Ploesti Raid: One of the Greatest Air Force Disasters of World War II

January 8, 2021 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IIPloestiRomaniaAir ForceMilitary HistoryOil

Ploesti Raid: One of the Greatest Air Force Disasters of World War II

The truth behind the disastrous air raid on the Ploesti oil refineries during World War II has long been obscured. One member of the raid may have uncovered how the attack went so tragically wrong.

The bomb group commanders were awestruck by the audacious concept when they were briefed by Smart and Brereton.

Ploesti was not, strictly speaking, a virgin target. In 1942, 20 B-24s of the Halverson Detachment had been assigned to fly from the East Coast of the United States, down to Brazil, across the Atlantic to Africa, then on to India and China. Their ultimate goal was to bomb Tokyo. But the Doolittle Raid of April had closed all the China bases, and the force, led by Colonel Harry Halverson, was reassigned to bomb Ploesti.

The so-called “Halpro” mission was a hasty, improvised attempt to hit the largest oil refinery in Europe, Astro Romana. It was hoped that cutting off a vital source of fuel to Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps might give the Allies the edge they needed to drive the Germans out of Africa. But bad weather and poor navigation caused the 13 ships of the Halpro force to drop their bombs far off target. Until August 1943, Halpro was the longest bombing mission attempted during the war.

For Tidal Wave, seven of the most modern and largest refineries in Europe were targeted.

All five groups were to take off in the predawn of August 1 and form up. The 376th was to be followed in turn by the 93rd, 98th, 44th, and 389th. The bomber stream would be almost 20 miles long. They were to maintain visual contact from the start since strict radio silence was to be observed. After flying north over the eastern Mediterranean, the bombers were then to turn northeast at the island of Corfu and head over Albania and into western Romania.

They would then descend to low altitude along the southern foothills of the Transylvanian Alps to reach the third and final Initial Point (IP) at Floresti and turn southeast to the refineries. Timing and distance between groups was critical. They all had to reach the IP at exactly the right time and intervals. Smart intended that the bomber groups make simultaneous turns to their targets, which would be directly in their path.

Compton, in the lead, had White One on the far left, while Baker and the Circus would hit a target designated White Two, west of White One. Baker’s deputy, Major Ramsey Potts, was assigned to White Three, while Kane and the Pyramiders, the largest group, went southeast on the left side of the railroad directly at White Four. To his right, the Eight Balls under Johnson took White Five. Section B of the Eight Balls angled to the right to bomb Blue Target, located southwest of the city.

Meanwhile, Jack Wood’s Sky Scorpions, which included Ardery and Hughes, were to turn northeast at the second IP and attack Red Target at Campina in the valley north of the city. Each bombardier had specific targets for his bombs—the near wall of a powerhouse, for instance. The gunners were to throw out small thermite bombs to ignite fires among the heavily volatile refinery grounds.

It would literally be a tidal wave of huge bombers dropping tons of high explosives in one cataclysmic conflagration. The time from the first bombs on White One and the last on Red Target would take 20 minutes. The first bombs had a delayed-fuse setting of 45 minutes, while the last were set for only 45 seconds. This would ensure that no bombs exploded under the following Liberators.

If all went well, the massive aerial assault would cut a third of Hitler’s oil refining capacity and deal a nearly fatal blow to the Axis in a single mission.

But all did not go well. Tidal Wave only succeeded in destroying two of the refineries and damaging three others at the terrible cost of 53 Liberators. After nearly 16 hours and some of the most savage and desperate fighting ever seen in the air, 440 Americans were dead, more than 300 wounded, and 108 taken prisoner in Romania. Scores were imprisoned in Yugoslavia and Bulgaria or interned in Turkey. Far from being the smashing success planned by Smart, Tidal Wave has become an example of how no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy—or with bad luck.

What went wrong? Some of the causes are obvious when viewed with 20/20 historical hindsight. For one thing, the Germans were fully prepared and alerted long before the B-24s reached the Balkans. The ineffective Halpro raid had one unforeseen consequence: the Germans realized that Ploesti was a key target and began bringing in three fighter groups and hundreds of antiaircraft guns. Radar was constantly on the alert for any incoming raid. The Germans built thick concrete blast walls and complex rapid recovery systems to keep the refineries working even after an air raid. The U.S. Army Air Forces suspected none of this.

Among the official reasons that supposedly contributed to the disaster was the loss of the lead mission navigator on a plane that inexplicably fell into the Ionian Sea. Second, a high storm front over the mountains of Albania further degraded the integrity of the bomber stream. Third, total radio silence made it impossible to regroup without alerting the enemy.

And, finally, a disastrous wrong turn short of the final IP by Compton and Baker caused the leading groups to head for Bucharest instead of Ploesti. After that the entire mission was a shambles and failed to achieve the crippling blow that Smart had predicted. Those are the main points of what history considers the reason for Tidal Wave’s failure.

Yet history can be revised and even changed when new information becomes available. And the best source of information often comes from those who were present.

Major Robert Sternfels is a veteran of Kane’s 98th Bomb Group at Ploesti. On the drive to White Four, Sternfels was in the thick of it, at the controls of his Liberator, Sandman.  Sternfels, with more than 300 hours of combat on 50 missions, admitted he had never seen anything like it before or since. He saw it all.

So how did such a carefully planned, rigorously practiced mission that had so much going for it turn into a horrible disaster? According to Sternfels, the root of the debacle lay at the feet of two men: the very man who had originally planned the raid from the beginning, Colonel Jacob Smart, and Colonel Keith K. Compton, commander of the 379th Bomb Group. Together these two men were predominantly responsible for the Tidal Wave calamity.

The South Carolina-born Smart had graduated from West Point in 1931 and became a flight instructor after getting his wings in the Army Air Forces. He tended to catch the eye of senior officers and was soon on the Air Force Advisory Council—under General Henry “Hap” Arnold—where he was involved in the early planning of the invasions of Europe and North Africa. As operations officer for General Lewis H. Brereton’s Ninth Bomber Command, he planned missions to Sicily and Italy. In early 1943, he was tasked to plan the most effective way to destroy the vital Ploesti oil refineries. Smart came up with the idea of hitting the targets with heavy bombers at extreme low altitude.

But as things turned out, he was out of his depth.

“Smart conceived the entire low-level concept,” the 96-year-old Sternfels said in an interview with the author in his Laguna Beach home, “the route, approach, and bomb run for each plane. The four leading groups were to turn southeast onto the bomb run in waves of several planes each, keeping formation in the turn. That was the idea, at least.”

Smart sold the idea, but the men who would actually have to carry it out didn’t think it could be done. Among those was the burly, hard-driving commander of the Pyramiders, Colonel John Riley “Killer” Kane, who never minced words in expressing himself. Sternfels noted, “During the initial mission briefing meeting Kane said, ‘What idiot armchair lawyer from Washington planned this one?’”

Sternfels related an incident that patently demonstrated how ill suited Smart was for planning Tidal Wave. “On 15 July, just two weeks before Tidal Wave, my crew and I were preparing for a mission to Foggia, Italy, when a staff car pulled up. And out stepped Smart, fully geared up in brand-new flight suit and Mae West life preserver. He came up to me and said, ‘I’d like to fly with you today as an observer.’

“Smart was on the flight deck with me, my co-pilot Barney Jackson, and our flight engineer, Sergeant Bill Stout. He was standing there between our seats watching as we went through our checklist. I asked him if he would step back to let my flight engineer come forward and call out speed and engine readings. Smart did so and we took off.”

On the way north toward Italy, Smart again came between the pilots’ seats. Then he did something virtually unheard of in any aircraft.

“He reached out to adjust the fuel mixture controls,” said Sternfels, still astonished after more than 70 years. “You just don’t do that if you’re a passenger. Even a general doesn’t do that without the pilot’s permission. I didn’t say anything but adjusted the mix to what I wanted and we flew on. A little while later Smart did it again!”