Raid over Ploesti - The Lightning Strikes
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It was early on a quiet morning on June the 10th, 1944. The sun is rising slowly over an airfield near Foggia in Italy. Forty six P-38 Lightnings of the “82nd Fighter Group” (95th, 96th, and 97th Squadrons) are preparing for for an attack against Oil facilities in Ploesti, Romania, 600 miles away.

On this mission, each P-38 is equipped with 300 Gallon (1100 liter) long range drop tanks and a 1000lb (450kg) bomb each. The escort was provided by 48 fellow pilots from the “1st Fighter Group” (27th, 71st, and 94th Squadrons) also flying P-38 Lightnings.

Romanian IAR-80 fighters in flight

Almost 100 “Lightnings” rolled down the strip and took off, slowly veering towards their target, The Romana-Americana refinery. The site was defended by huge number of anti aircraft cannons and IAR fighters from the 6th Romanian Fighter Group on Pipera and Popesti-Leordeni airbases. Romanian IAR-80/81 fighters were worthy adversaries to the western fighters although towards end of the war, the IAR planes became outmatched in performance by the P-38 and P-51.

Built by adopting the fuselage from the Polish PZL P-24E with new wings and a more powerful engine, the plane proved to be easy to fly and very maneuverable. More than 400 aircraft of the IAR type had been built in Brasov’s IAR factory from 1940 until January 1943. The last version that came out from production was the IAR-81C - specifically built as a bomber/interceptor, with a 514km/h top speed, two 20mm Mauser cannons and 4 x 7.7mm Browning-FM machine guns.

Usually Romanian and German Bf-109s were sent to attack the escorting fighters while the IAR fighters were tasked with engaging the bombers, making allied bombers losses height - more than 7% per mission. For that reason, the Fifteenth Air Force tacticians decided to send bomb equipped P-38s in low level flight to achieve element of surprise.

A formation of P-38 Lightnings from the 96th Fighter Squadron, 
82nd Fighter Group over Italy

 

American fighters, now smaller in number because multiple aircraft had to return back to base because of mechanical problems, proceeded towards target and just as they entered the target area, the Me-109s from JG “53” intercepted them in a short engagement not following American fighters to flak zone but rather waiting and attacking them on way back. JG “53” Pik As pilots claimed 6 “Lightnings” for loss of 2 Bf-109s.

As American fighters entered target area “1st Fighter Group” got engaged by 28 IAR fighters. IAR fighters made only one pass on P-38s and while battle was raging on extremely low altitude Romanian pilots claimed 14 “Lightnings” for 4 planes lost. At same time “The 82nd Fighter Group” “Lightnings” dropped bombs on target hitting refinery. Flak fire and ground collision claimed few more victims. In total more than 30% of the attacking force had been lost to enemy fighters and flak fire.

Officially “The 82nd Fighter Group” and “1st Fighter Group” that day claimed more that 30 enemy aircraft while losing 24 “Lightnings”. The bombing of Ploesti continued but only with the use of the P-38 being used to escort the high altitude bombers which were left to pound the ground targets.



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