By mid-1943 the US Army Air Force strategic bombing mission was gaining in size and mass. Most often this means the great bomber formations of the 8th Air Force out of England.
But this time, let’s take a look at an early major operation out of North Africa.
We’ll start with one little clarification, the 9th Air Force is most often thought of as the American tactical air force in England. But Wartime administration is actually more complex than that. The 9th Air Force designation was first used operationally in North Africa, until October of 1943 when it was relocated to England as part of the build up for Overlord. After that, Mediterranean air power was split between the tactical 12th Air Force and Strategic 15th Air Force. That’s sort of the “big picture”.
Things started much smaller. In early 1942 the US had very few units of any sort that would be considered combat ready. The “Halverson Project”, HALPRO, commanded by Col Harry E Halverson was formed with 23 B-24D Liberators and crews that were considered ready. HALPRO was ordered to fly to China via the South Atlantic Ferry Route. When they reached RAF Lydda in the mid-east in May, it was learned their intended base had been overrun by the Japanese. The British were sorely pressed by Rommel’s North African offensive of that year, so the group was redirected to provide air support for the British. In June, 13 B-24s were given a more strategic mission and were sent to bomb the oil fields in Ploesti Romania.
Thus HALPRO became the first American air power in North Africa and the 9th Air Force grew from that humble beginning.
Meanwhile, the Germans took note of that little attack on Ploesti. The nine oil refineries around that city provided 30% of all German fuel needs. If there were now allied bomber groups with the range to reach it, Ploesti obviously had to defended. The German 5th Flak Division was moved in to bolster the the Romanian 4th AA Brigade (these two units were roughly the same size in spite of being designated differently, and half the German Flak Division was actually Romanian personnel). Total AA strength was 52 heavy, 7 medium and 17 light batteries.
Air Power was also increased, the Luftwaffe moved in squadrons of Bf 109s and Bf 110 night fighters. The Romanians also had one squadron of each Bf 109 and Bf 110, plus three squadrons of their own IAR 80. The totals were 56 Luftwaffe and 51 Romanian fighters.
All told, this made Ploesti perhaps the third best defended target in all Europe (behind only Berlin and Vienna).
The 9th Air Force grew dramatically through 1942 and 1943. HALPRO became the 376th Bomb Group, the “Liberandos”. The 9th Air Force also added another B-24 Group, the 98th Bomb Group “Pyramiders”.
By mid-1943 9th Air Force Bomber Command recognized Ploesti as a priority target that needed to be revisited. High enough priority in fact to merit the loan of three B-24 groups from the 8th Air Force in England; the 44th “Flying Eight Balls, 93rd “Traveling Circus” and 389th “Sky Scorpions”. (the B-17 lacked the range for Ploesti from Libya. Even the B-24 would need help, an extra fuel tank installed in the bomb bay).
It was decided to use a low altitude attack, this would reduce radar detection and reduce warning time. Since air defenses around Ploesti were believed to be light the bigger concern was German Flak and keeping low would eliminate the heavy batteries from effective use. The mission was planned by Col Jacob Smart a HALPRO veteran with experience at the target. The route went from Bengazi, Libya, across the Mediterranean and Adriatic, over the island of Corfu, then via Albania, Yugoslavia and into Romania.
On August 1, 1943 177 aircraft from the 5 Bomb Groups departed for Ploesti. Over the Adriatic things took an unfortunate turn, Wongo Wongo of the 376th BG, which was the mission’s lead aircraft with the lead navigator on board began flying erratically before plunging into the Sea with no survivors.* The mission continued with the deputy lead, Lt John Palm in Brewery Wagon taking the position, but the formation became somewhat disordered. Over Albania the bombers climbed to top the 9000′ Pindus Mountains, this had apparently not been adequately practiced and the various Bomb Groups chose different climb profiles that further confused their grouping.
Also, as the strike went inland, the Germans became completely aware of its presence from various surface reports and radar in the mountains. They were initially unsure of the target (the route was well constructed to be confusing!) but defenses at Ploesti, the highest priority target in that part of Europe, were put on high alert. The Bombers were first intercepted by the Bulgarian Air Force around 1025, but the Bulgarian’s B.534 bi-planes were unable to catch the B-24s. Their reports did however convince the Luftwaffe’s fighter command center in Sofia that Ploesti was the target. Local defenders were scrambled and climbed to 16000’… the decision to come in low did buy some time.
The route of approach would split the 5 Bomb Groups to specific targets as they approached the refineries. None of the 5 was meant to fly directly over the city of Ploesti to avoid collateral damage. Shortly before the final check point, Teggie Ann, flown by 376th Bomb Group Commander Col Keith Compton (with mission Commander General Uzal Ent on board) made a wrong turn and followed the wrong rail line. This took the 376th Bomb Group over the city of Ploesti. Subsequent groups caught the error, but the formation and attack plan were further disorganized.
Now approaching the Ploesti refineries, 160+ B-24s, descended to less than 200′ altitude at 250 knots. Most had been modified with 2 extra .50 machine guns in the nose to help clear the way. Fully alert AA defenses came alive. Light guns were hidden in haystacks, rail cars, and many specially designed bunkers. Bomber pilots and gunners dueled with individual AA gunners.
The 93rd Bomb Group, led by Col Addison Baker in Hell’s Wench initially followed the wrong turn, but several group navigators caught the mistake and called it out on the radio. They turned towards Ploesti, and selected a different refinery than assigned (Columbia Aquila instead of Concordia Vega and Standard Petrol) starting the attack at 1155. Hell’s Wench ran into the main line of AA defenses first and was shot down in flames with no survivors.
The 376th Bomb Group coming in from the wrong direction bombed starting at 1213. Brewery Wagon alone did not make the wrong turn and turned as planned, but the plane was quickly shot down and is considered the first combat loss of the day. Lt Appold in G.I. Ginnie split off with 5 bombers to hit the Concordia Vega refinery. The rest of the Liberandos failed to hit any refinery and bombed targets of opportunity in Ploesti.
The 98th Bomb Group led by Col John Kane in Hail Columbia came in from their assigned direction and observed black smoke already covering the area. They were bombing the Astra Romana refinery as assigned, but had to fly over the 93rd Bomb Group exiting the area from their improvised attack. Ground observers were amazed at the precision of heavy bomber groups at 200′ approaching the same area at right angles, and crossing through each other with no collisions. Those on the planes were something other than impressed.
44th Bomb Group hit two smaller refineries as planned.
At 1214 the 389th Bomb Group bombed a slightly distant refinery (Campina, north of town) as assigned. This was perhaps the most successful attack of the day in terms of damage done. Ironically, the Sky Scorpions had been assigned away from the greater mass because they were the greenest group on the mission (literally too, their planes were not repainted in desert colors and wore standard Olive Drab).
German and Romanian fighters had been redirected to the bombers coming in low shortly before the attacks began. Brewery Wagon was their first victim (by a Bf 109G from JG 4), they caught up to the main formations as they began their attacks and continued battle well into the withdrawal.
All told, Operation Tidal Wave is among the most fierce air battles of the European War. Of 177 planes departing on the mission, 56 B-24s were lost and only 33 emerged unscathed. Several of the damaged planes diverted to Turkey (where they were interred) or Cyprus for repairs. 516 crew were lost, 5 Medals of Honor awarded (3 posthumous) along with 56 Distinguished Service Crosses.
The Luftwaffe claimed 20 of those kills (for four losses), the Romanian Air Force 13 (for three losses).
All five Bomb Groups required time to refit and reorganize. One source claimed this mission “expelled the 9th Air Force from the theater”! (Wikipedia, pretty funny); 9th Air Force’s move to England was already underway at the time, but it was a headquarters only type of shift. The Liberandos and Pyramiders would remain in the Mediterranean and revisit Ploesti in the future. The three Bomb Groups from the 8th Air Force would miss the first Schweinfurt mission, just two weeks away. This all led to a bleak autumn for daylight strategic bombing, with heavy casualties pending the arrival of long-range escort fighters.
Damage done is harder to assess. Ploesti output dropped by 40%, for less than six weeks. Several of the undamaged refineries were operating below capacity and could quickly take up the slack, while damage was repaired. And in time the USAAF (and RAF) would learn it usually took more than a single mission to neutralize any industrial target; such sites are hard to knock out and have rapid regenerative abilities (that is, they can fix their damage and get back to business quickly). The Ploesti refineries were not bombed again until 1944, at which time 15th Air Force was in a better position to sustain a long oil campaign.
This particular airplane, Hail Columbia, was the personal mount of Col John “Killer” Kane. It was his original plane that he had always flown on missions. But when he took command of the 98th Bomb Group he gave up regularly flying missions and the plane was passed to a new crew who renamed it Little-Chief Big-Dog. When Tidal Wave was planned Kane reclaimed the aircraft, had the “new” nose art painted out and his own Hail Columbia reapplied with improved art.
Because Tidal Wave was a low altitude mission Kane had his plane up-gunned, and this all gets a little confusing to me. Very early B-24Ds had two fixed .50s in the lower glass nose, beneath the floor and the Norden Bomb Sight (all the original HALPRO planes would have been armed this way). 9th Bomber Command decided they liked this feature (perhaps because they did more close support work than most other heavies?) and modified most later B-24s this same way. Some received only a single .50 in a slightly higher position. Kane ordered four extra .50s on Hail Columbia because he meant to do some serious strafing. As a low altitude mission the Norden Bomb Sight would not be carried, so this freed up some room. But I seriously cannot figure how six .50s (and their ammunition feed and supply) could be mounted in the lower nose. The model includes parts for guns only (no ammo) and four is a tight squeeze with just the guns, photos of the plane still look like a clear nosed bomber, not a strafer/gunship…. So I’m thinking maybe he meant 4 extra in the sense the more usual fit was 2 extra? The plane did have the three flexible (defensive) guns too. That nose must have been one explosive noisy environment for a gunner!
Hail Columbia was among those planes damaged in the attack that diverted to Cyprus. It was a write off, never flew again. John Kane was among the Medal of Honor winners for leading his group into the face of a ferocious defense and bombing the assigned target.
This is the classic Monogram kit. It definitely presents some challenges, in the way most of those big old kits do.
The decals are by PYN-up, and WOW! They include pages of useful information just to build Hail Columbia, and there’s five other planes on the sheet too! The downside, not only is it the most expensive decal set I’ve ever bought (obviously, paying for the research) but you also need to buy an additional set for the correct insignia. Truly, there should only have been three subjects on the set so correct insignia could have been included. I believe PYN-up did six such sheets of “Ploesti Heroes”? They should have done 12.
- – one of those tidbits with much controversy. Col Compton insisted no aircraft but his own was ever mission lead, and Wongo Wongo was in fact behind Teggie Ann when it went down. But the official history, and many witnesses dispute this.
Once you have built it, there is a remote chance you can get your hands on another one. I still have the B-24 J. I have built the D.
I like what you did with yours.
Thanks Pierre. I’ve known for a while I wanted to do a Tidal Wave “D” for my first B-24, I’m mostly pleased with it, but it was definitely not an easy build!
I do have a “J”, but I sure hope someone does a better kit before I get to it. The nose and tail turrets are impossible to get right! At least the “D” only has one in the tail.
I know about the turrets. We have to live with them. A distant cousin flew the J as a bombardier. I wrote about him.
Oh that’s great!
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Your post does credit to such bravery beyond compare, but what a toll of young men’s lives. I can certainly see why Arthur Harris opposed what he called “panacea” targets, for the reason you give, namely that they always seemed to get repaired quickly as a matter of priority and needed to be bombed on a regular basis.
It was almost a Pickett’s Charge (or Charge of the Light Brigade!) sort of moment.
I think Harris was right in these early operations when they still lacked the mass to really to do major damage. But he clung to that after it was time to start pummeling critical industries, especially oil. Ultimately the oil campaign did critical damage to the German War effort. This was an expensive lesson learned.
Of course USAAF’s failing at this point was they weren’t ready to admit the need for long range escort fighters. Over 60% of the losses were due to fighter attack, reducing that made a big difference.
I’d never noticed before that the tail
Markings on these aircraft are not the usual USAAF style, but very much RAF.
Yes it was one of the things done in North Africa to standardize markings. At one point, all insignia received a yellow surround and every nose was red too. I think there was fear about how troops would respond to unfamiliar markings. Some of the Tidal Wave aircraft still had the yellow surround, with the new red outlined extensions on either side. Definitely an interesting hodgepodge of stuff.
Thank you for that Dave. Something else I didn’t know!
Excellent build Dave, and some interesting history on a campaign that is often commented on, but seldom understood or fully appreciated. Kind of like the B-24, which was more numerous and delivered more overall tonnage than it’s more famous cousin the B-17.
Yeah I think Tidal Wave may be one of the most important missions that gets little coverage. With the main thrust of strategic bombing coming from England, it sort of falls through the cracks. Of course the same could be said about the whole 15th Air Force. But it was a comparatively big operation for the early date and many lessons were learned.
The B-24 vs B-17 is sort of a similar dynamic. And again, the B-17 was more important to the 8th Air Force, which drew most of the attention. While the B-24 saw more use in every other place that heavy bombers were used. As a later design, it was faster, longer ranged, carried a heavier load… it was mostly a more effective and economical choice except in the one location where durability was the primary consideration.
Yes, the B17 did have the edge on durability. I’ve also heard that the B17 was a lot easier to fly and the B24 would leave pilots exhausted by the end of a flight. Maybe that even had something to do with the B17’s durability.
Yes, definitely on the easier to fly part. General Doolittle would likely agree with you on the impact that had survivability too.
Of course the B-17 was more photogenic as well, which served the wartime media/propaganda.
Among the B-24’s nicknames was “the cow with wings”. I don’t think anyone considered it an attractive airplane!
Yes, as we’ve often discussed the Mustang and the Spitfire also got much better press than their arguably more successful counterparts because they looked the part. The B17 looks like it wants to be in the air, it’s natural environment, whereas the B24 seems to look like it will do so, but only under protest.