- Big Week
Operation Argument Part of World War II Date February 20–25, 1944 Location Germany Result Limited Allied victory Belligerents US Eighth Air Force
US Fifteenth Air Force
RAF Bomber Command
RAF Fighter Command
Luftwaffe Commanders and leaders Jimmy Doolittle
Casualties and losses RAF:
33 fighters lost
nearly 100 pilots KIA
Between February 20–25, 1944, as part of the European strategic bombing campaign, the United States Strategic Air Forces (USSTAF) launched Operation Argument, a series of missions against the Third Reich that became known as Big Week. The planners intended to lure the Luftwaffe into a decisive battle by launching massive attacks on the German aircraft industry. By defeating the Luftwaffe, the Allies would achieve air superiority and the invasion of Europe could proceed. The daylight bombing campaign was also supported by RAF Bomber Command, operating against the same targets at night.:73 Arthur Harris resisted contributing RAF forces as it diverted them from the British area bombing offensive. It took a direct order from Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, Chief of the Air Staff to force Harris to comply.RAF Fighter Command also provided escort for USAAF bomber formations.
Prior to the Big Week, throughout 1943, the U.S. 8th Air Force had been growing in size and experience, and started pressing attacks deeper into Germany. It was believed that the defensive firepower of the B-17 and B-24 bombers, typically ten .50 caliber machine guns or more, would allow them to defend themselves as long as they remained arranged into tight formations, allowing for overlapping fire. In practice this proved less successful; although the bombers did claim a fair number of German fighters, losses among the bombers were unsustainable.
The Schweinfurt-Regensburg missions are a famous example. On August 17, 1943, 230 bombers launched a mission against the ball bearing factories in Schweinfurt and another 146 against the aircraft factories in Regensburg. Of this force, 60 aircraft were lost before returning to base, and another 87 had to be scrapped due to irreparable damage. The Germans claimed 27 fighters lost, serious enough, but paling in comparison to the losses on the part of the US forces. A second raid on October 14, 1943 fared almost as poorly; of the 291 aircraft on the mission, 77 were lost. Daylight missions into Germany were called off in order to rebuild the forces.
The raids were extensively studied by both forces. The Germans concluded that their current strategy of deploying twin-engine designs with heavy armament was working well. Over the winter of 1943/44 they continued this program, adding to their heavy fighter ranks and developing heavier armaments for all of their aircraft. They also pulled almost all of their fighter forces back into Germany, as the majority of their losses were due to fighter actions over forward areas. There seemed to be no point to try attacking the bombers with enemy fighters in the area. The Allied forces came to other conclusions. Schweinfurt demonstrated that the bombers were not able to protect themselves, contrary to earlier thinking, and fighter cover had to be extended over the entire mission. Luckily for the U.S., the P-51 Mustang was just starting to arrive in quantity, an aircraft that had the range to escort the bombers to targets deep within Germany. Over the winter they re-organized their fighter squadrons as Mustangs arrived and longer-range versions of their existing aircraft were developed.
By the time the winter weather started to clear in early 1944, both forces had implemented their plans and were waiting to put them into action. The U.S., expecting a fighter advantage, planned missions that would demand a German response. They decided to make massive raids on the German fighter factories; if the Germans chose not to respond they would be at risk of losing the air war without firing a shot, if they did respond, they would meet fighters in the process. But the Germans needed no provocation, they were ready to meet any future raid with their newly prepared forces. But by up-gunning their fighters they reduced their performance, making them easy targets for the new and unexpected Mustangs.
The Americans flew heavily escorted missions against airframe manufacturing and assembly plants and other targets in numerous German cities including: Leipzig, Brunswick, Gotha, Regensburg, Schweinfurt, Augsburg, Stuttgart and Steyr. In six days, the Eighth Air Force bombers based in England flew more than 3,000 sorties and the Fifteenth Air Force based in Italy more than 500. Together they dropped roughly 10,000 tons of bombs.
During Big Week the Eighth Air Force lost 97 B-17s, 40 B-24s, and another 20 scrapped due to damage. The Fifteenth Air Force lost 90 aircraft and American fighter losses stood at 28. Although these numbers are high in absolute terms, the numbers of bombers involved in the missions were much higher than previously, and the losses represented a much smaller percentage of the attacking force. The earlier Schweinfurt missions cost the force just under 30% of their aircraft; for the Big Week it was under 7%.
U.S. aircrews claimed more than 500 German fighters destroyed, though the numbers were massively exaggerated.:78 The Luftwaffe losses were high amongst their twin-engined Zerstörer units, and the Bf 110 and Me 410 groups were decimated.:77-8 More worrying for the Jagdwaffe was the loss of 17 per-cent of its pilots—nearly 100 were killed. In contrast to the raids of the previous year, the US losses were entirely replaceable and being made good as their industrial might ramped up, while the Germans were already hard pressed due to the war in the East. Although not fatal, the Big Week was an extremely worrying development for the Germans.
The actual damage to the German aircraft industry was fairly limited; during 1944 German aircraft industry was to reach its production high, comparable with the U.S and Soviet industries. However the lack of skilled pilots due to an attritional three-front war was the factor eroding the capability of the Jagdwaffe. The Luftwaffe had to abandon its tactic of "maximum defensive effort" to daylight bombing missions in favor of hit-and-run intercepts. While the Jagdwaffe remained formidable, air superiority had passed irrevocably to the Allies.
The Big Week raids demonstrated that the Luftwaffe's best anti-bomber weapon, twin-engine Zerstörer designs like the Me 410 Hornisse, were appallingly vulnerable against Allied fighters. They were removed from service in the west, passing the defense role primarily to the higher performance single-engine designs.
Due to the effective protection offered by Allied fighters, a change of tactics was introduced: German fighters formed up well in front of the bombers, took a single head-on pass through the stream, and then left. This gave the defending fighters little time to react, and a few shells into the cockpit area could "destroy" a bomber in one pass. In a repeat of earlier RAF strategy, the Luftwaffe also attempted to form up their own version of the "Big Wing", which they hoped would allow them to bring the twins back into combat in the safety of huge number of covering single-engine designs. As had sometimes been the British experience, these formations proved extremely difficult to arrange.
Big Week bolstered the confidence of U.S. strategic bombing crews. Until that time, Allied bombers avoided contact with the Luftwaffe; now, the Americans used any method that would force the Luftwaffe into combat. Implementing this policy, the United States looked toward Berlin. Raiding the German capital, Allied leaders reasoned, would force the Luftwaffe to battle. Consequently, on March 4, the USSTAF launched the first of several attacks against Berlin. From England 730 bombers set out with an escort of 800 fighters. Fierce battles raged and resulted in heavy losses for both sides; 69 B-17s were lost but the Luftwaffe lost 160 aircraft. The Allies replaced their losses; the Luftwaffe could not.
Nevertheless, the new German strategies were proving somewhat effective. The U.S. fighters, kept in close contact with the bombers they were protecting, could not chase down the attacking fighters before they were forced to turn around and return to the bombers. Jimmy Doolittle responded by "freeing" the fighters, allowing them to roam far from the bomber streams and hunt down the German fighters before they could begin to approach the bombers. Though the change was unpopular with the bomber crews, its effects were immediate and extremely effective.
When the combined bomber offensive officially ended on April 1, 1944 and control of the strategic air forces passed to U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Allied airmen were well on the way to achieving air superiority over all of Europe. While they continued strategic bombing, the AAF turned its attention to the tactical air battle in support of the Normandy invasion.
Big Week Date USAAF]] Theatre Notes Sunday
20 February 1944
VIII ETO: Strategic operations Mission 226: The Eighth Air Force begins "Big Week" attacks on German aircraft plants and airfields. For the first time, over 1,000 bombers are dispatched; 21 bombers and 4 fighters are lost hitting 3 areas in Germany:
- 417 B-17s are dispatched to Leipzig-Mockau Airfield, and aviation industry targets at Heiterblick and Abtnaundorf; 239 hit the primary targets, 37 hit Bernburg (Junkers), 44 hit Oschersleben (AGO) and 20 hit other targets of opportunity; they claim 14-5-6 Luftwaffe aircraft; seven B-17s are lost, one damaged beyond repair and 161 damaged; casualties are 7 KIA, 17 WIA and 72 MIA.
- 314 B-17s are dispatched to the Tutow Airfield; 105 hit the primary and immediate area, 76 hit Rostock (Heinkel) and 115 hit other targets of opportunity; they claim 15-15-10 Luftwaffe aircraft; 6 B-17s are lost, 1 damaged beyond repair and 37 damaged; casualties are 3 KIA and 60 MIA.
- 272 B-24s are dispatched to aviation industry targets at Brunswick, Wilhelmtor and Neupetritor; 76 hit the primary, 87 hit Gotha, 13 hit Oschersleben, 58 hit Helmstedt and 10 hit other targets of opportunity; they claim 36-13-13 Luftwaffe aircraft; 8 B-24s are lost, 3 damaged beyond repair and 37 damaged; casualties are 10 KIA, 10 WIA and 77 MIA.
Missions one and three above are escorted by 94 P-38 Lightnings, 668 Eighth and Ninth Air Force P-47 Thunderbolts and 73 Eighth and Ninth Air Force P-51 Mustangs; they claim 61-7-37 Luftwaffe aircraft; one P-38 Lightnings, two P-47 Thunderbolts and one P-51 Mustangs is lost, two P-47 Thunderbolts are damaged beyond repair and 4 aircraft are damaged; casualties are 4 MIA. German losses amount to 10 Messerschmitt Bf 110s destroyed and three damaged with 10 killed and seven wounded. Total losses included 74 Bf 110s, Fw 190s and Bf 109s and a further 29 damaged.
20 February 1944
VIII ETO Mission 227: 4 of 5 B-17s drop 200 bundles of leaflets on Tours, Nantes, Brest and Lorient, France at 2123–2200 hours without loss. Sunday
20 February 1944
IX ETO: Tactical operations 35 B-26 Marauders bomb Haamstede Airfield, The Netherlands, as a target of opportunity, after about 100 B-26s abort attacks on other airfields because of weather. Monday
21 February 1944
VIII ETO: Strategic operations Mission 228: 3 areas in Germany are targeted with the loss of 16 bombers and 5 fighters:
- 336 B-17s are dispatched to the Gütersloh, Lippstadt and Werl Airfields; because of thick overcast, 285 hit Achmer, Hopsten, Rheine, Diepholz, Quakenbrück and Bramsche Airfields and the marshaling yards at Coevorden and Lingen; they claim 12-5-8 Luftwaffe aircraft; 8 B-17s are lost, 3 damaged beyond repair and 63 damaged; casualties are 4 KIA, 13 WIA and 75 MIA.
- 281 B-17s are dispatched to Diepholz Airfield and Brunswick; 175 hit the primaries and 88 hit Ahlhorn and Verden Airfields and Hannover; they claim 2-5-2 Luftwaffe aircraft; five B-17s are lost, three damaged beyond repair and 36 damaged; casualties are 20 KIA, 4 WIA and 57 MIA.
- 244 B-24s are dispatched to Achmer and Handorf Airfields; 11 hit Achmer Airfield and 203 hit Diepholz, Verden and Hesepe Airfields and Lingen; they claim 5-6-4 Luftwaffe aircraft; 3 B-24s are lost, 1 damaged beyond repair and 6 damaged; casualties are three WIA and 31 MIA.
Escort for Mission 228 is provided by 69 P-38s, 542 Eighth and Ninth Air Force P-47s and 68 Eighth and Ninth Air Force P-51s; the P-38s claim 0-1-0 Luftwaffe aircraft, 1 P-38 is damaged beyond repair; the P-47s claim 19-3-14 Luftwaffe aircraft, two P-47s are lost, two are damaged beyond repair, three are damaged and two pilots are MIA; the P-51s claim 14-1-4 Luftwaffe aircraft, three P-51s are lost and the pilots are MIA. German losses were 30 Bf 109s and Fw 190s, 24 pilots killed and seven wounded.
Mission 229: 5 of 5 B-17s drop 250 bundles of leaflets on Rouen, Caen, Paris and Amiens, France at 2215–2327 hours without loss.
21 February 1944
IX ETO: Tactical operations 18 B-26s bomb Coxyde Airfield, Belgium; weather causes almost 190 aborts. The Ninth Air Force's Pathfinder Squadron (provisionally activated on 13 Feb) takes part in this operation, its first venture into combat. 185 aircraft scheduled to attack other airfields in the Netherlands and France in the afternoon are recalled because of bad weather. Tuesday
22 February 1944
VIII ETO: Strategic operations VIII Bomber Command is redesignated as the Eighth Air Force. Tuesday
22 February 1944
VIII ETO: Strategic operations Mission 230: "Big Week" continues with 799 aircraft dispatched against
German aviation and Luftwaffe airfields; 41 bombers and 11 fighters are lost.
- 289 B-17s are dispatched against aviation industry targets at Aschersleben (34 bomb), Bernburg (47 bomb) and Halberstadt (18 bomb) in conjunction with a Fifteenth Air Force raid on Regensburg, Germany; 32 hit Bünde, 19 hit Wernigerode, 15 hit Magdeburg, 9 hit Marburg and 7 hit other targets of opportunity; they claim 32-18-17 Luftwaffe aircraft; 38 B-17s are lost, 4 damaged beyond repair and 141 damaged; casualties are 35 KIA, 30 WIA and 367 MIA.
- 333 B-17s are dispatched to Schweinfurt but severe weather prevents aircraft from forming properly and they are forced to abandon the mission prior to crossing the enemy coast; 2 B-17s are damaged.
- 177 B-24s are dispatched but they are recalled when 100 miles (160 km) inland; since they were over Germany, they sought targets of opportunity but strong winds drove the bombers over The Netherlands and their bombs hit Enschede, Arnhem, Nijmegen and Deventer; they claim 2-0-0 Luftwaffe aircraft; 3 B-24s are lost and 3 damaged; casualties are 30 MIA.
These missions are escorted by 67 P-38s, 535 Eighth and Ninth Air Force P-47s, and 57 Eighth and Ninth Air Force P-51s; the P-38s claim 1 Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed, 1 P-38 is damaged beyond repair and 6 are damaged; the P-47s claim 39-6-15[clarification needed] Luftwaffe aircraft, 8 P-47s are lost and 12 damaged, 8 pilots are MIA; the P-51s claim 19-1-10 Luftwaffe aircraft, 3 P-51s are lost and 3 damaged, 3 pilots are MIA.
22 February 1944
IX ETO 66 B-26s bomb Gilze-Rijen Airfield, The Netherlands; bad weather causes 100+ others to abort. Tuesday
22 February 1944
XV MTO:Strategic operations B-17s attack Petershausen marshaling yard and Regensburg aircraft factory in Germany and the air depot at Zagreb, Yugoslavia; a large force of B-24s hits Regensburg aircraft plants about the same time as the B-17 attack; other B-24s pound the town of Sibenik and the harbor at Zara, Yugoslavia; they claim 40 Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed; 13 bombers are lost. Wednesday
23 February 1944
VIII ETO: Strategic operations Mission 232: 5 of 5 B-17s drop 250 bundles of leaflets on Rennes, Le Mans, Chartres, Lille and Orleans, France at 21:36–22:32 hours without loss. Wednesday
23 February 1944
XV MTO:Strategic operations B-24s bomb the industrial complex at Steyr, Austria. Other heavy bombers are forced to abort because of bad weather; the bombers and escorting fighters claim 30+ aircraft shot down. Thursday
24 February 1944
VIII ETO Missions 237, 238 and 239 are flown against targets in France; 7 B-17s are lost. Heavy clouds cause over half the bombers dispatched to return without bombing. Thursday
24 February 1944
VIII ETO Mission 237: 49 of 81 B-24s hit the Ecalles sur Buchy V-weapon sites; 1 B-24 is damaged. Escort is provided by 61 P-47s. Thursday
24 February 1944
VIII ETO Mission 238: 258 B-17s are dispatched against V-weapon sites in the Pas de Calais; 109 hit the primary target, 10 hit a road junction E of Yerville, 7 hit a rail siding SW of Abbeville and 6 hit targets of opportunity; 7 B-17s are lost and 75 damaged; casualties are 5 WIA and 63 MIA. Escort is provided by 81 P-38s, 94 P-47s and 22 P-51s; 1 P-38 is damaged beyond repair; the P-51s claim a single German aircraft on the ground. Thursday
24 February 1944
VIII ETO Mission 239: 5 of 5 B-17s drop 250 bundles of leaflets[clarification needed] on Amiens, Rennes, Paris, Rouen and Le Mans, France at 2023–2055 hours without loss. Thursday
24 February 1944
IX ETO 180 B-26s attack NOBALL (V-weapon) targets and Rosieres-en-Santerre, France. Bad weather makes bombing difficult and causes 34 other B-26s to abort. Friday
25 February 1944
VIII ETO Mission 235: In the final "Big Week" mission, 4 targets in Germany are hit; 31 bombers and 3 fighters are lost.
- 268 B-17s are dispatched to aviation industry targets at Augsburg and the industrial area at Stuttgart; 196 hit Augsburg and targets of opportunity and 50 hit Stuttgart; they claim 8-4-4 Luftwaffe aircraft; 13 B-17s are lost and 172 damaged; casualties are 12 WIA and 130 MIA.
- 267 of 290 B-17s hit aviation industry targets at Regensburg and targets of opportunity; they claim 13-1-7 Luftwaffe aircraft; 12 B-17s are lost, 1 damaged beyond repair and 82 damaged; casualties are 4 KIA, 12 WIA and 110 MIA.
- 172 of 196 B-24s hit aviation industry targets at Furth and targets of opportunity; they claim 2-2-2 Luftwaffe aircraft; 6 B-24s are lost, 2 damaged beyond repair and 44 damaged; casualties are 2 WIA and 61 MIA.
Escort is provided by 73 P-38s, 687 Eighth and Ninth Air Force P-47s and 139 Eighth and Ninth Air Force P-51s; the P-38s claim 1-2-0 Luftwaffe aircraft, 1 P-38 is damaged beyond repair; the P-47s claim 13-2-10 Luftwaffe aircraft, 1 P-47 is lost and 6 damaged, 1 pilot is MIA; the P-51s claim 12-0-3 Luftwaffe aircraft, 2 P-51s are lost and 1 damaged beyond repair, 2 pilots are MIA.
Mission 236: 5 of 5 B-17s drop 250 bundles of leaflets on Grenoble, Toulouse, Chartres, Caen and Raismes, France at 2129–2335 hours without loss.
25 February 1944
IX ETO: Tactical operations 191 B-26s bomb Venlo, Saint-Trond, and Cambrai/Epinoy Airfields, France in a morning raid as a diversion in support of the VIII Bomber Command heavy bombers over Germany; 36 abort, mainly because of a navigational error. 164 B-26s dispatched against military targets in France during the afternoon are recalled because of bad weather. Friday
25 February 1944
IX MOT: Strategic operations Continuing coordinated attacks with the Eighth Air Force on European targets, B-17s with fighter escorts pound Regensburg aircraft factory; enemy fighter opposition is heavy. Other B-17s hit the air depot at Klagenfurt, Austria and the dock area at Pola, Italy. B-24s attack Fiume, Italy marshaling yard and port and hit Zell-am-See, Austria railroad and Graz airfield and the port area at Zara, Yugoslavia; 30+ US aircraft are lost; they claim 90+ fighters shot down.
RAF bomber sorties during Big Week
Bomber Command directly contributed to the attacks on the aircraft industry in Schweinfurt. Some 734 bombers were dispatched on the night of 24/25 February, and 695 struck the target. Of the bombs dropped, 298 hit within three miles and 22 hit inside the target area. Little damage was done. On 25/26 February 1944, Bomber Command sent 600 bombers to the aircraft assembly plant at Ausberg. The attack was accurate and they destroyed some 60 percent of the industrial city.
RAF Bomber Command night time sorties during Big Week Date Notes 19/20 February 1944 921 sorties, 79 aircraft (8.6%) lost. The major raid, by 823 aircraft, was to Leipzig; (B-17s of the U.S. B-17s of the U.S. Eight bombed Leipzig-Mockau Airfield earlier the same day). 24 de Havilland Mosquitos bombed airfields in Holland and a further 7 made a diversionary raid on Munich. 20/21 February 826 sorties, 10 aircraft (1.2%) lost. The major raid, by 598 aircraft, was to Stuttgart; (50 B-17s of the U.S. Eight bombed Stuttgart industrial areas on Friday, 25 February). 21/22 February 17 Mosquitos to Duisburg, Stuttgart and 2 flying-bomb sites with other sorties. The total effort for the night was 69 sorties, with 1 aircraft (1.4%) lost. 22/23 February 10 Mosquitos to Stuttgart, 8 to Duisburg and 3 to Aachen with other sorties the total effort for the night was 134 sorties, no aircraft lost. 23/24 February 17 Mosquitos of 692 Squadron to Düsseldorf, with other sorties the total effort for the night 22 sorties, no aircraft lost. 24/25 February 1,070 sorties, 36 aircraft (3.4%) lost. The major raid, by 734 aircraft, was on Schweinfurt, home of Germany's main ball-bearing factories. American B-17s had bombed the factories the previous day. 15 Mosquitos bombed airfields in Holland, 8 Mosquitos bombed Kiel and 7 Aachen.
- ^ a b Hall 1998, p. 138.
- ^ Caldwell & Muller, p. 162
- ^ Caldwell & Muller, p. 162-163
- ^ a b c Hess 1994
- ^ a b Caldwell & Muller, p163
- ^ Caldwell & Muller, p162-163
- ^ a b *Russell, Edward T. (1999). The U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II: Leaping the Atlantic Wall Army Air Forces Campaigns in Western Europe, 1942-1945, Big Week Air Force history and museums program 1999, Federal Depository Library Program Electronic Collection (backup site)
- ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r USAF History Publications, The Army Air Forces in World War II: Combat Chronology (pdf), (February 1945 (html)). Accessed 9 August 2008
- ^ Caldwell & Muller 2007, p. 156.
- ^ Caldwell & Muller 2007, p. 158.
- ^ Hall 1998, p. 138.
- ^ Hall 1998, p. 140.
- ^ a b c d e f g Staff, RAF Bomber Command Campaign Diary February 1944 on www.raf.mod.uk
- Caldwell, Donald & Muller, Richard (2007). The Luftwaffe over Germany - Defense of the Reich; Greenhill books, MBI Publishing; ISBN 978-1-85367-712-0
- Hess, William. N. B-17Flying Fortress - Combat and Development History;Motor books;1994; ISBN 0-87938-881-1
- Hall, R. Cargill. Case Studies In Strategic Bombardment. Air Force History and Museums Program 1998. ISBN 0-16-049781-7
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