Known as “Hitler’s gas station,” an enormous complex of Romanian oil refineries was by 1943 supplying 30 to 50 percent of the Third Reich’s fuel. Instead of drawn-out high-altitude strikes, Ninth Air Force strategists envisioned a decisive knockout inflicted by Consolidated B-24s attacking from just 200 feet. Advantages of a ground-skimming raid in lumbering bombers with no fighter escort included evading German radar and can’t-miss bomb delivery. The drawbacks: almost everything else.
Selection of the B-24 for the risky assignment was a no-brainer: Deployment of the new B-29 Superfortress was confined to the Pacific, so the Liberator was the only U.S. bomber in the western hemisphere with the legs to complete the 2,400-mile round trip between Ploesti and Benghazi, Libya. Designed by Consolidated to one-up Boeing’s B-17, Liberators, only marginally heavier, delivered more bombs over a longer range. Though complex and finicky to fly and maintain, the B-24 was America’s most produced bomber—in 1944 the assembly lines of Consolidated and Ford rolled out a new one every 100 minutes.
Crew members of the five bomb groups assigned to the August 1, 1943 low-level raid were advised to leave behind letters to loved ones, to be mailed “in the event.” After a wrong turn upset mission choreography, 176 B-24s were set upon by 200 German fighters, then hammered by one of the heaviest anti-aircraft emplacements in the world; 54 bombers were lost, 440 fliers killed, and 220 captured or missing. Though 40 percent of the refinery’s capacity was destroyed, German and Romanian engineers, using thousands of slave laborers, repaired the damage within weeks.
“Sustained effort” now sounded better than “knockout punch.” Strategy shifted to 23 additional raids—most from above 20,000 feet—over 14 months, incrementally shutting off the Nazi oil tap. Rod Braswell piloted a Liberator to Ploesti in raids 3, 4, and 5. Because exact details of the August calamity were kept vague, Braswell had little idea of the fury awaiting him. “After my first mission, I did,” he says now.
Above the refineries, firmament turned to flak, impenetrable and indiscriminate. As 600 B-24s entered the chaotic target zone to dispense bombs ranging from fragmentation to incendiary to TNT, even the raptorial Messerschmitts shrank away. “They could get knocked down by all that anti-aircraft fire just like we could,” Braswell says. Battle orders issued to B-24 pilots enforced tight formations—wingtips frequently overlapped, says Braswell—and prohibited straying. Unless you were on fire, that is: “You didn’t want to blow up and take out the plane next to you.”
From his position “stuck in the middle” of the formation approaching Ploesti at less than 200 mph, Braswell recalls, “I could look out from my cockpit and see all those flak shells exploding over the target and planes ahead getting hit. And all that time I’m thinking, My turn is coming.”
As Ploesti raids continued that D-Day summer, American forces pushed into France. Army Air Force commander General Hap Arnold noted the increasing incidence of German vehicles being abandoned. It wasn’t from carelessness or cowardice, Arnold declared: “Those tanks and trucks are out of gasoline.”