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

Authors: James Dugan,Carroll Stewart

Tags: #History, #General

Ploesti: The Great Ground-Air Battle of 1 August 1943 (6 page)

BOOK: Ploesti: The Great Ground-Air Battle of 1 August 1943
9.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub



At this augmentation of enemy air power, Gerstenberg sent to Goering
for more men, guns and planes to defend Ploesti. He got a first-class
reinforcement, including an outstanding airman, Colonel Bernhard
Woldenga of Hamburg, who became Romanian fighter controller. Trim,
blue-eyed Woldenga was a former master mariner of the Hamburg-Amerika
Steamship Line. In the 1920's Hamburg-Amerika planned its own airline and
trained a half dozen of its ship captains, including Woldenga, as air
pilots. He joined the Luftwaffe in the mid-thirties, and after Hitler
marched in 1939, flew both bombers and fighters in Poland, Britain,
Greece and Russia. Gerstenberg especially welcomed Colonel Woldenga,
who came straight from eight months in North Africa managing fighters
against the B-24's of McGuire, Kane and Timberlake.



The quality of the enlisted technicians in Gerstenberg's new draft was
evidenced by Willi Nowicki,
, or armament warden, in the
614th Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion, which was pulled out of Germany
Christmas week and drawn nonstop to Ploesti in a double-locomotive
train. In civilian life Nowicki was a Brandenburg locksmith. He won a
master mechanic's certificate at the age of twenty-two, had worked before
the war constructing British air bases in the Suez, and, after the war
began, was a subcontractor in the German aircraft industry. Willi could
knock down and reassemble flak guns in astonishing time. His battery sat
on the southwest quadrant of Ploesti, through which Gerstenberg estimated
the American bombers would come, when they came. Battery Seven staked out
and dug in with six officers, 180 men and a hundred Russian prisoners
to do the heavy work. The battery implanted six 88-mm. rifles, the
versatile high-velocity artillery piece which served as an antiaircraft,
antitank, naval and general purpose gun. Waffenwart Nowicki's 88's were
named Adolf, Bertha, Caesar, Dora, Emile and Friederich. Bertha had four
white rings painted on her muzzle, one for each bomber she had shot down
in Germany. On the periphery of the battery there were four 37-mm. and
four 20-mm. guns.



Before long there were forty such batteries embracing the Anglo-American
salients of Festung Ploesti. Outside of them were lighter batteries
manned by Austrians and Romanians, and hundreds of machine-gun pits
and towers. More guns were mounted on factories, bridge approaches,
water towers, church steeples, and concealed in haystacks and groves.
To exercise the gunners, Colonel Woldenga sent old Heinkel 111 and
Junkers 52 bombers on unannounced mock attacks. In case the Americans
should actually be able to bomb through this awesome protection,
Gerstenberg secured from Germany a crack 500-man unit of fire police,
despite their urgent need at home in the mounting Anglo-American bombing
offensive. Corporal Werner Buchheim of Ulm, one of the fire fighters,
operated a mobile radio car with the call letters ICEBEAR, to link up
the active air defenses and the passive fire fighters and reconstruction
engineers. Gerstenberg was building the first air fortress in the world --
around an exposed industrial installation that could not go underground
or be dispersed. Ploesti was a colossal land battleship, armored and
gunned to withstand the heaviest aerial attack.



In addition to the massing of arms, Gerstenberg conceived a system
to restore production quickly if some of the bombers got through to
the refineries. He erected a trunk pipeline around Ploesti linking
all the refinery units. Refinery managers protested that they were
competing with each other and that a common circulation of oil would be
uncapitalistic. Gerstenberg paid no attention to them. His brilliant
scheme provided that if parts of several refineries were destroyed,
the pipeline would marry their surviving units to begin processing oil
immediately after a raid. The emergency pipeline stood exposed above
the ground so that bomb damage to it could be repaired quickly. Allied
Intelligence knew nothing about Gerstenberg's rapid recovery system.



In contrast to Gerstenberg's situation, his coming opponent's was most
uncomfortable. On the Libyan desert, crawling with scorpions, in dust
blowing shoulder-high, the Americans lay in a vast, unprepossessing
encampment, scattered forty miles north and south on the beach behind
the ruins of the Bronze Age city of Benghazi. Their threadbare tents were
patched with scraps of aluminum from neighboring junk yards of Axis air
wrecks. Around the tents bloomed "desert lilies," conical urinals made
from gas tins; oil drum privies; and cordons of fluttering rags marking
off old German mine fields and shell dumps, cunningly booby-trapped for
souvenir hunters.



In the morning the inhabitants of this unholy bivouac shuffled out,
fisting dust from their eyes, to a breakfast of pressed ham and dried
cabbage boiled in alkali water. Each man was rationed to one pint of water
a day. They were lean and dirty and some had beards and shoulder-length
hair. They wore tatters of U.S. uniforms, save for a lucky few with
British battle dress or German and Italian garments pulled out of dunes
shifted in the wind. Their shoes were held together with wires. They
seemed the final camp of a broken and demoralized army at the end of
a hopeless retreat. Actually they were among the early elite of the
mightiest air force the world has ever seen. This was Lewis Brereton's
Ninth Air Force Bomber Command in January 1943. It was incapable of
bombing Ploesti. However, at that moment, on the other side of Africa,
at Casablanca, a secret meeting was assigning just that mission to it.



At the Casablanca Conference, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill
met to settle on European land strategy once the Germans were expelled
from Africa. Both were under pressure from Stalin and agitation
in their own ranks for a second front -- mass landings in Atlantic
Europe to grapple Hitler from behind while Stalin hammered him from
the east. Churchill opposed a second front in 1943, as he had in 1942,
on the grounds that the Allies did not have the strength for it.



When the Casablanca elders chose Sicily as the next land objective,
the Prime Minister noted that the Americans were probably thinking,
"At any rate we have stopped Churchill from entangling us in the
Balkans." Churchill yielded gracefully on another friction point --
American high-level daylight bombing out of England, which he had come
to Casablanca to oppose. General Ira Eaker, chief of the U.S. Eighth Air
Force, who was trying to prove the concept with inadequate forces in a
season of foul weather, met Churchill privately and read off a list of
ten arguments for high daytime strikes. The master propagandist rolled
one of them aloud on his tongue -- "round-the-clock bombing" by the
R.A.F. and U.S.A.A.F. -- and withdrew his opposition until Eaker had
had a chance to demonstrate whether the tactic would work.



The British delegation came to Casablanca with a cautious brief for an
Allied invasion of the Balkans. It became apparent in the preliminary
pourparlers that the United States would be very difficult to persuade
to this course. Foreign Minister Anthony Eden made the Balkan proposal
while Mr. Churchill remained quiet. The Americans strongly opposed
the strategy, and Britain swiftly withdrew without involving the Prime
Minister. Later Churchill wrote about the incident somewhat elliptically:
"The American chiefs do not like to be outdone in generosity. No people
respond more spontaneously to fair play. If you treat Americans well,
they always want to treat you better." Perhaps it was this trait that
brought out the Ploesti folder and resulted in unanimous and enthusiastic
approval of the blow at Romanian oil production. Generals George Marshall
and Henry Arnold and the political side of the U.S. delegation were
strongly for the assault as a strategic imperative and as a project
that would please both Stalin and Churchill. Ploesti was a minor matter
compared with the momentous "unconditional surrender" declaration and
"Husky," the planned invasion of Sicily. Destroying Romanian refining
capacity would relieve pressure on Stalin and the Allies in Sicily. It
was estimated that the bombers could destroy one-third of Hitler's fuel
production and shorten the war in Europe by six months.



There was a large content of hope in the plan. An uninfluential group at
Casablanca regarded Ploesti as another "panacea target," the sort Sir
Arthur Harris, R.A.F. bomber command chief, railed against. Analysts
were always telling Bomber Harris that huge single raids on pet German
industries would shorten the war by six months. The skeptics had no
weight at Casablanca. The conference directed the Ninth Air Force to
bomb Ploesti sometime between the end of the African campaign and the
invasion of Sicily in order that bomber support would not be withheld from
these operations. The plan was called Tidal Wave. It was one of the few
instances in World War II in which the High Command handed down a major
task to a theater commander without asking him if it was feasible. At
this stage -- early in 1943 -- the only Ninth Air Force airmen who knew
of the intent were Brereton and his immediate staff.



The Ploesti mandate passed to General Arnold's inner circle, Generals
Heywood Hansell and Lawrence Kuter and Colonel Jacob Smart. The generals
assigned Smart to work up the bombing plan. He was a tall, sandy-haired
Southerner and a crack pilot whom Arnold often entrusted with viceregal
missions to overseas commands. Colonel Smart flew to Britain and enlisted
British Intelligence and R.A.F. tactical specialists, the most important
of whom was Lieutenant Colonel W. Lesley Forster, an old Balkan hand who
had managed the Astro Romana refinery at Ploesti for eight years. Lord
Forbes, the anxious avenger, was also brought in.



Forster briefed Smart on the peculiar industrial geography of Ploesti.
The refineries did not constitute a single large unit like most of the
familiar German targets. There were a dozen of them ringed around the
city, due to the unplanned growth of the oil industry. The first oil
wells in Romania were located in the Transylvanian foothills to the north
and were drained off in gravity pipelines to the convenient refining
city. As more refineries were built, they came to form a ring six miles
in diameter with their rails and delivery pipelines, pumping stations,
marshaling yards and trucking depots.



Smart did not have enough bombers to hit all the plants. He and Forster
selected the five major refineries, one on the north side of the city
and the others strung for five miles along the southern outskirts.
The target selection confronted Smart with the challenge of his career.
To drop anything in the city itself would be a waste of bombs and cause
useless civilian casualties. He had to find a way to hit only the outer
ring. It was like trying to bomb an atoll without dropping anything into
the lagoon. In addition, there were two other highly productive refineries
that should be struck if the raid was to be a telling blow at Hitler. One
was eighteen miles north of Ploesti and the other five miles south.



Furthermore, Forster pointed out that simply bombing a refinery would not
suffice. A single plant, like Creditul Minier, for instance, was dispersed
over an area of a mile to keep volatile processing units apart in case
of fire. The entire bomber strength Smart could hope for -- perhaps 200
planes -- could place all its bombs in the grounds of such a refinery and
fail to destroy it. What had to be hit were the relatively small critical
installations within the complex -- the powerhouse, boiler house, stills,
cracking towers and pumping stations. And Forster and Smart had reason
to believe these pinpoints would be surrounded by blast walls.



The Allied chiefs had given Jacob Smart a strategic mandate with no
known tactical solution.



He had also to consider that such a raid far into enemy territory
would be very costly in men and planes, far more expensive than other
missions. Such losses had to be offset by very heavy destruction to
the enemy's fuel production capacity. While balancing these questions,
Smart did not hesitate to ponder another, which is often the arbiter of
battles -- how to obtain surprise. To reach the target city the B-24's
would have to fly a round trip of at least 2,300 miles, most of it
over enemy territory. It would be the longest mission of the war, save
for Halpro. The odds against surprise seemed insurmountable. The enemy
certainly had radar, visual spotters and scounting planes to report the
inbound attacking force.



Smart's cerebrations on what was known, what was foreseeable, and
what could be imagined had a special intensity. He was going to fly
the mission himself. He looked for the best way to fly to Ploesti,
smash most of the production capacity, and get back with the most men,
including himself. Ploughing through the morass of implausibility, he
found a solution, "like bright metal on a sullen ground." It gleamed
so brightly that each difficulty seemed an omen of victory.



He conceived that the bombers would attack the refineries at very low



The idea seemed to have everything. It was a cunning psychological
trick. Everyone, including the Germans, knew the American monomania for
high-level attack by heavy bombers. An unprecedented low-level strike
would permit the utmost precision bombing of the vital pinpoints in the
refineries and score with the most explosives. It would spare civilians
and raise American esteem among the subject peoples of fascism. It would
reduce losses of men and planes by affording the flak gunners only low,
fleeting targets. By hugging the ground the B-24's would cheat German
pursuit planes of half their sphere of attack. Moreover, the stratum
nearest the ground was the blind angle for radar detection. And Liberators
that were mortally hit in battle would have a better chance to skid-land
than those that were crippled high in the sky.
BOOK: Ploesti: The Great Ground-Air Battle of 1 August 1943
9.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Spellbent by Lucy A. Snyder
Dead Wake by Erik Larson
A Faire in Paradise by Tianna Xander
Wild: Devils Point Wolves #1 (Mating Season Collection) by Gayle, Eliza, Collection, Mating Season
Surviving Valencia by Holly Tierney-Bedord