Big Week

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Technically Speaking - —RICHARD P. HALLION

BY 1944, THE LUFT­WAFFE was strug­gling to sur­vive. In a sin­gle week that Feb­ru­ary, the Al­lies sought to has­ten the end. Op­er­a­tion Ar­gu­ment, bet­ter known as “The Big Week,” was a se­ries of Royal Air Force and U.S. bomb­ing raids on avi­a­tion fac­to­ries; on sev­eral raids, more than 1,000 bombers were sent against tar­gets. The raids were also in­tended to bait Ger­man fight­ers into the air, where nearly 900 P-47s and P-51s en­gaged them. One B-17 gun­ner re­ported, “The Luft­waffe had all their planes up but their train­ers.”

The Luft­waffe lost a third of its re­main­ing sin­gle-engine fight­ers that month, and 18 per­cent of its pi­lots. But the bait suf­fered as well. In more than 3,000 sor­ties, 247 B-17s were lost, de­spite the bomber’s al­most un­canny abil­ity to with­stand dam­age and bring air­men home.

Hun­dreds of crew­men have re­counted har­row­ing flights back in air­planes with ma­jor parts miss­ing and pieces blown off. B-17 tail gun­ner Casimer Pi­atek recorded one at­tack—by a Focke-wulf Fw 190 fighter— in his diary after a 1943 mis­sion to bomb Ger­man ship­yards. “The very next thing I knew I was hung to the top of the tail po­si­tion and we were in a very steep dive. We dove from 23,000 feet to about 12,000 feet. I took a look at [waist gun­ner] Ryan and his face was one mess of blood. Then I went to the ra­dio room and saw Gen­try ly­ing on the floor with damn near half his side blown out…. I looked out the ra­dio hatch and saw about six feet of our hor­i­zon­tal sta­bi­lizer miss­ing.” The bomber strug­gled back across the English Channel, and the pi­lot put it down at a Bri­tish fighter field. The in­jured men were trans­ported to the hospi­tal.

B- 17 crews loved the bomber: “Steady as a bat­tle­ship,” one RAF pi­lot broad­cast after a mis­sion.

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