Ploesti Had To Go

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Technically Speaking - —STEPHEN JOINER

KNOWN AS “HITLER’S GAS STA­TION,” an enor­mous com­plex of Ro­ma­nian oil re­finer­ies was by 1943 sup­ply­ing 30 to 50 per­cent of the Third Re­ich’s fuel. In­stead of drawn- out high-alti­tude strikes, Ninth Air Force strate­gists en­vi­sioned a de­ci­sive knock­out in­flicted by Con­sol­i­dated B-24s at­tack­ing from just 200 feet. Ad­van­tages of a ground-skim­ming raid in lum­ber­ing bombers with no fighter es­cort in­cluded evad­ing Ger­man radar and can’t-miss bomb de­liv­ery. The draw­backs: al­most ev­ery­thing else.

Se­lec­tion of the B-24 for the risky as­sign­ment was a no-brainer: De­ploy­ment of the new B-29 Su­per­fortress was con­fined to the Pa­cific, so the Lib­er­a­tor was the only U.S. bomber in the western hemi­sphere with the legs to com­plete the 2,400-mile round trip be­tween Ploesti and Beng­hazi, Libya. De­signed by Con­sol­i­dated to one-up Boe­ing’s B-17, Lib­er­a­tors, only marginally heav­ier, de­liv­ered more bombs over a longer range. Though com­plex and finicky to fly and main­tain, the B-24 was Amer­ica’s most pro­duced bomber—in 1944 the assem­bly lines of Con­sol­i­dated and Ford rolled out a new one ev­ery 100 min­utes.

Crew mem­bers of the five bomb groups as­signed to the Au­gust 1, 1943 low-level raid were ad­vised to leave be­hind let­ters to loved ones, to be mailed “in the event.” After a wrong turn up­set mis­sion chore­og­ra­phy, 176 B-24s were set upon by 200 Ger­man fight­ers, then ham­mered by one of the heav­i­est anti-air­craft em­place­ments in the world; 54 bombers were lost, 440 fliers killed, and 220 cap­tured or miss­ing. Though 40 per­cent of the re­fin­ery’s ca­pac­ity was de­stroyed, Ger­man and Ro­ma­nian en­gi­neers, us­ing thou­sands of slave la­bor­ers, re­paired the dam­age within weeks.

“Sus­tained ef­fort” now sounded bet­ter than “knock­out punch.” Strat­egy shifted to 23 ad­di­tional raids—most from above 20,000 feet— over 14 months, in­cre­men­tally shut­ting off the Nazi oil tap. Rod Braswell pi­loted a Lib­er­a­tor to Ploesti in raids 3, 4, and 5. Be­cause ex­act de­tails of the Au­gust calamity were kept vague, Braswell had lit­tle idea of the fury await­ing him. “After my first mis­sion, I did,” he says now.

Above the re­finer­ies, fir­ma­ment turned to flak, im­pen­e­tra­ble and in­dis­crim­i­nate. As 600 B-24s en­tered the chaotic tar­get zone to dis­pense bombs rang­ing from frag­men­ta­tion to in­cen­di­ary to TNT, even the rap­to­rial Messer­schmitts shrank away. “They could get knocked down by all that anti-air­craft fire just like we could,” Braswell says. Bat­tle or­ders is­sued to B-24 pi­lots en­forced tight for­ma­tions— wingtips fre­quently over­lapped, says Braswell—and pro­hib­ited stray­ing. Un­less you were on fire, that is: “You didn’t want to blow up and take out the plane next to you.”

From his po­si­tion “stuck ( in the mid­dle” of the for­ma­tion ap­proach­ing Ploesti at less than 200 mph, Braswell re­calls, “I could look out from my cock­pit and see all those flak shells ex­plod­ing over the tar­get and planes ahead get­ting hit. And all that time I’m think­ing, My turn is com­ing.”

As Ploesti raids con­tin­ued that D-day sum­mer, Amer­i­can forces pushed into France. Army Air Forces com­man­der Gen­eral Hap Arnold noted the in­creas­ing in­ci­dence of Ger­man ve­hi­cles be­ing aban­doned. It wasn’t from care­less­ness or cow­ardice, Arnold de­clared: “Those tanks and trucks are out of gaso­line.”

FAST FACT: The first U.S. fighter to shoot down a Ger­man air­craft was the Lock­heed P-38. On Au­gust 14, 1942, the Light­ning shot down a Focke-wulf Fw 200 Con­dor pa­trol bomber near Ice­land.

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