William J. Fili
In traveling the air show circuit it never fails that someone will visit my display about that air war over Europe and in particularly the low level mission to destroy the Ploiesti oil complexes they make some acccusing remarks like "How you guys really screwed up that mission". That always made my blood boil. I must thank our great Deity who gave me the patience and self control not to respond in kind. These persons make such statements without any knowledge of what took place in those Liberator bombers. The renowned broadcaster Walter Cronkite did not help to make this explanation any easier. But I'm going to try and to honor all those Intrepid Airmen who gave their lives on that mission and to salute all the others who were lucky enough to survive and come home to a peaceful life in America.
The destruction of the Ploiesti Oil Complexes became the highest priority of all the targets in Europe. The attack was assigned to Colonel Jacob Smart -- a brilliant strategist and the attack was nicknamed Tidal Wave. Why it was named Tidal Wave or who assigned it that name is not now known. Contrary to published accounts of that air war over Europe the B-17 Flying Fortress was not the first American bomber to drop bombs on Europe on August 17,1942. The first bombs came from 13 Liberators flying from Egypt and were known as the Halverson Project. Little damage was inflicted on the targets and no post mission briefings were recorded. But it did alert the German Whermacht that the protection of Ploiesti should be given the highest priority. As a result of the Halverson Liberators -- Hitler sent the most capable of all his military officers/ commanders - - Colonel Alfred Gerstenberg -- to command the protection forces at Ploiesti. The men who flew the Tidal Wave Mission are the only ones who saw and experienced the capability -- uniqueness -- foresight ability of this German commander who engineered the defenses of those oil complexes.
The recorded history of Tidal Wave and Ploiesti is preserved in the National Archives and need not be repeated in this paper. The actual film footage is limited to only a few minutes since most of the photographers that went on this mission had paid the ultimate price with their lives. This paper will try to set in the proper context of the events leading up what is wrongly being called the ultimate mistake and wrong turn by so many Tuesday morning quarterbacks -- the same people who have no idea what it was like to fly those missions -- four miles up and out of the reach and protective arms and bosom of Mother Earth.
Of the one hundred and seventy seven liberators that took off from the Libyan Desert on Sunday Morning August 1, 1943 only one hundred and sixty two made it to the target area. Of that number -- who were ready to do battle -- fifty three liberators were shot down with five hundred and thirty men on board. Only one hundred and thirty airmen lived to talk about their experiences on that awesome mission. With a few exceptions these survivors received life threatening wounds and most of them were hospitalized. These facts were never expressed in the film documentary by the news media. Instead they -- the media -- did everything they could to find some astounding facts that could lead people to believe there existed gross negligence on the part of the leaders of Tidal Wave. They focused on the wrong turn -- a mistake -- made by the mission commander Colonel K.K. Compton and General Ent.
The primary objective of Tidal Wave was to deprive the Nazis of their major oil supply with the ripple effect of shortening the war. It did succeed in that more than fifty percent of their petroleum supplies were delayed for about six months. To control the flight and location of one hundred and sixty two huge four engine Liberators flying at tree top level for hours at a time is to say -- it was extremely hazardous duty -- and was accomplished by volunteer crews.
When the lead group climbed over those Yugoslav mountains and started their dive to the Danube River -- and the tree top altitude-- they did not know they picked up a tail wind and increased the distance between themselves and the following groups who were not blessed with the increased ground speed. The first group consisted of about 40 Liberators of the 376th Bomb Group.
Arriving at what they thought was the IP (initial point) to start their bomb run on Ploiesti they turned toward the oil complexes. In just a few minutes they did discover their error. But how do you turn around forty, four engine, bombers in the short radius that would be required to make a navigational change. It cannot be done by snapping ones finger as can be done if one was flying a fighter plane. They had no choice but to continue on and make a deliberate slow 180 degree turn back to the north. By this time they were at the northern outskirts of the city of Bucharest -- the headquarters of the German Defence Command and the Luftwaffe.
If the lead bomber was able to abruptly turn the formation he could not because in his mind he knew the following bombers were close behind and had to avoid the possibility of mid air collisions. Colonel Compton did not know about the increased separations of the formations. He made the best decision he could have and continued on with the slow turn to the north and back to the target. The historians and the media, relates in the documentary that they went all the way to the German Headquarters to alert them -- to let the Germans know they were there. Common sense and normal intelligence dictates that the Germans knew they were coming to Ploiesti the minute they took off from those Libyan Desert air bases. But they did not know the timetable and did not have radar tracking all the way across the Balkan Countries. Again using common sense and by using any fifth grade geography maps it will show that the distance between Ploiesti and Bucharest is only about thirty five miles. Flying so many four engine liberator bombers at tree top level at full throttle it would only take a few minutes to go from Ploiesti to Bucharest while trying to turn the formation back to the target area. This formation did not alert the German Defense Command -- the Germans were preparted to-do battle. If they were not prepared why then did the gunners notice the hay stacks and trucks open up with anti aircraft guns hidden in them? why were so many of the bombers shot down?
As attested to by the men who survived in the prison camp -- no bombers were shot down by friendly fire or by flying into each other. When the twelve bombers flew into the smoke and exited the other side with only nine bombers no one was able to say just what happened. The survivors will have to wait until eternity to find that answer.
The most important fact about Tidal Wave was denied publication to the public and Mankind itself by the Historians and the Media. To fly from Libya to Ploiesti was a twelve hour round trip flight. Before taking off the planning and training took about six weeks. From June of 1942 until August 1, 1943 the German Commander -- Colonel Alfred Gerstenberg -- had all of fouteen months to plan for the defenses of Ploiesti. Gerstenberg must have been psychic to have known that any attacking Bombers would come from the east for that is where he had placed all of his hay stacks and trucks. In essence the Germans had fourteen months to prepare for battle -- The American crews had only six hours to prepare for that awesome air battle.
The irony of Tidal Wave was Colonel Jacob Smart preparing to attack the aggressor -- Colonel Alfred Gerstenberg -- each knowing what had to be done and each trying to out guess the other. It was almost a repeat of the acts of General George Patten preparing to do battle with Field Marshall Rommel in North Africa.
Historians and the media did not tell Mankind that those Intrepid American Airmen were determined and brave enough to go against an enemy who was well experienced in aerial and ground combat. These men -- most in their lated teens -- did battle with a most formidable and determined enemy. Their efforts to help bring about the end of World War II will forever be remembered in the annuals of aviation history.
Of the one hundred and thirty men who survived being shot down at Ploiesti on August 1, 1943 only forty seven are alive today. It is hoped that on August 1, 1999 -- the fifty sixth anniversary of the Tidal Wave Mission -- all will be attending a reunion and memorial service in the Philadelphia area. An invitation is being extended to anyone who would like to attend these services in honor of those brave American kids who fought so valiantly for our Freedom. The reunion will begin July 28, 1999 through August 2, 1999. For more information contact this web host at Basino@verizon.net.