Aviation History

Operation Tidal Wave: Why the 1943 Raid on Ploesti Oilfields Failed to Diminish the Supply of Fuel to Germany and its Allies

The Romanian Gendarmerie reported that the USAAF had suffered 214 dead in Romania, but also reported that some B-24 aircraft were so badly burned that crew remains were impossible to identify.

Operation Tidal Wave was one of the boldest and most controversial air raids of World War II.

In 1943, the Ploesti oilfields in Romania were Germany’s single most important fuel source, and a key strategic air power target. But the Tidal Wave raid to destroy the refineries, using B-24s flown from Libya, turned into one of the costliest US Army Air Force (USAAF) operations to date, with about a third of the force shot down. Although undoubtedly heroic, with five Medals of Honor awarded, the mission had questionable results. Initial assessments argued that 40 percent of the refinery capacity at Ploesti had been destroyed, but later studies concluded that the damage was quickly repaired and output levels rebounded.

As told by Steven J. Zaloga in his book Ploesti 1943, in his initial report to Berlin, Gen Alfred Gerstenberg (who from Feb. 15, 1942 to Aug. 27, 1944 served as the commanding general of Luftwaffe in Romania) acknowledged the damage to the refineries, but noted that it would not appreciably diminish the supply of fuel to Germany and its allies. Furthermore, the USAAF had suffered crippling losses from the attack. On Aug. 3, 1943, the senior Romanian and German leadership held a conference in Bucharest to discuss the lessons from the Ploesti raid. The meeting included Marshal Ion Antonescu, General de escadra Gheorghe Jienescu (Romanian Air Minister), General de divizie Gheorghe D. Marinescu (Romanian Air Defenses), German Ambassador Manfred Freiherr von Killinger, Gen Gerstenberg, Oberst Woldenga (German fighter forces), Gen Kuderna (commander of 5.Flak Division), and others.

B-24 Liberator Through flak and over the destruction created by preceding waves of bombers, these 15th Air Force B-24s leave Ploesti, Romania, after one of the long series of attacks against the No. 1 oil target in Europe. 

Gerstenberg noted that even though the raid had caused considerable damage, the refineries were still operating and that production could be returned to normal in a few weeks. The Flak defense of Ploesti was judged to be the single most important factor in the defeat of the raid, though there were various suggestions for improving air defense. Ploesti and the Prahova valley had only about a third of the total Romanian and German antiaircraft artillery in Romania, and the conference felt that the Flak was too dispersed.

As a result, a program was initiated to concentrate the Flak defenses on the most critical locations including Bucharest, Ploesti, the Cernavoda bridge, the port of Constanta, and the factory cities of Reqita and Brasov. There was also a general agreement over the need for more antiaircraft guns including heavy batteries of 105mm, due to the supposition that future raids would come from high altitudes after the failure of the low-altitude raid. Fighter forces would also have to be strengthened, and additional radar stations deployed for early warning.

In total, the FARR (Fortele Aeriene Regale Romane, Royal Romanian Air Force) had 31 available aircraft with crews on Aug. 1 and conducted 54 sorties, with 13 kill claims. The Luftwaffe had 26 aircraft with crews available near Ploesti, conducted 69 sorties, and claimed 15 kills. This does not count the further five kill claims by Jagdgeschwader.27 based at Kalamaki/Tanagara in Greece, which attacked the returning Tidal Wave force over the Ionian Sea.

Romanian assessments seriously downgraded the number of bombers lost to fighters. Part of the issue was that many of the bombers claimed by fighters had been fatally damaged by Flak, and the fighters merely arrived on the scene to deliver a coup de grace. One of the main technical assessments after Tidal Wave was that the fighter aircraft had to be upgraded with 20mm cannon as the machine-gun-armed fighters could simply not do enough damage to a heavy bomber.

B-24 Liberators at low altitude while approaching the oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania, August 1, 1943. In the foreground is B-24D Li’l Jughaid, serial number 42-63758, Ninth Air Force, 98th Bombardment Group, 415th Bombardment Squadron. Pilot Lyle Spencer, co-pilot Harry J. Baker, bombardier Boyden Supiani. Photograph was taken from the 98th’s lead plane, piloted by Col. John R. Kane. Following in formation behind Li’l Jughaid is Daisy Mae, and Black Magic.

The Tidal Wave bomber crews claimed to have shot down 52 enemy aircraft, a substantial exaggeration. The Luftwaffe lost two BF 109G-2 fighters destroyed and four damaged from I./JG.4, and two Bf 109Gs destroyed and one damaged from JG.27 in the final encounters over the Ionian Sea. Night-fighter losses were one Bf 110E-4 destroyed and four damaged from NJG.6. The FARR lost two JAR 80 fighters and three damaged; one Romanian Bf 110C was also shot down. There were also at least two Romanian Bf 109G-2s damaged during the engagements.

Romanian accounts indicate that 34-36 bombers were shot down over Romania, of which nine crashed within the immediate Ploesti area and 26 in areas away from the city. The varying numbers of bombers was due to the fact that several bombers disintegrated and burned after crashing into the refineries. In 1944, Romanian officials provided the US with a list of 25 of the aircraft that were relatively intact that could be identified by serial number. Romanian assessments put the causes of the bomber losses to Flak (20), fighters (12), and balloon cables (4). The initial US assessment was that Flak was the major cause of losses over Ploesti, with fighters responsible for five or six losses, balloon cables one loss, and possibly one or two planes engulfed in bomb blasts or other ground conflagrations. Both the Germans and Romanians attributed most of the Flak kills to the light 20mm and 37mm guns. The 88mm guns were not well suited to engagements at low altitude. The Romanian Gendarmerie reported that the USAAF had suffered 214 dead in Romania, but also reported that some aircraft were so badly burned that crew remains were impossible to identify.

Casualty figures on the ground vary from report to report. Most contemporary reports indicate over 300 dead and wounded. The single most costly event was the B-24 crash into the women’s penitentiary which caused 61 dead and 60 wounded. Equipment losses were three 88mm guns, and five 20mm guns. Seven barrage balloons were knocked free when their cables were severed and five more were set on fire and destroyed.

Ploesti 1943 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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