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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Big Week

20 to 25 February 1944

Theatre: Western Europe
Location: Targets throughout Germany.
Players: Allies: Lieutenant General Carl Spaatz's US Strategic Air Force (USSTAF); Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris's RAF Bomber Command.
Outcome: Extensive damage to German aviation factories and attrition of Luftwaffe fighters.

'We must get the USAAF to wade in with greater force ... We can wreck Berlin from end to end if the USAAF will come in on it. It will cost between us 400-500 aircraft. It will cost Germany the war.' - Sir Arthur Harris, in a letter to Churchill, 3 November 1943

P-51 Mustangs flying over England
P-51 Mustangs flying over England©
Bomber Command flew by night, relying for defence on darkness, evasive flying techniques and counter-measures against enemy radar. US pilots had less skill in manoeuvre, particularly in European weather conditions. US bombers therefore flew by day, counting on massed formations and the aircraft's own firepower to repel attackers. Fighter escorts were introduced, but their limited range meant that once inside Germany the bombers were unprotected.

Initially there was no doubt which approach was more effective: in two successive raids on Hamburg in 1943, for example, loss rates for Bomber Command and the 8th US Army Air Force were 1.5 per cent and 16.7 per cent respectively.

By the spring of 1944, improvements to German fighter technology and tactics had led to Bomber Command suffering losses of 6-7 per cent per mission. A new approach was required. In 1944 the US deployed a new fighter: the Mustang, combining a North American Aviation airframe and a Rolls-Royce engine, and with sufficient range to get it to Berlin and back. The introduction of the Mustang changed the course of the Allied bombing campaign.

The Pointblank Directive of June 1943 had instructed the US to concentrate on precision bombing of German aviation factories. In the words of historian and Bomber Command veteran Noble Frankland, the US was in a race between 'the destruction of the German fighter force in production by the bombers and the destruction of the bombers by the German fighter force in being'.

On 14 October 1943, 291 US bombers attacked the Schweinfurt ball-bearing factory; 60 were shot down. After this disaster, bombing operations were suspended until long range fighter cover and fine weather were available.

Operation Argument, a concerted attack on aviation industry targets, began on 19 February 1944 with an 823-bomber raid on the Leipzig Messerschmidt factory by Bomber Command; damage was limited and 78 aircraft were lost.

The next day the reorganised USSTAF, uniting the 8th with the Italian based 15th US Army Air Force, sent a raid against 12 different targets, the Leipzig works included. A thousand bombers were supported by 700 long-range fighters; only 21 aircraft were lost.

The next five days saw forces of over 800 bombers dispatched against aviation factories in Braunschweig, Gotha, Augsburg, Stuttgart and Regensburg, as well as a return visit to Schweinfurt. On 24 February Bomber Command carried out a follow up raid on Schweinfurt, with limited results; a follow-up raid on Augsburg the next night completely destroyed the medieval centre of the town.

While Mustang cover made US bombers less vulnerable, US losses during Big Week were substantial - in five raids 226 bombers and 28 fighters were lost. German aircraft production was slowed but not halted; production rapidly returned to normal. The main result of Big Week was Germany's loss of substantial numbers of Luftwaffe fighters and pilots.

In the bomber convoy with Mustang escort the US had developed, almost by accident, an unparalleled tool for creating and exploiting air superiority over Germany. The US was now 'wading in' as Harris wished; but, far from adopting his strategy of area bombing, the USSTAF was beginning to achieve results which Bomber Command could only envy.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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