Oil is the lifeblood of nations. No substance has ever proven more beneficial to the world when it comes to sustaining day to day livelihoods and moving vast quantities of commerce across the globe. It’s the one thing people, regardless of background, have to agree on if they want to be truthful. Oil is what makes the world work. And just like all resources provided by the earth, it plays no favorites. Right or wrong, good or bad, it serves at the pleasure of its users… and never more so than when it comes to waging war.
Throughout World War II, Germany, like its Axis partners Japan and Italy, depended on imported oil to feed its ever-thirsty military. Conquering Western Europe, occupying North Africa and controlling a vast swath of the Soviet Union had done little to offset the increasing burden of oil necessities.
Hitler tried what could be considered an all or nothing gamble to eliminate the problem, by launching the offensive named “Case Blue” in southern Russia during the summer of 1942. Here, 1.25 million troops fought their way through the Caucasus region, intending to capture the grand prize of the seemingly endless oil fields around the city of Baku. Instead, as history shows, they were stopped, and Hitler’s attention soon diverted further north to capture a city named for his arch rival. Stalingrad. The once mighty offensive petered out as the Ratten Krieg (Rat War) raged in the streets and buildings of a place once considered an afterthought, and when the Germans were encircled and destroyed there, the units fighting in the Caucuses were forced to retreat to avoid a similar fate.
The great gamble had failed, and ultimately, less than 30,000 of those involved in Case Blue made it back to their homeland. From this point on, endless supplies of oil remained out of reach, and Germany would have to depend on its ally, Romania, with its Ploesti oilfields, to continue supplying some 60% of the military’s needs. Because of this, conversations at the Casablanca conference in January, 1943 began about what the results might be if these fields could be heavily damaged, if not outright destroyed. A decision soon emerged to bomb Ploesti’s refineries as quickly as possible.
Assigned to oversee the operation was General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold, who turned over planning to Colonel Jacob Smart of his advisory council. In the weeks that followed, the idea he came up could have been considered downright blasphemous, as it defied the longstanding Army Air Corps policy of strategic bombing at high altitude with massive formations. It still fell into the categories of strategic and massive, but Smart intended to bring the four engine beasts involved in the doctrine, specifically the Consolidated B-24 Liberator, 178 in all, down to tree-top height and roar in from two different directions at once. Doing this would keep the force below radar and allow them to surprise the Germans, who he surmised, would never expect such an attack in such strength so far from an Allied base. Ambitious to be sure, but looking at alternatives, it was really the only one that had a reasonable chance of working.
“If we’re successful, we could shorten the war by up to six months,” were the words spoken by several prominent U.S. commanders.
They chose airfields around Benghazi, Libya as the staging bases. The route proposed would take them over the Mediterranean, where they would split into two groups and continue on across the Adriatic Sea, then cross over part of Albania and Yugoslavia. Entering southwest Romania, they would turn east and home-in on Ploesti before splitting up and attacking from the north. In total, the flight was a 2,400 mile roundtrip.
The Eighth Air Force provided three groups, the 44th, 93rd and 389th, while the Ninth Air Force added two, the 98th and 376th. Overall command was placed under Brigadier General Uzal Ent. In total, in the summer of 1943, some 1,751 airmen of these units began studying reconnaissance photographs and sand table models of targets, before heading out into the unforgiving desert heat to crank their Liberators to life.
Through thick and wavy heat mirages, these machines lifted off runways and set out to attack mockups far away from curious eyes. The units quickly developed a rapport and level of confidence that reassured their commanders that the mission, though unconventional and complicated, could be carried out. And so, on the evening of July 31st, with Libya asleep, the Liberator’s bellies opened up and scores of bombs began to lift upward into their cradles. Operation Tidal Wave, as the mission was coded, was launched on August 1.
Assigned to lead the two formations was Colonel Keith Compton (376th and 93rd groups), and Colonel John ‘Killer’ Kane (44th, 98th and 389th groups). Portioned out to these men’s units were nine refineries set in different but nearby oilfields surrounded by heavy defenses.
Just a few hours later, the sound of 178 heavy bombers sputtering to life in the predawn blackness created a dull rumble that raced across the desert. Nomadic families camping outside the bases awoke to a sound which seemed all around and growing. Slowly, the throb rose in intensity to a roar as plane after plane shoved throttles forward, speeding down runways and rotating tails to let their birds claw for altitude. Each group circled round their base until the last was airborne, then they set course for the Mediterranean, rendezvousing as a great wave of brown-colored war machines forming up into tight formations and pointing toward Europe.
What General Ent, on one of the Liberators, could not know due to radio silence, was that the mission would start to unravel. After the groups split in two and reached the Adriatic, an aircraft crashed into the sea for unknown reasons, and 10 others decided to turn back after the incident. Afterwards, as they prepared to cross fog-shrouded mountains on the continent, increasing power to climb caused the formations to string-out and become ragged. Then to top it off, Compton committed a navigational error once they entered Romania, which ensured a simultaneous attack was all but impossible. Taking his plane and others down to attack height he homed-in for Bucharest instead of Ploesti before being warned away by crews breaking silence.
It was too late. Flak bursts began to turn the air black as they entered Bucharest’s defensive ring. Now, as they banked their mounts, they struggled to regain their course and begin looking for the telltale shapes of their targets.
Approaching from the south, they saw the slender smoke stacks and large buildings rising before them. Compton’s group raced in at altitudes as low as 50 feet, splitting up even more to hit their assigned refinery. Gunners on the planes rattled off long burst of tracer at anything that moved, as the landscape sped so close it could almost be touched. Bomb bay doors swung open, and the planes appeared to rise as their cargo tumbled in long strings to the earth. Huge geysers of black smoke and fire erupted from some of the structures as the delayed fused bombs went off. Just then, the planes started to buffet and reel from flak bursts. Shouts on the radio added to the din as men reported planes, and sometimes themselves, being hit. Senses numbed and the world continued to shriek by.
German anti-aircraft guns were firing practically point-blank as each plane zoomed overhead. Men worked the traversing wheels trying to steady on these brazen attackers doing things with airplanes never thought capable by the Luftwaffe. They saw several begin spewing smoke and flame then careen into the earth, shattering into huge pieces as they dug long trails through tree lines, leaving giant plumes of churning fire to mark their ending. The ones that got away found themselves fighting against a new threat arriving minutes later… single- and twin-engine fighters. More Liberators fell or limped away from the area barely able to stay airborne. Guns blazed from every station trying to score hits against the nimble fighters as, a little further away, Kane’s formation began sweeping over their targets.
Colonel Kane suddenly realized another group had mistakenly hit his, so he decided to choose a different refinery. He took his formation in at 50 feet, watching withering fire exceeding what Compton’s groups experienced fill his windscreen. Hot shrapnel perforated the plane, sounding like rocks being thrown against a metal trash can. But he held on. Despite his plane being shot up he maintained a steady hand, allowing his bombardier a clear view of the target. His formation stayed glued to his wings and bombs tumbled to the earth, incinerating more buildings as the Liberators climbed and stormed through the waiting fighters.
It was clear to Kane that confusion reined in the air. Large formations were nonexistent and scores were missing. Machine guns rattled on and off for several more minutes, then hours, as the force fought its way back to the sea. Once the last fighter turned back and silence returned to each bomber, only then could the contemplation begin. They knew they had scored hits on the refineries. Giant plumes of smoke over the fields confirmed that. How much damage they had done remained to be determined in the days ahead.
All through the evening Liberators set down in Benghazi. 88 in all, 55 with damage. Sullen faces exited these aircraft and wondered about comrades whom they had seen in trouble. Never before had they experienced action this close, and this day would leave a memory few would shake for the rest of their lives. Each processed his own thoughts as they began forming for the debrief. After that, some hot food and a shower soothed them before they fell into bed for a well deserved sleep. Yet not before wondering if they had pulled it off.
In the coming days, several reconnaissance flights over Ploesti revealed varying amounts of damage, but from other sources, some wholly unexpected, there was some encouraging news.
“…one of the most reliable of these reports was that submitted by the Turkish minister in Bucharest to the Turkish Foreign Minister and transmitted to the United States Ambassador to Turkey in strictest confidence… According to the report, governmental and refinery officials were ‘stupefied’ by the precision of execution of the attack which was described as ‘superb,’ especially because of having scarcely touched the city of Ploesti. One high Rumanian official is quoted as remarking that ‘the Americans delivered their bombs on the refineries as precisely as a postman delivers his letters and the accuracy was beyond belief.'”
And for a few weeks, the German military saw its oil output drop by 30%.
Nonetheless, they got the refineries going again, and kept them operational until a year later, when, after flying 22 missions to do it and from high altitude, the USAAF put an end to Ploesti and its gift to Germany once and for all.
Though the Allies ultimately looked upon it as a strategic failure, Operation Tidal Wave’s temporary success did buy some time for the war effort. And even though it didn’t shorten the war, it did excel producing something else which must always be mentioned when studying it in detail.
Never before in a single air action had so many decorations been awarded. Colonel Kane and four other officers received the Medal of Honor (three posthumously) for gallantry and leadership.
Dozens more Distinguished Flying Crosses and Silver Stars were showered on the crews, as they continued their high altitude work until war’s end.
As time has passed and Tidal Wave continues to be written about, reverence and awe for the attackers has only increased. Truth be told, on August 1st, 1943, it was guts, not results, that has proven to be the real story of that day.
American Casualties During Operation Tidal Wave: 440 KIA, 220 POW
German and Romanian losses: Unknown