Today marks the 75th Anniversary of the completion of Operation Argument otherwise known as BIG WEEK. The strategic goals of the operation were to destroy German fighter production and inflict a “wastage” rate of the German fighter force such that it was losing fighter planes faster than it was producing them. In measurements of this objective. In the initial assessments of the BIG WEEK bombing, 8th Air Force thought they had done that. Actually, this was as wildly optimistic as the claims of air to air kills by the heavy bomber crew machine gunners.
Despite destroying 70% of the German fighter aircraft assembly buildings targeted. The USAAF high command had grossly underestimated damage done to electric motor powered machine tools within those buildings and the UK’s Ministry of Economic Warfare that the USAAF relied upon for intelligence of German industry had underestimated German fighter production by a factor of 2 & 1/2 times.
See my Jan 1, 2019 Chicagoboyz post “Industrial Electrification and the Technological Illiteracy of the US Army Air Corps Tactical School 1920-1940” for many of the reasons why this was so.
The 8th Air Force lost 565 heavy bombers shot down or scrapped from combat damage so bad it was not worth the effort to repair them. 8th and 9th Air Force fighters escorting the bombers suffered 28 planes shot down. The over all loss rate per raid averaged 6%…but the American total force losses were 2,600 air crew killed, wounded or captured. This was 1/5th of 8th Air Force.
The Luftwaffe lost 1/3 of it’s front line fighter strength in terms of planes (225 to 275 fighters, sources vary) that were shot down or written off as too damaged to repair. Worse, 18% of it’s front line pilot strength was killed or so wounded they could no longer fly. And the Germans simply lacked the fuel to train their replacements to the same level of competence as the men lost.
Dr. John Curatola’s table above makes a point above that at the end of Big Week the Luftwaffe was bloodied, but not yet beaten. But defeat was very much on the horizon. The USAAF kicked off a sustained Materialschlacht** onslaught that the Luftwaffe could neither avoid nor win. The following table shows a very important point in these attrition air battles over Germany in the period from January through June 1944
[ **Materialschlacht means“Battle of Material” in English.]
Between February and May 1944 the 8th Air Force would lose 89% of those 1,113 heavy bomber crews listed in January 1944. At 10 men each, 8th Air Force lost ~9906 men and yet come June 1944 they still had 20,070 heavy bomber crewmen. Such was the skilled air crew replacement pipeline from America in 1944.
By the end of May 1944 all the high flight time pilots in the Luftwaffe fighter force were dead, wounded or missing. In WW2, 90% of all the men who strapped themselves into a German fighter plane from 1939 to 1945 were killed. And those who did survive were either wounded late in the war or too maimed to fly.
Changed USAAF Doctrine and The Death of the Luftwaffe Fighter Force
What killed the Luftwaffe fighter force was the rules of engagement change made by General Jimmy Doolittle from staying with the bombers to lower their losses to “Kill German fighters where ever they are found.” This change meant that there was no longer any sanctuary where German fighters, particularly the twin-engine rocket carrying Me-110, could build up large formations to overwhelm a bomber stream combat box through fighter escorts. American fighter could use the UK “Y-Service” radio intercept system to throw squadrons of fighters at German assembly areas.
It also meant there was no safe training areas for German novice pilots starting in the late Spring of 1944 just as the American oil campaign was getting into full swing.
That combination of no sanctuary, no fuel to train, and the onslaught of 250-to-300 hour training program Mustang pilots is what cause the “Lanchester’s Square collapse” of Luftwaffe fighter defenses by April-May 1944.”