The U.S. Eighth Air Force bombers made their first daylight raid on Germany on 27 January 1943. Of 91 bombers dispatched, 55 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses attacked the German navy’s U-boat facilities at Wilhelmshaven. Others bombed Emden. Consolidated B-24 Liberators accompanying the mission, unable to find their targets due to weather, returned to base with their bombs. No aircraft were lost. It seemed an auspicious first use of heavily armed four-engine daylight raiders over Germany.
Although attacks by Bomber Command and the Eight Air Force continued almost daily thereafter, two high points were reached in the summer and fall of 1943. In the first instance, combined daytime and nighttime assaults on Hamburg in late July resulted in the first-ever devastation of a city by firestorm. Unusually good weather and the use of radar-jamming foil strips (Window, or chaff) allowed Allied bombers to swamp the Germans’ defenses and burn out the heart of the city. Some 50,000 Germans were killed, another 40,000 injured, and yet another 1 million driven out. But that same month also saw the Luftwaffe’s first use of a new aerial weapon. On 28 July, interceptors fired 210mm air-to-air rockets into Eighth Air Force bomber formations, knocking three B-17s from the sky. German night-fighters also began to overcome the RAF’s radar-jamming efforts as the summer waned.
The second high point witnessed the Eighth Air Force’s attacks on ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt and the Messerschmitt aircraft plant at Regensburg. In two separate efforts in August and October 1943, the USAAF lost 120 heavy bombers. Hundreds of others were damaged, and thousands of air crewmen were killed and wounded. Though U.S. fighter escorts had first entered German airspace in July, deep-penetration raids were flown without cover due to the escorts’ limited combat radius. Appalling losses to the bombers were the result. Despite the activation of the USAAF’s Fifteenth Air Force in Italy in November (for attacks on southern Germany, Austria, and the Balkans), the Allies appeared to lose the initiative in the air war as 1943 drew to a close.
In part to offset any resulting ill effects, Bomber Command launched the Battle of Berlin on the night of 18 November 1943. As over Hamburg, the RAF bombed at night while the Eighth Air Force eventually attacked by day, its first raid over the city occurring on 4 March 1944. U.S. bombers assaulted the Reich capital three more times that month, flying 1,700 sorties and being accompanied now by long-range escort fighters, most notably North American P-51 Mustangs. Although reduced in strength, the Luftwaffe could still fight back. On 6 March, for example, 69 U.S. bombers were lost to flak and interceptors. Although Berlin was badly damaged, the destruction did not cost Germany the war, as planners (especially British planners) had assumed it would. Nevertheless, by early 1944 the Luftwaffe had stationed 75 percent of its fighter strength in the West within Germany proper as a result of the bombing campaign. That disposition helped denude fighter forces from other theaters, despite an actual increase in total German fighter strength through the summer of that year.
The USAAF’s BIG WEEK attacks of 20–27 February 1944 broke the back of the Luftwaffe fighter arm. Combined with the raids on Berlin and other cities, these attacks by Allied bombers and escorts cost the Luftwaffe approximately 1,000 pilots from January to April. This critical loss could not be overcome. Bomber production ceased and the Luftwaffe stripped its remaining fighter strength to skeletal remnants on all fronts to place 1,260 of an available 1,975 remaining fighters and fighter-bombers in the home-defense role as 1944 progressed. The turn of the year 1944–1945 saw the Luftwaffe hounded from every quarter.
References Craven, Wesley, and James Lea Cate. The Army Air Forces in World War II, Volume 3: Europe: ARGUMENT to V-E Day, January 1944 to May 1945.Washington, DC: Office of Air Force History, 1983. Frankland, Noble. Bomber Offensive: The Devastation of Europe. In Barrie Pitt, ed., Ballantine’s Illustrated History of World War II. New York: Ballantine Books, 1971.