Iraq, and two at Aleppo, while four were interned in Turkey. Another crash-landed.
In spite of the lack of enemy action, the toll on Allied aircraft was heavy since five of the 13 airplanes were removed from further combat use. Although there was little appreciable damage to the refineries, the HALPRO attack was a significant mission as it was the first American strike against a strategic target. The Tokyo Raid a few weeks before had been more for propaganda value than for military purposes. The HALPRO raid also signaled the beginning of U.S. Army Air Forces strategic bombing of European targets; however, it would be more than a year before American bombers struck Ploesti again.
American Bomber Squadrons Convene in the Middle East
The HALPRO detachment was soon joined by Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses that had been diverted to the Middle East from India. The combined force joined British Royal Air Force Liberators in strikes on Axis targets in North Africa and the Mediterranean. By July 20, American bomber strength in the theater consisted of 19 B-24s and nine B-17s, all under the command of Maj. Gen. Louis H. Brereton, who had recently arrived from Asia. The commander had arrived in the Middle East by a circuitous route, as he had previously commanded American air forces in the Pacific, then had moved to India to organize and command the Tenth Air Force.
Rapidly changing events in the Middle East had led the War Department to move Brereton and much of his China-Burma-India command, including the squadron of B-17s, to Palestine. On July 25, Brereton’s bomber strength began increasing as an advanced element of the 98th Bomb Group arrived at Ramat David, Palestine. By August 7, the entire 98th Group was in the Middle East.
Later in the year, the 376th Bomb Group would be organized in Palestine as a command unit for the remnants of the HALPRO detachment, most of whom had been replaced by new arrivals from the States, and the unattached Liberator squadrons that had deployed to the region. The two B-24 groups soon became the bomber command of the new Ninth Air Force, which was organized in Egypt under Brereton in November 1942.
While Brereton’s Ninth was taking shape in the Middle East, the Eighth Air Force in England was building up its bomber strength for a sustained campaign against targets in Western Europe. Although the bulk of the Eighth’s heavy bomber strength was made up of B-17 groups, it also included two heavy bomber groups equipped with B-24s: the 93rd Bomb Group, which arrived in England in early September 1942, and the 44th Bomb Group, which arrived in England in October.
During the winter of 1942-1943, three squadrons of the 93rd were on detached duty in Africa, serving initially with the newly created Twelfth Air Force in support of the Allied invasion of North Africa, then moving to Libya to work under the Ninth Air Force. The 93rd returned to England in early 1943 but it would soon be back in Africa—and Ploesti would be the reason.
Operation Statesman, Soapsuds, and Tidal Wave
At the Casablanca Conference in early 1942, Churchill had stressed the urgency of a bomber offensive against Ploesti, but the lack of resources placed any plans for an attack on hold. American planners had been studying Ploesti as a potential target since right after Pearl Harbor, but the HALPRO effort in mid-1942 had been the only effort other than the Soviet attempts.
In April 1943 General Henry “Hap” Arnold, commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces, ordered his staff to revive the already-developed plans for an attack on the Ploesti oil fields. Two plans were set forth. Lieutenant Colonel C.V. Whitney had formulated one for a medium-scale high-altitude attack to be launched from Syrian bases, while Colonel Jacob W. Smart had conceived the idea of a massive low-altitude attack launched from the Benghazi, Libya, area. In the end, Colonel Smart’s idea was accepted and given the code name Operation Statesman. The name was later changed to Operation Soapsuds, then finally to Operation Tidal Wave.
As a result of the emphasis placed on high-altitude, daylight, “precision” bombing by the Eighth Air Force, to many the concept of using four-engine bombers at treetop altitudes was preposterous, even suicidal. However, low-altitude attack was a common tactic of the pre-war Air Corps, and using heavy bombers at low altitude was not unprecedented in 1943. In the Southwest Pacific, light, medium, and heavy bombers had begun using treetop tactics with great success, including wavetop “skip-bombing” attacks against Japanese shipping by B-17s as well as smaller B-25s and A-20s. In fact, treetop attack would be a mainstay of the post-war nuclear Air Force as military planners concentrated on tactics that allowed penetration of enemy airspace “below the radar screen,” popping up to a higher altitude to drop bombs, then returning to treetop altitudes in an escape maneuver.
Planning for Soapsuds had called for a formation of four-engine bombers to approach their target at treetop altitudes and to drop delayed-action bombs without climbing. The reasoning behind the plan was that not only would the bombers achieve the element of surprise, but at such low altitudes their bombing accuracy would be far greater than high- and medium-level bombing. The low-flying airplanes would also be immune to fighter attack from below, but they would be in range of everything from slingshots to deadly antiaircraft weapons.