June 9, 2005
Lessons old and newBy Steve Feinstein
Winston Churchill once remarked,
One of history's best examples of this is the near—disastrous USAAF air raid against the German—run oil refineries in Ploesti, Romania on August 1, 1943. The lessons of this event resonate with relevance and verity to this day.
The Ploesti refinery complex was responsible for producing almost 35% of the oil used by the German military—industrial complex and a similar percentage of their aviation fuel. Allied war planners considered this target to be of the utmost strategic importance, and felt, with some justification, that the complete destruction of Ploesti's refineries would have an extremely significant impact on Germany's ability to wage war.
The U.S. high command conceived a plan to attack the refineries using two groups of B—24 Liberator bombers, the 367th and the 98th, of the US 9th Air Force based in Libya, and three groups from the 8th Air Force, the 93rd, 44th, and 389th which flew down from England to Africa to join the other two. In 1943, there were no long—range fighter aircraft capable of escorting the bombers on the entirety of the trip—2700 miles round—trip from Libya to Romania and back—so mission planners made the decision that the bombers would fly at extremely low level to avoid enemy radar detection and mitigate their lack of fighter protection. The rationale was that a large strike force coming in essentially by surprise at treetop level would overwhelm the German defenses by catching them off guard and assure a precision strike from point—blank range.
The five groups practiced for weeks in the African desert, making full—distance flights against dummy targets set up to resemble the actual refineries as closely as possible. The B—24 was designed as a high— altitude bomber (18,000—25,000 feet), and the aircraft was very difficult to handle in the heavy atmosphere only a few hundred feet above the ground. Nonetheless, by the end of July, the groups were ready to go.
The mission was set for August 1st, 1943. This was certainly the most ambitious long—range strategic bombing attack ever attempted in history. The American command was well aware of the incredible risks, but such was the perceived importance of the mission that Brigadier General Uzal Ent was moved to say, 'If nobody comes back, the results will have been worth the cost.' In all, 178 Liberators, loaded well past the normal safety margin with bombs and fuel, left Benghazi Libya that day and headed out on their 10—hour flight towards Ploesti.
Almost immediately, things began to go wrong. One of the lead planes suffered multiple engine failure and plummeted to earth shortly after takeoff, killing 8 of 10 crewmen. Planes had difficulty maintaining proper formation because of the low altitude and their over—loaded condition. The original flight plan had called for the groups to follow slightly different courses, so in the event of enemy detection, their final destination would not be immediately apparent. About three—quarters through the flight, each group was to pivot towards Ploesti after reaching a pre—determined landmark and attack en masse, saturating the defenses and rendering them ineffective.
This proved to be far more difficult to execute in reality than in the pre—mission practice runs. The 376th Group mistook the town of Targoviste for their pivot point of Floresti and made the wrong turn. Disastrously off course and headed to nowhere, Major Ramsey Potts broke the heretofore strictly—held radio silence to warn the 93rd group and attempt to re—assemble some semblance of mission coherence. By now, the German defenses were fully alerted and as the disjointed, confused Americans headed into the target area, they were met with an incomprehensibly hellish combination of anti—aircraft fire and German fighter plane attacks. Dozens upon dozens of American bombers were shot down, and virtually the entire attacking fleet was eliminated as a meaningful offensive force. Of the approximately 120 aircraft that somehow survived the attack itself, only 31 would ever fly again.
Incredible instances of superhuman bravery were the order of the day. Group leader Lt. Col. Addison E. Baker and his pilot Major John Jerstad (who had previously completed his combat tour but had volunteered for this mission), their Liberator shot to ribbons and ablaze, led their group directly into the target area rather than safely setting their plane down in an open field short of the target. They willingly sacrificed their own lives in order to assure a productive bombing run, such was their dedication to what they believed was a mission on which the war's outcome would turn. Twenty—one—year—old Second Lieutenant Lloyd Hughes of the 389th Group, on only his fifth combat mission, flew through intense anti—aircraft fire to successfully strike the target. He emerged with his B—24 streaming fire and gasoline from its belly and wings. He made a desperate attempt to save his crew by crash—landing his crippled plane on a lakebed but one wing of the blazing B—24 hit a riverbank and the plane exploded. In all, the Army Air Force awarded five Medals of Honor—three posthumously—for acts of heroism and bravery, a record for a single air action.
Despite the apparent 'failure' of the mission, the raid inflicted considerable damage on Ploesti's refineries. Some areas were barely touched, but others were almost completely destroyed. Net oil production was considerably reduced for months. Germany was forced to expend considerable time and effort re—building its capacity and, additionally, was forced to strengthen its defenses around the area, thus denying other vital fronts of those resources.
The lessons learned from the Ploesti mission are clear and well worth remembering: In spite of the best intentions and the most arduous training, it is never possible to foresee or allow for every imaginable contingency in any given situation or endeavor. Hindsight is always 20—20. But undertakings like Ploesti that have a huge potential upside payoff for the good of mankind (as its goal of mortally crippling the Nazi war effort surely did) are always worth the cost. There is a momentum to such efforts—efforts borne of unambiguous, unquestioned moral correctness—that accrues to the initiator and makes the eventual achievement of the goal more certain. That's as true today as it was in 1943.
For more information
Air Force Magazine Online, September 1988
Steve Feinstein is a frequent contributor.