This week marks the 70th anniversary of the U.S. Army Air Corps raid on Ploesti, Romania, one of the most heroic episodes in the history of military aviation.
As a result of the twin victories of the Soviets at Stalingrad and of the British at El Alamein in November 1942, the Germans lost their bids to seize either the oil fields of the Caucasus or those of the Middle East. The fuel resources of the Third Reich were thus drastically limited, with the principal supports being the synthetic-oil facilities at Leuna in central Germany and the Romanian oil fields at Ploesti. If these were knocked out, the Nazis would lose their ability to wage mechanized warfare, and their empire would be doomed to rapid collapse.
General Carl Spaatz, of the U.S. Army Air Corps, was the first high-ranking Allied officer to perceive this German weakness, and he started to push for what became known as “the Oil Plan.” But Spaatz was up against the British — who believed that air power could be used to greatest effect in breaking enemy morale through assaults on cities — as well as other American officers who saw greater merit in hitting targets such as aircraft factories, ball-bearing plants, hydroelectric dams, and transport centers. Going around the normal channels, however, Spaatz managed to gain the direct support of President Roosevelt, who approved his plan to launch one very daring raid on Ploesti.
So, on August 1, 1943, the U.S. Army Air Corps launched 177 B-24 Liberator bombers from airfields in Benghazi to hit the Romanian oil refineries. Because the round-trip distance to the target and back was over 2,000 miles, no fighter escort was possible, and the bombers came in alone, at treetop level. Waiting for them were over 200 scrambled German fighters and a network of hundreds of defensive positions equipped with 88-millimeter anti-aircraft guns, all manned and ready.
Seeing this reception committee, the raid’s commander, Brigadier General Uzal Ent, is reported to have said, “If nobody comes back, the results will be worth the cost.”
Assailed by the swarming fighters, the Liberators, flying at altitudes as low as 30 feet, dodged among the refinery smokestacks to deliver their loads while taking fire from flak guns firing down on them from the surrounding hillsides. As the oil tanks exploded, more planes were lost flying through the flames. The havoc on the ground was incredible. In less than half an hour, 40 percent of Ploesti’s capacity was destroyed. But only 89 of the Liberators made it home.
The heavy losses experienced at Ploesti deterred the Americans from trying again — for a while. But by the spring of 1944, the Army Air Corps had the P-51 Mustang, a fighter equipped with drop tanks that gave it the range needed to protect Allied bombers striking targets deep within Germany. With this capability in hand, Spaatz set his sights on Leuna.
At last, the general got his wish. On May 12, 1944, the Army Air Corps struck the Farben synthetic-fuel plants with a devastating 935-bomber attack. With that one raid, the German fuel position collapsed. It was a deathblow to the Reich.