By Dr. Silvano Wueschner, Air University History Office
/ Published February 11, 2019
B-17 formation under attack during a bombing raid on an industrial target in Germany, probably sometime in 1943. By fall 1943, German antiaircraft defenses—fighters, ground-based anti-aircraft artillery batteries and specially designed flak towers around key industrial centers—had become quite formidable. The black smoke dots came from exploding AAA shells, fitted with proximity fuses. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Luftwaffe ground crew positioning a Messerschmitt Bf 109G-6 equipped with an underwing gondola cannon kit, assigned to a Luftwaffe squadron in France, late 1943. The cannon was especially effective in attacking American strategic bombers. This aircraft was one of several types of German fighters that engaged B-17 bombers and P-51 fighters during Operation Argument. (Archive photo)
Photo taken by a German fighter during a head-on attack on an American B-17 Flying Fortress, possibly in 1943. The black smoke comes from hits made by the German fighter on the B-17. (Archive photo)
Several Luftwaffe officers inspect a crashed B-17 somewhere in Germany. Between August 1942 and May 8, 1945, Eighth Air Force flew 10,631 missions and lost 4,145 B-17s, each with a 10-man crew. (Archive photo)
Two P-51D Mustangs at an English airfield in early 1944. The ground crew is fitting the second of two underwing fuel tanks, which allowed the Mustangs to escort American strategic bombers to their targets inside Germany, engage German fighters and return to their bases in England. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Results of an Army Air Force fighter sweep on a Luftwaffe air field. Starting with ‘Big Week,’ American fighters, after escorting bombers to their targets in Germany, would strafe Luftwaffe airfields to catch the German fighters on the ground or on takeoff or landing. (Archive photo)
A formation of B-17 Flying Fortress aircraft on the way to bomb industrial targets in Germany, early 1944. Starting in late 1942 through October 1943, B-17s, along with B-24 Liberator strategic bombers conducted unescorted daylight precision bombing raids on German industrial targets. However, these raids temporarily ceased after the disastrous unescorted raids in August and October 1943 produced unsustainable aircraft and aircrew losses. (U.S. Air Force photo)
During the week of Feb. 20-25, 1944, what became known as “Big Week” in Air Force history, Eighth Air Force and the Royal Air Force from England and Fifteenth Air Force from southern Italy conducted strategic bombing raids against German aircraft factories and other industrial targets.
These raids, Operation Argument, marked the restart of the strategic bombing of Germany, halted in October 1943, and the beginning of the end of the German air force (Luftwaffe).
By the end of Big Week, Allied air forces flew some 6,000 sorties, lost 357 bombers, 28 escort fighters and more than 2,000 airmen killed or captured. The Luftwaffe lost 262 fighters and 250 airmen killed or wounded, including 100 pilots. The operation set back German aircraft production by two months. More importantly, Big Week marked the beginning of the end of the Luftwaffe.
Over the next months, Allied air forces increased in numbers of aircraft and pilots while the Luftwaffe experienced increasing difficulty in replacing its rising fighter and seasoned pilot losses.
Previously, in October 1943, Lt. Gen. Ira C. Eaker, commander Eighth Air Force, had halted the bombing of targets in Germany. The unescorted raids on the oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania, and German aircraft factories and ball bearing plants had resulted in unsustainable American aircraft and aircrew losses. As a result, Eighth Air Force essentially conceded air superiority over occupied Europe to the Luftwaffe … for the time being.
In November 1943, Eaker planned what he called “bait and kill” missions to reduce the Luftwaffe’s effectiveness. American bombers became the “bait” to draw the German fighters into the air, and American fighters would then engage the German fighters in air-to-air combat. However, bad weather and insufficient numbers of bombers and long-range fighters delayed its execution. Then, in late December, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, now Supreme Allied Commander, wanted Lt. Gen. James “Jimmy” Doolittle, the leader of the April 1942 raid on Japan, to command Eighth Air Force. Eaker was reassigned to command the Mediterranean Allied air forces.
By late January 1944, Eighth Air Force had received sufficient numbers of P-51D Mustangs and P-47D Thunderbolts, both fitted with external fuel tanks, to resume the bombing of Germany. These fighters now had the range to escort the bombers all the way to their targets in Germany and back to home bases. Doolittle scheduled Operation Argument for late February, with the goal of establishing air supremacy over Western Europe prior to the invasion of France scheduled for late May or early June.
Doolittle modified Eaker’s original proposed concept of operations. Eaker had directed the fighters to stay with the bombers throughout the entire mission. However, Doolittle recognized the inefficiency of one-on-one aerial combat and directed the fighters to engage freely any enemy aircraft – in the air, on the ground or taking off or landing – once the bombers reached their targets. The latter engagement method especially meant a high probability of taking both the pilot and the aircraft out of combat.
On Feb. 20, 1943, more than 1,000 bombers and 660 fighters from Eighth Air Force, RAF, and Fifteenth Air Force left their bases, marking the beginning of the sustained, weeklong operation. During the initial attack of 12 industrial locations across Germany, the Americans lost only 21 bombers and four fighters. The German pilots, startled to see American fighters so deep into Germany, found themselves suddenly pursued by American airmen.
This huge air battle over Germany continued for five more days. By week’s end, Eighth Air Force had lost 226 bombers and 28 fighters, about 20 percent of Doolittle’s forces, and Fifteenth Air Force, commanded by Lt. Gen. Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, suffered similar losses. Despite these seemingly high losses, Doolittle and Spaatz were convinced that the American airmen were reducing German war production and winning the attrition battle in the skies.
By the end of February, the air battle had driven the Luftwaffe’s fighter pilot and aircraft losses, including some of its most skilled pilots, to an unsustainable level of about a 30 percent loss of fighter pilots and 90 percent of its flyable aircraft. German aircraft production temporarily kept up with the losses, but began to slow down as more consistent Allied daylight bombing forced the Germans to disperse aircraft production and other industries.
Within months the “Transportation Plan” to isolate the Normandy area by consistent daylight attacks on surface transportation networks in Western Europe had made daylight movement virtually impossible throughout most of France, Belgium and The Netherlands. Additionally, as the renewed strategic bombing intensified, the Luftwaffe withdrew most of its fighters to Germany. The start of the “Oil Plan” in May 1944, the systematic bombing of Germany’s oil refineries and synthetic oil production plants, further adversely affected the Luftwaffe, forced to progressively shorten its pilot training program due to fuel shortages, while at the same time Allied pilots were gaining in numbers and experience. The end of the Luftwaffe’s fighting effectiveness was in sight.