As the US-led coalition air campaign against ISIS oil fields rages on since fall of last year, a few people a quick to catch the name of the mission-in-progress, dubbed “Operation Tidal Wave II”.
With footage of A-10s and AC-130s laying waste to ISIS trucks and oil fields being released, it is easy to overlook that Tidal Wave II is a sequel. However, the prequel is just as noteworthy. In fact, the prequel is without equal.
Originally an attack on Romanian oil refineries in August of 1943 by American Army bombers based out of the Mediterranean, the original Operation Tidal Wave was part of the crucial “oil campaign” thought up to deny the Axis of precious fuel.
Later referred to as “Black Sunday”, the mission was one of the bloodiest for the US Army Air Force in the European Theater, costing the United States 660 souls and 53 planes. It was the worst loss suffered by the USAAF on a single mission, with 5 Medals of Honor and countless Distinguished Service Crosses being awarded to participants of the battle.
Originally calling for 178 bombers and 1,751 aircrew, the ill-fated mission was to take out Romanian oil refineries near the town of Ploiesti that were essential to the Axis war effort. The planes were supposed to cross both the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas, cross over mountains and several national borders and somehow coordinate bombings over predetermined checkpoints, all while maintaining radio silence during long intervals.
If this sounds a little convoluted, it’s because it was. Not long after five groups of the strike force took off from Benghazi and crossed over the Adriatic Sea, one of the planes fell out of the sky, nearly destroying several Allied bombers in the formation. Shaken up and unable to remain coordinated due to radio silence, several bombers turned back.
With the remaining bombers climbing into thick clouds surrounding the Pindus mountains, several aircraft units lost track of the rest of the flight, resulting in a lack of synchronization. As the Americans continued the trek to the target, they were unaware that the Germans were tracking their movement.
Now totally out of order, several groups began to fly in the wrong direction, resulting in the flight becoming totally unorganized and losing much of its combat capabilities. Ultimately, leaders broke radio silence to attempt to regroup as they approached their target.
Little did they know, the Germans were waiting for them.
Lighting smoke pots to obscure the ground below, US crews couldn’t even see their targets. German Luftwaffe fighters swarmed them, with anti-aircraft fire slithering up from the ground below. Several bombers crashed into thick wire traps that the Germans had suspended from balloons.
In the face of opposition, the Americans continued, eventually began dropping their bombs. Unfortunately, the Americans barely hit anything and ultimately failed to cause permanent damage. Even the 1/3rd of factories they forced to shut down were found to be operational months later. The mission was costly- almost too costly.
Only 88 bombers returned to Libya, 55 of them damaged. One landed with over 356 bullet holes punched through it. 310 Airmen were killed, with 108 captured by the Axis and 4 listed as MIA, though they were rescued by Yugoslav partisans. Three of the five Medals of Honor were awarded posthumously.
Despite being a failure, the mission showed the capabilities of the USAAF- that they could strike deep within German-held territory, bomb a target and return.
Fortunately for present-day Coalition Forces Operation Tidal Wave II has so far been much more productive. Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman Colonel Steve Warren stated that since the campaign began in late 2014, Tidal Wave II has resulted in 241 targets hit, with the most recent being a strike on a gas and oil separation facility on March 11th. In November of last year, A-10s destroyed 116 fuel trucks in one strike.
With such good results, it is easy to forget that American air power was still testing its wings in 1943. If not for the sacrifices of the men in the original Tidal Wave, American air strategy and technology could not have advanced to the undisputed force it is today.
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