In addition to the 10 refineries at Ploesti, which produced perhaps one-third of Germany’s oil, there was a wide network of targets like Giurgiu: storage facilities, transportation routes and shipment points.
The navigators of the 97th Bomb Group B-17s checked their maps as they approached the Danube River from the north on the morning of June 23, 1944. So far they were on course and on time for their assigned target, the Romanian city of Giurgiu on the border with Bulgaria. The Italy-based Fifteenth Air Force had that day launched hundreds of bombers against targets affiliated with Ploesti and other Axis petroleum production and shipping points.
Nearly 70 miles south of Ploesti, the Flying Fortresses pressed through a thick anti-aircraft barrage. During the bombing run on Giurgiu, the B-17F Opissonya was struck by flak and began losing altitude, but pilot Lieutenant Edwin Anderson was determined to put his bombardier over the target.
Lieutenant David R. Kingsley crouched over the Norden bombsight in Opissonya’s nose, seeking the aim point. He ignored attacking Messerschmitt Me-109s and dropped his bombs through thickening flak. By then the B-17 had taken a beating: Anderson pulled off target with one engine out and serious airframe damage.
More 109s pressed in, eager to finish off the straggler. One of them put a 20mm round into the tail gunner’s compartment, wounding Sergeant Michael Sullivan. Unable to call for help on the intercom, Sullivan crawled forward to the waist position. The gunners carried him to the radio compartment and summoned assistance. Now that they had dropped their bombload, Kingsley was the obvious choice to provide first aid.
A veteran airman on his 20th mission, Kingsley was not quite 26 years old. Although the lieutenant had washed out of pilot training, he excelled as a dual-rated bombardier-navigator. He was a long way from his home in Portland, Ore.
After removing Sullivan’s damaged parachute harness and jacket to expose his mangled shoulder, Kingsley managed to slow the bleeding. But the gunner had already lost too much blood; 500 miles from base, Sullivan was going into shock.
Then even more 109s arrived. During the course of a prolonged gunfight they shot the Fortress to tatters, forcing Anderson to ring the bailout bell. In the resulting confusion, Sullivan’s chute harness could not be found. Kingsley didn’t hesitate: He removed his own harness and fitted it on the gunner. Sullivan later related: “Lieutenant Kingsley took me in his arms and struggled to the bomb bay, where he told me to keep my hand on the ripcord and said to pull it when I was clear of the ship. Before I jumped, I looked up at him and the look on his face was firm and solemn. He must have known what was coming because there was no fear in his eyes at all.”
Dangling in their chutes, the crewmen watched their bomber fall to earth and burn in Bulgaria. The fliers were soon taken prisoner, and their captors later said they had found a dead airman on the crushed flight deck, perhaps having attempted a crash landing. Ten months later the Kingsley family received David’s Medal of Honor.
The 97th Group lost three more aircraft that day, while the Fifteenth wrote off five other bombers and four fighters. It was one more tragic entry in the prolonged campaign to turn off the spigot of Adolf Hitler’s Balkan oil.
Post Tidal Wave
In April 1944, the Fifteenth Air Force had begun a four-month campaign to destroy the petroleum refineries around Ploesti. In fact, the Fifteenth was all about oil at that point: Since Romania lay 1,300 miles from the English bases of the Eighth Air Force, Lt. Gen. Nathan Twining’s command had been established on fields surrounding Foggia, on Italy’s east coast—well within reach of the refineries.
On August 1, 1943, three months before the Fifteenth was organized, Eighth and Ninth air force
B-24Ds had flown a historic low-level mission against Ploesti, suffering spectacular losses. Operation Tidal Wave cost 54 of the 178 Liberators destroyed or interned in Turkey—proof that Ploesti would not be eliminated in a single stroke (see “The Truth About Tidal Wave,” March 2012).
Ironically, Ploesti’s first refineries had been built with American backing, but nine decades later Bucharest was allied with Berlin. In addition to the 10 refineries at Ploesti, which produced perhaps one-third of Germany’s oil, there was a wide network of targets like Giurgiu: storage facilities, transportation routes and shipment points. All were interrelated, and all were distant from Italy. From Foggia, Ploesti lay 580 miles to the northeast across the Adriatic.
By the spring of 1944, the U.S. Army Air Forces realized that there was no such thing as a knockout blow when it came to these industrial sites. A “restrike” policy was clearly needed to keep them operating below peak capacity. General Twining launched his first effort against Ploesti on April 5. Three bomb wings set out to attack the railroad marshaling yards, though only two got through the weather.
Marshaling-yard missions reduced Ploesti’s output substantially in April. The Royal Air Force’s No. 205 Group joined the effort, with eight squadrons flying Vickers Wellingtons, Handley-Page Halifaxes and Consolidated Liberators. They contributed about 4 percent of the campaign’s sorties, usually at night, and also mined the Danube, severely limiting oil exports via barge.
The first six missions, through May 6, targeted Ploesti’s rail yards as part of the Allies’ overall “transport plan.” But as the Eighth Air Force was learning, railroads were extremely difficult to destroy; they could be repaired in surprisingly short order. The largest Ploesti mission of that first phase involved all five of Twining’s bomb wings, with 485 aircraft dropping some 1,200 tons of ordnance on May 5. It was questionable, however, whether the damage done was worth the 18 bombers and crews lost. Even with upwards of 200 escorting fighters, the Axis defenses took a toll.
After 1,320 sorties and nearly 50 airplanes lost, the Fifteenth’s priorities changed. Seven of the 10 refineries circling the city stood within a mile of the rail yards, so it was easy for the Mediterranean air commander, Lt. Gen. Ira C. Eaker, to order a shift of bombing aim points. Nearly two weeks passed before the Fifteenth launched another raid on Ploesti, this time attacking the refineries themselves. The new approach produced results: Persistent restrikes brought production at Ploesti to a near halt just before Bucharest capitulated in late August.
The 2nd Bomb Group mission summary for April 24 illustrates the variety of opposition the raiders encountered over Ploesti: “A 40-minute fighter attack started at the initial point. Approximately 20 to 30 e/a [enemy aircraft], consisting of Me 109s, FW 190s, and DW 520s attacked aggressively and caused damage to five B-17s. Flak at the target was both tracking and barrage, which resulted in damage to 28 B-17s [of 36] and injury to one man. Flak was described as intense and accurate.” The Allied gunners were credited with downing two 109s and a Dewoitine D.520.
By mid-May, the Fifteenth Air Force had achieved maturity. Twining deployed 21 bomb groups, seven fighter groups and a reconnaissance group. Although his command was half the size of the “Mighty Eighth,” it was still a potent, effective force.
The two-week respite in Allied bombing also gave the defenders time to adjust. The air defense commander was Luftwaffe Lt. Gen. Alfred Gerstenberg, who had flown in Manfred von Richthofen’s Jasta 11 in 1917. Ploesti already boasted 140 heavy and medium anti-aircraft guns, plus hundreds of smaller-caliber weapons in case of another Tidal Wave. The heavy and medium guns (mainly 88 to 128mm) doubled in number before the campaign ended, and some 40 barrage balloons were added to counter the low-level threat. Heavy flak could be extremely efficient if not always lethal: On one May mission a group reported damage to 33 of its 36 Fortresses, but all returned.
Approximately 200 German and Romanian fighters were based around Ploesti, mainly Me-109s and -110s along with locally produced, radial-engine IAR 80s and 81s. The Royal Bulgarian Air Force also contributed 109s and D.520s. Equipped with radar warning and control, the Axis was well prepared to engage approaching Allied bombers.
Yet the most effective defensive weapon was the simplest. The Romanians quickly became expert at deploying smoke generators to obscure targets. The Americans rated the smoke screens ineffective on four of the first five missions, but thereafter the smoke proved to be increasingly successful in masking specific areas. Smoke was created by chlorosulfonic acid fed into generators by compressed air. When there were bombers reported inbound, the Romanians cranked up their generators about 40 minutes before the expected strike time. There was ample supply: 1,900 generators, each of which produced smoke for more than three hours, though surface winds could reduce the time during which the screen was effective. Consequently, recon P-38 Lightnings and F-5 “Photo Joes” often preceded the bomber stream, reporting the extent of smoke coverage in a given area.
U.S. bombardiers adopted two new methods to cope with the smoke. Blind bombing employed H2X radar in pathfinder aircraft, coordinating the radar image with the bombsight. Offset bombing used an aim point’s known bearing and distance from the target, outside the smoke screen. Both could be effective, but neither was a substitute for direct visual bombing using the Norden. The Fifteenth Air Force concluded that smoke rendered “normal visual bombing virtually impossible.”
Among the Royal Romanian Air Force defenders, certainly the outstanding personality was Captain Constantin Cantacuzino, a charismatic nobleman and sportsman. The national aerobatic champion, he easily took to 109s and regarded aerial combat as the ultimate sport. At war’s end he was credited with 47 victories, flying against the Soviets and Americans—and later his erstwhile German allies.
Then there was Lieutenant Ion Dobran, who claimed 10 Allied aircraft and was himself shot down three times. Looking back in 2002, he reflected: “We could not wait to meet the Americans [but] the numerical difference was huge. For example, we engaged 15 against 100 and something. The immediate [bomber] protection was secured by the Lightnings, and the Mustangs flew higher, as a strategic reserve, which could intervene where it was necessary. They also strafed roads and railways to attract enemy fighters.”
To counter increasing pressure from the growing Eighth Air Force, more Luftwaffe fighters were soon shifted north. By early summer, only two Gruppen of Jagdgeschwader 77 provided the bulk of Luftwaffe fighters in Italy and the Balkans, and attrition took a toll on those as the Fifteenth received P-51s. On April 24, III Gruppe had lost its commander, 70-victory Knight’s Cross recipient Captain Emil Omert, who was shot down by Mustangs.
Lightnings Over Ploesti
Frustrated with the results of conventional bombing, Fifteenth Air Force commanders decided to send P-38s to dive-bomb the Romana Americana refinery. On June 10, the 1st Fighter Group escorted bomb-armed 82nd Group Lightnings on one of the longest fighter missions yet, a 1,300-mile round trip. The ingress this time would be at low level, in an attempt to surprise the refinery’s defenders before they could crank up their smoke generators.
Nothing went according to plan.
Amid the 48 escorts that day was Minnesotan 2nd Lt. Herbert Hatch. Distracted by Dornier Do-217s, Hatch’s flight leader had turned toward the “easy meat” when the roof fell in. The Romanian 6th Fighter Group had scrambled 23 IAR 81Cs, which the Americans mistook for Focke-Wulf Fw-190s.
“I looked up to my left and there was a whole flock of Fw-190s headed in from 10 o’clock,” Hatch said. “We all broke hard to our left to meet them head on and, as I turned, a lone 190 came across in front of me. He was so close all I could see in my sight was the belly of his fuselage and the wingroots. He wasn’t more than 75 yards away. I opened fire with my four .50-caliber and the 20mm cannon and damned near blew him in half….Shooting at him pulled me further around to my right and I looked up at 2 o’clock and there were another four 190s.”
At that point the fight turned to hash. The Minnesotan and his wingman took the offensive, firing whenever an enemy fighter crossed their noses. Hatch saw three P-38s shot down but, turning and climbing, he gunned down four more enemies. He came so close to one of his victims that he lost 3 inches off his left rudder.
“I looked up at 2 o’clock and saw another one coming right at me,” recalled Hatch. “It was too late for me to turn. I just shut my eyes and hunched down in my cockpit. I thought I’d bought the farm, but he missed me without even putting a hole in my ship.” Hatch then dived on another bandit and got off a few rounds before running dry.
Of the 16 Lightnings of Hatch’s 71st Fighter Squadron that participated in the mission, only eight returned. In all, out of the two groups’ 96 aircraft, they lost 24 to interceptors and AA guns. The Romanian 6th Fighter Group chalked up 23 Lightnings in the confused dogfight, two of which were credited to its commander, Captain Dan Vizanty, for the loss of four IARs. It would be the last major success for the nimble but aging Romanian fighter.
With enough warning, the Romanians produced smoke over two of the 82nd Group’s three targets. Post-strike recon photos showed visible damage to the refinery, though it continued to produce oil.
Another Medal of Honor
On July 9, some 220 bombing sorties targeted two refineries, including the Xenia complex assigned to the 98th Bomb Group. Lieutenant Donald D. Pucket’s B-24G was hammered by flak immediately after bombs away, with one crewman killed and six others wounded. Two of the Liberator’s engines were knocked out and the control cables were severed. Pucket ordered the able-bodied crewmen to lighten the ship, tossing any loose items overboard as he descended westward.
When Pucket subsequently ordered a bailout, five men prepared to jump and headed for the bomb bay. But three others were unable or unwilling to leave the aircraft. Ignoring the urging of the ambulatory fliers, Pucket calculated he had insufficient time to drag the three others to the bay and shove them out. As the uninjured five leapt into space, he returned to the cockpit, trying to control the descending, burning bomber.
The Liberator smashed into a mountainside, exploding on impact. Pucket’s widow, who received his Medal of Honor nearly a year later, remarked, “Don’s action in staying with his wounded crewmembers and crippled B-24 was what was traditional and expected of the captain of the ship.”
As summer peaked, so did the results of the persistent bombing, but the Axis defenses remained formidable. B-24 bombardier Quentin Petersen, of the 454th Bomb Group, remembered that at the August 17 briefing, “The curtain was pulled from the map to groans when it was seen that we were going to Ploesti again! [Lieutenant] Colonel [James] Gunn discussed this long mission to attack the Astra oil refinery….” Approaching the target that day, Petersen’s Lib fell victim to AA: “The next thing I knew we were hit by the first flak we saw that day. Two of our engines were destroyed. Pieces and crew of the five leading planes passed by our craft. Recognizing that some bombs had been hit, I let ours go in salvo. With our oxygen and hydraulic systems shot out, we descended to a breathable altitude, assessed the damage, and started for home alone, having fallen far behind and been left by all the other planes remaining from the original formation.”
Unable to make it back to Italy on two engines, Lieutenant John McAullife turned southwest, hoping to reach friendly partisans in Yugoslavia. The doomed Liberator got as far as Greece, where the crew abandoned ship. Petersen recalled:
Combat crews were not given parachute training. None of us had ever jumped! Everyone had heard stories of crews that had been ordered to bail out but, because of a “frozen” crewmember, no one jumped and all stayed in the aircraft and were killed when it crashed. John McAullife, aircraft commander, and I had discussed this issue in many a bar and agreed that, inasmuch as the bombardier had little to do for most of the mission, under these circumstances my job would be to get everyone’s attention, and jump so that there would be no “balking” at his order. I hand-cranked the bomb bay doors open (remember, no hydraulic power left), placed my shoes in my A-2 jacket and zipped it closed to prevent them from being jerked off when the chute opened. I got everyone’s attention and stepped off the bomb-bay catwalk into space.
Petersen dislocated a hip in the jump. After Germans scooped up the airmen, a Luftwaffe interrogator lent the injured airman his own cot for the Yank’s first night in captivity.
Two days later, the Ploesti campaign came to an end. On August 23, Bucharest bowed to the inevitable, breaking its alliance with Germany and siding with the Allies. The four-month-long campaign had seen the launch of 5,675 bombing sorties, including the P-38 attack, with nearly 14,000 tons of ordnance dropped. The sustained effort cost 282 U.S. and 38 British aircraft, but proved that persistent strikes could ruin a major industrial complex. In the end, Ploesti’s burned and battered refineries were producing just a dribble: a 90 percent reduction in petroleum intended for the Wehrmacht. Reich armaments head Albert Speer and Luftwaffe Field Marshal Erhard Milch later told Allied interrogators that the bombing campaign would have been more effective if the oil plan had been pursued earlier.
Meanwhile, a final drama played out in that contested region. In late August Captain Cantacuzino, the leading Romanian ace, cooperated with the senior American POW in an effort to prevent Allied airmen from being moved by the Germans or “rescued” by the Soviets. Lieutenant Colonel Gunn, who had been shot down during the August 17 mission and was being held in Bucharest, wedged himself into an Me-109 and the mismatched twosome flew to Italy. Cantacuzino then offered to lead rescue aircraft to a field near Bucharest, beginning a POW airlift to Foggia. After an American “borrowed” his 109 and ground looped it, Cantacuzino got a quick checkout in a P-51B, in which he performed an eye-watering aerobatic demonstration. He then guided 38 B-17s to the field, enabling 1,161 fliers to be returned to safety—a fitting end to the drawn-out saga that was Ploesti.
Arizona-based aviation writer Barrett Tillman is the author of more than 45 books and 500 magazine articles. His latest book, due in May 2014, is tentatively titled The Forgotten Fifteenth: The Daring Airmen Who Crippled Hitler’s Oil Supply. For further reading, he recommends Fortress Ploesti: The Campaign to Destroy Hitler’s Oil, by Jay Stout.