Size Matters: Killing the Luftwaffe, February 1944



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The famous “Big Week” portion of Operation ARGUMENT was a perfect storm of air power, thrusting the Luftwaffe into an irreversible decline and making the June 6, 1944 invasion of Europe possible. The sharp end of ARGUMENT’s spear was the heroic men who manned the bombers and fighters which relentlessly pounded Germany during that now fabled week in February. But behind them was a fascinating array of upended doctrine, logistics mastery, courageous decision making, and unprecedented supremacy in intelligence gathering.

Oddly enough the most important consequences of Big Week were not understood by Allied commanders until many months after the war had ended, when newly gathered information on the German effort was analyzed. Those consequences revealed the vast differences in the German and American perceptions of the scale on which air warfare should be conducted, and lay bare the superiority of USAAF leadership over that of the Luftwaffe.

Three elements of the USAAF leadership deserve special notice. The first was the brilliance of the men behind Air War Planning Document-1 (AWPD-1), the planning effort which so correctly estimated the size of the USAAF—and its losses. They did their important work in a few days, based on their long experience. The second was the massive USAAF effort to catch up on logistic requirements, which had been largely overlooked. It was achieved over a much longer period time, and its ultimate success was in large part due to Major General Hugh Knerr. The third was the flexibility of USAAF leadership. When it recognized its offensive doctrine was wrong, it reversed course and executed new methods efficiently.

Big Week: Buildup and Execution

The Casablanca Conference of January 1943 was studded with divisive issues. The United States wanted an early invasion of Europe, while Great Britain preferred to peck at the periphery of Hitler’s extended empire. The Brits prevailed, and it was decided that the victory in North Africa would be followed by campaigns in Sicily and Italy. The invasion of France—Operation OVERLORD–was to be delayed to the spring of 1944—if then.

The British leaders were also dubious about daylight bombing, their own efforts in that sphere having been defeated by the Luftwaffe in the early months of the war. Major General Ira C. Eaker saved the day for the USAAF doctrine of daylight precision bombing. An accomplished speaker, he sold Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill on the Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO) with a powerful phrase: “bombing around the clock.”

Given the code name POINTBLANK, but also known as “the Eaker plan,” the CBO was intended to progressively destroy the German military industrial and economic system, undermining the will of the German people to resist. The USAAF was to strike precision targets by day, while the RAF continued its night area bombing campaign. POINTBLANK was planned for four phases, each of three months, culminating in the spring of 1944.

As time passed, requirements for the land campaigns diverted resources from the Eighth Air Force effort, causing dissatisfaction with the Eaker plan and concern about its ultimate results. A more refined strategy, code name ARGUMENT, was developed, focusing on a series of coordinated attacks by the Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces against the highest priority German targets in central and southern Germany. These were factories producing aircraft, aircraft components and anti-friction bearings.

The planned combined operations were complicated by an awkward air command structure. The generally disliked Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory was named air commander in chief of the Allied Air Expeditionary Force (AEAF). As things worked out, the RAF continued to prosecute its night area bombing campaign under Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, whose goal was to “dehouse” Germany and win the war without an invasion. In the meantime, the American air forces slowly built up strength.

During 1943, the USAAF, new to combat, overestimated the damage caused by its raids and underestimated the resourcefulness of the Germans in restoring damaged factories to production. And despite increasingly hard evidence to the contrary, it persisted in its belief that heavily armed bomber formations could successfully fight their way to the targets without fighter escort. The loss of a total of 120 aircraft on the 17 August and 14 October 1943 raids on Schweinfurt and Regensburg finally disproved the theory. The Luftwaffe convincingly demonstrated that it could still exercise local air superiority when out of the range of Allied fighters. The situation demanded that long range escort fighters be provided.

By the end of 1943, General Henry H. Arnold was distinctly dissatisfied with the work of his air forces in Europe. He felt that the huge resources devoted to them had not yielded commensurate results. Arnold was famous for his pointed if not always grammatical instructions, and on 27 December 1943 he clarified things for Lieutenant General Eaker, Eighth Air Force Commander, and Major General James H. Doolittle, newly appointed commander of Fifteenth Air Force. After assuring them that they now had adequate means at their disposal, he wrote “Therefore, my personal message to you—this is a MUST—is to Destroy the Enemy Air Force wherever you find them, in the air, on the ground and in the factories.”

Arnold’s assurance that the two generals had adequate means at their disposal was not entirely accurate. The Eighth Air Force was just beginning to have adequate numbers, maintenance depots and replacement crews and aircraft. The Fifteenth Air Force was in the process of building up, but was in no way yet comparable to the Eighth. And the essential element to achieving Arnold’s directive, the North American P-51 long-range escort fighter, was just entering service in Europe.

Yet the pressure was on. Planning efforts were hampered in part by Leigh-Mallory, one of the few air commanders who did not believe that air superiority was essential to the invasion. Leigh-Mallory’s baleful influence on organizational matters was mitigated in January 1944 when Lieutenant General Carl “Tooey” Spaatz was named Commander, United States Strategic Air Forces in Europe (USSTAF). Spaatz (who, Jimmy Doolittle said, “never made a bad decision”) selected an able organizer, Major General Frederick Anderson as deputy.

There were other personnel changes as well. Soon to be Lieutenant General Doolittle succeeded Eaker as Commander, Eighth Air Force. Eaker bitterly protested the move, for it came when he, for the first time, possessed the means to carry out his mission. Nonetheless he accepted his assignment as Commander in Chief, Mediterranean Air Forces in soldierly fashion. Lieutenant General Nathan F. Twining became commander of Fifteenth Air Force. (Twining, who began his service life as an Army private, was en route to four stars and becoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.)

It is worth noting that all through the war, American leaders were far more rigorous in their treatment of commanders than were either the British or the Germans. Arnold had extremely strong personal ties to Eaker, but when he lost confidence in him, he unhesitatingly removed him.

In 1944, the weather was bad over Europe during January and early February so that USAAF bombing was conducted primarily by radar. The delays permitted both the Allies and the Germans to build their forces to their respective peaks, and in doing so emphasize the vast difference in their basic philosophies.

Mounting frustration at the highest USAAF command levels led to the issuance on 13 February of a new definition for the CBO, emphasizing the immediate importance of defeating the Luftwaffe by striking the highest priority targets. The RAF’s Bomber Command was ordered to area-bomb cities harboring these targets, but in the event, much of the British effort was directed at installations being prepared for the V-1 flying bomb.

Big Week began with a Big Gamble on February 20, when weather forecasts were so bad that the “master of the calculated risk” Jimmy Doolittle advised against launching. He and other commanders were concerned about losses that might be incurred by icing and collisions as thousands of aircraft made their long climb through the overcast. Yet Spaatz, backed as always by Anderson, did not waver. He gave the order to go.

Things began amazingly well. The Eighth Air Force dispatched 1003 bombers and 835 fighters and the RAF provided sixteen fighter squadrons for escort duties. A total of 2,218 tons of bombs were dropped on thirteen designated targets and 145 targets of opportunity. Against Anderson’s doleful fears that 200 bombers might be lost, only 21 were shot down, along with four fighters. The bombing results were good, with heavy damage meted out to factories in the Leipzig (which had been heavily bombed by the RAF the previous night), Bernberg and Brunswick areas.

Three men were awarded the Medal of Honor for this mission. One went to a badly wounded pilot, 1/Lt. William Lawley, who managed to bring his damaged B-17 back to Great Britain, saving seven wounded crew members. Two others were awarded posthumously to Sergeant Archie Mathies, a ball turret gunner and navigator Lt. Walter Truemper. On their second mission, the two men made a gallant attempt to save the life of wounded crew members by flying their B-17 back when their pilots were killed or disabled. Sadly, they were killed in an attempted landing.

During Big Week, the able Allied intelligence system gathered information which validated USAAF tactics and gave insight into just how much the attacks were diminishing the Luftwaffe.

On 21 February, 861 bombers and 679 fighters were launched, but the results were far less satisfactory, largely due to unexpected cloud cover. On 22 February, the Eighth attacked with 799 bombers. For a wide variety of reasons only 255 missions were credited as successful sorties. Two Bombardment Divisions were recalled, the 1st due to multiple collisions during the climb, the 3rd because of it inability to establish a coherent formation on the way to the target. Forty-four heavy bombers of the Eighth Air Force were shot down, more than 17 percent of the effective force. The Fifteenth Air Force lost 14, bringing the days’ total to 58—perilously close to October 14th’s 60 losses.

The Luftwaffe responded to the massive pressure being applied. It drew fighters from the vast Eastern front for the defense of the Reich. Old tactics were polished and new methods employed including attacking formations on their way in, rather than attempting to down them over the target and on the return trip. Many Luftwaffe units flew multiple missions, landing and rearming away from their home base.

The next day weather brought a stand-down that was welcomed by air crews of both forces. But on 24 February, important targets were selected at Rostock, Schweinfurt, Gotha and Eisenach. These were the primary factories producing the Messerschmitt Bf 110, Focke-Wulf Fw 190 and anti-friction-bearings. Attrition and wear-and-tear brought the total number of Eighth Air Force bombers down to 505, and of these 451 made successful sorties. Losses were heavy again, with 44 bombers, 33 of which were B-24s, being lost. The Fifteenth Air Force lost 17 bombers in its attack against Steyr.

The bombing was good at Schweinfurt but it was less productive than the previous 14 October raid for as the Germans had already begun their dispersal program. Schweinfurt, like many German facilities, was no longer so rich a target as it had been, but its defenders still extracted a high toll for the attack.

On 25 February the Allies got a break, with good weather forecast for almost every worthy target in Germany and occupied Europe. Once again Messerschmitt plants were the primary targets, with the Eighth Air Force attacking Regensburg, Augsburg, Stuttgart and Furth. The Fifteenth was assigned targets at Regensburg-Prüefening.

The weary Luftwaffe mustered its primary strength against the Fifteenth, and shot down 33 heavy bombers of the 176 dispatched. The Eighth, which dispatched 738 successful sorties, lost 31 bombers.

Although the bombing was accurate, the enemy aircraft factories had also begun dispersing. The Germans were surprised at the hardiness of machine tools in the face of high explosive attacks (fires from incendiary bombs did far more damage). They found that even comparatively sophisticated equipment could be moved to primitive facilities and have their productive capability restored in relatively short order.

In sum (and the figures vary from source to source) the Eighth Air Force launched 3,300 heavy bombers while the Fifteenth launched 500. The Eighth and Ninth Air Forces put up 3,500 fighter sorties. Almost 10,000 tons of bombs were dropped at a cost of 247 heavy bombers (including those damaged beyond repair) and 28 fighters. RAF’s Bomber Command dropped 9,198 tons of bombs in 2,351 sorties, and lost 157 bombers. Claims were made for 600 enemy fighters, well over the actual totals, but none-the-less a severe blow to the Luftwaffe.

Allied leaders were satisfied with the number of German aircraft believed to have been shot down or destroyed on the ground on airfields and in factories. Nor was the satisfaction diluted by the continued lack of coordination between Bomber Command and Eighth Air Force, and the fact that many missions went awry. Yet the fight with the German Air Force continued until the end of the war. The Luftwaffe became ever smaller and less capable, but never harmless.

The immediate effects of Big Week were important, for they reduced the number of aircraft and crews available to the Luftwaffe. Yet the two most important effects of the heroic operation came later. The first was the aircraft production lost because the German high command subsequently formalized and accelerated the requirement for aircraft factories to decentralize. Where Big Week caused an estimated two month loss in production, the decentralization caused a four month loss. And even more important, the extensive decentralization of production made all German transportation arteries—roads, rail, canals, even bike-paths—profitable targets for the far ranging fighter bombers. In this ironic denouement, and contrary to USAAF doctrine, it was the fighters and not the bombers that finally brought German production to its knees and rendered it ineffective.

A Look Back at Big Week

The advent of Big Week found the Luftwaffe at the peak of its strength in many ways. Its flak force had grown in numbers and capability, as had Luftwaffe fighters, recalled from the Eastern front. Luftwaffe units were well led by veterans, and up to this point, green pilots were still being given training when they reached operational units. The ratio of experienced leaders to new comers was still large enough to allow the Luftwaffe to inflict severe casualties. It is a tribute to the courage and skill of its crews that despite the enormous losses incurred during Big Week, the Luftwaffe still retained the vitality to defeat the Bomber Command’s night offensives in the spring of 1944.

But there was one basic truth that Luftwaffe courage and skill could not overcome: it was too small to deal with air warfare on the scale that the United States now planned to wage. German planners had been myopic, somehow willing to begin the Second World War with an air force that was numerically about half the size of the one it possessed at the end of the First World War.

In democratic United States, when President Roosevelt called for 50,000 aircraft per year, the aviation industry responded eagerly to the call. In autocratic Germany, when Adolf Hitler called upon the aviation industry to produce 50,000 aircraft a year, he was simply ignored. Even more damaging, the Luftwaffe was often given priorities behind those of the Army and the Navy.

In contrast, in the United States, a small group of brilliant men produced AWPD-1 in September 1941. Despite its calling for enormous forces, it was immediately—almost routinely–accepted. Just four men, all bomber advocates, distilled their years of Air Corps Tactical School training into AWPD-1. They boldly stated that the USAAF would require 251 combat groups, 105,647 aircraft and 2,164,916 airmen to win the war—and their prediction was uncannily accurate. Field grade at the time, they all became flag officers, and one was awarded the MOH. They were General Harold L. George, Major General Haywood “Possum” Hansel, Jr., General Lawrence S. Kuter and Brigadier General Kenneth N. Walker (posthumous MOH). The nation owes them much.

Unfortunately, logistics had been given insufficient emphasis, and for many months the goal of producing entire aircraft had priority over production of adequate spare parts. Many officers struggled to rectify the situation, but one who deserves special mention is Major General Hugh Knerr, whom Major Jon M. Sutterfield has called “the single greatest influence on the capabililties and effectiveness of USAAF logistics.”

Knerr stepped on more toes in his turbulent career than even Billy Mitchell. But maverick though he was, Knerr knew his logistics and enabled the Eighth Air Force to build the vital supply systems, maintenance depots and statistically valid reporting systems. He greatly enabled Big Week and the subsequent vastly expanded bombing operations of 1944 and 1945 to succeed. Never known as a diplomat by his flyer colleagues, Knerr nonetheless worked successfully with the U.S. Army, Navy, and the British military to sharpen the Eighth Air Force’s aerial spear.

In vivid contrast, there was a total failure by German leadership to understand the quantities of aircraft and equipment that air warfare required. This began with the Füehrer Adolf Hitler and extended through Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering and 44 year old Colonel General Hans Jeschonnek, Luftwaffe Chief of Staff. Jeschonnek exemplified the arrogance and naiveté of upper-level Luftwaffe leadership in 1942, when he cheerfully remarked that he would not know what to do with a production of more than 300 fighters per month.

The Luftwaffe was further handicapped by Goering’s choice of World War I ace Ernst Udet to be the Luftwaffe’s Generalluftzeugmeister, in charge of production and development. Beset by drugs, alcoholism and failure, Udet committed suicide on November 17, 1941 after making one incredibly bad decision after another. (Jeschonnek committed suicide on August 19, 1943, Hitler on April 30, 1945 and Goering on October 15, 1946.)

On the Luftwaffe’s plus side, the very capable Field Marshal Ernst Milch fought vainly to restore order in both production and maintenance, and to a lesser degree, logistics. Had he been in Goering’s place, Milch could have made the war much more difficult to win.

Germany entered the war in 1939 with just under 3,000 first-line aircraft, and maintained a remarkably low rate of production through 1942. Under Milch’s leadership, and later fostered by the ability of Albert Speer’s deputy, Karl-Otto Sauer, to muster the incredible energy and ability of German industry, production began to rise despite a corresponding rise in Allied bombing efforts. German production peaked at just over 40,000 aircraft in 1944 when there were no longer the pilots or the fuel to use them effectively.

The return of bad weather ended Big Week and forced Spaatz to order radar bombing attacks, including the first American daylight assaults on Berlin. The Germans were still able to react fiercely in the defense of their capital, and inflicted heavy losses, destroying 69 Eighth Air Force bombers on March 6, and another 37 on March 8. But again they did it at cost they could no longer afford.

The Luftwaffe was now worn down by the battle of attrition. Beset by losses, training difficulties and fuel shortages, it was no longer able to contest the Eighth Air Force incursions as it had done in 1943. The German air force was still able to husband its dwindling forces and make occasional savage attacks. It still managed to introduce a series of new weapons. But the Luftwaffe had lost the war in the planning stage. Its provincial leaders, almost none of whom had the breadth of vision of their USAAF opponents, completely miscalculated the quantity and quality of the forces required for successful air warfare. Big Week proved this when at last the fully developed Luftwaffe came into combat with the fully developed USAAF.

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