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The Top 5 Air Battles of World War II: Big Week

No. 4 of World War II's 5 Greatest Air Battles

 

 

In contrast to Royal Air Force Bomber Command’s flush of victory after the Hamburg raids in 1943, (see No. 5 in the series, The Berlin Raids) 8th Air Force Bomber Command was still reeling from the defeat of the Schweinfurt-Regensburg raids in August and October of the same year.

After inflicting such heavy losses, the Luftwaffe thought they had found a way to stop the American bomber offensive in its tracks. And they had. The Army Air Forces suspended all raids beyond the range of friendly fighter escort. Like Bomber Command after Hamburg, however, the Luftwaffe’s confidence was misplaced. Allied tactics had changed.

Various factors, from the weather to errors in timing, kept two separate forces of bombers from coordinating their attacks during the first raid. Part of the fighter escort of P-47s, which anyway barely had the range to penetrate the German border, also failed to rendezvous with the bombers, and the result was the loss of 60 bombers from a force of 377. Another 55 bombers were marooned in North Africa (Schweinfurt-Regensburg was also the first “shuttle” mission), too damaged to make it back to England. A second raid of 294 bombers returned to Schweinfurt on Oct. 14, and again 60 bombers were shot down, almost 20 percent of the force. Such losses were unsustainable.

B-17Fs over Schweinfurt Aug. 1943

Unescorted Boeing B-17Fs over Schweinfurt, Germany, Aug. 17, 1943. U.S. Air Force photo

Because the big B-17 and B-24 bombers had to fly unescorted during much of their missions over Germany, the Luftwaffe was able to attack them not only with more heavily armed Fw 190s and Bf 109s, using cannon as well as wing-mounted 21-cm rockets, but with twin-engined fighters such as the Bf 110 and Me 410, to break up the formations. The German pilots had also learned from experience that the best way to attack the bombers was head on, despite the furious closing rates, split-second firing windows, and serious danger of collision that could be as unnerving for the attacking fighter pilots as it was for those in the bomber being attacked. Wrote J. Douglas Harvey in Boys, Bombs, and Brussels Sprouts:

I’d look up and see these guys coming in and I’d try and scrunch down behind the skin of the airplane, which seemed like 1/10,000th of an inch thick. They’d come in and the rate of closure would be between 400 and 500 miles an hour and I would always wonder if they were gonna break or collide with us. They’d come in shooting. You could see the wings “blinking” and you knew they weren’t saying “Hello Charlie” in Morse code. … That rate of closure. They were coming in through a hail of lead, and they’d keep on coming. You’d see a wing break off one and he’d spin in, but the rest of them kept on coming. “My God, he’s not gonna break off, he’s not…” Then finally, he’d barrel-roll and go over or under us. They’d pressed home real good.

After inflicting such heavy losses, the Luftwaffe thought they had found a way to stop the American bomber offensive in its tracks. And they had. The Army Air Forces suspended all raids beyond the range of friendly fighter escort. Like Bomber Command after Hamburg, however, the Luftwaffe’s confidence was misplaced. Allied tactics had changed.

Bf 109G-6

A Bf 109G-6 with the R-6 underwing gondolas for 20mm cannon. Good for fighting lumbering bombers, but added drag and weight when trying to fight enemy fighters. Bundesarchive photo

Feb. 20, 1944 marked the start of a campaign to destroy the Luftwaffe on the ground and in the air. The dream of Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, Gen. Carl Andrew “Tooey” Spaatz and Lt. Gen. James H. Doolittle, Big Week bombing sorties would attack the German fighter manufacturing plants, fighter component plants, and ball-bearing factories, seeking to destroy the German fighters at the source, before they could come off the assembly lines, as well as making them come up to fight and destroying them in the air. The bombing raids sought to disrupt or end German fighter production, but also acted as bait to lure the German fighters into battle against escorting fighters.

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