Black Sunday – The Disastrous Ploesti Raid in Photos and Video


Officially known as Operation Tidal Wave, the Ploesti Raid occurred on 1 August 1943, and because it marked the second highest loss suffered by the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) in a single operation, it was afterward nicknamed Black Sunday.

The plan was to send in a swarm of B-24 bombers on a low-altitude bombing mission to concentrate on refineries in the Romanian city of Ploesti. This mission was part of the World War II “oil campaign,” and since Ploesti was among the major oil producers in Europe, with 30 percent of the Axis’ fuel supply coming from its refineries, the USAAF took a shot at it in a bid to cripple Hitler’s fuel supply and handicap the Axis war machine.

B-24s in Operation Tidal Wave.

The 98th and 376th Bombardment groups of the 9th Air Force were given the assignment, and they were joined by the 44th, 93rd and 389th Bombardment groups from the Eight Air Force. Only one bomber type was employed on this expedition: the B-24 Liberator.

Approximate bomber route for Operation Tidal Wave, the low-level bombing raid on the oil fields around Ploiesti, Romania, Aug 1st 1943

The plan looked pretty straightforward: a total of 1,751 airmen and 178 B-24 bombers headed by Brigadier General Uzal G. Ent would fly from airfields in Benghazi, across the Adriatic Sea and Albania’s Pindus Mountains. They would split into two groups, with one group comprising the 376th and 93rd Bomb Groups commanded by Colonel Keith K. Compton, and another group comprising the 98th, 44th, and 389th Bomb Groups led by Colonel John R. (Killer) Kane.

Reconnaissance photo of the two primary oil refineries in Ploiesti Romania taken in preparation of the low-level B-24 Liberator bomber attack of 1 August 1943

The separate formations would enter Southwestern Romania through Southern Yugoslavia, and would approach Ploesti from the east. They would then ultimately commence the aerial strike from the north, hitting the nine Ploesti refineries simultaneously at low altitudes.

The blueprint for the whole raid was drawn up by Col. Jacob Edward Smart, who had followed the details of an initial attack on the target by a small group of B-24 Liberators of the Halverson Project (HALPRO). The B-24s had faced minimal encounters by the Luftwaffe, so it was assumed that with more groups of B-24 bombers, heavier damage could be inflicted in a shorter time.

Consolidated B-24D-155-CO Liberator 42-72772 and flight cross the Mediterranean Sea at very low level. A gunner stands in the waist position. The bomber’s belly turret is retracted. 1 August 1943

The mission was slated to last one day and integrated the highest number of heavy bombers at the time. However, the Luftwaffe’s defenses had been underestimated, much to the misfortune of the USAAF.

General Alfred Gerstenberg had, following the initial attack by the HALPRO, fortified defenses around Ploesti. In fact, his defense system, comprising hundreds of high-caliber 8.8 cm Flak 18 barrel and 10 cm Flak 38 anti-aircraft guns, and several other low-caliber guns, was among Europe’s most rigid air defense network. The small-caliber guns were all concealed in damaged cars, haystacks, and mock buildings.

German FlaK, the weapon that took down many American bombers that day. 1943. Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0

Additionally, there were three fighter groups, comprising fifty-two BF 109 and Bf 110 fighter aircraft alongside a small number of Romanian fighters, stationed within flight range of Ploesti and awaiting orders in case of necessity.

After a rather stressful and disorganized flight, including accidents due to orders for absolute radio silence, the USAAF bomber groups arrived over Romania in scattered formations. They didn’t find the Axis stronghold unprepared. Signal intelligence on all Allied operations as far off as North Africa was regularly updated from a Luftwaffe station in Athens, and German fighters were already hovering in search of the USAAF intruders.

A B-24 flying over a burning oil refinery at Ploiesti, Romania. 1 August 1943

Compton’s group bombarded Ploesti from the south, while Kane’s group, coming a bit later, bombarded from the North. They received heavy return fire from Gerstenberg’s aerial defenses, which struck from its concealed anti-aircraft guns.

By the end of the last wave of attack which left Ploesti, only about 88 B-24s, mostly in awful shape, managed to return to Benghazi. An overall loss of 660 men was recorded with about 440 confirmed dead. Also, another tragedy struck when a B-24 bomber piloted by Jose Carioca crashed into a women’s prison in Ploesti, causing 100 deaths and 200 injuries.

American heavy bombers – Consolidated B-24 Liberator – during the raid on the refinery

The bombing of Ploesti was not considered a success by many, because although the USAAF targeted nine refineries in a bid to destroy about 90 percent of the Axis oil, they only destroyed about 46 percent, and the Germans would effect swift repairs, restoring large parts of the damaged refineries.

The heroic deeds of the aircrews that went on that mission are etched in the pages of America’s history, but never again did America attempt a low-altitude air raid against the Axis.


More photos

Consolidated B-24D-55-CO Liberator 42-40402, “The Sandman,” ready to take off at its base in Libya. Destination Ploiesti, Romania. 1 August 1943.


Consolidated B-24D-155-CO Liberator 42-72772 and flight cross the Mediterranean Sea at a very low level. A gunner stands in the waist position. The bomber’s belly turret is retracted. 1 August 1943


31 American bombers B-24 “Liberator” approach to their targets in Ploiesti


Smoke rises from the “Astra Romana” refinery in Ploiesti after low-level bombing attacks of B-24 Liberators. 1 August 1943


Oil storage tanks at the “Columbia Aquila” refinery burning after the raid of B-24 Liberator bombers of the United States Army Air Force. Some of the structures have been camouflaged. Ploiesti, Romania. 1 August 1943


B-24 Liberator during a low-level attack of the Ploesti oil refineries, Romania. 1 August 1943


One of the most famous images of World War II shows “The Sandman”, piloted by Robert Sternfels, as it emerges from a pall of smoke during the “Operation Tidal Wave”


B-24 Liberator during Ploiesti Raid


U.S. Army Air Forces B-24 bombers clearing a target at Ploiesti, Romania. 1 August 1943.


A pair of American B-24 “Liberator” in flight over Ploiesti on a background of fire


2nd wave of B-24 Liberators approach the Ploiesti oil refineries, Romania. 14 B-24s can be seen in this image. 1 August 1943


Bombers B-24 in flight over the Romanian oil fields at Ploiesti. In the foreground – the plane B-24 “Joisey Bounce” from the 93rd Bomb Group 8th Air US Army. The aircraft will be lost during a raid on the German city of Bremen on 13 November 1943.


Columbia Aquila refinery after the bombing largely intact, with visible bomb craters.

Read another story from us: Romania Narrowly Avoided Getting Bombed by the Soviets

Damaged empennage bomber B-24 “Daisy Mae» (Consolidated B-24D-CO Liberator «Daisy Mae», serial number 41-11815) 415 Squadron of the 98th Bomb Group after the American raid on Ploesti.
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