In 1943, with Soviet oil fields getting farther and farther away from Hitler’s grasp, the Third Reich’s need for fuel became a vulnerable Achilles’ heel. British war plans have already identified Germany’s hard-to-serve needs for oil as a weakness before the war and now the Allies saw a chance to exploit this weakness. The oil refineries near the city of Ploiești, Romania, were responsible for one-third of Germany’s high-octane fuel and was perceived as a strategic glass jaw. A bomber raid was already launched against it in mid-1942 but low-lying cloud cover caused most of the bombs to miss their target at the time. A year later, the time felt right to try again.
The USAAF assembled a fleet of 178 long-range B-24 Liberators for Operation Tidal Wave. After training on mock targets in Africa, the force, divided into 5 bomb groups, would take off from Libya, fly north and cross the Mediterranean Sea, then across the Balkans to hook around above Romania and hit the Ploiești refineries in a single massive wave. Due to problems with the previous year’s mission, the Air Force abandoned its tried-and-true method of high-altitude precision bombing: it would fly in low to avoid German radar, only climb to go above the Pindus Mountains in Albania and saturate the target area with bombs dropped from an extremely low altitude. Some strategists, like Eisenhower, were against the plan, believing a series of smaller raids aimed at the actual oil wells rather than the refineries to be more valuable. Nevertheless, the plan was still seen to execution.
Unknown to the Allies, the earlier raid shook up things on the German side, too. Suddenly aware of the vulnerability of the massive refinery complex, the Germans established the continent’s strongest anti-air defense system around it. Several hundreds of the infamous 88mm Flaks and even heavier 105mm Flak 38s were deployed in the area in six-gun batteries, along with numerous smaller guns. Some cannons were hidden in haystacks, mock buildings and on a disguised mobile flak train. The Allies, reluctant to send a recon flight to check on the area lest it draw the Germans’ attention, remained completely unaware of the field of fire around Ploiești.
The force took off in the early morning of August 1, 1943 in a tense, silent mood. Though there were no known defenses in the target area, flight crews were still told that 50% casualty rates were expected and would be found acceptable. One flight crew member later said: “We each gave one letter to the security officer to mail home if we didn’t make it back. Mine was to my mom with a letter to my wife inside of it. We stuffed our pockets with candy, gum, cigarettes and even beer. If we were going to crash we wanted some of the comforts. Breakfast that morning was like a condemned man’s, the best we’d had since February. As we shook hands with the flight crew at the ship no one spoke. Just silent reflection of loved ones and the grim task ahead.”
The operation began with immediate tragedy. With desert dust kicked up by so many planes, visibility was low and engines were straining to lift the heavy bomb loads and all the extra fuel in the bomb bay tanks, leading to one bomber crashing right on takeoff. Once over the Mediterranean Sea, another plane swerved out of control and plummeted into the water for unknown reasons. Another Liberator broke formation to search for survivors, but couldn’t rejoin the flight and had to turn back home. After the incident, several more bombers turned back.
The Pindus Mountains were covered in clouds and crossing them caused the flight formations to lose cohesion and become strung out. Sticking to their orders of radio silence, the force lost its ability to hit the target in one wave. Even later, above Romania, another navigational problem occurred. The first two bomb groups were following the wrong set of railway tracks and took a wrong turn: instead of heading towards Ploiești the short way, they were now on a roundabout route that took them over the well-defended capital of Bucharest.
Once in the target area, the B-24s came under withering fire. Two bomb groups flew parallel to the tracks on which the flak train was running at the time and came under attack but were close enough to the ground for gunners to fire back and disable it. Flying at altitudes of 50ft, some planes received fire from above, from guns placed atop larger hills. Due to the unintended staggered approach, latecomers had to fly through raging oil fires, black pillars of smoke, secondary explosions and detonations from delayed bombs dropped by previous planes. One plane flying at 30ft had its fuel tanks ignited by a bomb explosion that reached up from the ground. Several Liberators came under heavy attack from German and Romanian fighters. One was shot down and crashed into a women’s prison, engulfing it in flames and killing all but 40 inmates.
Only 88 of the 178 bombers returned to Libya, 55 of them with battle damage. In addition to combat losses, some Liberators had to be ditched over the Mediterranean, some were redirected to the British airfield on Cyprus and others were forced to land in the neutral country of Turkey, where the planes and their crews were interned. Of the 1,751 aircrew, 330 were KIA, 108 were captured, 78 arrested in Turkey and 4 taken in by Yugoslav partisans.
Treatment of crashed and captured crewmen varied. Though Romania was an Axis power, not everyone supported the alliance with Germany. Some men were almost lynched by peasants believing them to be Russians, only to be hailed as heroes once they were recognized as Americans. Several men landed on or parachuted onto the estate of Princess Catherine Caradja, a Romanian aristocrat. The princess, later nicknamed the Angel of Ploiești, took them into her own custody, protected them from German troops, made sure they received medical attention and helped them escape to Italy. She also stayed in contact with many POWs and delivered them items to help them survive or escape.
First assessment of the mission considered 40% of the Ploiești refineries out of operation but most of the damage was repaired in a few weeks and production ramped up so Germany ended up receiving more oil in the end than before the attack. Though the officers and enlisted men of Operation Tidal Wave fought with undaunted courage and dedication and received five Medals of Honor (three posthumously) and numerous other decorations, their sacrifice was ultimately in vain.