As World War II in Europe was seen to be finally grinding to an end, General Henry H.”Hap” Arnold, Commanding General of the U.S. Army Air Forces wrote a report to the Secretary of War in which he opined: “The week of 20-26 February, 1944, may well be classed by future historians as marking a decisive battle of history, one as decisive and of greater value than Gettysburg.”
He referred to “OPERATION ARGUMENT”, an all-out air assault on “Fortress Europe” which came to be known among those who were caught up in it as “Big Week”, a six-day combined bombing effort of the USAAF and the British RAF conceived and designed to destroy the German Luftwaffe and the industry that supported it, and in the process to wrest air superiority over Germany’s home skies from the enemy. After three years of warfare, Allied planners were convinced that the much-anticipated and anxiously-awaited land invasion of the continent could not be successfully undertaken until this had been accomplished.
American strategic bombers in the form of four-engine B-17 “Flying Fortresses” and B-24 Consolidated “Liberators” in small numbers began to arrive in England under the banner of the VIII Bomber Command in the spring of 1942, flying their first combat missions against targets in Holland in March. They brought with them the American doctrine of “Daylight Precision Bombing” and the revolutionary Norden bombsight which it was believed would make that practice viable. This was in sharp contrast to the British RAF commitment to the concept of Nighttime area or “carpet” Bombing. From the time of Billy Mitchell, U.S. senior commanders believed that the goal of aerial bombardment should be the destruction of the enemy’s industrial and logistical capacity to wage war. The powerful British chief of Bomber Command Arthur Travers “Bomber” Harris on the other hand believed that victory would come only when the morale of the enemy’s civilian population caused them to turn against their leader(s) and that the intentional terror-bombing of civilian populations was most apt to bring this about.
This schism in basic strategy strained relations at the highest levels between the otherwise closely-allied commands and hindered what should have been a more coordinated offensive effort. It would be an over simplification to ascribe the U.S. preference to purely humanitarian sentiments, although I believe that played a role; that question would take more paragraphs (pages!) of space than I am permitted here. What is clear is that the British approach killed a lot of Germans, and the U.S. tactics killed a lot of young American airmen. Daylight Precision Bombing worked – but at a very high price in bomber crewmen – more than 45,000. The deadly miscalculation on America’s part was the false expectation that our heavily-armed bombers could defend themselves against fighter attack, to say nothing of the increasingly accurate 88mm German ground batteries.
Finally, in the gear-up for D-Day, the two air commands came together in an artfully-conceived coordinated effort to reduce Allied losses by knocking out Germany’s capacity to build, crew and deploy the Luftewaffe’s Messerschmitt and Focke Wolfe fighters which had successfully denied us control of the air space over Europe. Thus Big Week – “Operation Argument” came into being and into the history books to be written by both sides. In those six days, U.S. 8th Air Force bombers flew 3,000 sorties, the 15th Air Force more than 500, and the RAF Bomber Command another 2350 against selected sites in Germany, where aircraft parts, engines and the planes they would produce were manufactured, while our own fighters and bomber crews shot 500 enemy fighters from the sky. The Americans alone dropped ten thousand tons of bombs, about the equivalent of what the 8th Air Force delivered in its entire first year of operations. At any given time, there would be up to 1,800 Allied bombers in the air, manned by more than 16,000 pilots and crew, winging their way to and from a hundred different bases in England and Italy.
P-51 Mustangs of the 375th Squadron, 361st Group of the U.S. 8th Air Force, 1944.
U.S. Air Force Photo
While there were many losses, there were two miracles that added to the irrefutable success of Big Week. First, ideal weather conditions almost without precedent for that time of year, and the arrival of squadrons of American P-51 Mustang fighter planes with the ability to fly virtually anywhere our bombers had to go – and stay with them for the previously deadly return.
While German ingenuity made possible the continued production of fighter aircraft, the Luftwaffe was never able to replace the prime core of their cadre of experienced airmen lost that week – the six days one historian says which “changed the course of World War II!”