Big Week

On February 20, 1944, in the spirit of Arnold's directive, the USSTAF launched a series of missions against Germany that became known as "Big Week." The planners intended to lure the Luftwaffe into a decisive battle by launching massive attacks on the German aircraft industry. By defeating the Luftwaffe, the Allies would achieve air superiority and the invasion of Europe could proceed.

During Big Week, February 20-26, 1944, the Allies flew heavily escorted missions against airframe manufacturing and assembly plants and other targets in numerous German cities, including Leipzig, Brunswick, Gotha, Regensburg, Schweinfurt, Augsburg, Stuttgart, and Steyr. In six days, the Eighth Air Force bombers flew more than 3,000 sorties and the Fifteenth Air Force more than 500. Together they dropped roughly 10,000 tons of bombs and seriously disrupted German fighter production, denying the enemy hundreds of aircraft at a time when they were badly needed. The United States lost 226 heavy bombers and 28 fighters.

The Big Week raids intensified the German dispersion of several industries, particularly aircraft and ball-bearing manufacturing. Although this enabled the enemy to continue fighter airframe production, it rendered the industry extremely vulnerable to systematic attacks on the transportation network.

The weeklong offensive also seriously eroded the morale and capability of the Luftwaffe. U.S. aircrews claimed more than 600 German fighters destroyed and achieved almost immediate air superiority. The Luftwaffe never recovered from the downing of so many skilled fighter pilots. It had to abandon full-scale opposition to the daylight bombing missions in favor of rationing resistance as circumstances and capabilities dictated. In effect, the Germans conceded air superiority to the Allies.

Big Week bolstered the confidence of U.S. strategic bombing crews. Until that time, Allied bombers deliberately avoided contact with the Luftwaffe; now, they deliberately used any method that would force the Luftwaffe into combat. Implementing this policy, the United States looked to- ward Berlin. Raiding the German capital, Allied leaders reasoned, would damage important industries and bring the Luftwaffe to battle. Consequently, on March 4, the USSTAF launched the first of several attacks against Berlin. Fierce battles raged and resulted in heavy losses for both sides. The Allies replaced their losses; the Luftwaffe could not do so and it grew progressively weaker.

By the spring of 1944, Allied strategic forces operating under the combined bomber offensive had attacked German submarine construction yards, aircraft plants, transportation systems, and other industrial facilities with limited success. They had fought the Luftwaffe in the skies over Europe and, despite suffering severe losses, they had never turned back. When the combined bomber offensive officially ended on April I, 1944, and control of the strategic air forces passed to Eisenhower, Allied airmen were well on the way to achieving air superiority over all of Europe. While they continued strategic bombing, the AAF turned its attention to the tactical air battle in support of the Normandy invasion.