Read Ploesti: The Great Ground-Air Battle of 1 August 1943 Online

Authors: James Dugan,Carroll Stewart

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Ploesti: The Great Ground-Air Battle of 1 August 1943 (3 page)

BOOK: Ploesti: The Great Ground-Air Battle of 1 August 1943
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A few hours after take-off the Kremlin granted permission for them to
land in Russia, but the airmen were keeping complete radio silence and
could not be advised of it.



Kalberer, conning the lead ship, reached Constanta in the first glimmer
of dawn and sighted no other Liberator in the sky. But to the east there
was something that looked like the aurora borealis. It was caused by
the glowing trajectories of 36-inch German mortar shells falling into
Sevastopol in the ghastly battle of the Crimea. Kalberer turned west and
looked down at the Danube. The river outlines were completely unlike the
largest-scale map he had seen in Egypt. Then he realized that the Danube
was in heavy flood, the shorelines blotted out by muddy water. There
would be no neat fork and island to use as an Initial Point from which
to turn for Ploesti.



Behind him, over the Black Sea, One-Eyed Shea squinted for his second
landfall, a Romanian lighthouse near Constanta. After a period of suspense
he said, "I got her, fellows. But she seems to move." Wilkinson asked
for the bearing and took a look. He said, "Shea, you've got a damned
good fix on the planet Venus." The navigator said imperturbably,
"Check. Give 'er a ninety-degree turn, Lieutenant." Babe was over
Constanta harbor. Wilkinson said, "Kindly give me the bearing for Astro
Romana." Shea scribbled something and took his fur-lined jacket off the
bombsight; he had shivered the whole way across Turkey to keep it from
freezing up. In the Halpro force navigators also served as bombardiers
to save weight.



The crew, now over German territory, was solemn and silent, thinking
of fighters. Shea heard a shout on the intercom and thought. "Oh, boy,
here they come!" He looked out and saw Lieutenant Mark Mooty's Liberator,
the first plane they had seen since take-off. Shea waved to his colleague,
Lieutenant Theodore E. Bennett, in Mooty's greenhouse. Bennett shrugged
eloquently. He was lost too.



Below, they saw explosions flashing on the dusky earth. They didn't
know whether thcy were bombs bursting or muzzle flashes of flak guns,
having seen neither phenomenon before. The scattered mission, unable
to pick up landmarks, now came into thick cloud. Little Eva, with her
frozen fuel transfer system, lost three engines. The crew struggled to
regain them as the plane turned back. Little Eva dumped her bombs on
shipping at Constanta.



"Well, navigator?" said the pilot of Babe the Big Blue Ox. Shea figured
he had to be over the Astro Romana refinery and toggled the first live
bombs he had ever dropped. Babe leaped with relief and Wilkinson wheeled
her about and streaked for the Black Sea. He landed at Aleppo, Syria,
and was surrounded by tommy gunners. A French officer said to his men,
"Put down the guns. They're the same types as those who have just landed."
Another Halpro plane was at Aleppo.



Lieutenant Mooty landed safely on an Iraqi waste near the Euphrates. The
Liberator was encircled by a band of desert brigands. The American gunners
prepared to defend themselves in the fashion of a wagon train beleaguered
by the Sioux, and were saved in the nick of time by the cavalry, in the
form of a French armored car.



Short of gas, Little Eva landed on the civil airport at Ankara, Turkey.
The airport manager rushed over and gave Charles Davis a box of candy.
A Turkish officer looked at the plane and said, "Little Eva? If this is
little Eva, what must big Eva be like?" As the crew breakfasted in the
airport café on syrupy coffee and goat cheese, two more B-24's landed,
followed by a Messerschmitt 109, which had chased them all the way from
Romania. All three were out of gas.



Another B-24 "christened" a nearly completed Turkish fighter base at
Istanbul. Aboard were the first U.S. Air Force men to be wounded over
Europe, pilot Virgil Anderson and gunner Enoch G. Kusilavage. They
had been hit, not too seriously, in a brush with a German fighter. The
remaining ships reached Iraq.



Halverson's Balkan incursion dealt little or no damage to the refineries.
Nonetheless, it was an outstanding feat of World War II airmanship,
especially in view of the extraordinary staging flights to Egypt. Twelve
of thirteen planes reached the Ploesti area. None were lost to the
Germans and not a man was killed. Halverson's mission had fared better
than Doolittle's Tokyo raid, the other product of Washington's revenge
impulse. Doolittle lost his sixteen aircraft; five men were killed and
four taken captive. Doolittle's "thirty seconds over Tokyo" received
great publicity for the benefit of home-front morale. Halverson got none.



The day after Halpro went to Ploesti not a word about it appeared in the
press. Washington did not issue a communiqué. The big air news
from Cairo that day was the stopover there of some Doolittle repatriates
on their way home from parachuting into China. The second day, newspapers
carried a squib from Ankara saying that unidentified bombers had landed
in Turkey. Washington's silence dealt German Propaganda Minister Joseph
Goebbels all the wild cards. He put out a communiqué saying
that the bombers had force-landed while dropping propaganda leaflets on
Turkey. Vichy Radio said they were American lend-lease planes trying to
reach Sevastopol. Goebbels thought of a better one and broadcast that
the bombers were Chinese. On the third day the
New York Times
rounded up Turkish dispatches under a six-column front-page headline:
Washington remained mute. No books, songs or war bond tours by Ploesti
heroes were laid on.



Few Romanians were aware that anything had happened; the best-informed
people in Bucharest adopted Vichy's line that U.S. planes had passed
over on a lend-lease flight to Russia. However, there was one man in
Romania who marked the event. Luftwaffe Colonel Alfred Gerstenberg,
military attaché to the German Embassy at Bucharest, called a meeting
of his Nazi "military assistance" staff and announced, "About fifteen
American heavy bombers of the newest long-range type penetrated Sectors
Sixty-five, Seventy-five, Eighty-five of Defense Zone Twenty-four East
[Ploesti-Constanta]. This is the beginning."



As the Halpro crews filtered back from Syria and Iraq, the defense of
the Mediterranean world was at its critical stage. Every man, ship,
tank and plane was committed to battle. German and British land forces
were fighting it out at Mersa Matrûh. The British garrison at Tobruk was
in extremis. An immense air-sea battle was forming around two British
convoys from Gibraltar and Alexandria which were taking relief to
Malta. The Royal Air Force and Navy in the Mediterranean were totally
engaged with the Luftwaffe. Even the temporizing Benito Mussolini,
prodded by the Germans, sent out the Regia Aeronautica and the Italian
fleet, which was the strongest in the sea.



Hurry-Up Halverson had not yet returned to base from Iraq. The R.A.F. told
Alfred Kalberer that the Italian fleet was out, and he asked Sam Nero
for bombers. It was precisely the situation for which the Consolidated
Liberator had been designed. In the spell cast by Mitchell and Nero's
battleship-sinking in the twenties, U.S. air strategy had dwelt on bombers
to defend the country from battleships. No one was more interested in
the practical test than Sam Nero, who furnished Kalberer with seven
B-24's plus a volunteer R.A.F. LB-30 Liberator.



Kalberer borrowed a young British Navy officer for each plane to
distinguish naval friend from foe. The bomber men were warned not
to attack submarines; a Royal Navy pigboat was stalking the Italian
fleet. And the fliers were to be careful about those whom Kalberer called
"the bravest men in the battle" -- R.A.F. pilots in old Beauforts, who
were flying out of a patch of ground in encircled Tobruk with torpedoes
slung beneath their craft. These lads were jabbing at the Italian
battleships through swarms of Junkers 88's that provided fleet air cover.



Kalberer took his small force over Mersa Matrûh. Below, there was a dun
blanket of tank wakes and shell bursts from which came occasional signal
flares and flames. British and Germans were dying by the hundreds beneath
this pall of dust. The Liberators tightened up into two flights and
went hunting over the blue sea, the Royal Navy boys in the greenhouses
intent with their binoculars. Kalberer's spotter called, "Smoke smudge
to the north, sir. Believe it is Admiral Vian's convoy, but we should
go closer to be sure it's ours." The spotter was right, but Admiral
Sir Philip L. Vian's naval escort was no longer with the convoy. He had
had to turn back the night before with just enough oil left to reach
his only bunkering port in Alexandria. The merchantmen were alone with
the Italian fleet rushing toward them at thirty knots. As Kalberer went
closer to have a look, "everything that convoy had started busting
around us." The merchant gun crews were taking no chances. They had no
idea that the four-engined bombers might be trying to help them. Some
of the freighters were American.



Kalberer's formation scattered from the fire. He broke radio silence to
reassemble the planes out of gun range. The R.A.F. Liberator radiophoned,
"Flight Leader. We've been shot up. Must turn back, sorry." As the LB-30
turned back, Kalberer's tunnel gunner handed him a six-inch piece of spent
flak that had arrived through the skin of the plane and said bitterly,
"I'll bet it's from a lend-lease shell." This set them all laughing and
they settled back to combat intent. The saucy convoy fell behind and
Kalberer began bridging the distance from it to the Italian fleet. Only
unfriendly fire was expected ahead.



He was flying at 14,000 feet. He planned to hold there until the Italian
naval gunners had fused their shell bursts for that altitude. Then he
would lead his B-24's into a rapid banking dive of a thousand feet to
throw off the enemy aim and fuse settings, and cross the ships at beams'
ends to bomb. Soon he saw a magnificent sight -- the oncoming warships
steaming close together at flank speed with bones in their teeth, led
by what seemed a capital ship, speeding along, flanked by two cruisers
and the darting white wakes of nervous protecting vessels. About 1,500
feet above the Italian fleet the Junkers shuttled.



As the B-24's roared on into the climax, no fire came up, yet everyone
below seemed alert and busy. The German planes buzzed back and forth, but
showed no climbing profile to the Liberators. Bernard Rang, Kalberer's
navigator-bombardier called, "I've got the battleship. What are we
waiting for?" Kalberer nearly overshot the dreamy target. He dived
his four Liberators, and the second flight went for a cruiser. Even on
the bomb run there was no opposition. Kalberer said, "The Ju-88's were
looking for low-flying Beauforts and we were flying into a headwind that
carried off our engine noise."



Bernard Rang toggled five 500-pound bombs and his colleagues dropped
fifteen more almost in unison. Most of them crashed on the main deck
of the big ship,* setting fires. The second flight dropped a higher
percentage on the cruiser Conte di Cavour. The Liberators were out
of range before the flak started. "It was the rare perfect bombing
operation," said Kalberer. "We attained complete surprise and wasted
very few bombs. The two ships stopped dead in the water, and the Ju-88's
climbed after us. We dived to within ten feet of the waves and made it
home untouched, except for the 'friendly' damage."



* In 1945 an Italian admiral from this ship told Kalberer it was
the Littorio.



Germans aboard the stricken vessels tried to force the Italian commanders
to continue toward the convoy. While the intra-Axis issue was being
debated, the British submarine sank the cruiser. The two remaining Italian
capital ships limped back to Taranto and never went to war again. The
Allied freighters reached Malta carrying the supplies that guaranteed
the island's fortitude would win out.



Back in Fayid, Sam Nero greeted Kalberer with laurels, the first can of
Spam in Africa. "It tasted great," said the victor. His crew walked three
miles across the desert to the operations shack and found nobody around
except a ground officer, staring into his fourth pink gin. "Ruddy show is
finished," said the reception committee. "Rommel's broken through. Army's
pulling out of Egypt." In came the R.A.F. officer who had briefed them on
the Italian fleet. He heard Kalberer's story with eyes shining. "Bloody
well done!" he said, running to Signals to spread the news.



Rang was interviewed by an American reporter. To convey the impression of
hitting a battleship, the bombardier said, "It was like shooting fish in
a barrel!" The British coninuniqué on the Mediterranean battle properly
acknowledged the contribution of "four-engined American Liberators." This
cracked Washington's silence on Halpro. The Air Force announced that
the Halverson Detachment was responsible and had earlier attacked "the
Balkans." It was Washington's combined birth and death notice for Halpro.



Harry Halverson, whose remarkable feats were thus meagerly acknowledged,
was down to a fraction of his task force; moreover, he was overloaded with
personal problems. He fell into a heated argument on bombing tactics with
a very senior and stuffy R.A.F. officer and was sent home and retired.



Mickey McGuire and Al Kalberer took over what was left and ran 63
short-range raids against Rommel. They were reinforced by a dozen
battle-weary flying Fortresses from the other side of the world, the
remnant of the U. S. Far East Air Force, under a chipper little general
named Lewis H. Brereton. Brereton was a 1911 graduate of the U.S. Naval
Academy who had switched to a second lieutenancy in the Army Coast
Artillery, then to the flying Corps. He was smarting with defeats; the
Japanese had chased his planes out of Indonesia and then out of Burma,
and now it looked as though those left were joining another losing
cause against Erwin Rommel. Brereton was immediately obliged to remove
his B-17's and the Halpro Liberators from Egypt to Lydda, Palestine,
to save them from destruction on the ground.
BOOK: Ploesti: The Great Ground-Air Battle of 1 August 1943
5.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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