23 aircraft went down in the immediate Ploesti area out of the 54 total lost on TIDAL WAVE. Aside from the apparently obvious reason, why did so many go down in the target area? What exactly did the crews face in there? It turns out there were two major reasons, one a serious technical error in configuration of the planes for the mission and the other the heavy flak.
I’ll discuss the massive technical problem, which was entirely due to a failure of command, during the documentary. But let’s look at the flak issue for a moment. The planners knew flak in the area was heavy and probably extremely heavy. This was one of the primary reasons they were directed to go in at low level.
Losses were bound to be heavy, but if they eliminated most or all of Romania’s refining capacity in one blow the losses could be borne. Losses at high altitude might be less, but remember that at the time 8th Air Force’s high altitude bombing CEP (Circular Error Probable, a circle within which 50% of the bombs fell) was officially about 1500′ but in reality more like two miles. (Yes, there is a story behind this . . .)
This means 50% of all bombs dropped fell more than two miles from the intended target. It does NOT mean the other 50% of the bombs fell ON the target, it means the other 50% struck two miles or less from the target. Often only a handful of bombs actually struck within the actual target perimeter, and sometimes only one or two actually hit a vital structure.
At that time targets were not destroyed from high altitude with precision; they bashed at them until the target was immobilized. As the result, many high altitude missions would need to be flown to accomplish the goal of destroying Romania’s petroleum contributions to the Axis war effort, as was proven in the protracted 1944 Romanian oil bombing campaign.
Low-level attack also promised the advantage of surprise, which if achieved meant a better chance of eliminating the target in one attack.
By the way, was the attack in reality a surprise to the Germans and Romanians? Not fast, grasshopper. What you think you know about this may not be correct . . .
Senior Allied commanders prohibited any pre-attack high altitude photo reconnaissance in the apparent belief that if they showed no obvious interest in the target the Axis would not bother to adequately defend it. This ignores the fact that Ploesti produced about 1/3 of the total European Axis petroleum products, the Soviets had attacked Ploesti repeatedly in 1941 and the AAF (HALPRO) in 1942.
Frankly, any idiot could see it was a major target. This failure to obtain up-to-date information meant neither the planners nor crews really knew what defenses they would face, instead having to rely the US Army attaché in Bucharest’s 1941 reports as the most recent information.
So, what did "heavy defenses" really mean? Allied intelligence knew the German 5th Flak Division was headquartered in Ploesti and responsible for defending the area. So what did that mean? How many guns? What caliber? Located where? What interlocking fields of fire? What were the best/safest approach routes, etc, etc. None of this was available to the TIDAL WAVE planners.
Luckily I found the August 1943 German and Romanian flak location maps for Ploesti showing the siting of each flak battery. Even luckier, I found the August 1943 flak coverage maps, which show the physical area each gun battery was capable of defending.
It took me weeks to create the map* you see above (you’ll have to wait for the documentary to see a higher resolution version, plus the animated version that tells an even more terrifying story). Yeah, I know it’s hard to see, but it gives you a taste of what you can look forward to seeing in my documentary!
* (And this is one of the simpler maps I’ve needed to create to properly tell the TIDAL WAVE story)