Thursday, April 23, 2015

“Big Week” Part II

RAF Bomber Command's Halifaxes and Lancasters began the 'Big Week' operations on the night of 19/20 February 1944.

On 24 February the Fifteenth attacked the same target with 114 effective sorties. The Fifteenth suffered heavily, losing 17 heavy bombers-a 15 percent loss rate. Bomber Command's No. 205 Group followed this raid with an attack that night on the same target. It lost six out of 40 bombers or 15 percent. Neither organization could afford such casualties indefinitely. No. 205 Group, because of worn-out or second-line aircraft and lack of priority for new equipment, almost always absorbed a severe beating when it attacked Germany without escort. 

The Eighth also suffered heavy losses, but it sent out more than 800 bombers and 767 fighters. The 3 BD, assigned to destroy air plants near Rostock and flying without fighter escort, found the targets clouded over and bombed the city area instead. They lost but five aircraft out of 236 because the Luftwaffe concentrated its efforts elsewhere. The B-24s of the 2 BD attacked the Bf-110 assembly plants in Gotha. The obsolescent, twin-engine Bf-110 made up a significant portion of the German night fighter force and the daylight heavy fighter and rocket-firing day fighter force. Some of the division aircraft bombed the city area of Eisenach as a target of opportunity. The 2 BD absorbed heavy losses, 33 bombers out of 213 effective sorties, or 15.5 percent. 

The attack of the 1 BD, however, demonstrated how the tide had turned against the German defenders. The Eighth dispatched a force of 266 aircraft to finish the ball bearing plants at Schweinfurt-a somewhat smaller but comparable force to those aimed against it in the two previous attacks on that target. This force represented only one-third of the Eighth's overall strength-not a maximum effort against one target. The force faced no highly contested fight from the moment it entered German airspace. Rather 238 of its aircraft reached the ball bearing plants. They incurred a loss of 11 aircraft instead of 60-a loss of 4.6 percent instead of 20 percent. For the entire day the Eighth lost 49 bombers out of 746 effective sorties, a 6.6 percent loss rate. The Luftwaffe snapped at the bait. The American fighters escorting the bombers claimed 38 sure kills against a loss of 10 of their own. On the night of 24 February, Bomber Command followed up the Eighth's daylight raid by finally attacking Schweinfurt. Harris had refused to attack the city since its inclusion on the strategic target list in June 1943 because he believed that his bombers lacked the accuracy to strike the city of 60,000 effectively. Bomber Command dropped 2,534 tons of bombs, including 1,160 tons of incendiaries, in the assault. It lost 33 bombers out of 662 effective sorties, a 5 percent loss rate. In all of the attacks on the town that had once produced 45 percent of Germany's ball bearings, the Allies dropped more than 3,000 tons of bombs and lost 44 heavy bombers. They did not know at the time that Germany had already dispersed 34 percent of the ball bearing industry. Still, the cumulative effect of the raids on Schweinfurt and other plants reduced German ball bearing manufacturing by 50 percent. 

The weather held for one last day, enabling the Allied strategic air forces to hit targets in southern Germany. The Fifteenth and Eighth launched a combined mission against the Messerschmidt assembly plants in the Regensburg area. Allied intelligence credited the plants with the assembly of one-third of Germany's Me-109s. The Fifteenth came into the target area first and suffered cruelly. Of 116 effective sorties, it lost 32 bombers, a loss rate of almost 28 percent, the highest for any US mission of more than 100 bombers for the war. The 5 BW lost 22 of its B-17s, while the 301 BG lost 13. Lack of escorts allowed the German fighters, a combined force of single- and twin-engine fighters, to intercept the 301 BG at its landfall over Yugoslavia and to follow it, through flak, all the way to the target and for part of the return flight. The crews of the 5 and 47 BWs amply demonstrated that the larger and older strategic air forces had no monopoly on gallantry and the will to press on to the target. 

The Eighth's 3 BD came over the target area approximately one hour later. The fighters that had hurled themselves at the Fifteenth were either refueling or still in pursuit. The Eighth lost only 12 bombers out of 267 effective sorties-a loss rate of 4.5 percent. Bomb photos indicated that the 889 tons of bombs dropped by both air forces damaged their target. The 1 BD went after the huge Messerschmidt development and experimental complex at Augsburg and the VKF ball bearing plant at Stuttgart. Of 246 effective sorties, it lost 13 aircraft-5.3 percent. The 2 BD put 161 B-24s over the Bf-110 assembly center at Fürth- losing six bombers, a 3.7 percent loss rate. For the last day of the Big Week a new P-51 group, the 363 FG, joined the action as the Eighth and Ninth put up 899 fighters. This armada claimed only 26 sure kills while losing three of its aircraft. The presence of so many of the bomber's "little friends" inhibited the German reaction. Although there would be bad days in the future, the Luftwaffe would not tamely roll over and play dead. The Americans had proved that they could fly into the worst the Luftwaffe could muster, as long as they had fighter escort, and they could do so with an overall loss rate of less then 5 percent. Soon the Fifteenth would get its share of P-51s, including the all-black 332 FG. Bomber Command not only dropped the first bombs of Big Week but it dropped the last. On the night of 25 February, it brought down the curtain by following up the Eighth's attack on Augsburg with one of its own. It dropped 2,048 tons, including 890 tons of incendiaries, on the city area-losing 21 of 528 effective sorties, a 4 percent loss rate.

The Fifteenth Air Force, which lacked P-51s, lost 89 bombers, compared with 158 lost by the Eighth, but the Fifteenth suffered a higher percentage loss. In all USSTAF lost at least 266 heavy bombers; 2,600 aircrew members (killed, wounded, or captured and in German hands); and 28 fighters. 24 Almost half those losses occurred on the last two missions when the Germans took advantage of mistakes that left the bombers unescorted or underescorted. In February the Eighth wrote off 299 bombers, one-fifth of its force, whereas the Luftwaffe wrote off more than one-third of its single-engine fighters and lost almost 18 percent of its fighter pilots. 

The AAF official history states that the damage inflicted by the week's missions caused a two-month delay in German fighter aircraft production.  At the end of February, Field Marshal Erhard Milch (the Luftwaffe officer in charge of aircraft production) informed Albert Speer (the German minister for armaments production) that he expected the March production figures to equal only 30 to 40 percent of the February total. As a result of this meeting, the two set up a fighter staff to push through a large increase in fighter production. The head of the fighter staff, Karl-Otto Saur, estimated that, at the time of its establishment on 1 March 1944, 70 percent of the original buildings of the German aircraft industry had been destroyed. Damage to machine tools was at much lower levels.  

The delay in German fighter production was even more significant than the actual number of fighters never produced. By the time the aircraft industry recovered in late spring and early summer, the situation had changed totally. The Eighth Air Force's attacks on German synthetic oil-begun in May 1944-produced severe shortages in aviation gasoline, which resulted in catastrophic curtailment of training programs and operations. By July 1944, hundreds of newly assembled fighters were grounded by a lack of fuel. If those new fighters had gone into operation in April or May when the Germans still had sufficient fuel available, they might have made Pointblank or even the cross-channel invasion more risky undertakings. 

Big Week also affected replacement production by persuading the German leadership and aircraft industry to undertake an immediate, large-scale dispersal program. They divided the 29 major aircraft producers into 85 airframe factories and scattered aeroengine production to 249 sites. This program eventually rendered the aircraft industry relatively invulnerable to bombing. However, it caused more production delays, increased indirect labor costs by 20 percent, robbed the German air industry of the advantages of economic scales of production, and heightened the demand on the German railway system by forcing elevated levels of shipment and transshipment of materials, assemblies, subassemblies, and components. This situation further strained the economy and left aircraft production dependent on uninterrupted rail transportation. By October 1944 the German air industry employed 450,000 workers, 103,000 of them women, with 48 percent of the workforce native Germans, 36 percent foreigners, and the remaining 16 percent Jews, prisoners of war, and political prisoners. The fighter staff also instituted, at last, double factory shifts and a seven-day, 72-hour workweek.  

Although postwar research has shown that the missions between 20 and 25 February accomplished less than originally estimated by the Allies, what made Big Week "big" was not only the physical damage inflicted on the German fighter industry and frontline fighter strength, which was significant, but also the psychological effect it had on the AAF. In one week Doolittle dropped almost as much bomb tonnage as the Eighth had dropped in its entire first year. At the same time, the RAF Bomber Command conducted five heavy raids on Combined Bomber Offensive targets losing 157 heavy bombers-a loss rate of 6.6 bombers per 100 bomber sorties, which slightly exceeded the American rate of six bombers per 100 sorties. In trial by combat the AAF had shown that precision bombing in daylight not only performed as claimed, but also at no greater cost than the supposedly safer and less accurate night area bombing. 

What is more, USSTAF, thanks to its fighter escorts, claimed to have destroyed more than 600 enemy aircraft; Bomber Command could claim only 13. Of course, the US claim of 600 German fighters destroyed was a vast exaggeration. Such a claim could be approached only by counting not just the sure and probable kills by US fighters but also the numbers claimed by the American bomber crews. As noted earlier, American bomber gunners, aided by faulty intelligence debriefing evaluation techniques, killed, at best, only one-tenth of the enemy fighter aircraft that they claimed and were credited with. Fragmentary Luftwaffe sources do not allow a specific breakout for the Big Week, but they support a conclusion that the Germans lost between 225 and 275 aircraft, 37 a close approximation to the 241 sure and probable kills claimed by the American fighters.  

In their own minds General Spaatz and other high-ranking American air officers had validated their belief in their chosen mode of combat. Spaatz fairly glowed in a letter he sent to Arnold summarizing the month: "The resultant destruction and damage caused to industrial plants of vital importance to the German war effort, and to the very existence of the German Air Force, can be considered a conspicuous success in the course of the European war." Spaatz went on to compare the relative contributions of the month by the AAF and RAF. The Eighth flew 5,400 more sorties than Bomber Command and dropped some 5,000 tons more bombs, all with a lower loss rate. The AAF had come of age; the long buildup in Britain had produced results at last. "During the past two years as our forces slowly built up and the RAF carried the great part and weight of attack, some circles of both the Government and the general public have been inclined to think that our part in the battle was but a small one. I trust that this brief comparison of effort will enable you to erase any doubts that may exist in some minds as to the great importance of the part now being played by the United States Army Air Forces in Europe in the task which has been sent us-the destruction of Germany's ability to wage war." 

Although the Luftwaffe fighter force actually increased its bomber kills in March and April, the Big Week-in the minds of Spaatz and others in the AAF-was the beginning of the end for the German daylight fighter. Most of the senior American Airmen in Europe probably agreed with USSTAF's assistant director of intelligence, Col R. D. Hughes, who said three weeks later, "I consider the result of the week's attack to be the funeral of the German Fighter Force." Hughes added that USSTAF now realized that it could bomb any target in Germany at will-a realization that led USSTAF and Spaatz to begin the hunt for the one crucial target system to bomb now that the first objective, the suppression of the Luftwaffe, seemed to have been accomplished. In short order they agreed on the German synthetic oil industry as that critical target system.

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