Friday, November 16, 2007

Hell at Low Altitude

TheWall Street Journal
November 13, 2007; Page D5

Whereas now we go into combat hoping for zero casualties and regard any loss whatever as proof of unforgivable incompetence, the history of warfare is mostly a chronicle of high casualties and terrible sacrifice. In the history of American warfare, there is little to compare, on this score, to the carnage of World War II -- "worse than anything probably that ever happened in the world," in the words of Henry Stimson, the U.S. Army secretary. "Into the Fire" gives a fresh account of one particularly bloody mission from that war -- an American bombing raid on Aug. 1, 1943.

The target was Ploesti (pronounced "ploy-esht"), a small city in Romania north of Bucharest. Its 12 refineries produced most of the petroleum that fueled the German war machine, so the Allies were eager to take them out. Alas, the city was 1,200 miles from the nearest Allied airfield, in Egypt -- an impossible journey, or so it seemed, over water, mountains and neutral Turkey. Surely the Germans would assume that Ploesti was safe from attack and therefore scant its defenses?

Wrong. Unknown to the Americans, the refinery complex was guarded by fighter planes and "more flak guns than those protecting Berlin," as Duane Schultz tells us in his vivid chronicle. The Ploesti raid was small by the standards of the Anglo-American bomber offensive against Germany, involving only 178 heavy bombers. Still, each plane carried a crew of 10, meaning that the lives of more than 1,700 young men were at risk.

Ploesti's planners were under no illusion that the raiders would have an easy time of it. To increase accuracy and to lessen the chance that they would be spotted before reaching the target, the pilots were told to fly at treetop level. "We estimate," wrote an officer who would have preferred a high-altitude raid, "that seventy-five aircraft will be lost at low level. Fifty percent destruction [of refinery capacity] is the best we can hope for."

At 20,000 feet, a bomber crew would have needed to worry "only" about enemy fighters -- and flak, the exploding shells from antiaircraft cannon, flinging shards of steel in a black cloud "so thick you could walk on it," as the saying went. At a lower level, menace would be multiplied by machine gun, rifle and even pistol fire. A single bullet could disable a plane's engine or pierce its aluminum skin to kill the man inside. The low flying created other hazards as well. A parachute requires a few hundred feet to deploy: Below a certain altitude, the crew of a crippled aircraft would almost certainly crash with their plane.

One airman assigned to the mission speculated that it had been dreamed up by "some idiotic armchair warrior in Washington." The planning went ahead regardless, under the code name of Soapsuds. Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, thought that the raid deserved a grander phrase, so the name was changed to Tidal Wave. It would prove no more appropriate.

When we think of American bombers over Germany, the plane that comes to mind is the tough, beloved B-17 Flying Fortress. But the U.S. Army Air Force acquired its planes in matched sets, and the alternative "heavy" -- competing for use with the B-17 -- was a high-wing, slab-sided, twin-tailed flivver built primarily by the Ford Motor Co.: the B-24 Liberator. German pilots supposedly called it "the furniture van," and indeed the B-24 was little more than a cargo hauler -- the cargo, in this case, being bombs. It leaked gasoline; it was exhausting to fly; and its wings, if hit by flak or fighter-borne cannon shells, had a distressing tendency to snap off. But the B-24 was cheap and easy to build, and it flew faster and farther, with a greater bomb load, than the doughty B-17. It would be the plane that went to Ploesti.

The cargo-hauling B-24 wasn't the only aspect of the mission that got in the way of success. The training had been unrealistic, against a mock-up refinery in the open desert that in no way captured Ploesti's urban grid. A trial run showed that gunners on the ground had no problem tracking the incoming planes and aiming their weapons in time -- a surprise to the planners -- but the higher-ups kept such information from the men who would fly the mission. En route to Ploesti, two group commanders disagreed about the proper engine speed. Their squabble, combined with towering clouds, caused the formation to split before it reached the Romanian frontier. Finally, the lead navigator took a wrong turn, which wrecked the Americans' chances of making a coordinated attack. The planes reached Ploesti piecemeal, giving ample warning to the defenders, and many of the planes failed to hit the targets assigned to them.

"We flew through sheets of flame," remembered one pilot, "and airplanes were everywhere, some of them on fire and others exploding. It's indescribable to anyone who wasn't there." It was a bloodbath, and the results were paltry. American officials optimistically put the damage at 40% -- but 40% of what, exactly, Mr. Schultz cannot say. Within weeks of the raid, he notes, "oil production at Ploesti was higher than before." No doubt it was, given the German genius at recovering from setbacks, but the lack of detail is frustrating. What damage did the raiders manage to do? What sacrifice did repairing the refineries require of the Nazis? The information must exist, for the Germans were also good at keeping records. But to judge by Mr. Schultz's bibliography and chapter notes, he wrote his account without delving into German archives or any book not written in English.

So all we really know about the raid is what the survivors knew in August 1943. "The casualties were staggering," Mr. Schultz writes. "Of the 1,726 airmen on the mission, 532 were killed, captured, interned, or listed as missing in action." Most of the missing -- imprisoned by the Germans or interned by the Turks -- would return at war's end. In the meantime, that single, bootless, 27-minute raid cost the lives or freedom of as many young Americans as 10 months of combat in Iraq.

Mr. Ford is the author of "Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American Volunteers, 1941-1942," new from HarperCollins.

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