History Podcasts

Consolidated B-24D lost during Operation Tidalwave

Consolidated B-24D lost during Operation Tidalwave


We are searching data for your request:

Forums and discussions:
Manuals and reference books:
Data from registers:
Wait the end of the search in all databases.
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.

Consolidated B-24 Liberator (Crowood Aviation), Martin W. Bowman . A well balanced book that begins with a look at the development history of the B-24, before spending nine out of its ten chapters looking at the combat career of the aircraft in the USAAF, the US Navy and the RAF.


1 August 1943

Medal of Honor

Lloyd H. Hughes (Air Mission)

Rank and Organization: Second Lieutenant, U.S Army Air Corps, 564th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 389th Bombardment Group (Heavy), 9th Air Force.
Place and Date: Ploetsi Raid, Rumania, 1 Aug 1943.
Entered Service At: San Antonio, Tex.
Born: Alexandria, La.
G.O. Number 17, 26 February 1944.

Citation: For conspicuous gallantry in action and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. On August 1943, 2d Lt. Hughes served in the capacity of pilot of a heavy bombardment aircraft participating in a long and hazardous minimum-altitude attack against the Axis oil refineries of Ploesti, Rumania, launched from the northern shores of Africa. Flying in the last formation to attack the target, he arrived in the target area after previous flights had thoroughly alerted the enemy defenses. Approaching the target through intense and accurate antiaircraft fire and dense balloon barrages at dangerously low altitude, his plane received several direct hits from both large and small caliber antiaircraft guns which seriously damaged his aircraft, causing sheets of escaping gasoline to stream from the bomb bay and from the left wing. This damage was inflicted at a time prior to reaching the target when 2d Lt. Hughes could have made a forced landing in any of the grain fields readily available at that time. The target area was blazing with burning oil tanks and damaged refinery installations from which flames leaped high above the bombing level of the formation. With full knowledge of the consequences of entering this blazing inferno when his airplane was profusely leaking gasoline in two separate locations, 2d Lt. Hughes, motivated only by his high conception of duty which called for the destruction of his assigned target at any cost, did not elect to make a forced landing or turn back from the attack. Instead, rather than jeopardize the formation and the success of the attack, he unhesitatingly entered the blazing area and dropped his bomb load with great precision. After successfully bombing the objective, his aircraft emerged from the conflagration with the left wing aflame. Only then did he attempt a forced landing, but because of the advanced stage of the fire enveloping his aircraft the plane crashed and was consumed. By 2d Lt. Hughes’ heroic decision to complete his mission regardless of the consequences in utter disregard of his own life, and by his gallant and valorous execution of this decision, he has rendered a service to our country in the defeat of our enemies which will everlastingly be outstanding in the annals of our Nation’s history.


The Truth About Tidal Wave: What Went Wrong?

B-24Ds of the 98th Bomb Group fly low near Ploesti, Romania, during the August 1, 1943, raid on Axis oil refineries.

A veteran of the B-24 raid on Ploesti tells the real story behind the costly mission.

The events in the skies over the Mediterranean and southern Europe on August 1, 1943, have long been a historical bone of contention. On that fateful day 178 Consolidated B-24D Liberators of five heavy bomb groups, carrying more than 500 tons of bombs, took off from bases in Libya on one of the most audacious aerial raids in history, code-named Operation Tidal Wave. Their targets were vital oil refineries around the Romanian city of Ploesti. Seven of Europe’s largest and most modern refineries were targeted, including Astra Romana, capable of processing more than 2 million tons of oil per year. Ploesti produced all the aviation fuel used by the Luftwaffe.

The raid was conceived by Colonel Jacob Smart, at the time considered one of the best planners in the U.S. Army Air Forces. After following a carefully laid-out course, the bombers would descend to low altitude along the southern foothills of the Transylvanian Alps to reach the third and final initial point (IP), then turn southeast toward the refineries. They would attack at low level in a five-mile-wide swath, aiming for pinpoint targets to destroy the key installations without hitting the city itself.

If all went well, the massive aerial assault would cut a third of Adolf Hitler’s oil refining capacity in less than 20 minutes.

But all did not go well, and after a disheartening series of mistakes, accidents, bad luck and determined enemy defense, Tidal Wave succeeded in destroying only two of the refineries and damaging three others—at the terrible cost of 54 Liberators. After nearly 16 hours and some of the most savage and desperate fighting ever seen in the air, 310 men were dead, more than 300 wounded and 108 taken prisoner in Romania. More were imprisoned in Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, or interned in Turkey.

What went wrong? That question was officially answered by the USAAF two weeks after Tidal Wave, but to this day it has inspired endless debate among military historians. Among the official explanations was the loss of the lead mission navigator on a plane that unaccountably fell into the Ionian Sea. But there was much more to the story.

Participants in the raid included two bomb groups of Maj. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton’s Ninth Air Force, the 376th “Liberandos” under Colonel Keith K. Compton and the 98th “Pyramiders” commanded by Colonel John “Killer” Kane. They were joined by three groups from the Eighth Air Force in England: Colonel Leon Johnson’s veteran 44th, the “Eight Balls” the 93rd “Traveling Circus,” commanded by Colonel Addison Baker and Colonel Jack Wood’s fledgling 389th “Sky Scorpions.”

Compton’s force increased altitude to 12,000 feet and maximized power, while Kane’s group remained at lower altitude and cruise power for maximum fuel economy, increasing the distance between the two main forces. A high storm front over Albania further separated the forces. Orders calling for total radio silence made it impossible to regroup.

Finally, a disastrous wrong turn short of the final IP by Compton and Baker caused the leading groups to head for Bucharest instead of Ploesti. After that the entire mission was a shambles. Compton ordered the 376th to break off the bomb run and hit targets of opportunity. The 93rd was badly mauled attempting to hit White Four, Kane’s target.

Group, squadron and element leaders, pilots and bombardiers had to improvise and do the best they could. Kane’s and Johnson’s groups, arriving almost 20 minutes later, were forced to bomb burning targets, further adding to the day’s chaos. The alerted German and Romanian defenders found the Americans’ low-flying bombers easy targets, and Liberators fell with terrifying frequency.


A radar-directed flak battery awaits B-24s in the distance. German and Romanian defenders found the low-flying Liberators easy targets. (National Archives)

Those are the main points of what history considers the reason for Tidal Wave’s failure. Yet history is rarely chiseled in stone. And the best source of information is often those who were there.

Major Robert W. Sternfels is a veteran of Kane’s 98th Bomb Group at Ploesti. On the drive to White Four, Sternfels was in the thick of it, at the controls of his Liberator, The Sandman. Perhaps the most iconic image from the raid shows The Sandman emerging from a pall of smoke and flames as it skirts refinery smokestacks at White Four.

When large aircraft fly in close formation, it creates turbulence capable of tossing 30-ton bombers around like leaves in a storm. “The prop wash was fierce,” Sternfels recalled during an interview at his Laguna Beach home.“Both my copilot Barney Jackson and I had our hands full just trying to stay on the bomb run.”

He has vivid memories of following Kane along the railroad line leading to the city. The Germans had put an ingenious flak train on the tracks paralleling the bomb run. It hosed deadly point-blank anti-aircraft fire into the low-flying B-24s. Kane led his 39 planes right into the fires and towering black smoke rising from Astra Romana, already hit by bombs from the shattered Traveling Circus.

Sternfels, a veteran with more than 300 combat hours on 50 missions, admitted he had never seen anything like it before or since. “When we went into that black smoke, I could only use instruments. Balloon cables were all around,” he said, referring to the low barrage balloons with explosive-laced cables the Germans had deployed over the refineries, “but I couldn’t see them. The right wing struck one and fortunately the propeller broke it. I was more scared at that moment than I’ve ever been in combat. I don’t know what we hit with our bombs. The target was nearly impossible to see.”

Many of the bombers ended up as long flaming smears of wreckage in the fields around the target. Somehow the pilots of The Sandman managed to bring their ship and crew back to Benghazi, one of the 26 survivors of Kane’s original force.


B-24D crew of "The Sandman”: (standing, from left) Major Robert W. Sternfels, pilot copilot Barney Jackson navigator Tony Flesch bombardier Dave Polaschek flight engineer Bill Stout (kneeling, from left) radioman Frank Just and gunners Harry Rifkin, N. Petri, Merle Boland and Raymond Stewart. This photo was taken after the Ploesti raid. Note balloon cable scar to the left of crew on fuselage. (Courtesy of Robert W. Sternfels)

According to Sternfels, there was a lot more going on behind the scenes that affected the mission’s outcome than is commonly known. The roots lay with Colonel Jacob Smart, the man most responsible for the audacious Tidal Wave plan. “Smart conceived the entire low-level concept, the route, approach and bomb run for each plane,” said Sternfels.

The four main groups were to turn onto the bomb run in waves of several planes each, keeping formation in the turn. Smart sold the idea to the USAAF brass, but the men who would actually have to carry it out didn’t think it could be done. Among those was Kane, who never minced words in expressing himself. “During the initial mission briefing meeting Kane said, ‘What idiot armchair lawyer from Washington planned this one?’” remembered Sternfels. “It looked good on paper, but that turn was totally impractical.”

Smart’s lack of understanding of how large bombers behaved in close formation was obvious to the pilots. “We practiced staying in try even once and wouldn’t work. And that’s exactly what happened. We were in formation as we reached the IP. But after that turn the entire formation was scattered and it was impossible to get it back together in the few minutes we had before we reached the target. We were supposed to be in the fourth wave, but were so tossed around, to this day I can’t tell you which wave we ended up in.”

Sternfels related one surprising incident that revealed Smart’s unsuitability for the task of planning the raid. “On July 15, just two weeks before Tidal Wave, my crew and I were preparing for a mission to Foggia, Italy, when a staff car pulled up. And out stepped Smart, fully geared up in brand-new flight suit and Mae West life preserver. He came up to me and said, ‘I’d like to fly with you today as an observer.’ Smart was on the flight deck with me, Barney and our flight engineer, Sergeant Bill Stout. He was standing there between our seats watching as we went through our checklist. I asked him if he would step back to let my flight engineer come forward and call out speed and engine readings. Smart did so and we took off.”


A wave of B-24Ds from the 44th Bomb Group bores in on Ploesti's burning Colombia Aquila refinery on August 1. (National Archives)

On the way north toward Italy, Smart again came between the pilots’ seats. Then he did something virtually unheard of in any aircraft. “He reached out to adjust the fuel mixture controls,” said Sternfels, still astonished after more than 68 years. “You just don’t do that if you’re a passenger. Even a general doesn’t do that without the pilot’s permission. I didn’t say anything but adjusted the mix to what I wanted and we flew on. A little while later, Smart did it again!” That was too much of a breach of protocol for Sternfels.“I said,‘Colonel, please don’t touch the controls!’ He didn’t say anything.

“In 1993 I went to South Carolina to interview Smart,” the veteran pilot related. The meeting between the Tidal Wave planner and pilot was pleasant but brought an astonishing revelation. “I always wanted to ask him about his actions in my plane,” Sternfels recalled. “But I didn’t want to just come out with it. So I asked him in a roundabout way, ‘By the way, how many hours did you have in B-24s before that mission with me?’” Smart’s answer stunned Sternfels. The man who had conceived and planned the complicated raid admitted, “I just completed my first check-out ride the week before.” So until just three weeks prior to the huge mission he had planned nearly six months earlier, Smart was totally unfamiliar with the B-24D or how it handled in close formation. “I don’t know if he flew a combat mission prior to Foggia,” Sternfels said.

Sternfels also asked Smart, “Why didn’t we send some [de Havilland] Mosquitoes to photograph the target?” Smart said they didn’t want to alert the Germans. “So our briefings never mentioned the heavy flak or barrage balloons,” Sternfels pointed out. “We were told the flak guns were manned by Romanians who would run to the shelters when we flew over. We didn’t know how vicious the flak would really be. They knew we were coming. Maintaining radio silence was a moot point. Of course no one could know that then, so we can’t be blamed for trying to keep the Germans in the dark. However, radio silence worked against the mission as soon as things went wrong.”

According to Sternfels, however, a far more telling reason for Tidal Wave’s ultimate tragedy rested with another man, Colonel Keith Compton, who led the mission. “I don’t like to say anything bad of a man who is no longer alive to defend himself,” Sternfels commented cautiously, “but Compton was very confident and at times arrogant. He was accustomed to doing things his own way. That was a primary reason for the way the mission came apart.” Sternfels’ reasoning was based on his own observations before, during and after Tidal Wave and examination of documents and photos. He interviewed several other veterans of the operation, including Compton in 2000, at that time a retired lieutenant general.


“The Sandman” narrowly avoids colliding with three smokestacks as it emerges from the smoke of the burning Astra Romana refinery. (National Archives)

Compton’s lead 376th Liberator, Teggie Ann, which also carried the mission commander, Brig. Gen. Uzal W. Ent, took off from Benghazi at 0600. Berka Two and Terria, the 376th and 93rd bases, were much closer to the coast than Lete, Kane’s field. Once the Liberandos were assembled, Compton put his plane on high power settings and headed north. In a relatively short time the 376th and the 93rd were far ahead of the 98th’s desert-weary ships, which stayed at lower power settings because Kane was concerned about wearing out their sand-scoured engines. “The gap started at takeoff and widened over the Mediterranean,” Sternfels explained. “Compton never gave a thought to the following groups.”

More controversy surrounded the bomber carrying 1st Lt. Robert W. Wilson, whom some sources say was the lead mission navigator. After a series of violent pitch oscillations, the B-24 Wilson was aboard, Lieutenant Brian Flavelle’s Wongo Wongo!, flipped onto its back and fell into the Ionian Sea, killing the entire crew.

“Losing a plane and crew was bad enough,” said Sternfels. “But Flavelle wasn’t carrying the lead navigator. That implies he led the mission. If Flavelle was in the lead ship, Compton would have seen him go down.” Several other crews did see the crash.

“Compton told me he didn’t learn about Flavelle’s crash until he returned to Benghazi,” Sternfels pointed out. “Compton admitted he led the mission from takeoff to landing. I found documentation to back it up.”

Another B-24 piloted by Lieutenant Guy Iovine dropped out of the formation to assist Flavelle. “They later said they wanted to drop life rafts,” he explained. “They weren’t able to climb to rejoin the mission and had to turn back. But there’s no way to drop life rafts from a B-24D. They’re in compartments on the top of the fuselage. You can’t get at them in flight.” Some sources say Iovine’s plane was carrying the deputy mission navigator.

By the time the leading groups reached the mountains of Albania, Compton and Kane were separated by at least 30 miles. Ploesti, a controversial book by James Dugan and Carroll Stewart, claimed that storm clouds over the Albanian mountains convinced Kane to begin circling for what was known as “frontal penetration,” a maneuver to prevent collisions in clouds. This earned a strong comment from Sternfels: “We never did that. That was a fictional explanation for the wide gap between the two formations. But it never happened. In fact I’d never heard of it until long after the war. Our navigation logs show we climbed and worked our way through.” The book also stated that at Compton’s altitude, there was a strong tailwind that was not present at Kane’s altitude, further adding to the gap. This was untrue, according to Compton.

As for the confusion supposedly resulting from the loss of the two most trained navigators, Sternfels said, “That’s baloney. If only two men knew the route, why did we take along 176 others? All the navigators were trained and had very cleverly drawn low-level course charts.”

How, then, could so many qualified navigators have failed to keep the force on course at the critical moment?

“I found a photo of Compton just prior to takeoff. In this photo, he is holding under his arm a set of charts and maps. Compton was familiar with the route and approach. But his job as the mission leader wasn’t to be looking at maps. That was Wicklund’s job,” Sternfels said, referring to Captain Harold Wicklund, one of the most experienced navigators in the USAAF. Wicklund had already flown to Ploesti on the “Halverson Project” raid of June 12, 1942.

According to Compton’s copilot, Captain Ralph Thompson, Compton had the charts and maps on his lap during the approach to the IP. “The 376th and 93rd reached the first IP at Pitesti and continued on,” said Sternfels. Kane and Johnson were by now almost 60 miles behind the lead force. “When they reached Targoviste, the second IP, Compton turned the force southeast,” he continued. “Most of the other pilots realized it wasn’t the right place.” Several Liberando pilots broke radio silence to let Compton know he had turned too early, but he didn’t have his radio turned on. If he had heard the calls, he might have saved the mission, as it would have taken only a few minutes to get back to the correct course. Instead, Compton continued on and didn’t realize his mistake until he saw the church spires of Bucharest ahead. At that point he asked Ent for permission to tell the group to break off and bomb targets of opportunity Ent agreed.

The Circus’ 32 remaining ships (five had turned back), led by Baker and Major John Jerstad in Hell’s Wench, turned east to try an improvised attack on Kane’s target, White Four. They flew into a deadly hailstorm of flak. German and Romanian gunners found ripe targets at point-blank range, and 88mm, 37mm and 20mm batteries took a terrible toll on the low-flying B-24s. When the Circus emerged from the smoke and carnage, Hell’s Wench wasn’t among them. Only 15 of the attacking 93rd Group Liberators returned to Benghazi.

“It still amazes me that Compton ordered the 376th to break off the bomb run and hit targets of opportunity,” said Sternfels. “Many planes just jettisoned their bombs rather than face the flak. They weren’t even under fire when he sent that order.”

Interviewed by Sternfels, bombardier 1st Lt. Lynn Hester said: “I wasn’t told to drop the bombs. Compton pulled the lanyard on the pilot’s pedestal and dropped them right through the doors, pulling them off their tracks. I never saw the target nor did I see the bombs explode.” Since a firing unit switch must be turned on for the ordnance to be fully armed, Compton’s bombs probably never exploded.

Then Compton compounded his error. After conferring with General Ent, he sent “MS” (mission successful) to Benghazi. The MS signal went out while the 93rd was being totally mauled.


Colonel Keith K. Compton turned too early, at Targoviste, compelling his 376th Group “Liberandos” to bomb targets of opportunity. (Courtesy of Robert W. Sternfels)

“Very few of the 376th bombed a refinery,” said Sternfels. “Otherwise they’d have lost a lot more planes flying into that flak.” Only three of the 28 Liberandos B-24s managed to do any real good with their bombs. “Those were led by Major Norman Appold, a very smart and excellent pilot,” he said. Appold took his element around the city and hit White Two, a Circus target.

Kane’s, Johnson’s and Wood’s groups made the correct turn. But by then Tidal Wave had become a total debacle. The flak train, flak batteries and fighters were fully alerted.

After Compton returned to Benghazi, he went into conference with Brereton and Ent. A photo Sternfels found after the war tells a very compelling story. “It was taken only minutes after Compton’s plane landed,” he explained. “If you look at his face, he doesn’t look like a man who led a successful mission, nor does he look like someone who ran into a ton of bad luck. He looks guilty.”

Tidal Wave’s final outcome was both a failure and a success. While only two refineries were totally destroyed and three others moderately damaged, the raid eliminated vital oil refining capacity just when Hitler’s war machine needed it most to stop the relentless Soviet drive toward the Fatherland.

In the wake of the costly mission, the USAAF awarded five Medals of Honor to pilots, both living and dead. Kane was honored for leading his group into the fires and smoke of White Four. Johnson, whose 44th successfully struck White Five, also received the medal. Three medals were awarded posthumously: to Baker and Jerstad of Hell’s Wench, and to the 389th’s Lieutenant Lloyd D. Hughes, who dropped his bombs on target despite flames erupting from his B-24. Every man who participated in Tidal Wave was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

There were countless other stories of heroism in the deadly skies over Ploesti, some of which were recorded and others that will forever remain unknown. But to many who look back on the dangerous mission today, every single young man who climbed into a Liberator on that Sunday morning was a hero. That was certainly how Kane felt. A warrior with the soul of a poet, he wrote a deeply moving epitaph:

To you who fly on forever I send that part of me which cannot be separated, and is bound to you for all time. I send to you those of our dreams that never quite came true, the joyous laughter of our boyhood, the marvelous mysteries of our adolescence, the glorious strengths and tragic illusions of our young manhood, all of these that were and perhaps would have been, I leave in your care, out there in the blue.

Mark Carlson writes frequently on aviation topics from San Diego, Calif. Major Robert W. Sternfels (USAF, ret.) is the author (with Frank Way) of Burning Hitler’s Black Gold, which is recommended for further reading. Also see The Ploesti Raid Through the Lens, by Roger A. Freeman.

Originally published in the March 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.


1 August 1943

Consolidated B-24D-55-CO Liberator 42-40402, “The Sandman,” ready for take off at its base in Libya—destination Ploesti, Romania—1 August 1943. (U.S. Air Force)

1 August 1943: Operation TIDALWAVE. 178 B-24 Liberator very long range heavy bombers bombers of the 8th and 9th Air Forces, with 1,751 crewmen, made an extreme low-level attack on the Axis oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania.

The mission was a disaster: 53 B-24s were lost, 310 crewmen killed in action, 108 captured, and 78 interred in neutral countries. The damaged refineries were repaired within weeks and their output was higher than before the attack.

Five Medals of Honor were awarded, three posthumously, the most for any single air action in history.

The following is from an official U.S. Air Force publication:

U.S. Air Force Fact Sheet

OPERATION TIDALWAVE, THE LOW-LEVEL BOMBING OF THE PLOESTI OIL REFINERIES, 1 AUGUST 1943

Prior to World War II, the U.S. Army Air Corps (Army Air Forces as of June 20, 1941) developed a doctrine of high-altitude, precision, daylight, massed bombing of selected enemy military and industrial targets. Combined with the Royal Air Force’s concentration on mass air attacks on industrial areas at night by 1943, this doctrine evolved into the Combined Bomber Offense featuring “around-the-clock” bombing of German targets.

Petroleum production and distribution systems were among the highest priority targets, and perhaps the most inviting of these was the concentration of oil refineries at Ploesti, Rumania, which according to Allied intelligence estimates, produced as much as one third of Germany’s liquid fuel requirements. One of the most heavily defended targets in Europe, Ploesti lay outside the range of Allied bombers from England but could be reached by Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers from the Middle East or North Africa.

Colonel Jacob E. Smart, left, with Lieutenant General Henry H. (“Hap”) Arnold, in China, February 1943. (U.S. Air Force)

Allied leaders determined to bomb Ploesti during the Casablanca Conference in January 1943 and Gen. Henry H.” Hap’ Arnold delegated the problem to Col. Jacob Smart of his Advisory Council. Smart, the principle architect and planner for Operation TIDALWAVE, proposed, in complete antithesis of USAAF bombing policy, a low-level massed raid on the nine most important Ploesti refineries by five B-24 bomb groups, two from North Africa and three borrowed from Eighth Air Force in England .

By July 1943, the five groups—the 44th, 93rd, and 389th Bombardment Groups from England had joined the 98th and 376th Bombardment Groups at Benghazi, Libya, where they made final preparations and conducted additional low-level training under the direction of Ninth Air Force.

Operation TIDALWAVE. (U.S. Air Force) Consolidated B-24D-155-CO Liberator 42-72772 and flight cross the Mediterranean Sea at very low level, 1 August 1943. A gunner stands in the waist position. The bomber’s belly turret is retracted. (U.S. Air Force)

Commanded by Brig. Gen. Uzal G. Ent, the force of 178 B-24s took off on the morning of 1 August, followed a route across the Mediterranean, passed the island of Corfu, crossed the Pindus Mountains into Rumania, and approached Ploesti from the east. While over the Mediterranean the formation divided into two parts: the first led by Col. Keith K. (K.K.) Compton commander of the 376th, consisted of the 376th and 93rd Bomb Groups the second led by Col. John R. (Killer) Kane, commander of the 98th, included the 98th, 44th, and 389th Bomb Groups. Mandated radio silence prevented the leaders from reassembling the formation. The goal of a single, mass attack disappeared.

Consolidated B-24D Liberator very long range heavy bombers attack the oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania, 1 August 1943. (U.S. Air Force)

Compton’s formation reached Rumania well ahead of Kane’s. It descended to low level and, in error, made its planned turn to the south at Targoviste, miles short of the correct Identification Point (IP). Compton led two bomb groups toward Bucharest. Col. Addison L. Baker, commanding the 93rd Bomb Group following Compton, saw Ploesti to his left, turned his group and led it into the target first. Meantime, Compton found that he was heading to Bucharest and turned, almost reversing course, and bombed Ploesti from the south.

As the two groups emerged from Ploesti and escaped to the south, the 98th and 44th Bomb Groups led by Kane plunged into Ploesti where they found many of their targets in flames. They sought alternate targets of opportunity. Far to the north, the 389th Bomb Group successfully bombed its target, a separate refinery at Campina, as planned.

In one of the most famous photographs of World War II, Consolidated B-24D-55-CO Liberator 42-40402, “The Sandman,” is over Target White IV, the Astra Română Refinery, Ploesti, Romania, 1 August 1943. (U.S. Air Force)

Survivors of the attack fled south alone or in small groups trailed by Axis fighters which took a toll of the weakened force. Bombers crashed in fields or disappeared into the water some diverted to Allied bases in the region others sought sanctuary in neutral Turkey. Some 88 B-24s, most badly damaged, managed to return to Benghazi. Personnel losses included 310 airmen killed, 108 captured, and 78 interned in Turkey. Five officers: Kane, Baker, Col. Leon W. Johnson, Maj. John L. Jerstad, and 2nd Lt. Lloyd H. Hughes, earned the Medal of Honor Baker, Jerstad, and Hughes posthumously.

Consolidated B-24D-55-CO Liberator 42-40402, “The Sandman,” clears the triple stacks at the Astra Română Refinery, Ploesti, Romania, 1 August 1943. (U.S. Air Force)

Despite the extreme heroism of the airmen and their determination to press the mission home, the results of Operation TIDAL WAVE were less than expected. TIDALWAVE targeted nine major refineries that produced some 8,595,000 tons of oil annually, about 90 percent of all Rumanian oil production, and the attack temporarily eliminated about 3,925,000 tons, roughly 46 percent of total annual production at Ploesti. Three refineries lost 100 percent of production. Unfortunately, these losses figures were temporary and reflected much less than the planners had hoped for. The Germans proved capable of repairing damage and restoring production quickly, and they had been operating the refineries at less than full capacity, anyway. Ploesti thus had the ability to recover rapidly. The largest and most important target, Astro Romana, was back to full production within a few months while Concordia Vega was operating at 100 percent by mid-September.

The U.S. Army Air Forces never again attempted a low level mission against German air defenses.

Dr. Roger Miller, Historian, AFHSO.

Air Force Historical Studies Office Joint Base Anacostia Bolling, DC.

U.S. Army Air Forces B-24 bombers clearing a target at Ploesti, Romania, 1 August 1943. (U.S. Air Force)


Found

In November 1958, British geologists working for D’Arcy Oil Company (later merged with British Petroleum) were flying over the Libyan Desert when they spotted a crashed plane. They noted the location and contacted Wheelus Air Force Base. At the time, Wheelus did not have any record of an American plane having been lost in the area, therefore, they did not react immediately to the call. The team of geologists sighted the downed aircraft during subsequent surveys and in March 1959, D’Arcy Oil Company dispatched a ground team to investigate.

The initial inspection of the site was conducted by a D’Arcy surveyor, Gordon Bowerman, who happened to be a friend of Lieutenant Colonel Walter B. Kolbus, commander of Wheelus Air Base. According to the Army Quartermaster Foundation, after visiting the site, Bowerman wrote a letter to Lt. Col. Kolbus. The letter contained information from the plane’s maintenance inspection records, as well as crew names found on clothing and other equipment. This information prompted officials from Wheelus Air Force Base and the Army Quartermaster Mortuary in Frankfurt, Germany to investigate the crash site. Finally, after sixteen years, the story of Lady Be Good would be told.

The initial investigation by military officials of the Lady Be Good crash site began in May 1959 and ended in August 1959. During this time, U.S. Military completed extensive ground searches, in addition to ground-controlled air searches. Despite looking in the area for months, the team was unable to locate any of the crew’s remains. Though, military personnel did recover some of the crew’s equipment, such as parachutes, flight boots, and arrowhead markers. The markers were presumably used by the crew to mark their trail. After months of looking, “the search was abandoned when equipment began to deteriorate and fail and the probability of the airmen being completely covered by shifting sand made the dangers of further search impractical.”

In February 1960, six months after ending the first search, the remains of five crew members were located. Just like the initial discovery of the crash site, British Petroleum employees were also responsible for locating the men. Officials from the Army Quartermaster Mortuary returned to Libya to process the site. The remains were identified as belonging to Lt. Hatton, Lt. Toner, Lt. Hays, Sgt. Adams, and Sgt. LaMotte. Many personal items were also recovered at the site, including canteens, flashlights, pieces of parachutes, and flight jackets. The most insightful item to be found was a diary belonging to Lt. Robert Toner.

After locating five of the nine airmen, the military made one last effort to find the remaining four crew members. This final search, named “Operation Climax”, was a joint operation by the Army and Air Force. Operation Climax led to the discovery of two more crew members. Sgt. Shelley was found 21 miles northwest of the location where the first five men were found. Sgt. Ripslinger was located 26 miles north of Sgt. Shelley. Operation Climax ended at the end of May 1960 with two men still missing.

British Petroleum would make one more discovery in August 1960, finally locating the remains of Lt. John Woravka. Lt. Woravka had been the only crew member that did not meet up with the group after bailing out of the aircraft. The remains of the ninth airman, Sgt. Vernon Moore, have never been found.


Who? What? When? Where? Huh?

Darrell went on to point out a very interesting issue. Comparing the well known photo of First Sergeant:

And the photo of Thar She Blows (Again):

  1. “The gun port housing on TSBA is larger than the one on First Sergeant.
  2. The gun port window on TSBA is rounded on the bottom rear, where the window on FS appears to be square.
  3. Also, the side (navigator’s window) on TSBA appears to have armor plating where the one on FS does not. That could have been removed to save weight I guess.”

Damn. Now he got me back into my old “Cutting Edge Modelworks/PYN-ups Decals” mindset and I couldn’t rest until I tracked this SOB down.


Brave B-24 Aircrews Smuggled Spies Into Enemy Territory in Europe

Aided by a full moon, Office of Strategic Services agents parachute from a Consolidated B-24D Liberator over France, in an illustration by Don Hollway.

When the French Resistance needed help, a squadron of ex–sub hunters became the air arm of the OSS.

In May 1944, not long after their arrival in England, B-24 Liberator pilot Captain George Johnson and crews of the 788th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy) were told they could forget their training in high-altitude strategic bombing. Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Fish briefed them: “You are going to learn to fly your airplane 400 feet above the ground—10 miles per hour above stalling. And in addition you’re going to do this at night and you’re going to do it as a single ship mission. I’m going to give you five minutes to think about it. Now, if you don’t want to be a part of this all you have to do is to get up and walk out. You’ll go back to your group and nothing will be said and it won’t reflect against your record.”

Low, slow and alone, over enemy territory, at night? “I could sense that my crew wasn’t too fond of the idea,” remembered Johnson, “and you could sense that the others felt pretty much the same way but I suppose this was one of those times when the word ‘chicken’ comes into play.” Nobody rose to leave, and Fish drew aside a curtain revealing a map of occupied Europe, marked with red circles.


“Miss Fitts,” a Carpetbagger B-24D with an extended nose greenhouse for night observation, takes off from RAF Harrington. (National Archives)

“Now, these are the locations of the underground groups, the Maquis, the French Force of the Interior, the partisans,” he told them. “These are the people you are going to be working with. You’ll be going in at night—by yourself—delivering supplies to the underground and you’ll be dropping agents.”

Fish himself had little experience with daylight bombing. Up to a few months earlier he’d hunted U-boats in the Bay of Biscay as part of the U.S. Army Air Forces’ 22nd Anti-Submarine Squadron. But with the U.S. Navy now flying its own Liberator subhunters, the 22nd needed a new line of work. In October 1943, at RAF Bovingdon west of London, Fish and his commanding officer Colonel Clifford Heflin had met with officers of the Royal Air Force, U.S. VIII Air Force Bomber Command and Office of Strategic Services (predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency). Under the codename “Operation Carpetbagger,” their B-24s would effectively become the air arm of the OSS.

Heflin, appointed CO of the new 801st Bomb Group (Provisional), knew finding and hitting a point target on instruments alone called for special skills. “This work is harder than bombing—trickier,” he noted. “You’re not following a formation—you’re on your own. It takes a lot of training and flying ability to hit a drop zone right on the nose. The best pilots for the job are those who have been on anti-submarine patrol.”

Since February 1942 the British had been dropping supplies in 19 countries from the Arctic to Africa. They trained American aircrews and agents in low-altitude night navigation and parachute drops no higher than 600 feet. The 22nd’s Liberators were painted black and converted for clandestine work. Though they also flew Douglas C-47s and A-26 Invaders, Boeing B-17s and British de Havilland Mosquitos, their workhorse remained the Consolidated B-24D. Its efficient, high-aspect-ratio Davis wing gave the bomber long range, heavy payload and high speed, but also made it difficult to handle at low speed.

Supply containers, with parachutes, were loaded and dropped just like bombs. Since they used British suspension lugs, the Liberators’ bomb shackles were replaced with British shackles. Cylindrical, one-piece “C containers,” 5½ feet long and 1¼ feet in diameter, held about 220 pounds each of small arms, bazookas, mortar tubes, jerrycans of gasoline and even bicycles (with French trademarks). Similar-size “H containers,” divided into five cells more easily hidden in the field, carried ammunition, grenades and sabotage equipment. Panniers holding 100 pounds each of soft goods—boxes and baskets of clothing, food, medical supplies and field dressings, radio sets and eventually thousands of carrier pigeons—were loaded in the fuselage. An on-base sewing factory labored around the clock to turn out enough silk parachutes and harnesses for everything.

In spring 1944, with the invasion of France on the horizon, Carpetbagger operations ramped up. Doubling their strength by absorbing the 788th and 850th bomb squadrons, they settled in at RAF Harrington, in Northamptonshire—the most westerly Eighth Air Force station and the highest above sea level. On average, 40 to 50 Liberators took off each night.


An OSS agent stows a package of French currency prior to parachuting into enemy territory. (National Archives)

Secrecy, as might be expected, went well beyond normal bomber-base standards. Base administration and ground crew personnel were told that the black-painted aircraft were for night pathfinding missions. The OSS dictated drop zones, agents and cargos. Packers had no idea where the load was to be dropped, loaders had no idea what had been packed and even the flight crews were left literally in the dark. “The only ones that knew where we were going were the pilot and the navigator,” remembered top-turret gunner Sergeant Bill Becker. “When we got in the air, it was radio silence….We didn’t know what the mission was….I never knew the agents that we might be dropping. They got on at the last minute.”

Known anonymously only as “Joes” (females as “Janes” or “Josephines”), agents arrived at the airfield a few hours prior to their drop. Security officers sanitized their disguises, removing any trace of England, from pocket change and shop receipts to American tobacco, and gave them forged identity papers. They boarded through the “Joe hole,” where the Liberator’s belly turret had been removed, and exited the same way. Three-man OSS “Jedburgh” teams (including Major William E. Colby, later the CIA director) trained and led Resistance groups against the Germans.

“We crossed the French coast at an altitude of 4,000 feet to get above the possible danger of machine gun fire from coastal defenses,” remembered Fish. “After crossing into France I immediately dropped down to between four and five hundred feet above the ground. This altitude was good for pilotage navigation by my bombardier. But more important it helped to keep a German night fighter from attacking us from below and from the rear….By our staying low we could force him to attack from above where we could bring the two top turret guns to bear on him as well as the tail turret guns.”

At first, drop zones were illuminated with secret flashlight signals. Later, ground forces used Eureka transmitters to signal the B-24s’ Rebecca (recognition of beacons) directional transponding radar. Leaflets—propaganda notices and, later, free passes for surrendering Germans—were often taken along, but released well before or after the actual drop to disguise its location.

Several Carpetbaggers took their support for the Resistance to the next level. On the night of April 27-28, B-24D serial no. 42-40997 Worry Bird (formerly Screamin’ Mimi of the 565th Bomb Squadron, 389th Bomb Group) clipped a hill at its drop zone near Saint-Cyr-de-Valorges, Loire, crashed and broke into four parts. Only radio operator Staff Sgt. James Heddleson and gunners Sergeants George Henderson and James C. Mooney survived. His back broken, Mooney was handed over to the Germans for care (and ultimately survived as a POW), but Heddleson and Henderson were taken in by the Maquis, lived with them for three months and even went along one night to help blow up a railway trestle. In early August an RAF Lockheed Hudson picked them up safely. (After the war the citizens of Saint-Cyr-de-Valorges not only erected a monument over the graves of Worry Bird’s crew, but made Heddleson an official member of the Resistance, an honorary French citizen and named the town square after him.) Another downed Carpetbagger, bombardier Lieutenant John Mead, actually joined the Resistance and fought on the ground through the D-Day campaign before meeting the advancing Allies, earning a promotion and a Silver Star.


"Worry Bird" lies wrecked in a field west of Lyon, France, after striking a hill near the town of Saint-Cyr-de-Valorges during a night mission. Note the “Joe hole” through which agents exited during an airdrop. (HistoryNet Archives)

As cover, in August 1944 the Carpetbaggers assumed the designation of the disbanded 492nd Bombardment Group, a hard-luck outfit that had lost more than 50 aircraft in 89 days (and would be the only ETO group to be disbanded due to high casualties). The crews coordinated with British night bombing missions, flying ahead in high-altitude formations to divert German night fighters from the main RAF attack. In mid-September the priority became supplying Allied armies charging across France. Carpetbagger B-24s had their auxiliary wing tanks emptied of avgas and refilled with 80-octane. Two 400-gallon tanks were installed in the bomb bay, and nine 100-gallon P-51 belly tanks were carried as cargo. At 2,000 gallons per aircraft, in little more than a week the Carpetbaggers delivered in excess of 800,000 gallons to the front.

With France largely liberated, Carpetbagger missions trailed off, but by the end of the war in Europe the 801st/492nd had dropped some 4,500 tons of supplies and hundreds of personnel over enemy territory. Twenty-five Liberators were shot down and eight more so badly damaged they were scrapped. The inscription on the monument to the lost crew of Worry Bird in Saint-Cyr-de-Valorges translates to: “In memory of five American airmen found dead under the debris of their aircraft, shot down in flames at this place April 28, 1944, whose mission was the parachuting of arms to our secret army for the liberation of France and the restoration of our ideal.” It speaks to the service and sacrifices of all the Carpetbaggers.

Early aircraft painted black all over later, black underneath, with the upper surfaces left olive-drab. Standard black matte applied to upper surfaces of aircraft arriving unpainted

• Removal of waist and cheek guns

• Blacked-out glass in the waist windows, cheeks and under the nose

• Flash suppressors on the top- and tail-turret machine guns, flame dampers on engine exhausts

• American bomb shackles removed and replaced with British conversion shackles

• Removal of ball turret in belly to create “Joe hole”

• Two strongpoints for parachute static lines installed at Joe hole

• Extraneous radio gear, armor and high-altitude oxygen system removed

• Red interior lighting to preserve night vision

• Blister in pilot’s side window for improved downward visibility

• Nose antennae for Rebecca airborne transceiver

• Toned-down side insignia, although tail codes remained bright


Sergeant William T. Alexander, flight engineer, stands with B-24D no. 42-63980, "Playmate," of the 858th Bomb Squadron, 801st/492nd Bomb Group “Carpetbaggers" in 1944. (HistoryNet Archives)

Consolidated B-24D serial no. 42-63980 Playmate, formerly Missouri Mauler, was one of the oldest Carpetbagger aircraft. In November 1944 Playmate flew from RAF Harrington to New Delhi, India, via Naples and Cairo, with 492nd Bomb Group and OSS personnel to investigate potential Carpetbagger operations in the China-Burma-India Theater. Though a Carpetbagger operation in the CBI was deemed necessary, it was decided to recruit units already in the East rather than bring an entire unit from the ETO. In January 1945 Playmate returned to England the way it came, a round trip of some 25,000 miles. In March 1945 two Carpetbagger Liberators and crews transferred to the Fourteenth Air Force at Kunming, China, to help establish Carpetbagger units.

For more information, frequent contributor Don Hollway recommends Carpetbaggers, by Ben Parnell, and the website 801492.org. Additional info, images and video at donhollway.com/carpetbaggers.

This feature originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of Aviation History. Subscribe here!


42-40994

RAF Form 441A Sortie Reports for the 93rd Bomb Group on Operation Tidal Wave (the bombing of Ploesti), 1 August 1943.

"Remember. Returning is Secondary". "Hell's Wench," a B-24 badly damaged by anti-aircraft artillery fire, led the 93rd Bombardment Group (Heavy) in its daring low-level attack on the oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania, which supplied two-thirds of Germany's petroleum production at that stage of World War II. Lt. Col. Addison E. Baker, an Ohio National Guardsman who commanded the 93rd, ignored the fact he was flying over terrain suitable for safe landing. He refused to break up the lead formation by landing, and led his group to the target upon which he dropped his bombs with devastating effect. Then he left the formation, but his valiant attempts to gain enough altitude for the crew to escape by parachute failed and the aircraft crashed. For their gallant leadership and extraordinary flying skill, both Baker and his pilot, Maj. John L. Jerstad, received the Medal of Honor, posthumously.

B-24D - Columbia Aquila Refinery Ploesti - Sight of Col. Addison Baker's Crash in the B-24 'Hell's Wench' - 1943

Crashed on 1 August 1943 during Operation Tidal wave.

Dispatched to North Africa in 1943 with the 93rd Bomb Group to take part in Operation Tidal Wave. Part of the crew of B-24 Liberator, 'Hell's Wench' (#42-40994) on 1 August 1943. Upon reaching the target area the 93rd Bomb Group turned at the wrong point and headed for Bucharest, the pilot attempted to warn the mission commander but when they failed to respond, he broke formation and led the remainder of the force back to the correct point.

On approach to the target 'Hell's Wench' was hit by flak, the crew jettisoned his bombs as both wings were hit, and the aircraft began leaking fuel, and became engulfed in flames. At almost the same time, the aircraft had to break formation and pull up to avoid mid-air collisions with bombers from the 98th Bomb group, arriving in the target area from the opposite direction.

Despite attempts to gain altitude the aircraft lost speed in the climb, rolled over, crashed, and exploded in flames, killing everyone aboard.


World War II Database

Did you enjoy this photograph or find this photograph helpful? If so, please consider supporting us on Patreon. Even $1 per month will go a long way! Thank you.

Share this photograph with your friends:

Visitor Submitted Comments

1. Bill says:
16 Apr 2015 07:30:56 AM

One of WWIIs most famous photographs show one of the 179 B-24's flying over the oil refinery at Ploiesti, on 1 August 1943. B-24D 42-40402 flown by 1st.Lt. Robert Sternfels "Sandman" looks like he's about a 1,000 feet over the target of the 179 aircraft that took part in the raid, 53 were lost.

All visitor submitted comments are opinions of those making the submissions and do not reflect views of WW2DB.


The Truth About Tidal Wave: What Went Wrong?

The events in the skies over the Mediterranean and southern Europe on August 1, 1943, have long been a historical bone of contention. On that fateful day 178 Consolidated B-24D Liberators of five heavy bomb groups, carrying more than 500 tons of bombs, took off from bases in Libya on one of the most audacious aerial raids in history, code-named Operation Tidal Wave. Their targets were vital oil refineries around the Romanian city of Ploesti. Seven of Europe’s largest and most modern refineries were targeted, including Astra Romana, capable of processing more than 2 million tons of oil per year. Ploesti produced all the aviation fuel used by the Luftwaffe.

The raid was conceived by Colonel Jacob Smart, at the time considered one of the best planners in the U.S. Army Air Forces. After following a carefully laid-out course, the bombers would descend to low altitude along the southern foothills of the Transylvanian Alps to reach the third and final initial point (IP), then turn southeast toward the refineries. They would attack at low level in a five-mile-wide swath, aiming for pinpoint targets to destroy the key installations without hitting the city itself.

If all went well, the massive aerial assault would cut a third of Adolf Hitler’s oil refining capacity in less than 20 minutes.

But all did not go well, and after a disheartening series of mistakes, accidents, bad luck and determined enemy defense, Tidal Wave succeeded in destroying only two of the refineries and damaging three others—at the terrible cost of 54 Liberators. After nearly 16 hours and some of the most savage and desperate fighting ever seen in the air, 310 men were dead, more than 300 wounded and 108 taken prisoner in Romania. More were imprisoned in Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, or interned in Turkey.

What went wrong? That question was officially answered by the USAAF two weeks after Tidal Wave, but to this day it has inspired endless debate among military historians. Among the official explanations was the loss of the lead mission navigator on a plane that unaccountably fell into the Ionian Sea. But there was much more to the story.

Participants in the raid included two bomb groups of Maj. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton’s Ninth Air Force, the 376th “Liberandos” under Colonel Keith K. Compton and the 98th “Pyramiders” commanded by Colonel John “Killer” Kane. They were joined by three groups from the Eighth Air Force in England: Colonel Leon Johnson’s veteran 44th, the “Eight Balls” the 93rd “Traveling Circus,” commanded by Colonel Addison Baker and Colonel Jack Wood’s fledgling 389th “Sky Scorpions.”

Compton’s force increased altitude to 12,000 feet and maximized power, while Kane’s group remained at lower altitude and cruise power for maximum fuel economy, increasing the distance between the two main forces. A high storm front over Albania further separated the forces. Orders calling for total radio silence made it impossible to regroup.

Finally, a disastrous wrong turn short of the final IP by Compton and Baker caused the leading groups to head for Bucharest instead of Ploesti. After that the entire mission was a shambles. Compton ordered the 376th to break off the bomb run and hit targets of opportunity. The 93rd was badly mauled attempting to hit White Four, Kane’s target.

Group, squadron and element leaders, pilots and bombardiers had to improvise and do the best they could. Kane’s and Johnson’s groups, arriving almost 20 minutes later, were forced to bomb burning targets, further adding to the day’s chaos. The alerted German and Romanian defenders found the Americans’ low-flying bombers easy targets, and Liberators fell with terrifying frequency.


A radar-directed flak battery awaits B-24s in the distance. German and Romanian defenders found the low-flying Liberators easy targets. (National Archives)

Those are the main points of what history considers the reason for Tidal Wave’s failure. Yet history is rarely chiseled in stone. And the best source of information is often those who were there.

Major Robert W. Sternfels is a veteran of Kane’s 98th Bomb Group at Ploesti. On the drive to White Four, Sternfels was in the thick of it, at the controls of his Liberator, The Sandman. Perhaps the most iconic image from the raid shows The Sandman emerging from a pall of smoke and flames as it skirts refinery smokestacks at White Four.

When large aircraft fly in close formation, it creates turbulence capable of tossing 30-ton bombers around like leaves in a storm. “The prop wash was fierce,” Sternfels recalled during an interview at his Laguna Beach home.“Both my copilot Barney Jackson and I had our hands full just trying to stay on the bomb run.”

He has vivid memories of following Kane along the railroad line leading to the city. The Germans had put an ingenious flak train on the tracks paralleling the bomb run. It hosed deadly point-blank anti-aircraft fire into the low-flying B-24s. Kane led his 39 planes right into the fires and towering black smoke rising from Astra Romana, already hit by bombs from the shattered Traveling Circus.

Sternfels, a veteran with more than 300 combat hours on 50 missions, admitted he had never seen anything like it before or since. “When we went into that black smoke, I could only use instruments. Balloon cables were all around,” he said, referring to the low barrage balloons with explosive-laced cables the Germans had deployed over the refineries, “but I couldn’t see them. The right wing struck one and fortunately the propeller broke it. I was more scared at that moment than I’ve ever been in combat. I don’t know what we hit with our bombs. The target was nearly impossible to see.”

Many of the bombers ended up as long flaming smears of wreckage in the fields around the target. Somehow the pilots of The Sandman managed to bring their ship and crew back to Benghazi, one of the 26 survivors of Kane’s original force.


B-24D crew of "The Sandman”: (standing, from left) Major Robert W. Sternfels, pilot copilot Barney Jackson navigator Tony Flesch bombardier Dave Polaschek flight engineer Bill Stout (kneeling, from left) radioman Frank Just and gunners Harry Rifkin, N. Petri, Merle Boland and Raymond Stewart. This photo was taken after the Ploesti raid. Note balloon cable scar to the left of crew on fuselage. (Courtesy of Robert W. Sternfels)

According to Sternfels, there was a lot more going on behind the scenes that affected the mission’s outcome than is commonly known. The roots lay with Colonel Jacob Smart, the man most responsible for the audacious Tidal Wave plan. “Smart conceived the entire low-level concept, the route, approach and bomb run for each plane,” said Sternfels.

The four main groups were to turn onto the bomb run in waves of several planes each, keeping formation in the turn. Smart sold the idea to the USAAF brass, but the men who would actually have to carry it out didn’t think it could be done. Among those was Kane, who never minced words in expressing himself. “During the initial mission briefing meeting Kane said, ‘What idiot armchair lawyer from Washington planned this one?’” remembered Sternfels. “It looked good on paper, but that turn was totally impractical.”

Smart’s lack of understanding of how large bombers behaved in close formation was obvious to the pilots. “We practiced staying in try even once and wouldn’t work. And that’s exactly what happened. We were in formation as we reached the IP. But after that turn the entire formation was scattered and it was impossible to get it back together in the few minutes we had before we reached the target. We were supposed to be in the fourth wave, but were so tossed around, to this day I can’t tell you which wave we ended up in.”

Sternfels related one surprising incident that revealed Smart’s unsuitability for the task of planning the raid. “On July 15, just two weeks before Tidal Wave, my crew and I were preparing for a mission to Foggia, Italy, when a staff car pulled up. And out stepped Smart, fully geared up in brand-new flight suit and Mae West life preserver. He came up to me and said, ‘I’d like to fly with you today as an observer.’ Smart was on the flight deck with me, Barney and our flight engineer, Sergeant Bill Stout. He was standing there between our seats watching as we went through our checklist. I asked him if he would step back to let my flight engineer come forward and call out speed and engine readings. Smart did so and we took off.”


A wave of B-24Ds from the 44th Bomb Group bores in on Ploesti's burning Colombia Aquila refinery on August 1. (National Archives)

On the way north toward Italy, Smart again came between the pilots’ seats. Then he did something virtually unheard of in any aircraft. “He reached out to adjust the fuel mixture controls,” said Sternfels, still astonished after more than 68 years. “You just don’t do that if you’re a passenger. Even a general doesn’t do that without the pilot’s permission. I didn’t say anything but adjusted the mix to what I wanted and we flew on. A little while later, Smart did it again!” That was too much of a breach of protocol for Sternfels.“I said,‘Colonel, please don’t touch the controls!’ He didn’t say anything.

“In 1993 I went to South Carolina to interview Smart,” the veteran pilot related. The meeting between the Tidal Wave planner and pilot was pleasant but brought an astonishing revelation. “I always wanted to ask him about his actions in my plane,” Sternfels recalled. “But I didn’t want to just come out with it. So I asked him in a roundabout way, ‘By the way, how many hours did you have in B-24s before that mission with me?’” Smart’s answer stunned Sternfels. The man who had conceived and planned the complicated raid admitted, “I just completed my first check-out ride the week before.” So until just three weeks prior to the huge mission he had planned nearly six months earlier, Smart was totally unfamiliar with the B-24D or how it handled in close formation. “I don’t know if he flew a combat mission prior to Foggia,” Sternfels said.

Sternfels also asked Smart, “Why didn’t we send some [de Havilland] Mosquitoes to photograph the target?” Smart said they didn’t want to alert the Germans. “So our briefings never mentioned the heavy flak or barrage balloons,” Sternfels pointed out. “We were told the flak guns were manned by Romanians who would run to the shelters when we flew over. We didn’t know how vicious the flak would really be. They knew we were coming. Maintaining radio silence was a moot point. Of course no one could know that then, so we can’t be blamed for trying to keep the Germans in the dark. However, radio silence worked against the mission as soon as things went wrong.”

According to Sternfels, however, a far more telling reason for Tidal Wave’s ultimate tragedy rested with another man, Colonel Keith Compton, who led the mission. “I don’t like to say anything bad of a man who is no longer alive to defend himself,” Sternfels commented cautiously, “but Compton was very confident and at times arrogant. He was accustomed to doing things his own way. That was a primary reason for the way the mission came apart.” Sternfels’ reasoning was based on his own observations before, during and after Tidal Wave and examination of documents and photos. He interviewed several other veterans of the operation, including Compton in 2000, at that time a retired lieutenant general.


“The Sandman” narrowly avoids colliding with three smokestacks as it emerges from the smoke of the burning Astra Romana refinery. (National Archives)

Compton’s lead 376th Liberator, Teggie Ann, which also carried the mission commander, Brig. Gen. Uzal W. Ent, took off from Benghazi at 0600. Berka Two and Terria, the 376th and 93rd bases, were much closer to the coast than Lete, Kane’s field. Once the Liberandos were assembled, Compton put his plane on high power settings and headed north. In a relatively short time the 376th and the 93rd were far ahead of the 98th’s desert-weary ships, which stayed at lower power settings because Kane was concerned about wearing out their sand-scoured engines. “The gap started at takeoff and widened over the Mediterranean,” Sternfels explained. “Compton never gave a thought to the following groups.”

More controversy surrounded the bomber carrying 1st Lt. Robert W. Wilson, whom some sources say was the lead mission navigator. After a series of violent pitch oscillations, the B-24 Wilson was aboard, Lieutenant Brian Flavelle’s Wongo Wongo!, flipped onto its back and fell into the Ionian Sea, killing the entire crew.

“Losing a plane and crew was bad enough,” said Sternfels. “But Flavelle wasn’t carrying the lead navigator. That implies he led the mission. If Flavelle was in the lead ship, Compton would have seen him go down.” Several other crews did see the crash.

“Compton told me he didn’t learn about Flavelle’s crash until he returned to Benghazi,” Sternfels pointed out. “Compton admitted he led the mission from takeoff to landing. I found documentation to back it up.”

Another B-24 piloted by Lieutenant Guy Iovine dropped out of the formation to assist Flavelle. “They later said they wanted to drop life rafts,” he explained. “They weren’t able to climb to rejoin the mission and had to turn back. But there’s no way to drop life rafts from a B-24D. They’re in compartments on the top of the fuselage. You can’t get at them in flight.” Some sources say Iovine’s plane was carrying the deputy mission navigator.

By the time the leading groups reached the mountains of Albania, Compton and Kane were separated by at least 30 miles. Ploesti, a controversial book by James Dugan and Carroll Stewart, claimed that storm clouds over the Albanian mountains convinced Kane to begin circling for what was known as “frontal penetration,” a maneuver to prevent collisions in clouds. This earned a strong comment from Sternfels: “We never did that. That was a fictional explanation for the wide gap between the two formations. But it never happened. In fact I’d never heard of it until long after the war. Our navigation logs show we climbed and worked our way through.” The book also stated that at Compton’s altitude, there was a strong tailwind that was not present at Kane’s altitude, further adding to the gap. This was untrue, according to Compton.

As for the confusion supposedly resulting from the loss of the two most trained navigators, Sternfels said, “That’s baloney. If only two men knew the route, why did we take along 176 others? All the navigators were trained and had very cleverly drawn low-level course charts.”

How, then, could so many qualified navigators have failed to keep the force on course at the critical moment?

“I found a photo of Compton just prior to takeoff. In this photo, he is holding under his arm a set of charts and maps. Compton was familiar with the route and approach. But his job as the mission leader wasn’t to be looking at maps. That was Wicklund’s job,” Sternfels said, referring to Captain Harold Wicklund, one of the most experienced navigators in the USAAF. Wicklund had already flown to Ploesti on the “Halverson Project” raid of June 12, 1942.

According to Compton’s copilot, Captain Ralph Thompson, Compton had the charts and maps on his lap during the approach to the IP. “The 376th and 93rd reached the first IP at Pitesti and continued on,” said Sternfels. Kane and Johnson were by now almost 60 miles behind the lead force. “When they reached Targoviste, the second IP, Compton turned the force southeast,” he continued. “Most of the other pilots realized it wasn’t the right place.” Several Liberando pilots broke radio silence to let Compton know he had turned too early, but he didn’t have his radio turned on. If he had heard the calls, he might have saved the mission, as it would have taken only a few minutes to get back to the correct course. Instead, Compton continued on and didn’t realize his mistake until he saw the church spires of Bucharest ahead. At that point he asked Ent for permission to tell the group to break off and bomb targets of opportunity Ent agreed.

The Circus’ 32 remaining ships (five had turned back), led by Baker and Major John Jerstad in Hell’s Wench, turned east to try an improvised attack on Kane’s target, White Four. They flew into a deadly hailstorm of flak. German and Romanian gunners found ripe targets at point-blank range, and 88mm, 37mm and 20mm batteries took a terrible toll on the low-flying B-24s. When the Circus emerged from the smoke and carnage, Hell’s Wench wasn’t among them. Only 15 of the attacking 93rd Group Liberators returned to Benghazi.

“It still amazes me that Compton ordered the 376th to break off the bomb run and hit targets of opportunity,” said Sternfels. “Many planes just jettisoned their bombs rather than face the flak. They weren’t even under fire when he sent that order.”

Interviewed by Sternfels, bombardier 1st Lt. Lynn Hester said: “I wasn’t told to drop the bombs. Compton pulled the lanyard on the pilot’s pedestal and dropped them right through the doors, pulling them off their tracks. I never saw the target nor did I see the bombs explode.” Since a firing unit switch must be turned on for the ordnance to be fully armed, Compton’s bombs probably never exploded.

Then Compton compounded his error. After conferring with General Ent, he sent “MS” (mission successful) to Benghazi. The MS signal went out while the 93rd was being totally mauled.


Colonel Keith K. Compton turned too early, at Targoviste, compelling his 376th Group “Liberandos” to bomb targets of opportunity. (Courtesy of Robert W. Sternfels)

“Very few of the 376th bombed a refinery,” said Sternfels. “Otherwise they’d have lost a lot more planes flying into that flak.” Only three of the 28 Liberandos B-24s managed to do any real good with their bombs. “Those were led by Major Norman Appold, a very smart and excellent pilot,” he said. Appold took his element around the city and hit White Two, a Circus target.

Kane’s, Johnson’s and Wood’s groups made the correct turn. But by then Tidal Wave had become a total debacle. The flak train, flak batteries and fighters were fully alerted.

After Compton returned to Benghazi, he went into conference with Brereton and Ent. A photo Sternfels found after the war tells a very compelling story. “It was taken only minutes after Compton’s plane landed,” he explained. “If you look at his face, he doesn’t look like a man who led a successful mission, nor does he look like someone who ran into a ton of bad luck. He looks guilty.”

Tidal Wave’s final outcome was both a failure and a success. While only two refineries were totally destroyed and three others moderately damaged, the raid eliminated vital oil refining capacity just when Hitler’s war machine needed it most to stop the relentless Soviet drive toward the Fatherland.

In the wake of the costly mission, the USAAF awarded five Medals of Honor to pilots, both living and dead. Kane was honored for leading his group into the fires and smoke of White Four. Johnson, whose 44th successfully struck White Five, also received the medal. Three medals were awarded posthumously: to Baker and Jerstad of Hell’s Wench, and to the 389th’s Lieutenant Lloyd D. Hughes, who dropped his bombs on target despite flames erupting from his B-24. Every man who participated in Tidal Wave was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

There were countless other stories of heroism in the deadly skies over Ploesti, some of which were recorded and others that will forever remain unknown. But to many who look back on the dangerous mission today, every single young man who climbed into a Liberator on that Sunday morning was a hero. That was certainly how Kane felt. A warrior with the soul of a poet, he wrote a deeply moving epitaph:

To you who fly on forever I send that part of me which cannot be separated, and is bound to you for all time. I send to you those of our dreams that never quite came true, the joyous laughter of our boyhood, the marvelous mysteries of our adolescence, the glorious strengths and tragic illusions of our young manhood, all of these that were and perhaps would have been, I leave in your care, out there in the blue.

Mark Carlson writes frequently on aviation topics from San Diego, Calif. Major Robert W. Sternfels (USAF, ret.) is the author (with Frank Way) of Burning Hitler’s Black Gold, which is recommended for further reading. Also see The Ploesti Raid Through the Lens, by Roger A. Freeman.

Originally published in the March 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.


Watch the video: Operation Tidal Wave, during World War II.. B-24s attacking the Ploiesti oil..HD Stock Footage (July 2022).


Comments:

  1. Brecc

    Wacker, by the way, this excellent phrase comes up right now

  2. Mikazshura

    ok movie?

  3. Zulukasa

    there should not be here error?

  4. Burneig

    The faithful idea



Write a message