As part of the United States Army Air Force’s strategic bombing campaign, oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania, were designated to be priority targets. The USAAF wanted to deny access to oil to the German military and to war production. Nine refineries around Ploesti were targeted as a single raid conducted on August 1, 1943.
Called Operation Tidal Wave, the USAAF launched 177 B-24 Liberator heavy bombers at the oil refineries from their bases in the Libyan desert near Benghazi. The flight to the target area was executed at low altitudes and in strict radio silence. These factors contributed to the aircraft becoming strung out during the flight to the targets. Navigational errors by lead planes led to others breaking from the formation to follow the correct flight paths, further weakening the overall formation.
Heavy anti-aircraft fire over the targets and the approaches to them combined with strong fighter attacks on the unescorted bombers to inflict heavy damage to the mission. Many of the bombers failed to find their targets completely and resorted to striking targets of opportunity. Some of the bombers flew so low over their targets that the machine gunners in the B-24’s engaged anti-aircraft gunners on the ground.
Of the 177 bombers which took off on the mission (one was lost in an accident on take-off) 88 returned to their Libyan bases. Of those, more than fifty had extensive battle damage. Three hundred and ten aircrew were killed and another 108 were captured by Axis troops after bailing out or crashing in Romania. Several of the Liberators were forced to land in neutral Turkey; their aircrews were interned.
USAAF officials estimated that up to 40% of the refining capacity at Ploesti was destroyed. They were wrong. Most of the damage sustained was repaired within a few weeks and by September it was admitted that there had been “…no curtailment of overall product output…” at the refineries. By the end of September output of refined oil at Ploesti had actually increased above the rate before the raid.