Seventy years ago this week, Lt. Gen. Carl Spaatz launched Big Week, or Operation Argument. Even with the Allied successes in 1943, the German Air Force was still a very lethal force. Allied air superiority was a local and transient condition. While the Allies had some long-range fighters, many of the targets were deep in German territory.
Allied air planners picked targets to disrupt German aircraft manufacturing. The main targets were nearly finished German aircraft and components, but Europe’s winter weather held up the operation. Finally, Allied weathermen predicted good weather over both the takeoff/landing fields and the target areas.
On the night of Feb. 19, 1944, the Royal Air Force bombed targets around Leipzig, Germany. The next day, 8th Air Force hit targets in the same area plus three up north.
It was the largest Allied air force yet sent into battle — 16 U.S. bomber wings, 17 U.S. fighter wings and 16 RAF fighter squadrons.
Ten bomber wings hit targets in the Brunswick-Leipzig area and six wings flew over the North Sea to strike other targets. The main strike force’s path appeared to aim at Berlin. Throughout the week, the bomber groups broke off at the last minute to strike their assigned targets.
That night and on Feb. 21, the allies struck targets around Stuttgart, Germany. Regensburg and Schweinfurt, Germany, were the targets that night and on Feb. 22.
Unfortunately, weather and poor coordination caused 8th Air Force bombers to cancel their mission. But, 15th Air Force joined the fight and struck Steyr, Austria. German fighters jumped the bombers early. Weather kept the RAF and 8th Air Force on the ground the next day, but 15th Air Force went back to Steyr.
The weather broke on Feb. 24 and the Mighty Eighth primarily hit targets in Schweinfurt and Gotha, Germany, and four other target areas. That night, the RAF bombed Schweinfurt and the 8th Air Force hit three Bavarian cities and Stuttgart on Feb. 25. Fifteenth Air Force bombed Regensburg-Prüfening but was left bloody by German fighters. The next day the weather turned bad and ended Big Week.
Allied success showed in a number of ways. In six days, 8th Air Force dropped as much ordnance as it had in its entire first year. The RAF almost matched the Mighty Eighth in tonnage. Planners expected to lose 200 U.S. bombers a day. For the entire campaign, the U.S lost only 226 bombers. The RAF lost another 157 bombers.
However, it caused the German fighters to change their tactics. They began leaving the stronger bomber formations alone and targeted smaller, weaker ones. Most importantly, the German air force lost a significant number of planes at a critical point when they were badly needed. German aircraft production recovered to previous levels within a couple of months, but, both Germany’s aircraft production and air force went on the defensive from that point on. The Allies had taken the initiative and kept it through the end of the war.