Chapter 2: Big Week
At long last, on 19 February 1944, the weather over the German fighter factories began to open up, and during the six succeeding days the concerted bombing attack which had been projected since November 1943 became a reality. The plan, drafted originally and repeatedly modified by the Combined Operational Planning Committee (COPC) under the code name ARGUMENT,1 pointed toward a series of coordinated precision attacks by the Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces against the highest-priority objectives, most of which by February 1944 were situated in central and southern Germany. The RAF agreed to make its night area attacks coincide with the daylight missions both in time and in place.
The projected operation was to be directed principally against the airframe and final assembly phase of single and twin-engine production. It had been consistently assumed by those responsible for selecting targets for the CBO that bombing of airframe manufacture would be reflected more rapidly in enemy front-line fighter strength than an attack on the aero-engine manufacture. The policy based on this assumption, however, was coupled with one giving a high immediate priority to the antifriction-bearing industry which lay, one might say, at the opposite end of the production line but which was believed to be highly concentrated in so small a number of targets as to make the system highly vulnerable.* As finally worked out, the ARGUMENT plan looked to a combination of attacks against final assembly, antifriction bearings, and component parts manufacture. Thus, for example, bombing of the Erla assembly plant at Leipzig, engaged in assembling Me-109’s, was to be supplemented by bombing the Heiterblick component factory at Leipzig which supplied major parts
* See Vol. II, pp. 356-57.
for assembly at the airfield. Ju-88 twin-engine fighter production at Bernburg was made to share the bombing attack with the fuselage factory at Oschersleben and the wing factory at Halberstadt, on both of which it depended. Likewise, the Messerschmitt assembly plant at Regensburg–Obertraubling was to be bombed simultaneously with the component factory at Regensburg–Prüfening. This technique was, of course, unnecessary at the Messerschmitt factories at Gotha and Augsburg where both final assembly and major component manufacture were carried out in the same factory area.2
The primary responsibility for mounting the attack belonged to USSTAF. It had not been anticipated that this headquarters would ordinarily direct daily operations involving either or both of the two AAF heavy bombardment forces, the Eighth and Fifteenth. Its general task was a supervisory and policy-making one, but in the case of coordinated operations undertaken by the two forces the day’s activity was to fall under the immediate direction of USSTAF’s deputy for operations, Maj. Gen. Frederick L. Anderson.3 ARGUMENT had been scheduled repeatedly-every time, in fact, that early weather reports seemed to offer any hope; but each time deteriorating weather had forced cancellation.4 By February the destruction of the German fighter production had become a matter of such urgency that General Spaatz and General Anderson were willing to take more than ordinary risks in order to complete the task, including the risk of exceptional losses that might result from missions staged under conditions of adverse base weather. General Spaatz on 8 February had directed that ARGUMENT must be completed by 1 March 1944.5
On 19 February the USSTAF weather section, the central agency through which all forecasting was coordinated for the American bomber and fighter forces in the United Kingdom, became aware of two extensive pressure areas, one centered in the Baltic and one just west of Ireland, which were developing in a way that made good weather over central Europe and the home bases seem probable. If the Pressure area over the Baltic moved southeast across Europe as was anticipated, the resulting winds would break out the cloud and leave clear skies or, at worst, scattered clouds. Neither the Eighth Air Force nor Ninth Air Force weather observers shared the confidence of USSTAF on this prospect. As a result, neither General Doolittle of
the Eighth nor General Brereton, whose Ninth Air Force medium bombers would be heavily involved as diversionary forces, was enthusiastic about Anderson’s proposal to attempt as difficult and dangerous an operation as ARGUMENT the following day.6
Nevertheless, General Anderson continued to explore the possibilities and conferred by cable with Eaker to determine whether Maj. Gen. Nathan F. Twining of the Fifteenth Air Force was prepared to cooperate. The request caught Eaker at an embarrassing time. He had been assured by those in command of the ground campaign at Anzio that the following day would be a critical one on the beachhead. Both Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark of the Fifth Army and Maj. Gen. John K. Cannon of the Twelfth Air Force hoped for full assistance from the heavy bombers of the Fifteenth. Weather reports received in Italy indicated, furthermore, that the proposed south German targets would offer little chance for visual bombing; and since the Fifteenth had as yet no H2S equipment, a diversionary attack on area targets as suggested by USSTAF would be impossible. Eaker also feared that if the Fifteenth were withdrawn for POINTBLANK operations at this critical stage of the Italian campaign General Wilson might feel compelled to declare an emergency and employ the heavy bombers by direct command. Eaker wished to avoid such a declaration, lest the control exercised by his own headquarters over the operations of the Fifteenth be robbed of all flexibility. Accordingly he requested that the Fifteenth not be committed by USSTAF on the 20th.7 Spaatz, to whom the impending air battle promised results so decisive that any diversion of support from the land campaign in Italy would be justified, took the question to Air Chief Marshal Portal, who answered that the Prime Minister wished all available forces to be used in support of the beachhead.8 Participation by the Fifteenth on the 20th was accordingly left to Eaker’s discretion.9
The mission remained on the books, at least for the Eighth, and preparations went ahead on the assumption that it would be flown the next morning. During a night that brought little sleep for the responsible commanders, doubts continued to be expressed concerning the weather prospect. Could the fighter escorts get up through the clouds considered likely over the bases? Might not the icing that would result seriously reduce their efficiency? General Kepner, in command of the Eighth Air Force fighters, believed it would cut the efficiency of the P-38’s by half but did not foresee too much difficulty for the P-47’s
and P-51’s. General Spaatz felt the mission should be flown if necessary without full fighter support. But what of the bombers themselves? Could they negotiate assembly through 4,000 to 5,000 feet of cloud with the likelihood of even more trouble from icing than the fast-moving fighters would encounter? It was suggested that de-icing fluid could be used and cockpit windows opened after the cloud area was passed, and so the debate continued, but early in the morning of the 20th the wires carried down from headquarters the final decision “Let ‘em go.”10
The force assembled for the mission was the largest in the history of the American strategic forces. Sixteen combat wings of heavy bombers, numbering over 1,000 planes, were dispatched, of which total 941 were credited with sorties. All available AAF fighter escort was provided, 17 groups in all 13 P-47, 2 P-38, and 2 P-51 drawn from both VIII Fighter Command and the Ninth Air Force. In addition to these American escort groups, the RAF provided 16 fighter squadrons, consisting of Spitfires and Mustangs.11
Twelve specific targets had been selected, representing major assembly and component plants for Me-109’s, Me-110’s, Ju-88’s, Ju-188’s and FW-190’s. Most of the objectives lay in the Brunswick/Leipzig area; but three lay in the north, two in the Posen area of Poland and one at Tutow. Six combat wings of bombers were sent to the latter targets by a route which led over the North Sea and across the southern part of Denmark. The remaining ten combat wings were to bomb the targets in central Germany. Since these wings would certainly encounter the stiffest resistance from the Luftwaffe (the northern route lay largely beyond the lanes usually defended by the Germans), they were given all the available escort. Several of the American fighter groups were to refuel and make second sorties. The main bombing force was to enter the enemy radar screen in time to prevent large numbers of fighters from concentrating on the unescorted northern force. In order to facilitate fighter support, the combat wings of the main force were to fly at close intervals over the same route until it became necessary to diverge toward their respective targets. Both Parts of the day’s mission could easily be interpreted, and probably were by many German observers, as a threat to the national capital.12
Thanks to these precautions, to the generally excellent support of friendly fighters, and doubtless also to the fact that the RAF had bombed the city of Leipzig heavily the night before and had worn out
much of the night fighter force, the bombers of the Eighth suffered relatively little from enemy attack. This was good news to those who remembered earlier attempts at penetrations deep into enemy territory – the Schweinfurt mission of 14 October or the most recent of such operations on 11 January when of 651 bombers making sorties 60 failed to return. On 20 February, against many of the same targets, only 21 were lost out of a force of almost 1,000 .13
The bombing, wherever it was accomplished visually (at Leipzig, Bernburg, and Brunswick and at several targets of opportunity), was good. Severe damage was, for example, done to four plants of A.T.G. Maschinenbau GmbH, in the Leipzig area. A.T.G. was one of the licensees of Junkers and was engaged in airframe manufacture and assembly,
especially of the twin-engine Ju-88. Destruction was especially heavy in terms of structural damage. Machine tools, although not damaged quite so severely as Allied intelligence believed at the time, were badly mauled. The mission of 20 February caused a loss of slightly more than one month’s output for the entire concern.14 The Erla Maschinenwerke GmbH also suffered heavily, especially its main plant at Heiterblick and the assembly plant at Möckau being used for the manufacture of Me-109’s, a type of which the Erla complex as a whole produced 32 per cent. An estimated forty completed aircraft and an undetermined amount of component parts were destroyed at these two plants. The bombs also killed some 450 workers in slit trenches and in inadequate air-raid shelters provided at Heiterblick. As at A.T.G., damage to buildings was proportionally greater than to machine tools, a surprising number of which remained undamaged or reparable. It was this raid, however, that decided the plant authorities to begin a serious policy of dispersal, with all its attendant loss of production and dependence on vulnerable lines of rail communication.15
This mission of 20 February was the beginning of the dramatic series of strategic operations that has come to be called the Big Week. On the night of 19/20 February it all seemed a hazardous gamble on the doubtful long-range weather forecast. That the first mission was attempted can be attributed to the stubborn refusal of General Anderson to allow an opportunity, even a dubious one, to slip past him. To the intense relief of USSTAF headquarters the gamble paid off. Not only had an apparently good job of bombing been achieved but the cost must have seemed gratifyingly small to men who had been talking in terms of a possible loss of 200 bombers and crews. So, when the weather prospect for the 21st indicated continuing favorable conditions over Germany, an operation was enthusiastically undertaken. The feeling was spreading within USSTAF headquarters, and from there to the operational headquarters, that this was the big chance.
As on the previous day it was the RAF that dealt the initial blow. On the night of 20/21 February, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris’ Bomber Command struck at Stuttgart, a city important to the aircraft industry, with over 600 planes. USSTAF planned to bomb the two M.I.A.G. factories at Brunswick, both of which were producing component parts for the twin-engine, rocket-firing Me-110, and also to attack half-a-dozen important airfields and storage parks in western Germany.16 It was hoped that the medium bombers of the Ninth Air
Force and the heavies of the Fifteenth could cooperate. But the former, as on the 20th, found weather over assigned airfield targets in the Low Countries unfavorable, and the Fifteenth found it impossible because of bad weather even to fly missions in support of the ground action.17 On the part of the Eighth it was another all-out effort, planned and launched on a scale not far short of the previous mission. But the strategic results were not so encouraging. True, the large air park at Diepholz was severely and accurately bombed, as were several of the other airfields attacked, but the principal targets at Brunswick were found covered by cloud. The bombardiers switched from visual to pathfinder tactics and succeeded in dropping a heavy tonnage of bombs on the city, but without damaging the aircraft factories directly.18
Weather reports for the next day continued to indicate good prospects for visual bombing over many important targets, and special attention was invited to evidence that the high-pressure area responsible for the clear weather was moving south in such a way as to open up the two top-priority objectives Regensburg and Schweinfurt. A promise of good weather farther north also encouraged the planners to debate seriously an attack on the next highest on the priority list, the Erkner ball-bearing factory near Berlin. A mission to Erkner undertaken simultaneously with attacks on the southern targets, however, would spread the forces too much and make them too vulnerable to enemy attack. Excellent results had been achieved on the two previous missions by sending the bombers and their fighter escort into enemy territory as a team, only splitting the force when the target areas were neared. Even after Erkner had been ruled out, the remaining targets presented a dangerous spread, and so the news that the Fifteenth would be able to send a force against Regensburg was especially welcome. It was decided that on the 22nd the Eighth should attack aircraft factories at Schweinfurt, Gotha, Bernburg, Oschersleben, Aschersleben, and Halberstadt, leaving Regensburg to be bombed from Italy by the Fifteenth. In addition, a small diversionary force, equipped with radar-jamming devices, was to fly to Denmark and bomb the Aalborg airfield. This force, it was hoped, would hold a number of enemy fighters in the north and would make it hard for the enemy to detect the main force of bombers until after it had formed over England.19
A number of things went wrong with these plans. The B-17’s of
the 3rd Bombardment Division, which constituted the Schweinfurt force, found it impossible to assemble because of the unfavorable weather over their bases. Several collisions occurred in the air, and General LeMay finally ordered this part of the mission abandoned. His decision, though apparently justified under the circumstances, left the Fifteenth to face stronger defenses than would have been met had the bombers of the Eighth been able to get as far south as Schweinfurt. The B-24’s of the 2nd Bombardment Division on their way to Gotha also ran into trouble. Badly strung out as they crossed the Channel, they found it impossible to organize on the way inland and the decision was made to recall. These defections left only the five combat wings of the 1st Division which had been scheduled to attack Oschersleben, Halberstadt, Bernburg, and Aschersleben. Oschersleben, most important of these objectives, was obscured by cloud and was passed over in favor of targets of opportunity. Many planes of the Halberstadt force found the same difficulty and adopted the same alternative. As a result, only 99 bombers out of a force of 466 dispatched by the Eighth that morning succeeded in bombing their primary targets, and only 255 planes bombed any target at all. Fortunately, the Fifteenth had better luck and was able to get off a force of 183 bombers against Regensburg, where 118 planes bombed the Messerschmitt factory at Obertraubling.20
Bombing results at the major targets were very uneven, owing principally to the degree of visibility allowed the bombardiers. The thirty-four bombers that attacked the Aschersleben Motor Works (manufacturing Ju-88’s and other products for the Junkers complex) are credited with causing a 50 per cent production loss for two months. The Bernburg attack, aimed also at Ju-88 production, was one of several effective missions which eventually damaged the assembly buildings to the extent of 70 to 80 per cent. Bombing was poor at Halberstadt. The Fifteenth at Regensburg gave a good start to a second campaign against that segment of the Messerschmitt system, a campaign which was carried on still more effectively three days later by both air forces.21
The German fighters made the bombers of both the Eighth and the Fifteenth pay more heavily on the 22nd than on the two preceding missions. On those two occasions the bombers, with excellent fighter support and other factors in their favor, had a relatively easy time of it, but on this day the Germans successfully tried a new tactic against
the Eighth Air Force. Instead of concentrating their efforts in the target area, where fighter escort was now usually provided, or even on the later stages of the flight toward the target, they attacked early in the penetration at a time when fighter cover was either thin or entirely lacking. In the course of the running battle that ensued the Eighth lost 41 bombers out of a force of 430 credited with making sorties. Part of the trouble arose from a widely spread-out bomber force; when many of the units tuned away to seek targets of opportunity, the invading force lost what compactness it had maintained on the penetration flight and this made it hard for the two groups of long-range P-51’s acting as target area support to afford complete cover. The escort in general had a field day, claiming sixty of the enemy destroyed at a cost of eleven of their number.22 The Fifteenth, also running into stiff enemy opposition, lost fourteen of its bombers, chiefly to twin-engine fighters.23
Prospects for a visual attack by the Eighth on the 23rd looked so poor that no mission was planned. General Doolittle welcomed the break in operations. For three successive days his bomber crews had been working under high pressure and they were tired. The long-range fighter escort units were even more exhausted, but presumably the German Air Force was tired too, and had weather promised an even chance for visual bombing, a mission would doubtless have been flown.24 The Fifteenth was able to send a small force of 102 bombers to Steyr, in Austria, where they destroyed 20 per cent of the plant area at the Steyr Walzlagerwerke, then turning out between 10 and 15 per cent of the German ball-bearing production.25
The weather over central Germany opened up again in time for another full-scale coordinated mission on the 24th. This time it was decided to strike hard at Schweinfurt’s antifriction-bearing plants, most important of their sort in the Axis countries. In addition to the five combat wings of B-17’s dispatched to Schweinfurt, three combat wings of B-24’s were sent to Gotha to bomb the important Gothaer Waggonfabrik A.G., largest producer of twin-engine Me-210’s, and a third force, amounting to five combat wings, was to bomb aircraft component factories and assembly plants in northeastern Germany and Poland at Tutow, Kreising, and Posen, all producing FW-190’s. Since it was not at all certain that these northern targets would be open to visual bombing, and since the position of the last two in occupied territory made them unsuitable for the relatively inaccurate radar
bombing, the third force was directed as an alternative to bomb the city of Rostock. The Fifteenth Air Force agreed to fly in force against the Steyr-Daimler-Puch aircraft component plant at Steyr.26
Care had to be taken to prevent heavy enemy fighter reaction to, the northern force dispatched by the Eighth, since the extreme length of its flight prevented the use of even the long-range fighter escort then available. It was hoped that by carefully timing the flight of the main force the enemy controller could be prevented from committing too many units to the task of intercepting the Tutow–Kreising–Posers force. The actions of the Fifteenth against Steyr and of the main force of the Eighth were calculated to be mutually helpful in splitting the German defenses.
These precautions apparently worked well for the northern force, although the overcast weather encountered no doubt helped to discourage enemy fighters. The Schweinfurt–Gotha forces and that of the Fifteenth, however, ran into plenty of trouble. The 87 B-17’s of the Fifteenth that flew to Steyr (27 others became separated and attacked the Fiume oil refinery) experienced almost all the German interceptor tricks that had been worked out against the Eighth during the previous year-coordinated attacks by four to six single-engine fighters, rockets fired at long range from twin-engine aircraft, and aerial bombs. The attacks were especially heavy against the rear formation, all 10 bombers of which were shot down. The Steyr force lost a total of 17 bombers in this air battle, despite excellent withdrawal support provided by 146 P-47’s and P-38’s. A similar story was told by the B-24 crews that flew to Gotha. Despite almost continuous fighter cover, the B-24 formations suffered persistent and concentrated attack, especially In the target area, and lost 33 planes out of the 239 patched that morning. The Schweinfurt force fared somewhat better, losing only 11 planes. The supporting fighters lost 10 and claimed the destruction of 37 of the enemy. Bomber claims (108 German fighters destroyed) reflected the intensity of the battle.27
It is hard to estimate the exact amount of damage done to the Schweinfurt ball-bearing industry by the 54.3 tons of high explosives and incendiaries dropped by the 238 B-17’s on 24 February because that night the RAF, guided by the fires left burning from the American attack, dropped a much greater weight of bombs on the entire individual area of Schweinfurt. The combined attack was thus the heaviest yet directed against that city, but it was not the most damaging to
the antifriction-bearing industry. The attack of 14 October retained that honor throughout the war. It was not that the bombing of 24 February was inaccurate, for three of the four bearing plants sustained major damage in the daylight raid with direct hits on machine shops, storage buildings, and power stations. It was simply that Schweinfurt, considered as a POINTBLANK objective, was not the target it had been in the fall of 1943. Since the October raid, Vereinigte Kugellager Fabriken A.G. had been busily engaged in dispersing its activities. By February 1944 it had moved 549 machines to the new locations, leaving only 73 per cent of its total stock of machines in the Schweinfurt plants. Thus Schweinfurt was only about 60 per cent as valuable a target in February 1944 as it had been in October 1943. Nevertheless the bearing plants suffered heavy damage in the raids of 24–25 February, especially in the departments processing rings; and the ball department, already half-dispersed, lost another 10 per cent of its machines. Many of the most important processes remained, however, unaffected.28
Bombing at Gotha was especially accurate, and probably more important strategically than at Schweinfurt. Over 400 bombs, both high explosive and incendiary, fell in the target area, 93 of which hit buildings; this does not count the large number of fragmentation bombs (180 tons out of a total of 424) dropped also. Almost every building in the very compact factory area was damaged. The eastern half of the plant, where the aircraft manufacture was centered, was generally destroyed, although machine tools, the vital part of the production system, received surprisingly slight damage, considering the amount of damage to buildings. Most of the loss of machine tools resulted from fires. Even falling debris and steel girders did less damage than factory executives had expected. In fact the loss of production following the raid resulted less from actual damage to the machine tools than from their inaccessibility. Much time and labor had to be expended clearing heavy girders from the machines caught under them. Some loss of production also resulted from the policy of dispersal begun on official order after 24 February. In all, the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey estimated that as a result of this mission the Gothaer Waggonfabrik A.G. lost about six to seven weeks’ production or the equivalent of 140 planes. Recuperation was rapid, however. in a little over two months the concern was operating again at full capacity. But it must be remembered that, in order to bring about full
production at new dispersed plants, a heavy drain was placed on other factories in the Messerschmitt ring.29
As if to add a final touch of celebration to a week of unwonted liberality, the weather on 25 February permitted the daylight bombing forces to choose almost any targets they wished in German territory. The decision was made in USSTAF headquarters to launch another full-scale coordinated attack by both strategic air forces against the remaining high-priority objectives in southern Germany. The Fifteenth was directed to attack the Messerschmitt component plant at Regensburg–Prüfening. The Eighth was given both Messerschmitt factories at Regensburg, the Messerschmitt parent plant at Augsburg, the antifriction-bearing plant of V.K.F. at Stuttgart, and the factory of Bachmann-Von Blumenthal at Fürth, manufacturing components and assembling Me-110’s.30
The mission promised to be a dangerous and taxing day’s work for both forces, involving as it did for each an extremely deep penetration. USSTAF planners hoped that this closely coordinated attack, the first to be attempted on the same day by the Eighth and Fifteenth against the same objective, would split and confuse the German fighter forces. It was also hoped that the Germans would be showing the strain of five days of constant action. An additional advantage lay in the fact that the targets were fairly well concentrated, making it possible for the Eighth to move its huge force along a single line of penetration under a single comprehensive plan of fighter cover. The Fifteenth was not in such a favorable position. It lacked escort of sufficiently long range to provide protection during the most distant phase of the penetration. It suffered also from the handicap of a relatively small force. Only bombers equipped for long-range flying could be sent as far as Regensburg, and, although the Fifteenth dispatched that day almost 400 bombers, only 176 were airborne on the main mission. The remainder hit yards and port installations at Flume, the harbor at Zara, warehouses and sheds at Pola, rail lines at Zell-am-See, and the airfield at Graz-Thalerhof.31
As it happened, the German fighters concentrated relatively larger forces on the Fifteenth than on the Eighth, with the result that the Foggia-based bombers lost 33 of their number on the Regensburg mission, or nearly one-fifth of the attacking force. The fighting was intense, and the bomber crews claimed large numbers of the enemy shot down.32 The Eighth, on the other hand, lost only 31 of its total
force of 738 credited with sorties.33 It was another proof of the fact, long since conceded by American strategic bombing experts, that a daylight bomber force without full fighter cover could not hope to get through an aggressive enemy without excessive losses, especially when, as in this instance, the enemy chose to concentrate on the weaker and more poorly protected force.
All forces were able to bomb their primary targets on the 25th and to do so with generally good accuracy. Results were especially important at Regensburg and Augsburg, although a great deal of destruction was done also to plant and finished aircraft at Forth. Regensburg was the heart of the Me-109 production and it was considered worth any reasonable risk, including a slight reduction in bombing altitude, to do an effective job on the two plants there. In the raids by the Fifteenth on 22 February and 25 February on the Obertraubling factory and by the Eighth against both factories on the 25th, scarcely a building escaped damage, many being utterly destroyed. The effect on aircraft production was great. Plant records indicate that production fell from 435 planes per month in January 1944 to 135 per month in March 1944, the decline resulting entirely from bomb destruction. The Regensburg system did not again reach scheduled production levels for four months.34 The main Messerschmitt plant at Augsburg underwent similarly drastic treatment. Blast and fire from over 500 tons of bombs destroyed approximately thirty buildings. Production capacity was reduced by about 35 per cent. Almost one-third of all machine tools were damaged, and 70 per cent of stored material destroyed. The plant was, however, back in full production in little over one month.35
Allied intelligence, working on the basis of extremely accurate reports of damage to factory buildings, quite understandably expected more loss of production than actually occurred. The error arose partly because these reports contained no detailed information regarding dispersal of plant functions. Since the summer of 1943, when the first heavy raid was made by the AAF against the Regensburg factories (17 August), the Messerschmitt company had been energetically engaged in dispersing the activity of all major plants in a closely integrated system of small factories, many of them cleverly concealed in forest areas adjoining the original manufacturing centers. The effect of bombing attacks was thus greatly reduced. The 17 August 1943, raid, for example, had prevented the Regensburg complex from returning to scheduled production for five months. Although much
heavier and more devastating, the attack of 25 February retarded manufacture for only four months.36 Another source of miscalculation lay in the fact that here, as elsewhere, the machine tools, which were the least replaceable part of the production process and of vital importance, suffered astonishingly slight damage considering the general devastation. Underestimating the recuperability of such plants, USSTAF failed in many instances to schedule return raids which, undertaken fairly soon after the completion of an apparently very effective one, might have finished work only partly accomplished.37
After these attacks of 25 February the weather turned bad (indeed, it would be generally so for another month) and ended the Big Week.
How Big Was the Big Week?
The question naturally arises, how big was the Big Week? To those who participated in it and who directed its operations it looked very big indeed. Perhaps it looked even larger to the public relations men and the press writers who were responsible for giving it the tag that has clung to it ever since. If under the unromantic eye of the historian it loses some of its legendary proportions, it remains nevertheless a truly big and important campaign.
Here are some of the facts, many of them gathered since the end of the war and reconciled where possible with German records. Over 3,300 bombers from the Eighth Air Force and more than 500 from the Fifteenth attacked the main POINTBLANK targets. These forces dropped a total of almost 10,000 tons of bombs a scale of attack roughly equal to that of the Eighth Air Force during its entire first year of operations. Losses, though heavy, were less than had generally been anticipated. USSTAF planners were prepared to accept losses of as many as 200 heavy bombers on a single day’s operation. The Eighth actually lost some 137 heavy bombers in the entire six days’ campaign, the Fifteenth 89 an over-all average of about 6 per cent. Fighter sorties in support of the heavy bomber missions amounted to approximately 2,548 for the Eighth Air Force, 712 for the Ninth, and 413 for the Fifteenth. Total fighter losses were 28. A rough estimate of crewmen lost, including those killed in action, missing, and seriously wounded, would be 2,600.38 In addition to the weight of attack delivered by the American forces, mainly in connection with visual bombing of specific industrial targets, the RAF made five heavy raids against cities containing priority POINTBLANK targets: Leipzig,
Stuttgart, Schweinfurt, Steyr, and Augsburg. Some 2,351 of its aircraft dropped 9,198 (U.S.) tons of bombs for a loss of 157 heavy bombers,39 about 6.6 per cent. This figure, slightly higher than that of American losses, is most interesting in the light of earlier estimates of the relative costs of day and night bombing.
The scale of these coordinated operations was thus big enough in all reason. It is more difficult to estimate their effect on the enemy with equal exactness because it cannot be done entirely on a quantitative basis. Certain general conclusions seem warranted, however. The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, after ransacking German sources, estimated that the 4,000-odd tons of bombs dropped on targets in the aircraft industrial system alone damaged or destroyed 75 per cent of the buildings in plants that at the time accounted for 90 per cent of the total German production of aircraft. The immediate reaction in the industry was one of consternation, we are told. The German authorities, whose plans had hitherto rested on unduly optimistic foundations, now apparently for the first time showed signs of desperation. As a result of the bombing, the aircraft industry received in late February a formal order to disperse its plants. That order, of course, merely intensified a policy begun locally and unsystematically after that industry first came under daylight bombing attacks in the second half of 1943. Also the bombings helped to precipitate a crisis in the over-all organization of aircraft production which culminated in the shifting of responsibility from Goering’s Air Ministry to a special agency operating within the Albert Speer Ministry of Armaments and Munitions. In short, the February bombings had the effect of galvanizing the aircraft industry into feverish action.40
Thanks in part to that activity, directed as it was with considerable resourcefulness, the effects of the February bombings were substantially mitigated. Damage, moreover, proved on more careful investigation to have been proportionately less severe in the vital category of machine tools than to buildings; in fact a very high percentage of the former was salvaged. Dispersal was especially successful in the airframe and final-assembly branch of the industry (the one singled out for priority attack) since it was possible to carry on most of the necessary operations in roughly constructed frame shelters, many of them we concealed in wooded areas. As a result of these several factors, aircraft production recuperated very rapidly. Interestingly enough, the
February bombings, heavy and accurate as they were, caused less total delay in aircraft production than did the relatively lighter and more isolated attacks conducted by the Eighth Air Force in August and 1 October 1943. The latter are credited with causing a three-month delay in production-the former with only about two months’ loss.41
Failure to take into account the phenomenal recuperability of the aircraft industry, especially in its airframe branch, led Allied intelligence agencies to overestimate the effects of the February bombing campaign. Reasonably accurate during 1943, Allied estimates of German fighter production became after February 1944 grossly optimistic. The average monthly production of German single-engine fighters during the last half of 1943 was 851, as against Allied estimates of 645. For the first half of 1944, on the other hand, actual production reached a monthly average of 1,581, whereas Allied intelligence estimated only 655.42
Allied estimates were even further off in dealing with the antifriction-bearing industry. In this instance the original estimates, on the basis of which that industry had been selected for top-priority bombing, had been too optimistic. Ball bearings were vital enough to the aircraft industry. But they were too well cushioned in the production process: basic stocks were too large, the pipelines in the aircraft industry too well filled, and the possibility of economy too great for even the most successful bombing of the bearing plants to affect final aircraft production appreciably. Furthermore, owing to the vigorous policy of dispersal which has been mentioned before, the Schweinfurt plant had nowhere near the importance it had possessed in 1943.43
Unquestionably the Big Week derived much of its importance from these errors in intelligence. Yet it must be remembered that the February bombings did deny many hundreds of aircraft to the enemy at a time when they were badly needed and could probably have been brought into effective use against the Allied invasion of Europe. The fact that the Germans suffered only a temporary setback in their overall program of aircraft production is less important than that they lost a significant number of planes at a critical point in the air war and that, at the same critical juncture, they were forced to reorganize and disperse the entire industry. According to the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, the February campaign would have paid off even if its only effect had been to force the enemy into an intensive program of dispersal.
For that program not only accounted indirectly for much wasted effort and production loss; it also left the industry vulnerable to any serious disruption in transportation. The dispersal policy did, in fact, defeat itself when Allied bombers subsequently turned to an intensive strategic attack on transportation.44
Moreover, the effect of the Big Week on German air power was not restricted to bomb damage. Indeed, there is reason to believe that the large and fiercely fought air battles of those six February days had more effect in establishing the air superiority on which Allied plans so largely depended than did the bombing of industrial plants. Total USSTAF claims of enemy aircraft destroyed amounted to well above 600, with more than a third of these victories credited to the fighter escort and roughly another third to the bombers of the Fifteenth Air Force, which enjoyed no long-range escort.45 It is impossible at this time to get from enemy sources an exact check on these figures, and it may be impossible for all time to do that, but available German records do indicate, if allowance is made for inevitable duplications, that USSTAF claims were not far off.
GAF records by agreement with the United States at the close of the war went to Great Britain, where the unavoidably tedious analysis of the full record by the Historical Branch of the Air Ministry is as yet incomplete. However, certain figures, though still unreconciled, provide informative clues as to the critical character of the air battles of early 1944. The historical section of the German high command, in compiling cumulative combat losses for the West (including the Reich) from the time of the invasion of Russia in June 1941, showed a total of 2,581 fighter planes lost up to January 1944 and the loss of an additional 307 during that month. Losses in February jumped to 456. of which number only 65 were night fighters, the type directed chiefly against the missions of the RAF. The initial cumulative entry for March, moreover, shows by comparison with the closing entry for February a discrepancy of 77 additional losses in the category of single engine fighters, and thus the total for February may well have been 533 planes. The total for the month of March rises to 567, of which 94 were night fighters.* A bound record (26FX-36a of the high command), which is stamped with a security mark indicating it was compiled for the information of the high command alone, charts total
* QM Collection of the OKL 6th Abteilung.
aircraft losses, beginning with January 1944, at intervals of approximately ten days as follows:–
|19 Jan. 1944||355|
|20 Jan. 1944||335|
|31 Jan. 1944||661|
|10 Feb. 1944||508|
|20 Feb. 1944||388|
|29 Feb, 1944||545|
|10 Mar. 1944||514|
|20 Mar. 1944||552|
|31 Mar. 1944||777?|
The same source indicates that 433 flying personnel were killed in February 1944, that 341 were reported missing, and that 277 had been wounded. Preliminary Air Ministry studies based on German records (AHB 6, No. 132 and AHB 6, No. 133) show the following very tentative monthly totals for all theaters:–
|Aircraft Destroyed||Losses from All Causes|
|January 1944||1,050||1, 311|
|February 1944||1,501||2, 121|
|March 1944||1,591||2, 115|
Losses on the Russian front are listed, respectively, as 168, 466, and 431. It will be difficult to reconcile all of these figures, and it is not always possible to determine the exact basis on which the original statistics were compiled, but they do agree in their testimony to an upturn, possibly even a sharp upturn, in attrition as of February 1944 and to results even more disastrous for the following month.
Strong confirmation for such a conclusion is found in the abrupt change which occurred in GAF strategy after February. Although still capable of the stoutest kind of local resistance on occasion, the enemy now refused to commit himself to a policy of full-scale opposition to the daylight bombing campaign. He would send up only token resistance to some missions and then concentrate as large a force as in earlier months against a particular operation. At other times the GAF would try no more than to gain a local superiority by sending overwhelming numbers against one unit, especially a unit that had in some way become separated from its fellows or was left without adequate escort.46 In short the policy was one of conservation of strength and it conceded to the Allies the vital point of air superiority.
Responding to long-awaited opportunities, Allied commanders pressed hard their every advantage, and for the first time in many Months looked beyond the “intermediate” objective of defeating the GAF to schedule systematic attacks on other inviting targets.47 No longer were bombing missions scheduled and routes of flight selected
with an eye to avoiding enemy defenses. Instead, in March it became deliberate policy to use every device that might force the GAF into combat.48 Fighter escort, which hitherto had been held down to close support of the bombers, now was increasingly cut loose from strictly defensive assignments with orders to seek out and destroy the foe.49 And as the role of escort became thus primarily an offensive one, the extension of fighter range made it possible to send great fleets of escorted bombers all the way to Berlin.
During the last days of February and the first days of March, the Eighth Air Force because of the weather had to confine its activities to a few short-range missions against CROSSBOW installations on the French coast and to a couple of pathfinder expeditions, one to Brunswick and one to Frankfurt. But on 4 March 1944 the Eighth for the first time bombed Berlin.
Hitler’s capital had been listed in the directive of 13 February* as a peculiarly suitable target for operations by both the British and the American strategic bombing forces (the latter employing radar technique as needed) “whenever weather or tactical conditions are suitable for such operations and unsuitable for operations against the primary objectives.” The purpose of attacks on Berlin was not merely to destroy the important industries located in the area, such as the ball-bearing plants at Erkner, nor even to shake enemy morale, although it was obvious that the Germans could hardly avoid some discouragement at the thought of both RAF and AAF attacks against their capital. It was hoped that the German fighters would react quickly to any threat to Berlin and would in the ensuing air battles suffer heavy losses. This hope had initially embraced overcast and night attacks against other important industrial areas as well, but the attacks on Brunswick and Frankfurt brought out something less than full-scale opposition. Bad ground weather undoubtedly helped to keep the German fighters down but could not entirely explain the weakness of the opposition encountered after 25 February. It having been assumed that the operations of the Big Week had greatly reduced the importance of the top priority aircraft and antifriction-bearing factories, it became correspondingly more important to force a higher rate of attrition on the GAF in being. And if there was any target for which the GAF would fight, surely that target was Berlin.
* See above, pp. 27-28.
Consequently as soon as it was apparent that the intensive campaign against the aircraft and bearing industries could he suspended for the time being, USSTAF headquarters planned to turn the Eighth Air Force as rapidly and with as heavy force as possible against Berlin. It hoped to launch a visual attack against the V.K.F. antifriction-bearing plant at Erkner and the Robert Bosch A.G. in the Klein Machnow suburb of Berlin, makers of specialized electrical equipment for aircraft and military vehicles. Should neither of these plants be open for visual bombing the Friedrichstrasse section of Berlin was to become the objective for pathfinder-led forces, since its large and important railway facilities offered an especially suitable PFF target.50
The decision to undertake an intensive bombardment of Berlin implied a new confidence on the part of the American air command in the ability of the long-range fighter escort to take the heavy bombers to distant and well-defended targets. And, in fact, the Berlin campaign of March 1944 marked an important miles tone in the development of the long-range fighter. Since its first use in the theater as escort on combat missions in December 1943, the P-51 had rapidly demonstrated its unique suitability for this purpose. Operations during January, in which the limited number of P-51’s then available were able to give target support to the bombers on all their important missions, further confirmed the feeling that this plane was the answer to the long-range escort problem.51 Since January, the range of the P-51 had been extended. Without external tanks that aircraft could escort to a point approximately 475 miles from base, a distance roughly equal to the maximum escort range of the P-47 equipped with two 108-gallon auxiliary wing tanks. In March it was demonstrated that the P-51 with two 75-gallon wing tanks could escort to a point about 650 miles from base, with two 108-gallon tanks it could reach the then unheard of escort range of 850 miles.52 Long-range escort, which of recent months had been recognized by all as the bottleneck of the daylight strategic bombing campaign, was now a reality. More of the P-51’s were needed, especially in the Fifteenth Air Force, which had to go through bitter enemy opposition during February without them; but they were operating by March in sufficient numbers to protect some of the Eighth’s largest daylight bomber formations even over the most distant targets.*
* At the end of March 1944 there were operating in the Eighth Air Force, and in addition the Ninth’s 354th Group, three groups the 4th, 355th, and 357th with 140 P-51 completely operational.
On 3 March the bombing force had been briefed for Berlin targets and directed to use either visual or overcast techniques as the situation warranted. But the bombers ran into steadily deteriorating weather as they flew over the North Sea. Over Jutland Peninsula cloud tops extended to 28,000 feet and, together with dense and persistent contrails, made formation flying almost impossible. Most of the combat wings therefore abandoned the mission. A few units bombed Wilhelmshaven and various other targets of opportunity.53
The effort made on 4 March again proved none too successful. One of the fourteen combat wings of bombers managed to get through or around the clouds and bomb the Klein Machnow suburb of Berlin, but the rest of the force once more either had to turn back or bomb targets of opportunity in the Ruhr. The single combat wing that flew on to Berlin was escorted effectively in the target area by one P-51 group and some units of another. As it neared the target area it was attacked aggressively by thirty to thirty-five single-engine German fighters, which constituted the only serious opposition encountered by the bombers throughout the mission. One P-51 group which failed to make contact with the bombers sighted a force of nearly seventy enemy aircraft in the Berlin area, but the latter refused to close with the American fighters. Losses suffered that day by both bombers and escort resulted probably more from the bad operating conditions than from enemy action. The combat wing (in this case only twenty-nine planes) that bombed Berlin began what looked like a promising visual attack on the Bosch plant through a break in the clouds, but it was forced to continue the run by radar, and no serious damage appears to have been done to that establishment.54
The mission of 4 March is significant chiefly because it was the first time American forces had bombed Berlin, but that fact, in its moral effect, was important. Nor was that effect confined to the enemy. The London Evening Standard, in a leading editorial headed “Allies over Berlin,” spoke hopefully of the increased scope of integrated Anglo-American bombing and saw in this first trip of the Americans to a target long held in high regard by the RAF “a sign of the unshakeable comradeship” of the American and British peoples. German propagandists, who had spread wild rumors of political cleavage, had been given “a resounding answer to all such rattle.”55
Two days later the American bombers returned to Berlin. This time visual conditions appeared likely and the bombing forces were again
given the Erkner bearing plant, the Bosch electrical equipment plant, and, in addition, the Daimler-Benz Moteren GmbH at Genshagen, twenty miles south of Berlin, producer of the engines used in the latest type FW-190’s and Me-410’s. In case of overcast, all formations were accompanied, as usual, by pathfinders. In all, 660 aircraft attacked, dropping a total of 1,626.2 tons of bombs, both high explosive and incendiary. Overcast conditions and the attempt to make use of uncertain visual opportunities tended to split up the bomber forces and confuse the aimings with the result that bombs were scattered here and there, mostly within the greater Berlin area but few near any of the high-priority industrial targets.56
In sharp contrast to their experience on the 4th, the bombers ran into exceedingly bitter and effective opposition. Despite almost continuous escort by successive relays drawn from fifteen Eighth Air Force fighter groups and four groups from the Ninth Air Force, the bombers sustained intensive attacks by a larger force of enemy fighters than had been encountered since the Big Week. Many of them were twin-engine aircraft, about half of which were night fighters. The appearance of the latter for the first time in several weeks was explained by the fact that the RAF had not been active over central Germany for several nights. The bomber force lost sixty-nine aircraft, most of them to enemy fighter action, although the number lost to antiaircraft fire was larger than usual. Eleven of the escorting fighters were also shot down. Bomber crews claimed ninety-seven enemy destroyed; the escort fighter pilots claimed eighty-two.57 It is impossible with available enemy records to support claims so high as these, but it is clear that both sides lost heavily in a fierce and important air battle.58
Clearly also, the GAF could still offer serious resistance. Yet it was just such air fights that the American commanders hoped to provoke, confident as they were in the ability of their airmen to impose a ruinous wastage upon the enemy. If their confidence rested in part on claims still chronically inflated, despite every effort to distil the truth from them, it nevertheless reflected what was coming to be one of the most important facts in the air war: the actual air superiority of the Allies. Berlin, the city the Germans appeared willing to defend at high cost, retained its high priority for daylight attack by heavy bombers escorted by increasing numbers of long-range P-51’s.
On 8 March, two days after this heavy air battle, the Eighth Air
Force had its first chance to bomb targets in the Berlin area totally without the aid of radar equipment. Again the main objective for visual attack was the Erkner bearing factory. This time the bombing was heavy and reasonably accurate. A total of 462 aircraft dropped 300.4 tons of high explosives and 762.8 tons of incendiaries over the target area. Some 68 bombers were forced because of difficult maneuvering at the target to bomb elsewhere. The bearing plant at Erkner sustained heavy damage as a result of seventy-five direct hits by high explosive bombs on buildings and an unascertainable, but doubtless equally large, number by incendiaries. The plant was out of operation entirely for a considerable period of time.59
Although there was nothing about the weather on the 8th to inhibit the German fighter defenses, and, despite the fact that the bomber force had as on both previous Berlin missions flown the shortest and most direct course across Germany, fighter opposition was much weaker than on the 6th. It was especially weak in the twin-engine aircraft which had taken such a large part in that earlier action. Undoubtedly the losses sustained by the Luftwaffe on the 6th and the strain imposed by the repeated bombing of central German targets on the already overburdened enemy pilots held many units on the ground. But it must also be remembered that the bombers on the 8th enjoyed the most complete long-range escort yet assembled. Four groups of P-51’s, numbering 174 aircraft, supported the bombers on the last leg of the penetration flight, throughout the target area, and for a considerable distance on the withdrawal. A record total of 1,015 American fighters took off for escort duty that day, of which 891 received credit for sorties. The bomber force lost, in all, 37 planes out of 590 credited with sorties. The escort lost 17, but claimed 87 of the enemy. Strong forces of Ninth Air Force B-26’s escorted by RAF Spitfires bombed airfields in Holland, their attacks timed in such a way as to embarrass the fighter units stationed in the west just at the time they would be preparing to intercept the bombers both on penetration and withdrawal. It is doubtful, however, whether these diversionary missions did much to weaken the enemy line of defense which was becoming established well to the east, in the Dümmer See area of Germany.60
The Berlin mission of 8 March, coming as it did close on the heels of two other attacks on the capital, forced the German propagandists to use all their resourcefulness. The sight of compact and orderly formations
of American heavy bombers flying in clear sky over the city could not but have made a deep impression on the Berliners. We have Goering’s word that the appearance of American long-range fighters over Berlin was even more disturbing to the military. That, he told interrogators on one occasion, was something he had never thought possible. But it was the tight formations of heavy bombers that had first of all to be explained. On 13 March the Berlin papers, responding to what was evidently a general decision in the propaganda ministry, finally broke silence. The Berliner Boersen-Zeitung declared: “If the inhabitants of the capital were surprised that, despite the heavy defenses and heavy losses, isolated enemy formations reached the capital in formation, it must be remembered that this need not be interpreted as a sign of strength at all.” From the Voelkischer Beobachter came the additional answer: “If occasionally they fly in a clear sky without at the moment being pursued by the dreaded German fighters, only the layman is fooled, and then only for a few minutes. ... In their case the closed drill formation is not a sign of strength.”61
Eighth Air Force bombers made only one more trip to Berlin and its environs during the remainder of March. The consistently bad weather which had blanketed central Europe since the third week in February made even pathfinder missions to the capital impracticable until 22 March, when the Eighth once more set out for the Berlin area. This time they intended if possible to bomb the Heinkel aircraft plants at Oranienburg and the Bayerische Moterenwerke at Basdorf, maker of engines for FW-190’s. But the chances of a visual bombing run were not too good, and all formations prepared as an alternative to bomb the Friedrichstrasse section of Berlin itself by pathfinder. Some units tried to bomb visually, but the greater weight of attack was made by overcast methods. The enemy fighters reacted only on a very limited scale, despite weather conditions reasonably good for purposes of interception, and it is doubtful whether the fighters were responsible for more than 1 or 2 of the 12 bombers lost out of a force of 669 flying sorties. The rest went down as a result of accident or antiaircraft fire. Such fighters as did attempt to intercept carefully avoided the American escort, which was unable to register a single claim against the enemy in the air.62
If the weather discouraged further attacks on Berlin, it proved equally discouraging to any other high-priority enterprise during the last three weeks of March. For the most part, the Eighth was forced
to fall back on fairly large pathfinder missions to the old familiar industrial centers: Frankfurt, Brunswick, Wilhelmshaven, and Münster. Brunswick, with its important aircraft industries, sustained three such attacks, and Frankfurt, two. Occasionally, when conditions were unfavorable for activity over Germany, the Eighth would dispatch limited forces to assist in the bombing of CROSSBOW targets on the French coast. Twice it was decided that pressure on the GAF under such circumstances could best be maintained by sizable precision attacks against a number of airfields in France. During few of these missions, to either France or Germany, did the bombing force encounter serious enemy fighter opposition. When, as in the case of the missions on the 16th and 18th to the aircraft factories in southern Germany, the Luftwaffe chose to make a fight of it, the reaction was limited to certain phases of the penetration flight and to the target area.63 It was on 18 March that the Eighth Air Force made its only visual attack on the aircraft factories since the Big Week, in one of the two predominantly visual attacks against German targets during the entire month of March.
For all these limitations, it had been a month of the utmost activity for the Eighth Air Force, which operated on twenty-three days during the month, and on thirteen of those occasions may be said to have operated at maximum strength. But the month’s activities fell far short of the intensive and selective February attacks on the high-priority POINTBLANK objectives. The missions that were run kept the German war machine under constant pressure, but it was not the kind of pressure the American strategic bombing experts hoped to be able to apply. It was not concentrated at those points which Allied intelligence, on grounds not always too sound, believed vital to the enemy war effort.64
As for the Fifteenth Air Force, it was unable to contribute significantly during March to the furtherance of POINTBLANK, unless its frequent attacks on Italian airfields might be considered an indirect contribution to the general battle of attrition being fought with the GAF. After its very effective participation in the Big Week, the Fifteenth returned almost exclusively to the bombing of marshalling yards, bridges, and airdromes in Italy. The rate and scale of its operations increased, owing largely to the availability of three new heavy bomber groups the 459th, 460th, and 463rd, all of which became operational during March but it was seldom able to get across the
Alps and failed toy attack tile high-priority targets in southern Germany. Partly to blame was the land campaign which continued to be critical, but the weather in Italy itself was not good for flying during March – missions were canceled on eighteen days – and the principal handicap to strategic operations over Germany was the solid bank of cloud that hung a great deal of the time over the mountains between the Fifteenth and its German objectives and which the heavy bomber formations repeatedly found impossible to fly over, under, or through. Although a radar-bombing program was being worked out in Italy, no H2S missions were as yet possible. The Fifteenth was also in bad need of long-range escort, as had been demonstrated by the high rate of loss sustained in the February missions to Regensburg and Steyr. But the force was prepared to accept these losses if an opportunity for a visual attack against a priority POINTBLANK target presented itself.65
The contribution made by the Fifteenth to the defeat of the GAF during the early months of 1944 was not confined, however, to the few missions flown to CBO targets in Germany. Partly in connection with the Italian ground campaign and partly in an effort to press the counter-air campaign, the Fifteenth had for example on 30 January dealt a serious blow to the enemy air arm in Italy by a mission against airfields and repair depots in the Po Valley. So skillfully was the work of the escort fighters coordinated with that of the bombing forces that large numbers of the enemy were destroyed either in the air or on the ground. After this date, and to a large extent as a result of such quasi-tactical operations as the one just mentioned, air opposition to strategic day operations within Italy virtually ceased.66
The March operations, particularly those of the Eighth Air Force, marked in many respects a turning point in the air war. It became fully apparent during this month that the GAF had lost the advantage it had maintained so successfully from the fall of 1943 to late February. When escorting fighters were present the Germans showed a marked disinclination to tangle either with the bombers or with the escort. When, as happened on one or two occasions, notably on 18 March, an error in timing left the bombers for a while without fighter protection, the Germans made clever and devastating use of the opportunity.67 The Luftwaffe could still hit, and hit hard; but it was no longer capable of that sustained counterattack which had at one time 30 nearly frustrated the entire CBO. From this point on, the rate of
loss to enemy aircraft suffered by the Eighth Air Force tended sharply to decrease.
Antiaircraft fire, on the other hand, tended to become more dangerous. Always a major threat, it had nevertheless accounted more for reparable battle damage than for bombers shot down. Since January, however, the German ground defenses had been steadily reinforced, so that by March the daylight bombing forces were facing a greatly increased volume of flak, much of which was directed with improved accuracy. According to Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, Hitler himself after the fall of 1943 became convinced that flak was the only possible defense against air attack. The improvement in antiaircraft was obviously meant to compensate for the decreasing effectiveness of the GAF,68 and by the late spring of 1944 flak had come to be responsible for more of the losses sustained by AAF bomber forces than were the German fighters.69
This fact made both the Eighth and the Fifteenth pay close attention to their defense against flak. It was often impossible to avoid flak areas, especially when the distance to targets deep in Germany required a more or less direct course. Nor was it possible to do more than had already been done in the way of high-altitude flying and evasive tactics. It was, however, possible to reduce the size of formations, especially now that the need for concentrating maximum fire against attacking fighters had decreased. By so doing, a smaller target could be presented. This tactic was being worked on in the late spring of 1944, It was also possible to increase the use of radio countermeasures. Beginning in October 1943, the countermeasure known as Carpet had been employed, and in December 1943 Window was used for the first time. The object of both devices was to jam the enemy’s radar so that he could not make use of automatic gun-laying equipment. During the period covered by this chapter, however, the Eighth Air Force, which was doing most of the experimental work in the use of these countermeasures, had not enough equipment, nor was it able to make enough use of it to be very effective. Flak continued throughout the summer of 1944 to be the major defensive concern of the daylight bombers.70
On 1 April 1944 the Combined Bomber Offensive reached its legal end and the U.S. Strategic Air Forces passed from the control of the RAF chief of air staff, acting as agent for the CCS, to that of the
Supreme Allied Commander, although the transfer was not formally effected until 14 April.71 In a very real sense, of course, the month of April 1944 marks the beginning of a decisive phase of the CBO, for only then did the Allied bombing forces undertake those paralyzing attacks against the sources of Germany’s oil supply and against her transportation system which, according to most German authorities, eventually came as near as was necessary to that “fatal” weakening of the German war economy envisioned by the CCS at Casablanca in January 1943. But the Combined Bomber Offensive had found its official place in the preinvasion strategy in the form of a four-phase plan for operations extending from April 1943 to 1 April 1944,* and the termination of that period of time demands at this point some attempt to estimate the over-all accomplishment.
The CBO Plan had provided for systematic attack against a wide variety of key war industries, but it had also embodied the principle that first the enemy’s main lines of strategic defense would have to be breached. In other words, it had been considered necessary that the enemy’s submarine fleet and his air force be defeated before his vital industries could be bombed, and these two objectives accordingly had been placed at the top of the priority list of Eighth Air Force targets. It was in this sense that the one had been made an “intermediate objective second to none in priority,” and the other had received top place in the listing of primary objectives. Much time and effort had gone into a campaign against the submarine pens and yards until, with the summer of 1943, the enemy submarine fleet had suffered defeat at the hands of agencies other than the Eighth Air Force. This left the German Air Force in undisputed possession of first priority, and from June 1943 to April 1944 the counter-air offensive continued to represent the major effort of the American bombers. Indeed, the crucial question as to the effectiveness of the Combined Bomber Offensive will be answered if it can be determined how successful the U.S. strategic bombing forces were in their campaign to defeat the Luftwaffe.
Other aspects of the CBO effort by the American daylight bombers prior to 1 April 1944 can be dealt with summarily. The antisubmarine offensive was a misdirection of effort, and one for which AAF leaders were not primarily responsible. Occasional shrewd blows at basic industries such as the bombing of the synthetic rubber works at Hüls in June 1943 and of the light-metal industry at Heröya, Norway, in
* For discussion and evaluation of that plan, see Vol. II, pp. 348–76.
July of that year, though very damaging, were too isolated to be decisive in the long run. The rest of what one might term this miscellaneous effort had the principal virtue of making the Germans reach down deeper into their considerable reserves of productive capacity, materiel, and manpower. But it also helped rouse them belatedly to the threat involved in the bomber offensive.
Less easily dismissed are the series of concentrated and heavy radar bombing missions against such important industrial centers as Frankfurt, Ludwigshafen, and Bremen. Essentially area bombing attacks, they fall under the same criticism to which the entire policy of area devastation, as distinct from the selective or the so-called precision type of attack, has been subjected.72 Any destruction of life or property doubtless makes things more difficult for an enemy; and the area bombing policy unquestionably helped to cut through a thick cushion of excess energy and productive capacity that protected the German economy. These operations also served to force a continuing diversion of the enemy’s resources to purely defensive effort and thus helped to cut down his offensive potential. But the results are hard to measure and there are other difficulties including those which bear on the moral issue – an issue that would be raised repeatedly by the AAF itself in objection to later proposals for diversion of its effort from selective to area bombardment.*
What, then, of the visual and more or less accurate attacks launched by the American strategic forces prior to 1 April 1944 against German air power? On 6 June 1944, General Eisenhower was able to say to the invasion forces under his command, “If you see fighting aircraft over you, they will be ours.”73 As a matter of fact, Lt. Gen. Werner Junck, commander of German fighter defenses in the invasion area, later admitted that on D-day he had on hand only 160 aircraft, of which but 80 were in operational order, and that during the ensuing month he was furnished for his critical area reinforcements amounting only to 600 planes.74 In other words, SHAEF was able to count on air superiority during the entire invasion operation. Because it was just that situation that the strategic bombing forces had been laboring since June 1943 to achieve, the answer to the question stated at the beginning of this paragraph would seem to be clear.
And so it is. The GAF had suffered decisive defeat. That defeat was brought about by attrition of the German fighter forces in the air and
on the ground, by the consequent deterioration in quality of the German fighter pilots, and by attacks on German aircraft production which caused delay in the expansion of the German fighter force. Allied air superiority thus gained was maintained throughout the European war by the combined efforts of the RAF and USAAF through continued attrition, through destruction of the sources of aircraft fuel, and through disruption of the GAF system of supply, repair, and dispersed manufacturing facilities by attacks on the entire transportation network.75 Just before the invasion of Normandy the growing power of AEAF had helped to clinch the initial victory,* but that the issue already had been settled by the strategic forces is clearly written in the inability of the GAF to defend even the Fatherland after February. In an analysis of the causes of Germany’s defeat in the air, Air Marshal Sir Norman H. Bottomley in August 1947 concluded that “in the building up of a situation of air superiority which was an absolute prerequisite of the projected land assault of Europe, the greatest contribution made by any force was that made by the Strategic Air Forces, and particularly by those of the United States.”76
Clear as these general conclusions are, the story of the defeat of the GAF remains a very complex one. While it is not the purpose of this history to tell it in detail or retrace the ground thoroughly surveyed by various agencies, especially the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, some of the problems, paradoxes, and enigmas involved in it bear re-sketching if for no other reason, in the interests of a clearer understanding of what strategic air power can and cannot do.
Most baffling of all at first glance is the fact that the German aircraft industry continued to expand throughout 1943 and most of 1944 despite the severe and accurate pounding given it by daylight bombing forces. To be sure, it suffered two serious setbacks. The raids of the summer and fall of 1943 are estimated to have caused as much as three months’ loss of production; those of February 1944, a total of two months. To the Allied strategists, accurately informed about damage to plant buildings if not to the inner workings of the factories,77 it seemed at the time that the GAF must certainly be on the decline from sheer inability to replace its losses.78 After the 1943 raids, however, e German fighters not only maintained their front-line strength but added to it, becoming by 1944 a more serious threat than ever to Allied ‘Operations of all sorts. After the February 1944 attacks, their ability
to oppose daylight bombing missions tended rapidly to deteriorate, and this fitted Allied expectations, but there was to be a surprise after the termination of hostilities. Investigation of German production records revealed the astonishing fact that, despite the staggering blows delivered by the Allies in February, aircraft acceptance figures for single engine aircraft rose rapidly until September 1944.79 A chart showing both this increase and the rising weight of bombs dropped on the industry up to April 1944 would picture this paradox graphically – and quite misleadingly.
The increased production of fighter aircraft in 1944 was in reality part of a huge program of expansion begun in 1943. As a result of Germany’s early and easy victories and of a curiously shortsighted and optimistic forecast of military needs, Hitler and his staff had allowed the air arm to take a relatively low priority in the arms programs governing production early in the war, a decision supported by refusal to believe the accurate reports of rapidly accelerating British and American aircraft production. Allied intelligence on the contrary tended before 1943 very naturally to believe that the Germans were producing far more planes than was actually the case. Only in September 1942 did the German high command approve a program of substantially increased aircraft production, and as Germany began to feel the rising air strength of the Allies, a greatly enlarged production program was worked out in April 1943. In answer to the rising tempo of the CBO, the Germans greatly enlarged that program in August 1943 and again in October of that year. By February 1944, the time of the heaviest attacks against the industry, these planned programs were on the point of producing maximum results. Pipelines were full. Some dispersal of plants had been successfully carried out. The industry was humming after a winter during which the weather had granted it relative immunity from heavy attack.80
The February bombings, damaging as they were, served also to redouble efforts to promote aircraft production and thus to stimulate the industry. The Speer ministry, the new authority in charge of that industry and one fully alive to the urgency of the situation, ordered dispersal on a grand scale, made use of the still considerable reserves of unused plant capacity and equipment (the industry had at least 100 per cent excess in this respect before the inauguration of the CBO), diverted labor and materials in short supply from less critical activities, and even employed the tactics of political terrorism in order to increase
production. What the total production for 1944 would have been but for the bombing must remain a matter of conjecture. But it is with this huge program of expansion in mind that the effectiveness of the bombing attacks must be estimated.81
It must also be borne in mind that the production figures are not reflected in any proportional increase in the enemy battle order, which is the crucial datum. According to figures compiled by the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey from German sources, a total of 25,860 single engine fighters were accepted from production in 1944. Of this total a large percentage seems to have represented aircraft repaired after battle damage. Such, at any rate, is strongly suggested by a document (Auswertung, der Einsatzbereitsch der fliegenden Verb. vom 1 August 1943 bis November 1944) now in the custody of the British Air Ministry and picked up at Berchtesgaden at the end of hostilities with the high classification common to files of the enemy high command. Its figures are compared with the USSBS totals in the following table:–
|USSBS||Fighters of the Jagd Type|
|Single-engine Acceptances||Newly Built (neubau)||Repaired|
It is readily apparent that the totals for the two right-hand columns compare very closely with those given at the left. The Germans wrote off an aircraft as lost when it was damaged by 60 per cent and classified the plane as damaged when injuries were estimated at 10 to 60 Percent. USSBS studies indicate that losses of single-engine fighters in front-line units came for the year to about 8,500 and that an additional 8,000 planes were damaged in excess of 10 per cent. According to the same source, the German order of battle in that category increased from 1,500 to no more than 2,200 during the year.82 Certainly the Luftwaffe as a fighting force seldom gave Allied analysts reason to doubt the accuracy of estimates of German production during 1944.
which turned out to be much smaller than the official German figures.*
One answer to this problem lies in the supply and quality of German pilots. No matter how many aircraft were produced they were of no possible use unless men were available to fly them. This appears to have been the weakest point in the entire German air situation. The bottle-neck within this bottleneck was the training program. It has been discovered that, again as a result of too optimistic an estimate of requirements, the German high command found itself in need of a substantially increased flow of pilot replacements in 1943. Pressure was consequently put on the fighter training schools to speed up their program. But the training of pilots requires aviation fuel; and Germany did not have enough leeway in this respect to allow the schools to be prodigal in their gasoline consumption. In fact, it became difficult for the schools to obtain enough for a minimum program. They could, therefore, follow two alternative courses: either fall short of the required replacements or cut hours of training so that fuel allocations would be sufficient to produce the required number of pilots. They chose the latter policy, with the result that pilots entered combat increasingly ill-trained. Faced with thoroughly trained American and British pilots, these replacements fought at a disadvantage, which helps explain the increasing rate of attrition imposed on the GAF. The consequent rise in the demand for replacements simply completed the vicious cycle.83
It was, however, only in the spring of 1944, in March to be specific, that the deterioration in quality of the German pilots first became really apparent. Before that date the GAF had always been able to maintain a sufficient number of experienced pilots in their main line of defense to give the Allied attackers stiff battles, not to say a few resounding defeats. But the course of events was working progressively
* Auswertung der Einsatzbereitsch der fliegenden Verb, cited above, offers interesting evidence as to allotments to combat units during the summer months of high production. Luftflotte Reich, which was almost wholly concerned with defending Germany against Allied heavy bombers, received in June 520 Me-109’s and 237 FW-190’s, in July 387 Me-109’s and 137 FW-190’s, in August 272 Me-109’s and 167 FW-190’s. Luftflotte 3, which faced the Allied forces in France and Belgium, received in June 481 Me-109’s and 267 FW-190’s in July 283 Me-109’s and 229 FW-190’s, and in August 177 Me-109’s and 211 FW-190’s. The same source indicates, however, that Luftflotte 3 had available and in a state of readiness in June 287 single-engine fighters and 89 night fighters. In July the figures were 244 and 404 respectively. For August 324 single-engine fighters are listed and for September 296, but no figures are given for either of these months as to the number of night fighters. This source shows strength for Luftflotte Reich as follows:–
|June||287||SE fighters||103||TE fighters, and||322||night fighters|
against the Germans and for the Allies. The attack on oil resources began in the late spring and summer of 1944. The German high command was then shown the full extent of its mistakes, for its pilots, whose training had been skimped in an effort to save oil, were unable to make use of the huge production of aircraft to stop the destruction of the remaining oil supply.84
This pilot problem again calls attention to the importance of the air fighting during the spring of 1944. It was as a result of the air battles, especially those of the Big Week, that the GAF was for the first time forced to admit defeat. Except for the last quarter of 1943, the German fighter force had been suffering a steadily increasing number of losses since the beginning of the CBO. The vast majority of those losses, and almost the entire increase, occurred on the western front and in defense of Germany’s industrial heart.85 By March the ability of the GAF to defend the Reich and engage in combat on anything like equal terms with Allied bombers and fighter forces had passed its marginal point and was steadily deteriorating whereas the capabilities of the Allies were improving. If the German losses sustained during this critical period were less than claimed by the American fighter pilots and bomber crews (Goering said they were usually only about one third as large as the claims)86 the fact remains that the GAF was losing an increasing number of planes and pilots. The GAF was swamped by a force superior both in numbers and in quality. If it was not destroyed-and it continued in fact to be capable of occasional bursts of extreme energy – it nevertheless suffered in February and March 1944 a significant defeat.
The principal credit for this defeat in the air has rightly been given to the American long-range fighter escort, but it is also true of course that the long-range fighter force could not by itself have carried the battle to the enemy. It was in a frantic effort to defend the industries of the Reich from the heavy bomber that the GAF had been given high, if belated, priority in production and reorganized into an almost exclusively defensive force. The German pilots whenever possible avoided combat with the escort fighters. The Allied victory in the air in early 1944, important as it was, must be considered in the last analysis a by-product of the strategic bombing offensive.
It is difficult, however, to escape the conclusion that the air battles did more to defeat the Luftwaffe than did the destruction of the aircraft factories. Recognition of this fact must not, of course, lead the unwary to overlook the effects of that destruction. It has been pointed
out above that the February bombings deprived the GAF of a substantial number of fighter planes at a time when they were badly needed and that in forcing the German aircraft industry to expedite dispersal of its factories they caused considerable indirect loss of production and, what is even more important, left the industry extremely vulnerable to any dislocation of transport facilities. When that dislocation finally came about as a result of the concentrated attack on transportation, it contributed more than anything else to the complete breakdown of the aircraft industry. The 1943 attacks, especially considering the weight of effort applied, were even more effective, because the industry had not at that time begun serious dispersal and was consequently more vulnerable to precision attack. Finally it must be remembered that the German fighter forces lost the decisive air battles of early 1944 in an effort to protect those industries from bombing. Theirs was a desperate effort prompted by what the German high command certainly considered a desperate peril.
Hindsight nevertheless searches for the answer to certain troublesome questions. Was a campaign against the fighter factories and ball-bearing plants the most effective use of strategic air power during the preinvasion phases of the CBO? If, despite the bombings, the aircraft industry in fact expanded beyond the point where its products could be put effectively into battle – if, in other words, the bottleneck existed not in production but in trained pilots – how much good was done by merely delaying that production program? Since oil proved in the long run to be the Achilles heel of the Nazi war machine, and since the entire chemical complex surrounding the production of synthetic oil has been found to have constituted probably the most vulnerable objective in the enemy economy, might oil not have been attacked profitably at an earlier date-possibly in place of the all-out campaign against the aircraft industry, certainly in place of that against the ball-bearing industry? Would the GAF have reacted just as vigorously to an attack on oil and chemicals as it did in defense of those latter industries? The answers to these questions as to all “what would have happened if” questions will always be open to some debate; nor is it the function of this chapter to answer them. The opinion has, however, been expressed in an earlier section of this history* that, had Allied intelligence understood how closely integrated were the oil, synthetic rubber, and the chemical industries, how vulnerable a target system that complex presented, and how far-reaching would have been the effects of substantial
* See Vol. II, pp. 62–63.
damage to it, the weight of the CBO might have been turned in that direction at an earlier date, possibly with decisive effect. The results ultimately achieved by the attack on oil might have appeared much sooner. There is little doubt, moreover, but that the GAF would have reacted as fully to such a campaign as to the attack on the aircraft industry, and would have suffered as decisive a defeat in the air as it actually sustained in defense of that industry.
Even within the top-priority aircraft industry there is reason to doubt the wisdom of placing airframes above aero-engines as the preferred objective. In this instance, however, it must be borne in mind that the choice of airframes was dictated in part at least by the necessity of producing quick results. By 1944, especially, the short time remaining before OVERLORD forced the Allied air planners to think in terms of denying the enemy planes coming off the assembly line in the immediate future rather than to plan a campaign against the earlier stages of aircraft manufacture which might cut off the flow of planes six months later. If the criticism of this choice is valid, and it is the testimony of most German authorities that it is,87 it applies particularly to the 1943 phases of the bomber offensive rather than to the final preinvasion phase and to the operations of the Big Week.
Faulty intelligence also accounts in part for a serious failure in conducting the daylight offensive. Generally speaking, follow-up attacks were not made soon enough after initial successful bombings. German industrial authorities testified that they feared more than anything a series of heavy attacks timed in such a way as to subject a plant to renewed damage before salvage reconstruction or dispersal could be successfully accomplished.88 This is particularly true of the attacks made in 1943 against the aircraft and antifriction bearing industries. There is in these instances, of course, another factor to consider: the Eighth Air Force either had not the strength or was not able to find favorable weather opportunities to follow up some of its initial successes. But it remains a matter of real doubt whether indecisive strategic bombing attacks against vitally important industries, no matter how successful they may be as single missions, are strategically wise. They merely tip the attacker’s hand and prompt just the sort of countermeasures which, in fact, eventually secured the German aircraft industry from the worst direct effects of bombing.
This conclusion raises another problem of importance in evaluating the preinvasion phases of the daylight bombing offensive. Through most of 1943 the Eighth Air Force did not have enough strength, either
in bombers or (more serious) in long-range escort to do the job assigned to it. Its efforts were often for that reason scattered and indecisive. Nor did the Fifteenth Air Force prior to April 1944 provide the reinforcement its creators had had in mind. That was not entirely the fault of the air planners. The ground campaign in Italy sapped much of its strength. But operations from Mediterranean bases failed to provide the hoped-for release from weather restrictions. Weather over the Alps and over the priority south German targets turned out during the winter months to be quite as bad for visual bombing missions as that encountered by the Eighth Air Force. Moreover, coordinated attacks by the two forces, that simultaneous pounding of the enemy from two directions about which so much was said in the planning discussions, proved, except in a very general sense, an illusion. The Big Week witnessed the first of such coordinated missions actually carried out, although on several earlier dates they had been planned. No further coordinated operations were attempted before April. After that date plans for closely coordinated operations lost much of their urgency. The GAF no longer constituted a problem of overwhelming importance, and the two daylight bombing forces could plan their operations relatively free from the tactical need of splitting the enemy air defenses. That the creation of a strategic force to operate from Italy paid large dividends is conclusively demonstrated by the brilliant campaign begun in April against the Ploesti oil refineries. But the fact remains that the Fifteenth Air Force was not able to contribute as significantly to the preinvasion phase of the CBO as had been expected.89
So much for the shortcomings of the American strategic bombing effort in this preinvasion phase of the CBO. Because they require careful analysis, sometimes of factors that have only recently come to light, they take more pages and thought than the successes. They may also prevent some observers from seeing the larger and relatively simpler fact that the daylight bombing offensive did succeed. True, it failed to achieve all the objectives set forth in the original CBO Plan; the task of defeating the Luftwaffe became finally an all-absorbing one. Possibly, too, it might have achieved even this “intermediate” objective more efficiently. But in conclusion let the reader bear well in mind that by 1 April 1944 the GAF was a defeated force, and that in bringing about its defeat the bomber crews and fighter pilots of the Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces played a large, indeed a decisive, part.