On August 1, 1943, 177 B-24 bombers took off from an Allied base in Libya, bound for the oil town of Ploiești, Romania, nicknamed “Hitler’s gas station”. The daring raid, known as Operation Tidal Wave, saw five men receive the Medal of Honor – three of them posthumously – but failed to deliver the fatal blow that its planners had planned.
Operation Tidal Wave began worryingly, with one overloaded bomber crashing shortly after takeoff and another plunging into the Adriatic Sea. 167 of the 177 original bombers went to Ploiești, whose oil fields and refineries supplied the Germans with more than 8.5 million tonnes of oil per year. While most of the Allied bombing during WWII was carried out at high altitude, the bombers that attacked Ploiești flew unusually low in order to evade the Germans’ radar. However, the bombers lost the element of surprise when a group veered in the wrong direction, forcing the others to break radio silence to get them back on track. This unforeseen adjustment also led the bombers to approach from the south, where the Nazis had concentrated their anti-aircraft batteries.
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The attack that followed was dramatic, chaotic and costly. The Allies suffered heavy casualties, and smoke from the explosions from the first wave of bombers made visibility difficult for subsequent waves. Survivors reported that debris such as branches and barbed wire struck and even ended up inside their planes. Lt. Col. Addison Baker and Major John Jerstad received the Medal of Honor for their (unsuccessful) attempt to fly higher and allow the crew to refloat our severely damaged aircraft. Another pilot, Lt. Lloyd Herbert Hughes, also received a Medal of Honor posthumously for flying his badly damaged B-24 into his target. Colonel John Kane and Colonel Leon Johnson, who each led the successful bombing groups, were the only men to win the Medal of Honor and survive the raid.
Although the Allies estimated that the raid reduced Ploiești’s capacity by 40 percent, the damage was quickly repaired and within months the refineries had exceeded their previous capacity. The area continued to serve as a “Hitler gas station” until the Soviet Union captured it in August 1944. 310 airmen died, 108 were captured and 78 others were interned in neighboring Turkey. 88 of the 177 B-24 originals returned, most of them badly damaged. Although it set the record for most medals of honor awarded to aviators in a single mission, Operation Tidal Wave was never repeated – the Allies never attempted an assault again. at low altitude against German air defenses.
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