The first air raid on Ploesti was conducted on 1 June 1942 by 13 B-24 bombers of Halverson Detachment, led by Colonel Harry A. "Hurry-Up" Halverson. The mission originated at Fayid, Africa. Twelve planes reached the target and bombed it from high altitude, escaping without loss. Damage to Ploesti was negligible. Three times during that first week in June, the Soviet air force sent small numbers of bombers against Ploesti. The last inflicted some damage but at the cost of several Soviet planes and airmen. That ended Soviet interest in the refineries. At the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister L. S. Winston Churchill endorsed a plan to bomb Ploesti from North Africa. Planners decided a low-level attack would be safer and more productive than one from the traditional high level. Three U.S. B-24 bomb groups from England were added to the two in Brigadier General Uzal G. Ent's IX Bomber Command, which was already in North Africa.
After studying the plan (code-named tidal wave) with his commanders and staff, General Ent wrote a note to his superior officer, Major General Lewis H. Brereton, recommending against a low-level mission. Ent did not know that this had already been decided at the highest level. Once informed of this, he began intensive training of the five groups.
On 1 August 1943, 178 B-24s departed for Ploesti. Eleven bombers either aborted or were lost en route to the target. Unknown to the Allies at the time, the Germans detected and traced the air armada from takeoff all the way to the target. As a result, German air defense fighter squadrons and antiaircraft defenses were fully alerted, the German fighters being particularly effective against the bombers during the return from the mission.
Because of a navigational error, the bomb runs could not all be made as planned. Nonetheless, substantial damage was inflicted on several refineries. Oil production was reduced only in the short term, however. The bombing results did prove that the low-level attack destroyed more of the target area than raids made from high altitudes. However, at this point in the war, the 2,700-mile round-trip raid by unescorted bombers was an epic. Losses, although heavy, were less than General Ent had anticipated. He had told his men that returning from the mission was "secondary." American losses included 310 men killed and some 130 wounded (including those who crashed or landed in neutral territory). Eighty-eight aircraft returned to base, but only 33 were fit to fly, and Ent had just over half his original complement of airmen. For this raid, five men were awarded the Medal of Honor, three of them posthumously. Ent and several others were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, America's second-highest award for heroism.
Ploesti had an impressive and deadly array of antiaircraft guns and fighter planes to defend the area during that 1 August 1943 raid. But following the raid, German General Alfred Gerstenberg, who commanded Ploesti's defenses during the entire campaign, improved the defenses with additional guns and planes and, as a final touch, smoke pots. These pots were scattered throughout the refinery area and could be lit to cover the targets with smoke, no matter which way the wind was blowing. Gerstenberg was resourceful. He also installed an oil pipeline system, linking all the refineries, so that oil could be diverted from more damaged refineries to those less damaged or undamaged, maintaining optimal output.
Between 5 April and 19 August 1944, the U. S. Fifteenth Air Force made 5,479 high-level sorties in 19 raids against Ploesti, with a loss of 223 aircraft, representing 4.1 percent of the aircraft employed. On 10 June 1944, 46 P-38 fighters made a low-level attack, and 24 were lost. Some 2,829 American airmen were killed or captured during the entire campaign. During the summer of 1944, Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF) flew 924 high-level sorties against Ploesti, in which 38 planes (4.1 percent) were lost.
In the raids, the Fifteenth Air Force and the RAF destroyed nearly 1.2 million tons of Ploesti oil production, amounting to 84 tons of oil lost for each ton of bombs dropped. When Soviet troops entered Ploesti on 30 August 1944, they found five refineries producing about 20 percent of normal production. Uzal W. Ent
Dugan, James, and Carroll Stewart. Ploesti: The Great Ground-Air Battle of 1 August 1943. New York: Random House, 1962.; Newby, Leroy W. Target Ploesti: View from a Bombsight. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1983.; Wolff, Leon. Low Level Mission. New York: Berkley Publishing, 1958.
Uzal W. Ent