20-25 February 1944: Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces-continue Operation Argument, known as "Big Week." Results convince American strategic air commanders that time has come to attack other targets. Germans decide to disperse their air industry.
On 19 February 1944 USSTAF's weather forecasters predicted the breakup of the cloud cover over central Europe for an extended period, an event eagerly awaited by the leaders of the American heavy bombers in Europe. Headquarters USSTAF ordered Operation Argument to begin the next day. This operation, planned since early November 1943, called for a series of combined attacks by the Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces against the Combined Bomber Offensive's highest priority objectives.
During these attacks, RAF Bomber Command agreed to make nighttime area bombing attacks on the same targets. Harris's participation marked Big Week as the first air battle in which all three Allied strategic air forces fought together.
Because the plans called for efforts by the Eighth and Fifteenth, USSTAF took direct responsibility for mounting the attacks. Spaatz alerted Eaker to the implementation of Argument, requesting that Eaker's forces bomb the Regensburg and Augsburg aircraft assembly plants or the ball bearing works at Stuttgart. Spaatz directed, "All forces of the [Fifteenth] Air Force should use an area attack on Breslau as their secondary mission." An attack by the Fifteenth's 12 heavy bomber groups and four fighter groups or even a diversionary attack on Breslau, the alternative target, would prevent some of the German defenders from concentrating on the Eighth coming from England and give it a better chance of successful bombing.
Eaker informed Spaatz that the Fifteenth could not fly its scheduled strategic mission. A German counterattack at Anzio had come dangerously close to driving the Allies into the sea. Eaker believed that if the Fifteenth did not support Anzio, the Allied theater commander, Wilson, might declare a ground emergency and exercise his right to take control of the Fifteenth from USSTAF for the duration of the critical situation. Eaker wished to avoid that declaration. It robbed him of all flexibility and established a troublesome precedent. He also objected because his forecasters predicted overcast skies for the Fifteenth's targets in Germany. The Fifteenth lacked H2X equipment and, thus, could not bomb its assigned targets effectively in nonvisual conditions.
Spaatz disagreed. Pointblank, too, had reached a climactic stage. He and Maj Gen Frederick Anderson had agreed previously to accept extraordinary risks to ensure the completion of Argument before 1 March, even if it meant the loss of 200 bombers in a single mission. Spaatz went to Portal. Portal, in turn, consulted Churchill, who ruled that all available forces should support the Anzio battle. Portal told Spaatz that he [Portal] could not agree to other missions for the Fifteenth.
Even while Spaatz faced marginal weather conditions for his first day's attack, Bomber Command assailed Leipzig (a center of German aircraft production) 270 miles beyond the Rhine in eastern Germany. Of Bomber Command's 730 effective sorties, 78 failed to return, a loss rate of almost 11 percent. German night fighters accounted for the bulk of the losses. They had changed tactics and made many kills over the English Channel as the bombers flew to their targets. The Germans did not pursue their foes after the bombing. This raid, coupled with the earlier raid on Berlin on the night of 15 February, caused significant changes in Bomber Command tactics. It began to rely more heavily on spoof attacks, feints, and misdirection and splitting the main force into two bodies. The command also shifted its deep attacks to more southerly targets, which had less sophisticated night defenses.
Failure to obtain support from the Fifteenth Air Force added to the tension at Spaatz's headquarters on the night of 19 February. Even as RAF Bomber Command mounted a heavy strike over Leipzig, one of the Eighth's principal targets for the next day, Spaatz's subordinates debated the wisdom of following up the RAF's effort with their own Sunday punch. The meteorologists of the Eighth and Ninth Air Forces had arrived at a forecast less optimistic than that of USSTAF. This information led Doolittle and Lt Gen Lewis H. Brereton, commander of the Ninth Air Force, to doubt the feasibility of a large-scale raid for the next day. 14 Maj Gen William Kepner (VIII Fighter Command) believed the expected conditions would produce icing on the wings of his fighters, cutting the efficiency of the P-38s in half and lowering the efficiency of his P-47s and P-51s as well.
The P-38, on which great hopes rested, was beginning to prove itself unsuited for operations over Europe. Its engines reacted badly to the combination of extreme cold and high humidity encountered in winter operations. On 17 February VIII Fighter Command reported that 40 percent of its P-38 force was affected by engine trouble. In all more than half the P-38 losses in the theater were attributable to engine malfunction. 17 Gen Fred Anderson vehemently opposed the naysayers.
The decision rested squarely on Spaatz's shoulders. Brig Gen Charles P. Cabell, formerly commander of the 45th Bomb Wing but at that time serving on Spaatz's staff, told Brig Gen Haywood S. Hansell, "finally, when the last moment for action had arrived, the decision was left in the lap of General Spaatz. The risks were so great and the conditions so unfavorable that none of the subordinate commanders was willing to take the responsibility for the launch. General Spaatz quietly and firmly issued the order to go."
Sixteen combat wings of heavy bombers (more than 1,000 bombers), all 17 AAF fighter groups (835 fighter planes), and 16 RAF squadrons (to assist in short-range penetration and withdrawal escort) began their takeoff runs, assembled, turned to the east, and headed for 12 major assembly and component plants that constituted the heart of Hitler's fighter production. As part of the largest force dispatched to date by the Eighth, six unescorted bomber wings flew a northern route to bomb targets near Posen and Tutow. The rest of the bomber force, escorted by the entire fighter force, flew toward Leipzig and Brunswick in central Germany. They would show up on German radar screens in time to attract the bulk of the fighter reaction to themselves and away from the northern force. In addition 135 medium bombers from the Ninth Air Force, two-thirds of which aborted because of weather, assisted by attacking airfields in western Europe.
The mere fact that the Eighth intended to hit 12 German targets in one mission, which meant breaking the main bombing force into several small portions, bespoke the confidence of its commanders and their determination to strike hard. By early 1943, the Eighth Air Force Operational Research Section had confirmed the unsurprising conclusion that the first two groups of bombers (45-75 aircraft) over the target did the most accurate bombing. Later bombers had to contend with alerted defenses and smoke from earlier bombing. By assigning 16 bomb groups to 12 targets, Doolittle had maximized potential destruction.
In contrast to the loss of 60 bombers against the same targets on 11 January, only 21 heavy bombers of the 889 that reached their targets (2.4 percent) failed to return to base. The Baltic force encountered clouds over its targets. It bombed the city area of Rostok (using H2X) and Tutow using visual dead reckoning, the most inefficient method possible. The main force bombed visually, hitting eight aircraft plants in the Brunswick and Leipzig areas and 11 targets of opportunity, such as rail marshaling yards and industrial areas. They seriously damaged four plants manufacturing Ju-88 (Junkers night fighter-bomber) aircraft and two plants manufacturing Me-109s (day fighters). The AAF official history, basing its assertions on examination of postwar records, cited a delay of one month's production of Ju-88s and severe damage to about 32 percent of Me-109 manufacturing capacity. However, official historians admitted that the raids, like most AAF raids, damaged the machine tools less severely than the buildings that surrounded them. When the plants were cleared of rubble and dispersed to other parts of Germany, those tools could still be used to continue to produce more aircraft. 21 American fighters claimed 61 German fighters destroyed while sustaining a loss of four of their own.
The next night, 20 February, Bomber Command hit Stuttgart, a city with ball bearing and aircraft industries. It lost only nine bombers out of 552 effective sorties. That same night the command sent intruders against six night fighter bases in Holland. On 21 February the Eighth attacked 14 targets (factory airfields and aircraft plants) in central Germany with 30 bomb groups and 15 fighter groups (including a second P-51 group, the 357 FG). Of 762 effective sorties, the Eighth lost 16 bombers while its escort fighters claimed 33 of the enemy at a cost of three planes. On the next day the Fifteenth joined the fray, sending 151 of its bombers to strike German aircraft plants at Regensburg. Another 42 bombed the rail yards at Olching-a target of opportunity. The Fifteenth, with no escorts all the way to the target, lost 14 bombers (almost a 7 percent loss rate).
For a third straight day, 22 February, the Eighth dispatched 800 or more bombers. Clouds and strong winds scattered the mission, forcing the recall of the 3d Bombardment Division (3 BD); 333 B-17s targeted Schweinfurt. The 2d Bombardment Division's B-24s had already entered German airspace, so they sought targets of opportunity. Seventy-four American bombers attacked the Dutch towns of Enschede, Arnheim, Nijmegen, and Deventer after misidentifying them as German, killing many civilians. Another group (the 92d) of 64 bombers detailed to attack the airfield at Aalborg, Denmark, found the target cloud covered, and did not release their ordnance out of fear of harming friendly civilians. Both groups of attackers lost three bombers each. The 1 BD penetrated deep into Germany with 151 effective sorties. Some sorties struck an aeroengine plant at Halberstadt and Ju-88 assembly and component plants at Aschersleben and Bernberg; out of 97 aircraft, the attackers lost 19 bombers. The 1 BD suffered heavily from a large Luftwaffe response. Its bomb groups had become so widely dispersed that the escort fighters had trouble trying to provide cover for them. Several of the formations sought targets of opportunity. One combat wing, which dropped its bombs on the town of Bunde, lost 11 out of 29 attackers. Nineteen bombers struck the town of Wernigerode and lost four aircraft. In all the 1 BD lost 35 bombers. Sixteen fighter groups-two P-38s, 12 P-47s, and two P-51s (659 fighters total) sought out the Luftwaffe. They claimed 59 German aircraft as definite kills while losing 11 of their own number.
Weather scotched operations for the Eighth on 23 February but was conducive for the Fifteenth flying missions from the south. For flights into Austria and Germany, the Fifteenth did not fly over the Alps-too high and treacherous. Instead they formed up over the Adriatic Sea near their bases in southern Italy and then proceeded up the Adriatic. They flew over the former Yugoslav province of Slovenia and turned left into Austria or Germany. This route skirted the highest portion of the Alps and avoided the mountains of Italy. The Fifteenth sent 150 effective sorties to attack the Diamler-Puch aeroengine plant at Steyr, Austria. They lost 17 aircraft, more than 11 percent of the attacking force.