London, England · February 20, 1944

On this date in 1944, while Soviet armed forces were ridding their coun­try of the Ger­man Wehr­macht on the East­ern Front, U.S. and Brit­ish air forces em­barked on Opera­tion Argu­ment in the skies over the West­ern Front. Un­of­fi­cially dubbed “Big Week,” Opera­tion Argu­ment was an inten­sive six-day air cam­paign that tar­geted fac­to­ries, air­fields, rail­road classi­fi­cation (or marshalling) yards, and other stra­tegic facil­i­ties involved in Ger­man air­craft pro­duc­tion. More than 1,000 U.S. bombers pin­balled across Ger­many, striking air­craft factories in the Braun­schweig (Bruns­wick) and Leip­zig areas on this first day. Collab­o­rating with the Royal Air Force (which bombed at night), the U.S. Eighth and Ninth Air Forces (based in Brit­ain) and the Fif­teenth Air Force (based in Italy), flying by day, under­took the bulk of the bom­bard­ments, dropping roughly 10,000 tons of bombs in 3,500 sorties during Big Week.

The Amer­i­cans paid a heavy price—226 bombers alone were downed, 21 the first day while a further 290 were damaged. Crew losses among the Eighth Air Force were 83 killed, 103 wounded, and over a thou­sand missing. The RAF lost 131 bombers and crews. Com­bined, the two Allied air forces lost roughly six per­cent of their planes and crews. But Hermann Goering’s Luft­waffe paid a heavier price, as Allied B‑17 Flying For­tresses and B‑24 Libera­tors, escorted by long-range P‑38 Lightnings, P‑47 Thunder­bolts, and the new P‑51 Mus­tangs, downed hun­dreds of Ger­man air­craft. For the most part the Luft­waffe’s twin-engine fighter groups were de­stroyed along with 100 single-engine pilots and planes, or almost 20 percent of the Luft­waffe’s day-fighter force. More and more, the ranks of Ger­man fighter pilots were being filled by inex­peri­enced air­men forced to fly missions they were not prepared for.

Another con­se­quence of Big Week was that Ger­man fighter squa­drons were forced to rede­ploy from the East­ern and West­ern fronts to pro­tect the Ger­man heart­land and its stra­te­gic war indus­tries. Ger­man fighter rede­ploy­ment from France to Ger­many would have im­por­tant reper­cus­sions later that spring, for Goering’s Luft­waffe was im­po­tent when it came to hurling Allied forces off Nor­man­dy’s in­vas­ion beaches. The out­come of the land war in the west was still up for grabs in June 1944, but three months earlier the out­come of the air war was no longer in doubt.

Stephen Ambrose’s The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany is an excel­lent account of the U.S. Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces tethered to the air­crew led by a twenty-two-year-old pilot from the Ameri­can Mid­west named George McGovern. (McGovern later became a United States senator and a presi­dential candi­date.) Ambrose’s gift for weaving real persons into his story-telling is evident here again as he recounts the bravery, skill, daring, and com­radeship of McGovern’s 741st Squad­ron of the Fifteenth’s 455th Bomb Group, a stand-in for just about every other heavy-bomber squad­ron and bomb group in any of the Army Air Forces. In acquainting us with the pilots, co-pilots, bom­bar­diers, navi­gators, gunners, ground crews, opera­tions officers, and group com­manders of the Fifteenth Air Force—Ambrose devotes substan­tial text to devel­oping their personal stories—I gained a deep appre­ci­ation of the spirit and grit that charac­terized these young U.S. air­men (mostly in their early twen­ties but some still in their teens) who were just as likely to not sur­vive as sur­vive their twenty-five, then thirty-five bombing missions over enemy terri­tory. (On average, close to four per­cent of the bomber force was killed or missing in action on each mis­sion.) One seg­ment of the “greatest gener­a­tion” to which these air­men belonged is superbly told in Ambrose’s The Wild Blue.—Norm Haskett

“Big Week,” February 20–25, 1944, Achieved Allied Air Superiority in Europe

Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress1st Bomb Wing B-17s over Schweinfurt, Germany, August 17, 1943

Left: A Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress in flight. A total of 12,731 Flying For­tresses were built between 1935 and 1945. B‑17s flew with the U.S., British, and Soviet air forces. The German Luft­waffe even flew a dozen cap­tured ones. B‑17s were armed with thir­teen .50 cali­ber (12.7mm) M2 Browning machine guns in eight posi­tions. Depending on the distance of the mis­sion, the B‑17 could carry between 4,000 and 8,000 lb of bombs. More bombs were dropped by B‑17s than by any other U.S. air­craft in World War II. Of the 1.5 mil­lion metric tons of bombs dropped on Nazi Germany and its occupied terri­tories by U.S. air­craft, 640,000 tons were dropped from B‑17s.

Right: 1st Bomb Wing B-17s over Schweinfurt, Germany, August 17, 1943, six months before “Big Week.” The Schweinfurt-Regensburg mis­sion entailed two large forces of U.S. Eight Air Force bombers (376 bombers in sixteen bomb groups) attacking separate tar­gets in order to disperse Ger­man fighter airc­raft reaction. The “double-strike mis­sion” deep inside Ger­many inflicted heavy damage on the Regens­burg target but not the Schwein­furt one, for a cata­strophic loss to the force: 60 bombers shot down, many more shot up beyond repair, and 557 air­men missing in action or captured. A planned follow-up raid on Schwein­furt’s ball-bearing fac­tories had to be post­poned to rebuild Amer­ican forces. The second raid by 291 B‑17s on Octo­ber 14, 1943, proved even more cata­strophic: 77 bombers lost, 121 damaged, and over 650 crewmen captured or killed.

Three Avro LancastersBraunschweig burning

Left: Three Avro Lancasters. The “Lanc” first saw active service with RAF Bomber Com­mand in 1942 and, as the stra­tegic bombing offen­sive over Europe gathered momen­tum, it became the main heavy bomber used by the RAF and squad­rons from other Common­wealth and Euro­pean countries ser­ving within the RAF. A total of 7,377 of these four-engine bombers were built, delivering over 680,000 tons of bombs in 156,000 sorties. Using a mixed force of Lan­casters and Handley Page Hali­faxes, the RAF dropped 2,000 tons of bombs on Schwein­furt on the night of Febru­ary 24, 1944. Earlier in the day a col­lec­tion of long-range U.S. escort fighters and 238 bombers pulverized Schweinfurt.

Right: Braunschweig, whose industrial sector was targeted during “Big Week,” was com­pletely laid to waste by the RAF on the night of Octo­ber 14/15, 1944, in an opera­tion that rivaled the fire­bombing of Ham­burg (Oper­a­tion Gomor­rah) the year before. The city burned con­tinuously for two and a half days.

RAF Avro Lancaster, the Most Famous and Successful World War II Night Bomber