Tidal Wave

Mar 3, 2023 | Profiles in Courage

… the B-24s flew into very heavy flak at very low altitudes as a parade of slow-moving targets …

A B-24 flies over burning facilities in Ploiești.

On August 1st, 1943, B-24 Liberators from the 8th and 9th US Army Air Forces attacked the oil refineries at Ploiești, Romania. Romania was then a member of the Axis powers, a self-styled National Legionary State under the dictatorship of the Fascist leader Ion Antonescu.
178 B-24s from five bombardment groups—the 9th USAAF’s 98th and 376th groups, and the 8th USAAF’s 44th, 93rd and 389th— took off from Benghazi, Libya, to attack Ploiești. Of the 178 B-24s. 162 reached the target and 33 aircraft—19%—returned to Benghazi unharmed.

The Target

Ploiești produced 30% of the oil available to Hitler’s war machine and was therefore a critically important target. It can be argued that the difference between Hitler’s limited oil resources and the Allies’ effectively unlimited resources was the difference between defeat and victory in World War II. It certainly shaped the evolution of military technology: For example, the Allies were able to improve propeller-driven aircraft performance continuously throughout the war because they had higher octane gasoline, whereas the Germans could not. The Me 109 ran on 87-octane fuel throughout the war, whereas the Merlin powered Spitfire evolved from 87- to 150-octane. To compete, the oil-poor but coal-rich Germans developed the first operational jet-engined fighter which ran on J2 fuel derived from liquified brown coal—a brilliant but ultimately futile response.

The Plan

The Tidal Wave plan called for the aircraft to fly a round trip from Benghazi on the coast of the Mediterranean in Libya up the Adriatic Sea to Corfu and then northwest to Ploiesti, skirting major population centers. The aircraft were to fly at 200 feet to evade radar detection and maintain radio silence to establish surprise. Once over Greece the aircraft would climb above the Pindus Mountains (7,000 feet) and fly northeast across German occupied Greece, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria, again descending to low altitudes for their bombing runs. Each of the five bombardment groups was given a specific set of targets and all targets would be hit simultaneously to overwhelm local defenses.
B-24 Liberators were magnificent workhorses, flying far more missions than the more glamorous B-17 Fortresses and B-29 Super Fortresses, but although they were heavily armed they were also ponderously slow and vulnerable against ground-based flak and enemy fighter aircraft. The Tidal Wave plan was designed to maximize bombing accuracy by attacking at low levels in broad daylight. Therefore, surprise was essential to give the B-24s a good chance of survival over the target, completing their bombing runs before Ploiesti’s defenses had been alerted.

The mission would stretch the B-24s to their operational limits; the very long-range 2,000-mile flight plan required extra fuel, and the importance of the target required that they carry as much bomb tonnage as possible. The target was far beyond the range of escorting fighters, so the B-24s were on their own. In addition, the B-24 was a slow-climbing aircraft—taking a minute to climb a thousand feet under normal conditions—but would be required to climb over a steep mountain range mid-flight.

The Mission

Take off proved to be slow and difficult. The heavily laden B-24s required long takeoff rolls and dozens of aircraft taking off from desert airstrips whipped up mini sandstorms. Once airborne some aircraft experienced technical difficulties and navigational errors; strict radio silence prevented these problems from being corrected. As a result, 14 aircraft failed to reach the target and 162 reached Ploiești.

As the diagram indicates Ploiesti was literally surrounded by refineries. The original plan was to hit them all simultaneously, in order to overwhelm the defenses, but the B-24s had been spread out on the long 5-hour 1,000-mile journey and arrived at different times.

Unfortunately, the USAAF had conducted a small raid in 1942, doing little damage but showing the Germans and Romanians how vulnerable Ploiesti was to air raids. The Axis powers had reacted strongly and put in place one of the strongest sir defense systems in Europe. As a result, 78 flak batteries amounting to several hundred guns awaited the USAAF, in addition to 50 fighters stationed nearby.

As a result of all these cumulative problems, the B-24s flew into very heavy flak at very low altitudes as a parade of slow-moving targets and could do little to protect themselves from Romanian IAR-80 fighter aircraft diving down on them. Some of the aircraft were flying below flak batteries in the surrounding hills. A third of the force, 55 aircraft, were lost.

Relatively little damage was done and it was quickly repaired. Indeed, the Allies estimated that by the end of 1943 Ploiesti was producing more oil than before the raids.

The Toll

I sometimes find it hard to convince people, particularly the younger generations, of the casualty rates sustained in the last century’s great wars. The casualty rate in Operation Tidal Wave was almost 30%.

Aircrew killed or missing

310

18%

Captured or Interned

190

11%

Returned

1251

71%

TOTAL

1751

As far as the aircraft were concerned, less than 20% returned undamaged.     

RESULTS

# B-24s

% force

Lost on take off

1

1%

Lost or diverted outward bound

14

8%

Interned in Turkey

8

5%

Reached Cyprus

17

10%

Shot down over target

35

20%

Lost

15

8%

Returned damaged

55

31%

Returned unharmed

33

19%

TOTAL

177

Five airmen received the Medal of Honor and 56 were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. 

It is small wonder that Operation Tidal Wave is now remembered as Black Sunday. I am reminded of a poem by Tennyson about another occasion when men went unflinching into battle:

Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.  

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