A flight of B-24 Liberators of the 446th Bomb Group fly in formation above the clouds ©IWM (FRE 1748)
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STORY

Big Week: How Operation Argument changed the tide of the air war in Europe

It was 20 February 1944 and the dark clouds that had resolutely hung over East Anglia for weeks showed no signs of clearing. Despite the ominous weather, ground crews on flight lines across the region readied their aircraft for a mission. Forecasts had tentatively suggested that dawn would break clear over the day’s targets: aircraft factories in Leipzig and Gotha. This was enough for General Carl Spaatz. “Let ‘'em go”, he ordered. 

In the early morning murk, 1,000 bombers formed up over East Anglia to begin the long flight into Germany. Allied commanders waited with bated breath. This mission, the first of Operation Argument, would constitute an all-out effort to wrestle air superiority from the Luftwaffe. The success of Overlord rested on the outcome of “Big Week”. 

Codenamed Operation Argument, “Big Week” (20- 25 February) would see the launch of consecutive raids on aircraft factories, engine, and ball-bearing plants by the Eighth Air Force, the Fifteenth Air Force, and the RAF. As well as reducing Germany’s production capabilities, the strikes were aimed at baiting Luftwaffe fighters into the air, where they could be shot down by Allied escorts. This ambitious plan was made feasible by the arrival of large numbers of long-range P-51 Mustangs and P-47 Thunderbolts kitted out with 150-gallon drop tanks. Whereas deep penetration missions into Germany in the autumn of 1943 had resulted in the near-obliteration of undefended bomber formations, the Eighth's B-17s and B-24s would now be protected deep into Germany. To the delight of the pilots, fighters were free to fly ahead of the formation to pounce on unsuspecting German fighters and to attack 'targets of opportunity'.

 

A burning Messerschmitt Bf 109 aircraft factory in Leipzig, after being bombed by the 305th Bomb Group on 20th February, 1944 FRE 4340

Despite the presence of the 'Little Friends', USAAF commanders predicted the loss of 200 bombers on the first day of Big Week. This bleak forecast was well-founded. The RAF had dropped their bombs on Leipzig a few hours earlier and had lost 79 heavy bombers on the night-time raid.

However, the Americans were more fortunate, completing the mission with minimal casualties: twenty-one bombers and four fighters. The Germans, meanwhile, lost 153 fighters.

< A burning Messerschmitt Bf 109 aircraft factory in Leipzig, after being bombed by the 305th Bomb Group

Despite the comparatively low losses, the mission was not without its share of individual jeopardy and heroism. Three Medal of Honors were awarded to airmen who took part in the 20 February mission. Lt William R. Lawley was one of those to be awarded the medal for refusing to leave his two injured gunners, despite suffering debilitating injuries himself. He managed to fly his stricken plane to the English coast, just as one engine ran out of gasoline. As that engine was feathered, another one caught on fire and continued to burn as Lawley made a successful crash landing at a small fighter base. Lawley's actions saved the lives of his entire crew. S/Sgt Archibald E Mathies and Lt Walter E Truemper received posthumous Medal of Honors for attempting to land their B-17 after their co-pilot was killed and the pilot critically wounded. Both men refused to bail out of the bomber, and were tragically killed during the crash landing.

Despite heavy cloud over Germany on 20 February, Eighth Air Force sent 762 bombers and 679 fighters to Brunswick. Poor weather prevented the primary targets being hit, but losses were once again light. The next day the Eighth Air Force joined the Fifteenth on an all-out mission involving almost 1,400 bombers to strike aircraft manufacturing centres in Germany. The weather closed in while the bombers were en route and two-thirds of the Eighth were recalled. The remaining bombers were unescorted while they waited for the fighters to catch up. Losses were heavy, with the Eighth Air Force losing sixteen per cent of its attacking bombers.

Bad weather on the twenty-third offered a brief respite to the exhausted crews, but the next day brought yet another mission. This time bombers would strike the ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt, the Gotha aircraft industry, and aircraft assembly plants in northern Germany. While the Schweinfurt attackers avoided German fighters, the B-24s sent to Gotha suffered heavy losses.

"Dixie Dudrop" nose art UPL 23043

Horace "Hal" Turrell and his crewmates onboard B-24 "Dixie Dudrop" had the misfortune of being sent to Gotha. A navigator in the 703rd Bomb Squadron, commanded by Hollywood actor Jimmy Stewart, Turrell recalled how the group's fliers "all had very bad premonitions about this mission". After missing their rendevous with fighter cover, the squadron was subjected to a fierce enemy attack that continued through the approach, the bomb run and for another hour and a half after bombs away. 

According to Turrell, "the action was fast, furious, and enveloped us in the fog of battle." "Dixie Dudrop" was the only plane of the 703rd Bomb Squadron to return to Tibenham. Turrell recalled that at their interrogation, "Jimmy Stewart listened intently to us...He asked us details and then tears came to his eyes and he left the room for a little while".

The final mission of Big Week took place on 25 February with attacks on the aircraft industries at Regensburg, Augsburgh, and Furth, and another strike at Schweinfurt. The Fifteenth Air Force hit their targets first, suffering losses of twenty-six per cent. The escorted Eighth, in comparison, met little resistance. 

Over the course of Big Week, USAAF flew nearly 4,000 heavy bomber sorties (one sortie is one aircraft flying one mission) and dropped more than 18,000 tons of bombs on eighteen German airframe complexes and two ball-bearing factories, temporarily hampering production. The Eighth Air Force dropped more bombs in one week than it had done during its entire first year in England. However, this all-out offensive came at a heavy cost. USAAF lost 227 bombers and 42 fighters, and more than 5,000 Americans were either killed or became prisoners of war. 

Critically, the Americans were in a position to quickly replace the loss of men and machines, whereas the Luftwaffe could not. Big Week operations cost the German Air Force a third of its available fighter aircraft and a fifth of its veteran pilots. While German aircraft production would quickly recuperate, the Luftwaffe was never able to replace the more than 100 experienced pilots lost during Big Week. By 25 February 1st Fighter Corps commander Joseph Schmid concluded that "in the long run our forces are fighting a hopeless battle." The tide of the air war had turned, but it was far from won.