London, England February 20, 1944

On this date in 1944, while Soviet armed forces were ridding their coun­try of the German Wehr­macht (German armed forces) 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 heavily guarded fac­to­ries, air­fields, rail­road classi­fi­cation (or mar­shalling) yards, and other stra­tegic facil­i­ties involved in German air­craft pro­duc­tion. More than 1,000 long-range U.S. bombers pin­balled across Germany, Austria, and occupied Poland, striking air­craft fac­tories in the Braun­schweig (Bruns­wick) and Leip­zig areas of Germany 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, flying over 3,500 sorties (indi­vid­ual mis­sions) around the clock and dropping roughly 10,000 tons of bombs during Big Week. (That was close to the tonnage dropped the year before by the Eighth Air Force alone.) The effect of the massive late February Anglo-Amer­i­can air cam­paign to destroy the Reich’s air­craft and arma­ments indus­try was that German air­craft pro­duc­tion did slow but did not come to a halt; pro­duc­tion rapidly returned to normal but with a new wrinkle: In dispersing air­craft manu­facturing sites to new and some­times remote and hidden loca­tions, pro­duc­tion ineffi­cien­cies were intro­duced and dead­lines slipped when the assem­bly supply chain encountered ever more fre­quent trans­por­ta­tion bottle­necks and disruptions. This phenomenon occurred across industries.

The Americans paid a heavy price during Big Week—in five raids 226 bombers alone were downed along with 28 fighters, 21 bombers 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 elite 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 (Oper­a­tion Over­lord). 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 FortressB-24 Liberators over Schweinfurt, 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. “Forts” gained a repu­ta­tion for bringing air­crews safely home despite suffering cata­strophic damage in combat. 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. The Schweinfurt-Regensburg mis­sion entailed two large forces of U.S. Eight Air Force bombers (376 bombers in 16 bomb groups with­out long-range fighter escorts) attacking separate tar­gets, both in Bavaria, with orders to cripple German fighter air­craft produc­tion. (German fighter output in July 1943 exceeded 1,200 planes.) The deep-pene­tra­tion “double-strike mis­sion” inflicted heavy damage on the Messer­schmitt fac­tory at Regens­burg but not on Schwein­furt’s ball-bearing fac­tories, for a cata­strophic loss to the force: 60 bombers shot down, 87 shot up beyond repair, and 557 air­men missing in action or captured. A planned follow-up raid on Schwein­furt had to be post­poned to rebuild Amer­i­can forces. The second raid by 291 still-unes­corted B‑17s on Octo­ber 14, 1943, on the ball-bearing produc­tion center at Schwein­furt proved even more catas­tro­phic: 77 bombers lost, 121 damaged, and over 650 crew­men captured or killed. Just over 11 per­cent of the bomber force returned to base unscathed. During the course of the war more than 5,000 B‑17s were shot down by German fighter planes or flak batteries. With each plane went 10 young men.

Three RAF Avro LancastersBraunschweig burning, October 14/15, 1944

Left: Three Avro Lancasters in tight formation. The iconic “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. The Mk.I (Special) variant was the only bomber in the Euro­pean Thea­ter cap­able of dropping the 10‑metric‑ton (22,000 lb) Grand Slam “Earth­quake” bomb. Some 3,250 Lancs were lost in action. A Lanc’s life expectancy was 21 sorties before it was lost or written off. Using a mixed force of Lan­casters and four-engine Handley Page Hali­faxes (in service in the fall of 1940), 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 hellish 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