The Allies’ big idea: the largest air battle of the Second World War

For D-Day to succeed, the Allies had to wrest control of the skies over western Europe from the Luftwaffe. As James Holland recounts, the February 1944 'Big Week' raids, which collectively made up the largest air battle of the war, helped secure that aerial supremacy

American Flying Fortress bombers and a Mustang fighter practise formation flying over England, training for rain that would help break Nazi resistance. (Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the Christmas 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Tuesday, 11 January 1944: high over Germany, as an American combat bomber wing battled its way home, a lone P-51 Mustang, one of the US Eighth Air Force’s new fighters, was single-handedly defending the entire formation from enemy fighter attacks.

Its pilot was Major Jim Howard, who had been leading the 354th Fighter Group that afternoon. As he had first dived down on the enemy along with the rest of his group, he had seen a Messerschmitt Bf 110 heading straight for the bomber wing’s lead B-17 Flying Fortresses – and had opened fire. A moment later he raked a Messerschmitt Bf 109, then sped after another fighter and opened fire, seeing the pilot bail out. In less than a minute he had shot down three enemy fighters.

Howard had found himself alone, and was about to withdraw, when he realised there was no sign of the fellow American fighters due to take over escorting the bombers. So he climbed back up, throttling back and turning to take on any enemy fighter that tried to get near the B-17s. For more than half an hour, the American stayed with the Fortresses, diving and aggressively attacking any German fighter that appeared, driving them off again and again. Only when all the enemy fighters seemed to have gone did Howard finally waggle his wings to the B-17s and head for home. Not a single Fortress of the 401st Bomb Group had been shot down while Howard protected them. In the course of that mission, meanwhile, he had shot down four confirmed and very probably two more aircraft, and seen off as many as 30 enemy fighters.

A flight of Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft of No 73 Squadron RAF, over France, 19 April 1940. (Photo by S. A. Devon/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Howard’s was an exceptional display of flying, but it also demonstrated how good Allied fighter pilots had become. By the start of 1944, American and British fighter pilots were joining their squadrons with 350 hours of flying in their logbooks, while US squadrons now had as many as four times the number of pilots and planes needed to keep 16 aircraft airborne on any mission. Fighter pilots in the US Eighth Air Force were confident and adept, and had superior aircraft to the enemy. In contrast, new Luftwaffe pilots were arriving into their units with as few as 110 flying hours under their belts, and thanks to Germany’s chronic fuel shortages had little chance to practise. In fact, these young pilots had little chance full stop. They were being slaughtered.

The Allies had to hammer the German aircraft industry, but most of the factories supplying the Luftwaffe were deep in the Reich

However, although the Luftwaffe’s glory days were over, it remained worthy of respect. Factories were producing thousands of new aircraft each month, while the Germans had recently developed a sophisticated air defence system (involving a combination of radar, radio, ground observers, and control rooms that included glass lighted screens to plot air traffic over occupied Europe). No Allied aircraft could fly over the Reich without the Luftwaffe knowing about it. There were now some 15,000 anti-aircraft guns defending Germany, while hundreds of day and, crucially, night fighters were being directed to intercept Allied bombers, which were suffering horrifically.

This all contributed to a sense of crisis engulfing the Allied air forces. Not only was the bomber offensive against Germany not working decisively, but the Allies didn’t have the air superiority over western Europe needed for Operation Overlord, the continental mainland invasion planned for early summer.

While Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, commander of RAF Bomber Command, remained convinced that area bombing – the blanket bombardment of entire neighbourhoods – could win the war, US and British war chiefs accepted there could be no invasion of France until they had cleared the skies. This meant gaining air superiority not only over the Normandy beaches, but also over a large swathe of north-west Europe. Success or failure would depend on whether the Germans could launch a massed counter-attack within days of the landings, before the Allies could successfully reinforce any bridgehead. In the nine weeks leading up to D-Day, therefore, Allied forces had to carry out a heavy ‘interdiction’ operation: blowing up bridges, roads and, especially, railways and marshalling yards.

This interdiction campaign was to be largely the preserve of the tactical air forces: two-engine medium bombers and ground-attack fighters, which would be operating at lower heights than heavy bombers and with greater accuracy. To perform successfully, they needed to be doing so in skies where the Allies held air superiority. At the beginning of 1944, US and British chiefs were a long way short of achieving this. The clock was ticking.

Unlike Harris, the Americans understood that disabling the Luftwaffe was a matter of urgency. In the second half of 1943, Germany’s growing defensive strength had shown that only heavily escorted B-17 and B-24 bombers could get to their targets. Losses on raids to aircraft factories, once to Regensburg and twice to Schweinfurt, deep inside Germany and beyond fighter range, had been substantial.

This was the crux: the Allies had to hammer the German aircraft industry, but most of the factories supplying the Luftwaffe were deep in the Reich, where the daylight bombers and even Bomber Command at night could not reach effectively. What was needed, urgently and in large numbers, was a long-range fighter. Only in the nick of time did the Allies realise that the solution was under their very noses.

Mustang sallies

The RAF had had the opportunity to make Spitfires long-range, but due to Bomber Command’s continuation of night bombing had not thought it necessary. However, in 1943, US technicians had equipped a P-51 Mustang with a Rolls-Royce Merlin 61 rather than its standard Allison engine, and the fighter’s performance and fuel economy had improved astonishingly. Additional fuel tanks made little difference to its speed or manoeuvrability. Suddenly, in the Mustang, the Allies had a fighter capable of flying nearly 1,500 miles – to Berlin and back with ease. This was a game-changer, as Jim Howard would prove on 11 January 1944.

At the end of November 1943, the United States Strategic Air Forces issued a new directive, Operation Argument, an all-out offensive against the Luftwaffe and the enemy’s aircraft industry. Raids were held back, however, by the poor weather that descended on Europe that winter. Not until the third week of February 1944 was there a break – and the chance to deliver the spell of high-pressure bombardment required.

By February 1944, the Eighth Air Force was considerably larger than it had been in November 1943, and the fighters were also employing better tactics. General Carl ‘Tooey’ Spaatz, the new head of the American air forces in Europe, had ordered fighters to hunt down, engage and destroy Luftwaffe planes rather than to close-escort all bomber formations, and also to attack airfields on the ground. The bomber commanders were appalled by what they saw as a lack of protection for their planes, but it was unquestionably the right decision. By the third week in February, the Americans had the tactics and skills, as well as the aircraft, with which to deliver a mortal blow to the Luftwaffe.

Operation Argument began with Harris’s reluctant cooperation. Bomber Command targeted aircraft plants in Leipzig on the night of Saturday 19 February. It was a bloody sortie. Among those shot down was Flight Lieutenant Julian Sale’s crew from 35 Squadron who – like most who failed to return – were shot down by night fighters using upward-firing cannons that raked the vulnerable undersides of their aircraft. It was the second time Sale and his navigator, Gordon Carter, had bailed out over enemy territory; they had made it back the first time, but would not be so lucky on this occasion (Sale died, while Carter became a prisoner of war). Flight Lieutenant Rusty Waughman and his 101 Squadron crew did reach home safely. “Pretty deadly trip,” he noted in his logbook. “Lost 78 aircraft.” This was a huge number from one mission and a reminder, if any were needed, of the deadly power of the Luftwaffe’s night-fighter force.

Nonetheless, Leipzig was hammered and was to be hit again the following day. On Sunday 20 February, Big Week, as it would come to be known, got under way in earnest with the heaviest round-the-clock Allied attacks ever witnessed. US bomber crews had to get up at 3am. “Awakened very early today,” noted Larry ‘Goldie’ Goldstein, radio operator in a B-17 in the 388th Bomb Group, “and expected a long, rough mission, even long before briefing.” He was not wrong. To cause maximum strain on the Luftwaffe, the Eighth struck multiple targets, with the 388th Bomber Group attacking Poznań in Poland.

Also flying was Major Jimmy Stewart, Hollywood star and now a squadron commander in the 445th Bomb Group of B-24 Liberators. Both Stewart and Goldstein made it back that day, but the carnage was considerable and the raging air battle across Europe saw episodes of extraordinary bravery. No fewer than three Congressional Medals of Honor were won, the only time in the history of the US air forces that more than one was awarded for a single mission. One recipient was Lieutenant William Lawley, who managed to fly his battered B-17 and surviving crew back and crash-land safely, despite suffering multiple head, leg and arm shrapnel wounds, and with a decapitated co-pilot beside him. Lawley had been lucky: the other two medals were posthumous.

Stuttgart was the next target on Monday 21 February, with many of those in action the previous day, including Goldie Goldstein and crew, flying yet again. Tuesday 22 February saw another maximum effort, and this time the Eighth was joined by the 15th Air Force, operating from Italy and attacking aircraft plants at Regensburg and Prüfening. While the bombers from both Italy and England suffered, so too did the Luftwaffe, who were rising up, as the Allies hoped, to meet this immense and concentrated onslaught.

Heavy toll

One of those German pilots was Oberleutnant Heinz Knoke. His fighter group, Jagdgeschwader 11, should have had 36 fighters, but could muster a mere five that day. Knoke was hugely experienced, having been shot down five times already; the same could not be said for his wingman, Feldwebel Krueger. Together they dived down on some Fortresses and Knoke saw a bomber erupt into flames – then, a moment later, a Messerschmitt flamed downwards too. “It was my wingman, the young corporal,” noted Knoke. “This was his first mission.”

Bad weather prevented further flying on Wednesday 23 February, which gave the groundcrews time to repair battle-damaged aircraft. “Heavies from Italy and Britain plaster bomb-drunk Reich,” ran the headline in the US forces newspaper, Stars and Stripes. The Luftwaffe leadership was in a state of shock. The Germans had lost 58 fighters on the Sunday alone, and a further 32 and 52 on subsequent days. Messerschmitt plants in Leipzig were badly damaged.

A reconnaissance photograph taken over Gotha, central Germany in 1944 shows the damage the Allies were able to inflict on the Nazis' industrial capacity. (Photo by Getty Images)
A reconnaissance photograph taken over Gotha, central Germany in 1944 shows the damage the Allies were able to inflict on the Nazis’ industrial capacity. (Photo by Getty Images)

Big Week continued on Thursday 24 with attacks on Gotha, while Bomber Command also struck Schweinfurt. Before the surviving RAF crews were back on British soil, the Eighth was preparing for another day of bombing. “No rest as the air blitz on German aircraft production continues,” noted Goldie Goldstein. “Up and at them again today.” It was his third mission that week and another he was lucky to survive. So too was Jimmy Stewart, whose B-24 Liberator was badly hit over Nuremburg. Behind him, he saw another B-24 burst into flames, dive and smash into the bomber beneath it, so the two flaming aircraft fell at once. Back on the ground, Stewart looked up at his scarred Liberator and said to one of his crew, “Sergeant, somebody could sure get hurt in one of those damned things.”

James Stewart looked up at his scarred Liberator bomber and said to one of his crew: “Sergeant, somebody could get hurt in one of those damned things”

Big Week ended that night, when Bomber Command sent 594 heavy bombers to hit the Messerschmitt plants at Augsburg. Some 2,920 buildings in the town were destroyed in this culmination of a week of unprecedented violence. A further 5,000 were severely damaged, including the MAN diesel facility, with more than 3,000 casualties recorded.

Big Week was finally over, as the weather closed in once more. The massive air assault had dealt the Luftwaffe a catastrophic blow. Aircraft losses amounted to a staggering 2,605 in February 1944 alone, but the most signifi-cant impact was on Germany’s stock of pilots. Such attrition was totally unsustainable. Experienced flyers were being removed while the new boys were arriving with scant training and little hope of survival. As more pilots were shot down in March and April, the Luftwaffe largely withdrew into the Reich. By April, the all-important air superiority requirement had been met, and the invasion of France could proceed. The critical damage, however, had been done in the great air battle of Big Week.

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James Holland is a historian and broadcaster. His books include The Battle of Britain: Five Months That Changed History (Corgi, 2011).