The strategic bombing campaign aimed to throttle both German industry and her armed forces of their petroleum. Rumania supplied around one third of the oil used by Germany – so her oilfields were an obvious target.
The USAAF had made one modest attempt to attack the main production site at Ploesti, in May 1942. That attack, designed to make use of thirteen aircraft that had originally been destined for Burma, had caused little damage. It did however put the Germans on notice that Ploesti was on the target list for further visits. Very soon, given its strategic importance, the air defences around the site were dramatically improved, with dozens of 88mm guns and a range of smaller calibre weapons, many of them concealed in buildings.
The 177 B-24 bombers that left North Africa early on 1st August 1943 were headed for one of the most heavily defended sites in Europe, which they were going to attack in broad daylight from low level:
Pilot Philip Ardery gave this account of the final moments coming in over the target:
We were very close behind the second flight of three ships. As their bombs were dropping we were on our run in. There in the center of the target was the big boiler house, just as in the pictures we had seen. As the first ships approached the target we could see them flying through a mass of ground fire. It was mostly coming from ground-placed 20 mm. automatic weapons, and it was as thick as hail.
The first ships dropped their bombs squarely on the boiler house and immediately a series of explosions took place. They weren’t the explosions of thousand pound bombs, but of boilers blowing up and fires of split-open firebanks touching off the volatile gases of the cracking plant. Bits of the roof of the house blew up, lifting to a level above the height of the chimneys, and the flames leaped high after the debris. The second three ships went over coming in from the left, and dropped partly on the boiler house and partly on the cracking plant beyond. More explosions and higher flames.
Already the fires were leaping higher than the level of our approach. We had gauged ourselves to clear the tallest chimney in the plant by a few feet. Now there was a mass of flame and black smoke reaching much higher, and there were intermittent explosions lighting up the black pall.
Phifer, the bombardier, said over the interphone, ‘Those damn bombs are going off. They ain’t supposed to do that.’
‘That ain’t the bombs,’ I answered, .. that’s the gas they’re cookin’ with.’
We found ourselves at that moment running a gauntlet of tracers and cannon fire of all types that made me despair of ever covering those last few hundred yards to the point where we could let the bombs go. The antiaircraft defenses were literally throwing up a curtain of steel. From the target grew the column of flames, smoke, and explosions, and we were headed straight into it.
Suddenly Sergeant Wells, our small, childlike radio operator who was in the waist compartment for the moment with a camera, called out, ‘Lieutenant Hughes’s ship is leaking gas. He’s been hit hard in his left wing fuel section.’
I had noticed it just about that moment. I was tired of looking out the front at those German guns firing at us. I looked out to the right for a moment and saw a sheet of raw gasoline trailing Pete’s left wing. He stuck right in formation with us. He must have known he was hard hit because the gas was coming out in such volume that it blinded the waist gunners in his ship from our view. Poor Pete! Fine religious, conscientious boy with a young wife waiting for him back in Texas. He was holding his ship in formation to drop his bombs on the target, knowing if he didn’t pull up he would have to fly through a solid room of fire with a tremendous stream of gasoline gushing from his ship.
I flicked the switch intermittently to fire the remote-control, fixed fifty caliber machine guns specially installed for my use. I watched my tracers dig the ground. Poor Pete. How I wished he’d pull up a few hundred feet and drop from a higher altitude.
As we were going into the furnace, I said a quick prayer. During those moments I didn’t think that I could possibly come out alive, and I knew Pete couldn’t. Bombs were away. Everything was black for a few seconds. We must have cleared the chimneys by inches. We must have, for we kept flying – and as we passed over the boiler house another explosion kicked our tail high and our nose down. Fowble pulled back on the wheel and the Lib leveled out, almost clipping the tops off houses. We were through the impenetrable wall, but what of Pete? I looked out right. Still he was there in close formation, but he was on fire all around his left wing where it joined the fuselage.
I could feel tears come into my eyes and my throat clog up. Then I saw Pete pull up and out of formation. His bombs were laid squarely on the target along with ours. With his mission accomplished, he was making a valiant attempt to kill his excess speed and set the ship down in a little river valley south of the town before the whole business blew up. He was going about 210 miles per hour and had to slow up to about 110 to get the ship down.
He was gliding without power, as it seemed, slowing up and pulling off to the right in the direction of a moderately flat valley: Pete was fighting now to save himself and his men. He was too low for any of them to jump and there was not time for the airplane to climb to a sufficient altitude to permit a chute to open. The lives of the crew were in their pilot’s hands, and he gave it everything he had.
Wells, in our waist gun compartment, was taking pictures of the gruesome spectacle. Slowly the ship on our right lost speed and began to settle in a glide that looked like it might come to a reasonably good crash-landing. But flames were spreading furiously all over the left side of the ship. I could see it plainly, as it was on my side.
Now it would touch down-but just before it did, the left wing came off. The flames had been too much and had literally burnt the wing off. The heavy ship cartwheeled and a great shower of flame and smoke appeared just ahead of the point where last we had seen a bomber. Pete had given his life and the lives of his crew to carry out his assigned task. To the very end he gave the battle every ounce he had.
In pressing home their attacks in the face of the anti-aircraft fire heavy losses were sustained. Ultimately 55 aircraft out of the 177 failed to return, with a loss of 660 crewmen, only a third of them surviving as POWs. Oil production was hit, but not nearly as badly as had been hoped.
Amongst six Medal of Honor awarded for service that day, was one awarded to Colonel John R. Kane. The citation gives a good summary of the importance of the mission and difficulties faced:
For conspicuous gallantry in action and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty on 1 August 1943.
On this date he led the third element of heavy bombardment aircraft in a mass low-level bombing attack against the vitally important enemy target of the Ploesti oil refineries. En route to the target, which necessitated a round-trip flight of over 2,400 miles, Col. Kane’s element became separated from the leading portion of the massed formation in avoiding dense and dangerous cumulous cloud conditions over mountainous terrain. Rather than turn back from such a vital mission he elected to proceed to his target.
Upon arrival at the target area it was discovered that another group had apparently missed its target and had previously attacked ??and damaged the target assigned to Col. Kane’s element. Despite the thoroughly warned defenses, the intensive antiaircraft fire, enemy fighter airplanes, extreme hazards on a low-level attack of exploding delayed action bombs from the previous element, of oil fires and explosions and dense smoke over the target area, Col. Kane elected to lead his formation into the attack. By his gallant courage, brilliant leadership, and superior flying skill, he and the formation under his command successfully attacked this vast refinery so essential to our enemies’ war effort.
Through his conspicuous gallantry in this most hazardous action against the enemy, and by his intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty, Col. Kane personally contributed vitally to the success of this daring mission and thereby rendered most distinguished service in the furtherance of the defeat of our enemies
For many for images of the aircraft and crew that took part see the collection that D.Sheley has created on Flickr.