Operation Tidal Wave: heroic but ineffective

  • Published
  • By Dr. Silvano Wueschner
  • Air University Historian

One of the most heroic air raids occurred 75 years ago during World War II on Aug. 1, 1943.


On that date, 178 B-24 Liberators from five Army Air Forces bomber groups near Benghazi, Libya, conducted a heroic but relatively ineffective low-level raid against the oil refineries around Ploesti, Romania. The second most heavily defended target area in Occupied Europe, these nine refineries produced about 90 percent of Romania’s oil, which was about 60 percent of Germany’s wartime needs.


The raid cost the attack force 54 planes and 432 Airmen (310 killed, 108 captured by the Axis, 78 interned in Turkey and four rescued by Tito’s Partisans in Yugoslavia). Five Airmen each received a Medal of Honor, the most for any single air action in history. Three of the five medals were given posthumously, and all five bomber groups received Presidential Unit Citations.


The attack temporarily eliminated about 46 percent of Ploesti’s annual production, but all the damaged refineries were back in full production within three months, making the attack fairly ineffective.


During the 1930s, the faculty and students of Air Corps Tactical School, Maxwell Field, Alabama, had developed the Industrial Web Theory. According to this theory, a modern industrialized society consisted of a series of interlocking sectors. Systematic aerial bombing of the individual nodes that made up these sectors would eventually bring about the collapse of this society.


From these ideas, ACTS went on to develop the doctrine of high-altitude precision, daylight, massed bombing of selected enemy military and industrial targets. These ideas subsequently became embodied in Air War Plans Division Plan 1, developed in August 1941 for President Franklin Roosevelt in case the United States entered the war in Europe.


Since modern military forces literally move on petroleum products, Germany’s oil production facilities were high on the list for aerial attack by long-range bombers. The Royal Air Force had been working on a plan to bomb the Romanian oil refineries for over two years. Its plan called for a strike force to depart from Egypt, fly over the Aegean Sea at night, rendezvous near the targets at daybreak, attack the oil refineries and return to Egypt. However, the RAF plan did not consider the defenses, if any, around the refineries.

In 1942, the RAF gave its plan to Col. Harry A. Halverson, recently arrived in Egypt with a group of B-24 Liberators. On June 11, 1942, 13 of Halverson’s B-24s dropped 24 tons of bombs on the Ploesti oil refineries, encountering some anti-aircraft fire and a small number of enemy fighters. However, bad weather adversely affected bombing accuracy, and there were too few aircraft in the attack force. The major result of the attack was a significant increase in the number of fighters and anti-aircraft guns around the refineries and the organization of teams to fight fires and deactivate unexploded ordnance.


At the January 1943 Casablanca Conference, Allied leaders once again decided to deliver a “knock out” attack against Ploesti. Lieutenant Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, chief of the AAF, selected Col. Jacob Smart to plan Operation Tidal Wave. Smart’s team proposed a low-level raid on the refineries by five B-24 bomb groups, two already in North Africa and three borrowed from Eighth Air Force in England, for a total of 178 bombers. In July, they made final preparations for the raid, including additional low-level training at Benghazi, Libya.

Early morning, August 1, the task force, commanded by Brig. Gen. Uzal G. Ent, left Benghazi for the thousand-mile flight across the Mediterranean and then over Albania and Yugoslavia to the Ploesti oilfields. The Germans, however, detected the formation as soon as it took off from North Africa and monitored it all the way to the target area. As a result, as soon as the Tidal Wave attack began, the bombers encountered a well-prepared and organized defense.

The American formation experienced additional problems. As the bombers approached Yugoslavia and Albania, thick clouds prevented them from taking their preferred low-level route through the mountains, and navigation errors produced a 60-mile gap between the two approaching groups of B-24s. The American aircraft began their attack and encountered heavy anti-aircraft fire from defending fighters and ground-based artillery. The bombers coming in behind the first groups also encountered dense smoke rising from the targets bombed by the first groups, making target identification difficult.

After flying a thousand miles on the return trip, the remnants of the battered American force arrived back at Benghazi. The attack temporarily eliminated about 46 percent of Ploesti’s annual production, but the Germans quickly repaired the damage to the refineries. The raid cost the Army Air Forces 30 percent of its attack force. Other bombing raids against the Ploesti oilfields followed this one and proved to be almost equally expensive in aircraft and crew members.

However, it did foretell the AAF’s Oil Plan, the systematic bombing of Germany’s oil production facilities from May through September 1944.

By June 1944, Fifteenth Air Force had flown more than 20 daytime high-altitude missions against Ploesti, while the RAF carried out nighttime missions from Italy. By August 1944, the refineries were rendered ineffective. By September 1944, the Oil Plan had reduced by 90 percent Germany’s production of petroleum products, with dire consequences for Germany’s war