Bombing Hitler's Gas Station: A Brief History
The Ploesti mission profile, 1941-1944
Winston Churchill called Ploesti “the taproot of German might” and Stalin was of similar mind. The decision in Washington to target Ploesti was therefore always political, a gift to allies who had been engaged with German armies well before American armies could arrive to make a difference. These politics were practical, however, for the strategic value of the target was obvious to everyone involved. Ploesti (pronounced ploy-ESH-tee) had been the subject of international strategic attention for decades. Oil was first struck at Ploesti in 1857, two years before the first strike in Pennsylvania, and already “by 1914 Ploesti was coveted as an essential of machine warfare,” James Dugan and Carroll Stuart write in Ploesti: The Great Ground-Air Battle of 1 August 1943. German armies prolonged the Great War by capturing the city in 1916. Queen Maria of Romania then used the Ploesti oilfields for international leverage and to attract foreign investment capital during the interwar period.
Red Army bombers targeted Ploesti right after Hitler’s invasion of Russia, with more than fifty sorties launched against the city before Soviet fliers lost their Crimean bases in 1941. Beginning with three small night attacks the first week, however, these ineffective strikes “were undertaken with no strategic objective and were small and scattered in nature. They proved little more than nuisance raids,” Jay Stout explains in Fortress Ploesti: The Campaign to Destroy Hitler’s Oil Supply. Advised that Crete and Greece were indefensible, Churchill nevertheless expended resources to hold them anyway simply because British bombers had the range to strike Ploesti from bases there. Churchill disliked SOAPSUDS, the name the American Col. Jacob Smart gave his 1943 mission concept, choosing TIDALWAVE instead for what would become the blackest day in the history of American military aviation.
This would not be the end of the story, however. During 1944, US Gen. Carl Spaatz focused on the same target using new technologies and tactics. By the end of that campaign, the United States and Britain had launched “5,446 bomber sorties and 3,498 protective fighter sorties, spread over twenty-four missions and several months” against the Ploesti refineries, according to Stout. As a result, the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe were starved of fuel in the face of simultaneous allied advances, east and west. Tidal Wave had been justified as a plan to shorten the war by six months. Six months after the last American bomb fell on Ploesti, the war in Europe was over. If any part of the allied bombing campaign might be judged worthwhile, it must be this one.