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.