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RAID ON PLOIESTI
Written By: Peter Ayers Wimbrow III
*Click images below to view larger versions.
RAID ON PLOIESTI
B-24D's leaving Ploiesti.
RAID ON PLOIESTI
Major John L. Jerstad
RAID ON PLOIESTI
Second Lieutenant Lloyd H. Hughes
RAID ON PLOIESTI
Colonel Leon W. Johnson
RAID ON PLOIESTI
Bulgaria's only ace, Stoyan Stoyanov.
This week, seventy years ago, the U.S. 9th Air Force launched its first raid on the oil refineries located in, and around, Ploiesti, Romania. At the time, the 9th Air Force was based in Benghazi, Libya. It had been created by Lt. General Frank M. Andrews (for whom Andrews Air Force Base is named) on November 12, 1942, and placed under the command of General Lewis H. Brereton.
Ploiesti, with a population of 200,000, is the 9th largest city in Romania and is located 35 miles north of the Romanian capital of Bucharest. At the time the war began, Ploiesti was about half its current size and had been the site of oil production and refining for almost 100 years. By the time war came to Europe, four refineries were operating in Ploiesti and it was supplying a significant amount of the fuel oil and lubricants to the German war machine, with some estimates as high as 50 percent. British Prime Minister Sir Winston S. Churchill called Ploiesti, "...the taproot of German might." Ploiesti increased its deliveries to the Reich from 2,800,000 barrels in 1938 to 13,100,000 barrels by the time of the American attack.
On July 13, 1941, the Soviet Air Force (Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily - "VVS") had sent six bombers against Ploiesti. The VVS destroyed 9000 tons of oil and other facilities, at a cost of four of the bombers. The first American bombing raid was conducted by 13 B-24s under the command of Colonel Harry A. Halverson on June 12, 1942. None of these raids caused significant damage, although the VVS raid caused Hitler to order General Erich von MansteinÙs 11th Army to occupy the Crimea to prevent further Soviet air raids. The raid on Ploiesti was code named Operation Tidal Wave and was planned by Colonel Jacob E. Smart, under the command of General Uzal G. Ent. The raid would total 178 B-24 Liberator bombers crewed by 1,751 airmen led by General Ent. From Benghazi, they would cross the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas, the Pindus Mountains in Albania, Yugoslavia and enter Romania and turn east toward Ploiesti. It would be the largest, and the longest, American air raid, up to that time. The distance there and back was 2000 miles.
The B-24 was the most produced American warplane - ever. It had a maximum speed of 290 mph and a cruising speed of 215 mph. With a 2700 pound bomb load, it had a range of 1200 miles. The Liberator was crewed by 11 and protected by ten .50 caliber Browning M2 machine-guns in four turrets and two waist guns. Each gun was capable of firing 850 rounds per minute.
Defending the refineries at Ploiesti was the Luftwaffe, under the command of General Alfred Gerstenberg, and the Royal Romanian Air Force (Forþele Aeriene Regale ale României - FARR), commanded by General Constantin Celãreanu. The Luftwaffe had 52 BF-109 fighters and BF-110 Night Fighters. FARR was equipped with the 109 and its own IAR-80. The defenses at Ploiesti were manned by 25,000 soldiers and airmen. There had been no aerial reconnaissance by the Americans, so little was known of its defenses, although they included several hundred large caliber anti-aircraft guns and many small caliber guns.
Early on the morning of Sunday, August 1, the planes, organized into five groups, began taking off. Thirteen planes failed to reach the target. The two lead groups made a navigational error and headed toward Bucharest. The remaining three groups realized the error and continued on course. But now the two groups which were supposed to attack first would be attacking last. The element of surprise was lost long before the Americans arrived over target, because the Germans had broken their code. Although this was to be a daylight raid, in order to avoid detection by the enemy radar, the American planes would come in dangerously low, at 200 feet, exposing them to danger from explosions.
Even though significant damage was done to some of the refineries, with the "help" of 10,000 slave laborers, it was quickly repaired. The bottom line was that there was, "... no significant curtailment of overall product output," as assessed by the Germans. And still, the surviving bombers had to return to Benghazi - or somewhere. And now, it was not just the Luftwaffe and the FARR with which the Americans had to contend. Waiting for them on the return home was the Royal Bulgarian Air Force. BulgariaÙs only ace, Stoyan Stoyanov, notched his first victory - The Witch, piloted by Julian Darlington, who survived, along with all of his crew - on that return.
And the final tally? Only 88 Liberators returned to Libya, of which 55 were damaged. Casualties were: 310 dead; 108 captured; and 78 interned in Turkey. It was the only strategic air raid in which more of the attackers were killed than people on the ground. Five Medals of Honor were awarded - the most for any single air action in history. The five recipients were Colonel John R. Kane, Colonel Leon W. Johnson, Lt. Colonel Addison Baker, Major John L. Jerstad and Second Lieutenant Lloyd H. Hughes. The last three were awarded posthumously. All participants were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery. From Berlin, German radio propagandist, "Axis Sally," said it all, "Good show, Brereton - but you lost too many!"
Ploiesti would not be attacked again until April 5, 1944, when the Fifteenth Air Force targeted it for extinction. It would be attacked 24 more times culminating in four 1000 plane raids on August 10, 17, 18 & 19, 1944. By the time the Red Army occupied it, at the end of August 1944, Ploiesti had ceased production. The cost had been 305 bombers and 3000 airmen.
 
NEXT WEEK: PT-109
 
Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. Mr. Wimbrow can be contacted at wimbrowlaw@gmail.com
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