When I refer to Operation Tidal wave I am referring to the 1st Operation Tidal wave and not Operation Tidal Wave II which is a US-led coalition military operation commenced on or about 21 October 2015 against oil transport, refining and distribution facilities and infrastructure under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Operation Tidal wave was to become one of the costliest mistakes made by the Allied Forces during WWII.
Prior to World War II, the U.S. Army Air Corps (Army Air Forces as of June 20, 1941) developed a doctrine of high-altitude, precision, daylight, massed bombing of selected enemy military and industrial targets. Combined with the Royal Air Force’s concentration on mass air attacks on industrial areas at night by 1943, this doctrine evolved into the Combined Bomber Offense featuring “around-the-clock” bombing of German targets.
Petroleum production and distribution systems were among the highest priority targets, and perhaps the most inviting of these was the concentration of oil refineries at Ploesti, Rumania, which according to Allied intelligence estimates, produced as much as one third of Germany’s liquid fuel requirements. One of the most heavily defended targets in Europe, Ploesti lay outside the range of Allied bombers from England but could be reached by Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers from the Middle East or North Africa.
Operation Tidal Wave was an air attack by bombers of the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) based in Libya and Southern Italy on nine oil refineries around Ploiești, Romania on 1 August 1943, during World War II. It was a strategic bombing mission and part of the “oil campaign” to deny petroleum-based fuel to the Axis.The mission resulted in “no curtailment of overall product output”
This mission was one of the costliest for the USAAF in the European Theater, with 53 aircraft and 660 aircrew men lost. It was the second-worst loss ever suffered by the USAAF on a single mission, and its date was later referred to as “Black Sunday”. Five Medals of Honor and numerous Distinguished Service Crosses were awarded to Operation Tidal Wave crew members.
Romania had been a major power in the oil industry since the 1800s. It was one of the largest producers in Europe and Ploiesti was a major part of that production. (see Bombing of Romania in World War II).The Ploiești oil refineries provided about 30% of all Axis oil production
In June 1942, 13 B-24 Liberators of the “Halverson project” (HALPRO) attacked Ploiești.
Though damage was small, Germany responded by putting strong anti-aircraft defenses around Ploiești. Luftwaffe General Alfred Gerstenberg built one of the heaviest and best-integrated air defense networks in Europe. The defenses included several hundred large-caliber 88mm guns and 10.5 cm FlaK 38 anti-aircraft guns, and many more small-caliber guns.
The latter were concealed in haystacks, railroad cars, and mock buildings.The Luftwaffe had three fighter groups within flight range of Ploiești 52 (Bf 109 fighters and Bf 110 night fighters, and some Romanian IAR-80 fighters).
Gerstenberg also counted on warnings from the Luftwaffe signals intelligence station in Athens, which monitored Allied preparations as far away as North Africa
The Ninth Air Force (98th and 376th Bombardment Groups) was responsible for the overall conduct of the raid, and the partially formed Eighth Air Force provided three additional bomb groups (44th, 93rd, and 389th). All the bombers employed were B-24 Liberators.
Colonel Jacob E. Smart planned the operation, based on HALPRO’s experiences. HALPRO had encountered minimal air defenses in its raid; so the planners decided Tidal Wave would be executed by day, and that the attacking bombers would approach at low altitude to avoid detection by German radar. Training included extensive review of detailed sand table models, practice raids over a mock-up of the target in the Libyan desert and practical exercises over a number of secondary targets in July to prove the viability of such a low- level strike. The bombers to be used were re-equipped with bomb-bay fuel tanks to increase their fuel capacity to 3,100 gallons.
The operation was to consist of 178 bombers with a total of 1,751 aircrew, one of the largest commitments of American heavy bombers and crewmen up to that time The planes were to fly from airfields near Benghazi, Libya. They were to cross the Mediterranean and the Adriatic Sea, pass near the island of Corfu, cross over the Pindus Mountains in Albania, cross southern Yugoslavia, enter southwestern Romania, and turn east toward Ploiești. Reaching Ploiești, they were to locate pre-determined checkpoints, approach their targets from the north, and strike all targets simultaneously.
For political reasons, the Allied planners decided to avoid the city of Ploiești, so that it would not be bombed by accident.
Early on the morning of 1 August 1943, the five groups comprising the strike force began lifting off from their home air fields around Benghazi. Large amounts of dust kicked up during take-off caused limited visibility and strained engines already carrying the burden of large bomb loads and additional fuel. These conditions contributed to the loss of one aircraft during take-off, but 177 of the planned 178 aircraft departed safely.
The formation reached the Adriatic Sea without further incident; however aircraft #28 “Wongo Wongo” belonging to the 376th Bombardment Group (the lead group, about 40 B-24s) and piloted by Lt. Brian Flavelle began to fly erratically before plunging into the sea due to unknown causes. Lt. Guy Iovine—a personal friend of Flavelle and piloting aircraft #23 Desert Lilly—descended from the formation in order to look for survivors, narrowly missing aircraft Brewery Wagon piloted by Lt. John Palm. No survivors were seen, and due to the additional weight of fuel, Iovine was unable to regain altitude to rejoin the formation and resume course to Ploiești.
The resulting confusion was compounded by the inability to regain cohesion due to strict radio silence maintained as per mission guidance. Ten other aircrews opted to return to friendly air fields following the incident and those aircraft which remained faced the 9,000 ft (2,700 m) climb over the Pindus mountains, which were shrouded in cloud cover. Although all five groups made the climb around 11,000 ft (3,400 m), the 376th and 93rd, using high power settings, began to lose the trailing formations, causing variations in speed and time which disrupted the careful synchronization of the group attacks deemed so important by Smart. The possible threat to successful execution was deemed to be of secondary concern to the operational security of the mission by senior leadership. The American leaders were unaware that while their intentions were not precisely known, their presence had been duly noted by the Germans. Although the need to rebuild their formations was clear and well within the contingency for breaking radio silence, the strike would proceed without correction, a judgment that would later prove costly.
Although now well strung out on approach to Piteşti, all five groups would make the navigational check point 65 mi (105 km) from Ploiești. At Câmpina, the 389th Bomb Group departed as planned for its separate but synchronous approach to the mission target. Continuing from Piteşti, Col. Keith K. Compton and Gen. Ent made a navigational judgment that would prove especially costly. At Târgovişte, halfway to the next check point at Floreşti, Compton followed the incorrect railway line for his turn toward Ploiești, setting his group and Lt. Col. Addison Baker’s 93rd Bomb Group on a course for Bucharest. In the process, Ent and Compton went against the advice of their airplane’s navigator and the Halverson Project (HALPRO) veteran Cpt. Harold Wicklund. Now in the face of an impending disaster, many crews chose to break radio silence and draw attention to the navigational error. Meanwhile, both groups flew headlong into Gerstenberg’s extensive air defenses around the Bucharest area, which they would now face in addition to those still awaiting them around Ploiești.
Lt. Col. Baker and his co-pilot Maj. John L. Jerstad, who had already flown a full tour of duty while stationed in England, would now succumb to the effects of the extensive air defense array.
Continuing through the intense defensive barrage, damage to their aircraft forced Baker and Jerstad to jettison their bomb load in order to maintain lead of the formation over their target at the Columbia Aquila refinery. Despite heavy losses by the 93rd, Baker and Jerstad maintained course and, once clear, began to climb away. Realizing the aircraft was no longer controllable, both men maintained the climb in order to gain time for the crew to abandon the aircraft. Although none survived, both Baker and Jerstad would be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for maintaining their successful approach to Columbia Aquila and their efforts to save the crew of Hell’s Wench.
Maj. Ramsay D. Potts flying The Duchess and Maj. George S. Brown aboard Queenie, encountering heavy smoke over Columbia Aquila, would take two additional elements of the 93rd and successfully drop their payloads over the Astra Romana, Unirea Orion, and Columbia Aquila refineries. In all, the 93rd lost 11 aircraft over their targets in Ploiești. One of the bombers, Jose Carioca,was shot down by a Romanian IAR 80 fighter, which went into a half roll and moved swiftly under the B-24 upside down, raking its belly with bullets. The bomber crashed into Ploiești Women’s Prison. The three-story building exploded in flames, and only 40 women survived the disaster. There were no survivors from Jose Carioca crew.
Air defenses were heavy over the 376th’s target (Romana Americana), and Gen. Ent instructed Compton to attack “targets of opportunity.” Most of the 376th B-24s bombed the Steaua Română refinery at Câmpina from the east, and five headed directly into the already smoldering conflagration over the Concordia Vega refinery.At Câmpina, air defenses on overlooking hills were able to fire down into the formation, and IAR 80 aircraft downed 376th aircraft
With the 93rd and 376th engaged over the target area, Col. John R. Kane of the 98th Bomb Group and Col. Leon W. Johnson of the 44th Bomb Group made their prescribed turn at Floresti and proceeded to their respective targets at the Asta Romana and Columbia Aquila refineries.
Both groups would find German and Romanian defenses on full alert and faced the full effects of now raging oil fires, heavy smoke, secondary explosions, and delayed-fuse bombs dropped by Baker’s 93rd Bomb Group on their earlier run. Both Kane and Johnson’s approach, parallel to the Floresti-to-Ploiești railway had the unfortunate distinction of encountering Gerstenberg’s disguised flak train. At tree-top level, around 50 ft (15 m) above the ground, the 98th would find themselves to the left and the 44th on the right. The advantage, however, would rest with the 98th and 44th, whose gunners quickly responded to the threat, disabling the locomotive and killing multiple air defense crews.
With the effects of the 93rd and 376th’s runs causing difficulties locating and bombing their primary targets, both Kane and Johnson did not deviate from their intended targets, taking heavy losses in the process. Their low approach even enabled gunners to engage in continued ground suppression of air defense crews from directly above their targets. For their leadership and heroism, both were awarded the Medal of Honor. Lt. Col. James T. Posey took 21 of the 44th’s aircraft on a separate assigned attack run on the Creditul Minier refinery just south of Ploiești. Although air defense batteries had already heavily engaged the 93rd, Posey was fully received by the same emplacements. Maintaining a continued low-level approach into the target area took some of the still heavily laden aircraft through tall grass and damage was caused by low-level obstructions. Posey and his aircraft—equipped with heavier 1,000 lb (450 kg) bombs—managed to successfully find their marks at Creditul Minier, without loss to the formation.
The last TIDAL WAVE attack bombed the Steaua Română refinery (8 mi (13 km) northwest of Ploiești):at Câmpina. The 389th attack led by Col. Jack Wood was as rehearsed at Benghazi.
The damage caused by the 376th and 389th attacks heavily damaged the refinery, which did not resume production for the duration of the war.The 389th lost four aircraft over the target area, including B-24 Ole Kickapoo flown by 2nd Lt. Lloyd Herbert Hughes.
After hits to Ole Kickapoo only 30 feet over the target area, the detonation of previously dropped bombs had ignited fuel leaking from the B-24. Hughes maintained course for bombardier 2nd Lt. John A. McLoughlin to bomb, and the B-24 subsequently crash-landed in a river bed.187 Hughes (who posthumously received the Medal of Honor) and five crewmembers were killed, four survived the crash but died of injuries, and two gunners became prisoners of war.
On their way over Bulgaria, the B-24s were intercepted by three fighter groups, 10 Bf 109s from Karlovo, four Avia B-534s from Bozhurishte and 10 Avia B-534s from Vrashdebna (Sofia) airport.
The pilots Sub-lieutenant Peter Bochev (five victories), Captain Tschudomir Toplodolski (four victories), Lieutenant Stoyan Stoyanov (five victories) and Sublieutenant Hristo Krastev (one victory) gained their first kills for the Bulgarian Air Force of the war. The new fighter aces were decorated afterwards by Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria personally with the Order of Bravery, the first time in 25 years. Iron Crosses were awarded a month later from the German embassy.
Only 88 B-24s returned to Libya, of which 55 had battle damage. Losses included 44 to air defenses and additional B-24s that ditched in the Mediterranean or were interned (e.g. a few landed in neutral Turkey). Some were diverted (e.g. to the RAF airfield on Cyprus). One B-24 with 365 bullet holes in it landed in Libya 14 hours after departing; its survival was due to the light armament of the Bulgarian Avia B-534 (4 x 7.92mm machine guns).
310 aircrewmen were killed, 108 were captured by the Axis, and 78 were interned in Turkey, 4 were MIA in Yugoslovia and taken in by Tito’s partisans.76 Three of the five Medals of Honor (the most for any single air action in history) were awarded posthumously.:Allied assessment of the attack estimated a loss of 40% of the refining capacity at the Ploiești refineries,although some refineries were largely untouched. Most of the damage was repaired within weeks, after which the net output of fuel was greater than before the raid.Circa September, the Enemy Oil Committee appraisal of Ploiești bomb damage indicated “no curtailment of overall product output“as many of the refineries had been operating previously below maximum capacity.
Despite the extreme heroism of the airmen and their determination to press the mission home, the results of Operation TIDAL WAVE were less than expected. TIDALWAVE targeted nine major refineries that produced some 8,595,000 tons of oil annually, about 90 percent of all Rumanian oil production, and the attack temporarily eliminated about 3,925,000 tons, roughly 46 percent of total annual production at Ploesti. Three refineries lost 100 percent of production. Unfortunately, these losses figures were temporary and reflected much less than the planners had hoped for. The Germans proved capable of repairing damage and restoring production quickly, and they had been operating the refineries at less than full capacity, anyway. Ploesti thus had the ability to recover rapidly. The largest and most important target, Astro Romana, was back to full production within a few months while Concordia Vega was operating at 100 percent by mid-September.
The U.S. Army Air Forces never again attempted a low level mission against German air defense.
Lloyd Herbert Hughes
John Louis Jerstad
Leon William Johnson
John Riley Kane