1944’s Big Week

James Hol­land re­vis­its the largest air bat­tle of the Sec­ond World War

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - James Hol­land is a his­to­rian and broad­caster. His books in­clude The Bat­tle of Bri­tain: Five Months That Changed His­tory (Corgi, 2011)

Tues­day, 11 Jan­uary 1944: high over Germany, as an Amer­i­can com­bat bomber wing bat­tled its way home, a lone P-51 Mus­tang, one of the US Eighth Air Force’s new fight­ers, was sin­gle-hand­edly de­fend­ing the en­tire for­ma­tion from en­emy fighter at­tacks.

Its pilot was Ma­jor Jim Howard, who had been lead­ing the 354th Fighter Group that af­ter­noon. As he had first dived down on the en­emy along with the rest of his group, he had seen a Messer­schmitt Bf 110 head­ing straight for the bomber wing’s lead B-17 Fly­ing Fortresses – and had opened fire. A mo­ment later he raked a Messer­schmitt Bf 109, then sped af­ter an­other fighter and opened fire, see­ing the pilot bail out. In less than a minute he had shot down three en­emy fight­ers.

Howard had found him­self alone, and was about to with­draw, when he re­alised there was no sign of the fel­low Amer­i­can fight­ers due to take over es­cort­ing the bombers. So he climbed back up, throt­tling back and turn­ing to take on any en­emy fighter that tried to get near the B-17s. For more than half an hour, the Amer­i­can stayed with the Fortresses, div­ing and ag­gres­sively at­tack­ing any Ger­man fighter that ap­peared, driv­ing them off again and again. Only when all the en­emy fight­ers seemed to have gone did Howard fi­nally wag­gle his wings to the B-17s and head for home. Not a sin­gle Fortress of the 401st Bomb Group had been shot down while Howard pro­tected them. In the course of that mis­sion, mean­while, he had shot down four con­firmed and very prob­a­bly two more air­craft, and seen off as many as 30 en­emy fight­ers.

Howard’s was an ex­cep­tional dis­play of fly­ing, but it also demon­strated how good Al­lied fighter pi­lots had be­come. By the start of 1944, Amer­i­can and Bri­tish fighter pi­lots were join­ing their squadrons with 350 hours of fly­ing in their log­books, while US squadrons now had as many as four times the num­ber of pi­lots and planes needed to keep 16 air­craft air­borne on any mis­sion. Fighter pi­lots in the US Eighth Air Force were con­fi­dent and adept, and had su­pe­rior air­craft to the en­emy. In

con­trast, new Luft­waffe pi­lots were ar­riv­ing into their units with as few as 110 fly­ing hours un­der their belts, and thanks to Germany’s chronic fuel short­ages had lit­tle chance to prac­tise. In fact, these young pi­lots had lit­tle chance full stop. They were be­ing slaugh­tered.

How­ever, al­though the Luft­waffe’s glory days were over, it re­mained wor­thy of re­spect. Fac­to­ries were pro­duc­ing thou­sands of new air­craft each month, while the Ger­mans had re­cently de­vel­oped a so­phis­ti­cated air de­fence sys­tem (in­volv­ing a com­bi­na­tion of radar, ra­dio, ground ob­servers, and con­trol rooms that in­cluded glass lighted screens to plot air traf­fic over oc­cu­pied Europe). No Al­lied air­craft could fly over the Re­ich without the Luft­waffe know­ing about it. There were now some 15,000 anti-air­craft guns de­fend­ing Germany, while hun­dreds of day and, cru­cially, night fight­ers were be­ing di­rected to in­ter­cept Al­lied bombers, which were suf­fer­ing hor­rif­i­cally.

This all con­trib­uted to a sense of cri­sis en­gulf­ing the Al­lied air forces. Not only was the bomber of­fen­sive against Germany not work­ing de­ci­sively, but the Al­lies didn’t have the air su­pe­ri­or­ity over western Europe needed for Op­er­a­tion Over­lord, the con­ti­nen­tal main­land in­va­sion planned for early sum­mer.

While Air Mar­shal Sir Arthur Har­ris, com­man­der of RAF Bomber Com­mand, re­mained con­vinced that area bomb­ing – the blan­ket bom­bard­ment of en­tire neigh­bour­hoods – could win the war, US and Bri­tish war chiefs ac­cepted there could be no in­va­sion of France un­til they had cleared the skies. This meant gain­ing air su­pe­ri­or­ity not only over the Nor­mandy beaches, but also over a large swathe of north-west Europe. Suc­cess or fail­ure would de­pend on whether the Ger­mans could launch a massed counter-at­tack within days of the land­ings, be­fore the Al­lies could suc­cess­fully re­in­force any bridge­head. In the nine weeks lead­ing up to D-Day, there­fore, Al­lied forces had to carry out a heavy ‘in­ter­dic­tion’ op­er­a­tion: blow­ing up bridges, roads and, es­pe­cially, rail­ways and mar­shalling yards.

This in­ter­dic­tion cam­paign was to be largely the pre­serve of the tac­ti­cal air forces: two­engine medium bombers and ground-at­tack fight­ers, which would be op­er­at­ing at lower heights than heavy bombers and with greater ac­cu­racy. To per­form suc­cess­fully, they needed to be do­ing so in skies where the Al­lies held air su­pe­ri­or­ity. At the be­gin­ning of 1944, US and Bri­tish chiefs were a long way short of achiev­ing this. The clock was tick­ing.

Un­like Har­ris, the Amer­i­cans un­der­stood that dis­abling the Luft­waffe was a mat­ter of ur­gency. In the sec­ond half of 1943, Germany’s grow­ing de­fen­sive strength had shown that only heav­ily es­corted B-17 and B-24 bombers could get to their tar­gets. Losses on raids to air­craft fac­to­ries, once to Re­gens­burg and twice to Sch­we­in­furt, deep inside Germany and be­yond fighter range, had been sub­stan­tial.

This was the crux: the Al­lies had to ham­mer the Ger­man air­craft in­dus­try, but most of the fac­to­ries sup­ply­ing the Luft­waffe were deep in the Re­ich, where the day­light bombers and even Bomber Com­mand at night could not reach ef­fec­tively. What was needed, ur­gently and in large num­bers, was a long-range fighter. Only in the nick of time did the Al­lies re­alise that the so­lu­tion was un­der their very noses.

Mus­tang sal­lies

The RAF had had the op­por­tu­nity to make Spit­fires long-range, but due to Bomber Com­mand’s con­tin­u­a­tion of night bomb­ing had not thought it nec­es­sary. How­ever, in 1943, US tech­ni­cians had equipped a P-51 Mus­tang with a Rolls-Royce Mer­lin 61 rather than its stan­dard Al­li­son engine, and the fighter’s per­for­mance and fuel econ­omy had im­proved as­ton­ish­ingly. Ad­di­tional fuel tanks made lit­tle dif­fer­ence to its speed or ma­noeu­vra­bil­ity. Sud­denly, in the Mus­tang, the Al­lies had a fighter ca­pa­ble of fly­ing nearly 1,500 miles – to Ber­lin and back with ease. This was a game-changer, as Jim Howard would prove on 11 Jan­uary 1944.

At the end of Novem­ber 1943, the United States Strate­gic Air Forces is­sued a new direc­tive, Op­er­a­tion Ar­gu­ment, an all-out of­fen­sive against the Luft­waffe and the en­emy’s air­craft in­dus­try. Raids were held

The Al­lies had to ham­mer the Ger­man air­craft in­dus­try, but most of the fac­to­ries sup­ply­ing the Luft­waffe were deep in the Re­ich

back, how­ever, by the poor weather that de­scended on Europe that win­ter. Not un­til the third week of Fe­bru­ary 1944 was there a break – and the chance to de­liver the spell of high-pres­sure bom­bard­ment re­quired.

By Fe­bru­ary 1944, the Eighth Air Force was con­sid­er­ably larger than it had been in Novem­ber 1943, and the fight­ers were also em­ploy­ing bet­ter tac­tics. Gen­eral Carl ‘Tooey’ Spaatz, the new head of the Amer­i­can air forces in Europe, had or­dered fight­ers to hunt down, en­gage and de­stroy Luft­waffe planes rather than to close-es­cort all bomber for­ma­tions, and also to at­tack air­fields on the ground. The bomber com­man­ders were ap­palled by what they saw as a lack of pro­tec­tion for their planes, but it was un­ques­tion­ably the right de­ci­sion. By the third week in Fe­bru­ary, the Amer­i­cans had the tac­tics and skills, as well as the air­craft, with which to de­liver a mor­tal blow to the Luft­waffe.

Op­er­a­tion Ar­gu­ment be­gan with Har­ris’s re­luc­tant co­op­er­a­tion. Bomber Com­mand tar­geted air­craft plants in Leipzig on the night of Satur­day 19 Fe­bru­ary. It was a bloody sor­tie. Among those shot down was Flight Lieu­tenant Ju­lian Sale’s crew from 35 Squadron who – like most who failed to re­turn – were shot down by night fight­ers us­ing up­ward-fir­ing can­nons that raked the vul­ner­a­ble un­der­sides of their air­craft. It was the sec­ond time Sale and his nav­i­ga­tor, Gor­don Carter, had bailed out over en­emy ter­ri­tory; they had made it back the first time, but would not be so lucky on this oc­ca­sion (Sale died, while Carter be­came a pris­oner of war) . Flight Lieu­tenant Rusty Waugh­man and his 101 Squadron crew did reach home safely. “Pretty deadly trip,” he noted in his log­book. “Lost 78 air­craft.” This was a huge num­ber from one mis­sion and a re­minder, if any were needed, of the deadly power of the Luft­waffe’s night-fighter force.

Nonethe­less, Leipzig was ham­mered and was to be hit again the fol­low­ing day. On Sun­day 20 Fe­bru­ary, Big Week, as it would come to be known, got un­der way in earnest with the heav­i­est round-the-clock Al­lied at­tacks ever wit­nessed. US bomber crews had to get up at 3am. “Awak­ened very early to­day,” noted Larry ‘Goldie’ Gold­stein, ra­dio op­er­a­tor in a B-17 in the 388th Bomb Group, “and ex­pected a long, rough mis­sion, even long be­fore brief­ing.” He was not wrong. To cause max­i­mum strain on the Luft­waffe, the Eighth struck mul­ti­ple tar­gets, with the 388th Bomber Group at­tack­ing Poz­nan´ in Poland.

Also fly­ing was Ma­jor Jimmy Ste­wart, Hol­ly­wood star and now a squadron com­man­der in the 445th Bomb Group of B-24 Lib­er­a­tors. Both Ste­wart and Gold­stein made it back that day, but the car­nage was

con­sid­er­able and the rag­ing air bat­tle across Europe saw episodes of ex­tra­or­di­nary brav­ery. No fewer than three Con­gres­sional Medals of Honor were won, the only time in the his­tory of the US air forces that more than one was awarded for a sin­gle mis­sion. One re­cip­i­ent was Lieu­tenant Wil­liam Law­ley, who man­aged to fly his bat­tered B-17 and sur­viv­ing crew back and crash-land safely, de­spite suf­fer­ing mul­ti­ple head, leg and arm shrap­nel wounds, and with a de­cap­i­tated co-pilot be­side him. Law­ley had been lucky: the other two medals were post­hu­mous.

Stuttgart was the next tar­get on Mon­day 21 Fe­bru­ary, with many of those in ac­tion the pre­vi­ous day, in­clud­ing Goldie Gold­stein and crew, fly­ing yet again. Tues­day 22 Fe­bru­ary saw an­other max­i­mum ef­fort, and this time the Eighth was joined by the 15th Air Force, op­er­at­ing from Italy and at­tack­ing air­craft plants at Re­gens­burg and Prüfen­ing. While the bombers from both Italy and Eng­land suf­fered, so too did the Luft­waffe, who were ris­ing up, as the Al­lies hoped, to meet this im­mense and con­cen­trated on­slaught.

James Ste­wart looked up at his scarred Lib­er­a­tor bomber and said to one of his crew: “Sergeant, some­body could get hurt in one of those damned things”

Heavy toll

One of those Ger­man pi­lots was Ober­leut­nant Heinz Knoke. His fighter group, Jagdgeschwader 11, should have had 36 fight­ers, but could muster a mere five that day. Knoke was hugely ex­pe­ri­enced, hav­ing been shot down five times al­ready; the same could not be said for his wing­man, Feld­webel Krueger. To­gether they dived down on some Fortresses and Knoke saw a bomber erupt into flames – then, a mo­ment later, a Messer­schmitt flamed down­wards too. “It was my wing­man, the young cor­po­ral,” noted Knoke. “This was his first mis­sion.”

Bad weather pre­vented fur­ther fly­ing on Wed­nes­day 23 Fe­bru­ary, which gave the ground­crews time to re­pair bat­tle-dam­aged air­craft. “Heav­ies from Italy and Bri­tain plas­ter bomb-drunk Re­ich,” ran the head­line in the US forces news­pa­per, Stars and Stripes. The Luft­waffe lead­er­ship was in a state of shock. The Ger­mans had lost 58 fight­ers on the Sun­day alone, and a fur­ther 32 and 52 on sub­se­quent days. Messer­schmitt plants in Leipzig were badly dam­aged.

Big Week con­tin­ued on Thurs­day 24 with at­tacks on Gotha, while Bomber Com­mand also struck Sch­we­in­furt. Be­fore the sur­viv­ing RAF crews were back on Bri­tish soil, the Eighth was pre­par­ing for an­other day of bomb­ing. “No rest as the air blitz on Ger­man air­craft pro­duc­tion con­tin­ues,” noted Goldie Gold­stein. “Up and at them again to­day.” It was his third mis­sion that week and an­other he was lucky to sur­vive. So too was Jimmy Ste­wart, whose B-24 Lib­er­a­tor was badly hit over Nurem­burg. Be­hind him, he saw an­other B-24 burst into flames, dive and smash into the bomber be­neath it, so the two flaming air­craft fell at once. Back on the ground, Ste­wart looked up at his scarred Lib­er­a­tor and said to one of his crew, “Sergeant, some­body could sure get hurt in one of those damned things.” Big Week ended that night, when Bomber Com­mand sent 594 heavy bombers to hit the Messer­schmitt plants at Augs­burg. Some 2,920 build­ings in the town were de­stroyed in this cul­mi­na­tion of a week of un­prece­dented vi­o­lence. A fur­ther 5,000 were se­verely dam­aged, in­clud­ing the MAN diesel fa­cil­ity, with more than 3,000 ca­su­al­ties recorded.

Big Week was fi­nally over, as the weather closed in once more. The mas­sive air as­sault had dealt the Luft­waffe a cat­a­strophic blow. Air­craft losses amounted to a stag­ger­ing 2,605 in Fe­bru­ary 1944 alone, but the most sig­nif­i­cant im­pact was on Germany’s stock of pi­lots. Such at­tri­tion was to­tally un­sus­tain­able. Ex­pe­ri­enced fly­ers were be­ing re­moved while the new boys were ar­riv­ing with scant train­ing and lit­tle hope of sur­vival. As more pi­lots were shot down in March and April, the Luft­waffe largely with­drew into the Re­ich. By April, the all-im­por­tant air su­pe­ri­or­ity re­quire­ment had been met, and the in­va­sion of France could pro­ceed. The crit­i­cal dam­age, how­ever, had been done in the great air bat­tle of Big Week.

Air Mar­shal ‘Bomber’ Har­ris – pic­tured here look­ing at re­ports of bomb­ing raids in Fe­bru­ary 1944 – was scep­ti­cal of the ra­tio­nale be­hind Big Week

A Ger­man of­fi­cer in­structs a mem­ber of the Hitler­ju­gend (Hitler Youth) in how to use air- de­fence equip­ment

A Messer­schmitt Bf 109 pro­duc­tion line turns out fight­ers for the Luft­waffe

Fly­ing Fortress bombers were key to the suc­cess of Big Week

A re­con­nais­sance pho­to­graph taken over Gotha, cen­tral Germany in 1944 shows the dam­age the Al­lies were able to in­flict on the Nazis’ in­dus­trial ca­pac­ity

Ac­tor and pilot James Ste­wart is hon­oured by the French in 1945

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.