65 years ago this week, "Operation Tidal Wave" Pt 1

Discussion in 'Aviation' started by syscom3, Aug 6, 2008.

  1. syscom3

    syscom3 Pacific Historian

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    Operation Tidal Wave was a World War II aerial bombardment operation by a composite strike force of five bomb groups from the United States Eighth and Ninth Air Forces to destroy the oil refineries at Ploieşti, Romania, on 1 August 1943. The operation was devised by Colonel (later General) Jacob E. Smart based on the experiences derived from the June 1942 Halverson Project (HALPRO) raid. This attack, by 12 B-24Ds of the Halverson Project, which eventually provided the nucleus for the 376th Bomb Group "Liberandos," caused minimal damage, but demonstrated the feasibility of such a mission in the eyes of American planners. Operation Tidal Wave involved a total commitment of 178 B-24 Liberator heavy bombers on a 2,400-mile round trip flight to conduct low-level attack on the refineries. All aircraft were based near Benghazi, Libya. Brigadier General Uzal Girard Ent was in overall command of American forces during the mission. The operation was notable as one of the most costly in terms of aircraft and crew members lost by the United States Army Air Forces during the strategic bombing campaign over Europe and resulted in five Medal of Honor recipients.

    Preparations
    Unlike the HALPRO raid, Operation Tidal Wave involved extensive preparation and planning. The 9th Air Force was responsible for the overall conduct for the raid, providing the 98th and 376th Bomb Groups to this effect. The as yet partially formed 8th Air Force would provide three additional bomb groups, the 44th, 93rd, and 389th to round out the mission force. Relying on experiences gleaned from the Halpro raid, Col. Smart developed a plan relying on a day-light, low-level approach to the target area in order to counter German radar coverage. Minimal air defenses encountered during the Halpro raid also contributed to the decision to rely on a low-level approach, although this assessment would later prove to be in error. The arrival of the five groups would be synchronized to strike seven targets in the Ploesti oil fields simultaneously. 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 normally high-altitude B-24D Liberators to be used in the strike were re-equipped with bomb bay fuel tanks to increase capacity to 3,100 gallons in order to achieve the desired 2,000 mile range needed to execute the mission. The strike force was planned for 1 August 1943 and was to consist of 178 aircraft, a total of 1,764 personnel, being one of the largest commitments of American heavy bombers and crewmen up to that time. The mission route would take the mission force from their airfields around Benghazi, Libya across the Mediterranean and Adriatic, past the island of Corfu. Flying over the Pindus Mountains of Albania and across southern Yugoslavia. Following a series of pre-determined way points the formation would turn toward Ploieşti and simultaneously strike their multiple targets from the north.

    Unknown to Col. Smart and other American planners, German General Alfred Gerstenberg, in charge of overall air defenses for Axis forces in Romania had used the Halpro attack as justification to build one of the heaviest, and moreover, integrated air defense networks in Europe. Defending the Ploieşti area specifically, Gerstenberg employed several hundred air defense artillery pieces, ranging in size from 105 mm and 88 mm, to a myriad of smaller calibers camouflaged in hay stacks and false structures. A number of pieces were also ingeniously disguised on false sided rolling stock, in order to provide mobile air defenses along the surrounding railway. Gerstenberg tied these defenses into a responsive radar network that could vector 52 Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighters along with a number of other (obsolescent) Romanian and Bulgarian fighters against attackers. Gerstenberg also relied on signals intelligence based in Athens, Greece to achieve greater awareness of preparations being made by the 9th Air Force from as far away as North Africa.

    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 created visibility issues 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 and resulted in a total of 177 of the original 178 planned aircraft assembling to take part in the actual strike. The formation reached the Adriatic Sea without further incident, however aircraft #28 "Wingo Wango" belonging to the 376th 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 #36 piloted by Lt. John Palm. No apparent survivors were found and due to the additional weight of fuel, Iovine was unable to regain altitude to rejoin the formation and resume course to Ploieşti. The resulting confusion was compounded by the inability to regain cohesion due to strict radio silence maintained as per mission guidance. Ten other aircrews would opt return to friendly air fields following the incident and those aircraft which remained faced the 9,000 foot climb over the Pindus, which were shrouded in cloud cover. Although all five groups crossed made the climb around 11,000 feet, the 376th and 93rd utilizing high power settings began to lose the trailing formations, causing variations in speed and time disrupting the careful strike synchronization 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. American leaders however were unaware that while their intentions were not precisely known, their presence had been duly noted by the Germans. Although the need to reform was clear and well within 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 way point 65 miles from Ploesti. The 389th Bomb Group departed as planned for its separate, but synchronous leg on approach to the group target at Campina. Continuing from Piteşti, Col. Keith K. Compton and Gen. Ent would make a navigational judgment that would prove especially costly. At Târgovişte, halfway to the next way point at Floreşti, Compton confused a railway line for the correct turn toward Ploieşti, setting his group and Lt. Col. Addison Baker's 93rd Bomb Group on course for Bucharest. In the process Ent and Compton went against the guidance of their aircraft navigator and Halverson Project (HALPRO) veteran Cpt. Harold Wicklund. Now in the face of a pending 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, all without challenging those still awaiting them around Ploieşti.
     

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  2. syscom3

    syscom3 Pacific Historian

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    Black Sunday
    Despite Compton and Ent's lead, Baker in his aircraft "Hell's Wench" was cognizant of the navigational mistake and quickly made appropriate course adjustments, resuming a proper heading toward to Ploieşti. This decision would place Baker and the 93rd well off the original route now maintained by the three trail groups and now placed his group both on a different heading on approach and time into the target area. Compton would continue further toward Bucharest, before finally admitting his error and also resuming course for Ploesti. The 93rd would now lead the attack into Ploieşti, alone and with German and Romanian defenses well prepared for their arrival. Baker and his co-pilot Maj. John L. Jerstad, who had already flown a full tour while stationed in England would now bear full witness to the extensive air defense array prepared for them by Gen. Gerstenberg. Continuing through the withering maelstrom, the damage to "Hell's Wench" forced Baker and Jerstad to loose their bomb load 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 a loss, both men maintained the climb in order to permit the crew to abandon the ship. Although none survived, both Baker and Jerstad would be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for maintaining their successful approach to Columbia Aqiula 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, as well as the Columbia Aquila refineries. In all the 93rd lost 11 aircraft over their targets in Ploieşti.

    Once over Ploieşti, Gen. Ent continued to add to the already confused nature of the operation, effectively changing the intended target of the 376th based on his assessment that air defenses were too heavy over the 376th's intended target at the Romana Americana refinery. Compton was instructed to take his group and attack what Ent called "targets of opportunity." While the majority of the 376th would turn to attack the 389th's target from the east, at the Steaua Română refinery at Campina, five bombers pursued a heading taking them directly into the already smoldering conflagration over the Concordia Vega refinery. At Campina, air defenses located on overlooking hills were able to fire down into the formation. American losses were compounded by obsolete Romanian IAR 80s vectored into attack the formation.

    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 proscribed 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-Ploesti railway had the unfortunate distinction of encountering Gerstenberg’s disguised flak train. At tree-top level, around 50 feet 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, 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 Ploieşti. 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 damages were caused due to low-level obstructions. Posey and his aircraft, equipped with heavier 1,000-pound bombs, managed to successfully find their marks at Creditul Minier, without loss to the formation.

    Despite the earlier run by aircraft from the 376th, the run made by the 389th would prove largely successful against the Steaua Romana refinery at Campina. The attack led by Col. Jack Wood was as rehearsed at Benghazi. The damage caused by the first run in conjunction with the massed precision of that made by the 389th ensured that the refinery was so heavily damaged that it would not resume production for the duration of the war. The 389th lost four aircraft over the target area. Four aircraft were lost over the target, as was "Ole Kickapoo" the aircraft flown by 22-year old Second Lieutenant Lloyd Herbert Hughes. Hughes' aircraft was trailing fuel from hits only 30 feet over the target area, when the detonation of previously dropped bombs ignited the spray. Maintaining course long enough for his bombardier 2nd Lt. John A. McLoughlin to drop their payload, Hughes attempted an emergency landing in a river bed. Hughes and five of his crew members died that day. Incredibly, four crew members survived the crash: Navigator 2nd Lt. Sidney A. Pear and Bombardier 2nd Lt. John A. McLoughlin, both of whom soon died of their injuries, and two gunners, Staff Sergeant Thomas Albert Hoff and Staff Sergeant Edmund H. Smith, both of whom survived only to become prisoners of war. Hughes posthumously received the fifth Medal of Honor awarded for the mission.

    Although aircraft departing the target area would face the additional risk of fighter attack, the attack by the 389th brought the strike to a close. Of the 177 aircraft originally listed for Operation TIDAL WAVE only some 88 managed to make the full return to Libya and only 33 of these were fit for service the following day. Losses included 53 aircraft, 44 of which were to German and Romanian air defenses. Additional aircraft would be forced ditch in the Mediterranean or divert to other bases such as the RAF airfield at Corfu. A few would land and be interned in neutral Turkey. Of the aircrews, 440 men were killed, and a further 220 were taken prisoner. Five airmen were awarded the Medal of Honor, three posthumously, the most ever awarded for a single mission by the USAAF.

    "...A panacea target..."
    Allied assessment of the attack estimated an immediate loss of 66% of cracking abilities at the Ploesti refineries. Although damage at a number of the primary targets was severe, others escaped largely untouched. Gerstenberg, whose defenses had proved so costly, had also planned with adequate foresight for damage to the refineries, many of which had to date been operating at well below maximum capacity. Within weeks, most of the damage was repaired, and with the exception of the Steaua Romana refinery at Campina, so severely damaged by the combined effects of the 376th and 389th, all others quickly resumed pre-raid production levels. Production would again be severely disrupted, but not entirely eliminated, in 1944 following raids by the 15th Air Force. In multiple raids, the 15th dropped an additional 10,000-pounds of bombs on the refineries, utilizing traditional high-altitude techniques. Soviet forces and the King Michael Coup in Romania ended support to German forces from the oil fields in August 1944.

    Ninth Air Force order of battle
    * Ninth Air Force groups
    o 98th Bombardment Group (Heavy), Col. John R. Kane°
    o 376th Bombardment Group (Heavy), Col. Keith K. Compton°°
    * Eighth Air Force groups
    o 44th Bombardment Group (Heavy), Col. Leon W. Johnson°
    o 93rd Bombardment Group (Heavy), Lt.Col. Addison E. Baker°
    o 389th Bombardment Group (Heavy), Col. Jack W. Wood°°, 2nd Lt. Lloyd Herbert Hughes°

    °Awarded Medal of Honor
    °°Awarded Distinguished Service Cross
     
  3. FLYBOYJ

    FLYBOYJ "THE GREAT GAZOO"
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    Great post Sys - I have 2 very small connections to this mission.

    My Uncle Joe's CO when he was in the AAF - John Kane.

    In 1982 I was introduced to a Lockheed Georgia VP - Norman Appold!

    Wings of Valor II- The Ploesti Raid
     
  4. Njaco

    Njaco The Pop-Tart Whisperer
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    Great post!! My post in the "This Day in..." thread wasn't enough.
     
  5. syscom3

    syscom3 Pacific Historian

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    Heres some more pics.
     

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  6. Gnomey

    Gnomey World Travelling Doctor
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    Great posts sys.

    :salute:
     
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