This week marks the 70th anniversary of the U.S. Army Air Corps raid on Ploesti, Romania, one of the most heroic episodes in the history of military aviation.
As a result of the twin victories of the Soviets at Stalingrad and of the British at El Alamein in November 1942, the Germans lost their bids to seize either the oil fields of the Caucasus or those of the Middle East. The fuel resources of the Third Reich were thus drastically limited, with the principal supports being the synthetic-oil facilities at Leuna in central Germany and the Romanian oil fields at Ploesti. If these were knocked out, the Nazis would lose their ability to wage mechanized warfare, and their empire would be doomed to rapid collapse.
General Carl Spaatz, of the U.S. Army Air Corps, was the first high-ranking Allied officer to perceive this German weakness, and he started to push for what became known as “the Oil Plan.” But Spaatz was up against the British — who believed that air power could be used to greatest effect in breaking enemy morale through assaults on cities — as well as other American officers who saw greater merit in hitting targets such as aircraft factories, ball-bearing plants, hydroelectric dams, and transport centers. Going around the normal channels, however, Spaatz managed to gain the direct support of President Roosevelt, who approved his plan to launch one very daring raid on Ploesti.
So, on August 1, 1943, the U.S. Army Air Corps launched 177 B-24 Liberator bombers from airfields in Benghazi to hit the Romanian oil refineries. Because the round-trip distance to the target and back was over 2,000 miles, no fighter escort was possible, and the bombers came in alone, at treetop level. Waiting for them were over 200 scrambled German fighters and a network of hundreds of defensive positions equipped with 88-millimeter anti-aircraft guns, all manned and ready.
Seeing this reception committee, the raid’s commander, Brigadier General Uzal Ent, is reported to have said, “If nobody comes back, the results will be worth the cost.”
Assailed by the swarming fighters, the Liberators, flying at altitudes as low as 30 feet, dodged among the refinery smokestacks to deliver their loads while taking fire from flak guns firing down on them from the surrounding hillsides. As the oil tanks exploded, more planes were lost flying through the flames. The havoc on the ground was incredible. In less than half an hour, 40 percent of Ploesti’s capacity was destroyed. But only 89 of the Liberators made it home.
The heavy losses experienced at Ploesti deterred the Americans from trying again — for a while. But by the spring of 1944, the Army Air Corps had the P-51 Mustang, a fighter equipped with drop tanks that gave it the range needed to protect Allied bombers striking targets deep within Germany. With this capability in hand, Spaatz set his sights on Leuna.
At last, the general got his wish. On May 12, 1944, the Army Air Corps struck the Farben synthetic-fuel plants with a devastating 935-bomber attack. With that one raid, the German fuel position collapsed. It was a deathblow to the Reich.
In his memoir, Inside the Third Reich, the Nazi minister of armaments and industry, Albert Speer, provides a compelling inside view of the collapse of Hitler’s empire following the Farben raid. Here is what he says:
I shall never forget the date May 12. . . . On that day the technological war was decided. Until then we had managed to produce approximately as many weapons as the armed forces needed. . . . But with the attack of nine hundred and thirty-five daylight bombers of the American Eighth Air Force upon several fuel plants in central and eastern Germany, a new era in the air war began. It meant the end of German armaments production.
The next day, along with technicians of the bombed Leuna Works, we groped our way through a tangle of broken and twisted pipe systems. The chemical plants had proved to be extremely sensitive to bombing; even optimistic forecasts could not envisage production being resumed for weeks. . . .
After I had taken measure of the consequences of the attack, I flew to Obersalzberg, where Hitler received me in the presence of General Keitel. I described the situation in these words: “The enemy has struck us at one of our weakest points. If they persist at it this time, we will soon no longer have any fuel production worth mentioning. Our one hope is that the other side has an air-force general staff as scatterbrained as ours.”
Speer’s wish was not granted. The Americans kept at it. On May 28, they hit Leuna again, and on the following day they blasted Ploesti to pieces. More raids followed. Again, Speer: “On June 22, nine-tenths of the production of airplane fuel was knocked out; only six hundred and thirty-two metric tons were produced daily. . . . On July 21, . . . we were down to one hundred and twenty tons’ daily production — virtually done for. Ninety-eight percent of our aircraft-fuel plants were out of operation.”
The consequences of the fuel cutoff were felt quickly. In 1944, Nazi Germany actually produced 39,807 military aircraft and 22,100 tanks. But they were nearly useless for lack of fuel.
Speer says: “In July, I had written to Hitler that by September all tactical movements would necessarily come to a standstill for lack of fuel. Now this prediction was being confirmed.” He goes on to describe how the Luftwaffe was virtually grounded, and even training new pilots had become impossible because there was no fuel for flight practice.
“Meanwhile,” Speer continues, “the army, too, had become virtually immobile because of the fuel shortage. At the end of October, I reported to Hitler after a night journey to the Tenth Army south of the Po. There I encountered a column of a hundred and fifty trucks, each of which had four oxen hitched to it. . . . Early in December, I expressed concern that ‘the training of tank drivers leaves much to be desired’ because they ‘have no fuel for practicing.’ General Jodl, of course, knew even better than I how great the emergency was. In order to free seventeen and a half thousand tons of fuel — formerly the production of two and a half days — for the Ardennes offensive, he had begun withholding fuel from other army groups on November 10, 1944.”
The hoarding didn’t do them any good. The last German attempt at Blitzkrieg warfare, known to Americans as the Battle of the Bulge, ended in a total debacle when the First SS Panzer division failed in its attempt to seize the American fuel depot at Stavelot, and the entire offensive ran out of gas right on the battlefield.
Imperial Japan was also brought to its knees by fuel deprivation. While the Japanese did manage to capture the huge oil fields of the Dutch East Indies in early 1942 and to bring them into operation despite considerable wrecking done by retreating Allied forces, by 1943 the Japanese could no longer move the oil effectively from Indonesia to Japan, as the result of the sinking of their tanker fleet by U.S. submarines. This created extreme fuel shortages in the Japanese home islands and made it impossible to train new pilots adequately. The results were naval disasters, including the lopsided engagement known to Americans as the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, in June 1944, in which the Japanese lost 273 planes against 29 for the Americans, and the even more catastrophic destruction of the Imperial fleet at Leyte Gulf in October.
Their navy all but gone, the Japanese were helpless against the American advance. Their garrisons isolated, one island fell after another. Then, on August 6, 1945, a single American bomber arrived over the city of Hiroshima. Although Japan had produced over 11,000 aircraft during 1945, the Enola Gay needed no fighter escort, for none of the Japanese planes had any fuel with which to fly. One bomb was dropped, and in an atomic flash the city was destroyed. After the attack on Nagasaki three days later, Japan surrendered.
This brings us to the present day.
America currently faces a foe whose power rests almost exclusively on its control over oil. It is the revenue from oil that is allowing Saudi Arabia to finance the global propagation of the Islamofascist movement as well as the purchase of ownership and influence in many Western corporations and governments, including our own. It is revenue from oil that is providing Iran with the wherewithal to develop the nuclear weapons that will give its Hezbollah terrorists — who are now expanding their operations to the Western Hemisphere — the capacity to slaughter millions of people. It is our dependence on the oil controlled by such enemy powers that is preventing us from undertaking effective action against them. It is their control over oil vital to us that allows the Islamists to laugh in the face of our complaints, as they teach terrorism, sharpen their nuclear knives, and call for our doom.
In World War II, we controlled the oil. In this war, the enemy does. This is an unacceptable situation, because it places our fate in the hands of people who want to kill us. In World War II, we had no compunction about destroying the Nazi fuel-making facilities at Ploesti and Leuna, or about systematically sinking the Japanese tanker fleet, because we didn’t need their oil. As we have seen, those attacks were incredibly effective in breaking the enemy’s power. On May 12, 1944, the day of the Leuna raid, the Third Reich ruled an empire comprising nearly all of continental Europe, with a collective population and industrial potential exceeding that of the United States. A year later, it did not exist. Once Japan’s tanker fleet was sunk, the collapse of its empire was almost as fast. Today we are confronted by an enemy without a shadow of the armaments of the Axis; all the Islamist countries have is oil. Were we to destroy that power, they would be left with nothing at all. But we can’t hit them where it would truly hurt, because our economy needs their oil to survive.
During World War II, the United States produced twice as much oil as the entire rest of the world put together. That is why our side won. Today we produce one-twelfth as much. That is our crucial, and potentially fatal, strategic weakness. It cannot be remedied by government programs to spy on American citizens. It can be remedied only by fully liberating America’s potential to produce liquid transportation fuels, both by increasing oil production and by opening the market to methanol, which can be readily made from our vast coal and natural-gas resources.
The crux of the matter comes down to this: Do we want to win, or lose? The issue at stake in energy security is not whether the price of gasoline will be $3 per gallon or $5 per gallon, or which fuel gives off more or less carbon dioxide emissions, or whether requirements that cars give consumers fuel choice conform to pure free-market principles. The issue is who will determine the future of humanity. Do we want to have the enemy’s fate in our hands, or do we want to leave ours in theirs?
Such is the lesson of Ploesti.
— Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Energy and the author of Energy Victory. His latest book, Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism, was published in 2012 by Encounter Books.