Document Source: US Army Command & General Staff College, Operation Argument ‘Big Week’, February 20-25, 1944, Published on Academia.edu by John M. Curatola
The US Army Air Corps (USAAC) developed the idea of daylight precision bombing during the interwar years of the 1930s. The concept was an elegant idea that hoped to bring victory earlier, cheaper, and without the long bloody stalemate experienced during the First World War. The USAAC based this concept on the idea that a modern industrial military power had various points of vulnerability. If these points of vulnerability were identified and targeted correctly, the enemy nation’s military would suffer from a lack of infrastructure and war material. Simultaneously, with the bombing of civilians, a steep decline in national morale would also result. While the First World War offered scant evidence to prove this contention, as aircraft performance grew during the 1920s and 1930s, air-minded officers in both Great Britain and the United States saw great promise in the concept of strategic bombing.
At the Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS) at Maxwell Field, Alabama, officers began to outline the doctrinal precepts of daylight precision bombing. By 1935, the ACTS solidified the ideas regarding the use of strategic bombing by arguing the principal and all important missions of air power when its equipment permits are the attack of those vital objectives in a nation’s economic structure which tend to paralyze the nation’s ability to wage war and thus contribute to the attainment of the ultimate objective of war, namely the disintegration of the will to resist.
However, while targeting the production facilities of an enemy nation, ACTS doctrine did not subscribe to the idea of wanton killing of civilian populations. In trying to maintain a moral high ground, the USAAC argued that the direct attack of civilian populations is most repugnant to our humanitarian principles and certainly it is a method of warfare that we would adopt only with great reluctance and regret.
As a result, for the Americans, the strategic bombing of the enemy nation did not need to be wholesale but had to be aimed directly at the key components of the industrial base. Also in 1935, the prototype B-17 Flying Fortress strategic bomber took to the air and promised to fulfill the Air Corps doctrinal precepts. With its four Wright Cyclone 1820 engines producing 1200 horsepower (HP) each, the plane had a range of 2000 miles and could carry five tons of bombs. The Flying Fortress got its name as it eventually bristled with ten .50 caliber machine guns that would protect the plane as it flew over enemy territory.
By 1941, the USAAC bomber fleet also began to include the B-24 Liberator that used four Pratt and Whitney Twin Wasp engines producing 1000 HP each, had a range of just over 2000 miles, and could carry ten tons of bombs. Like the B-17, the Liberator also had ample defensive armament and carried ten .50 caliber machine guns. In addition to these two airframes, and key to the idea of precision bombing, the USAAC also procured the Navy-developed Norden Mark XV Bombsight. The Mark XV could supposedly place 90 percent of bombs dropped from an airplane and have them land within one mile of the aim point with 40 percent landing within 500 yards. The marriage of the B-17 and B-24 with the Norden sight promised a formidable combination to the proponents of strategic bombardment.
When the United States finally entered World War II, the renamed US Army Air Force (USAAF) was eager to test its new strategic bombing doctrine and provide proof of the efficacy of air power. The 8th Air Force began flying strategic bombing missions out of England in August 1942 and was complemented in the role by the 15th Air Force flying out of bases in the Mediterranean by November 1943. However, once the USAAF bomber fleets took to the European skies, the strategic bombing effort failed to meet initial expectations. Overcast clouds and weather often precluded the precision bombing patterns the USAAF expected as bombardiers could not see their targets and high-level winds also affected the bombing accuracy. Bombing from altitudes of 20.000 feet (6096 meters), early raids placed an average of only 20 percent of bombs within 1000 feet of the target area.
Compounding the weather problems, aircrews also had to deal with the Luftwaffe’s extensive FLAK (German AAA) defenses placed at strategic locations. The FLAK was a chief source of stress for aircrews, particularly during bombing runs; B-17s and B-24s were required to fly straight and level to accurately drop their bombs on the target. One crewman admitted, The FLAK scared the hell out of me. When it burst around us I stood in my turret and cringed and shivered. In addition to the weather and the FLAK, bomber crews found that they were also easy prey for the German ME-109 and FW-190 single-engine fighters that regularly challenged the bombing formations as they flew over the Third Reich. Despite the defensive firepower of the B-17 and B-24, the German fighters were too quick and their attacks too furious for the USAAF bomber crews and their handheld machine guns. Despite wild claims of the bomber’s gunners as to the number of Luftwaffe fighters shot down, the USAAF began losing crews at an alarming rate.
Loss rates for 1943 hovered around 8 to 10 percent of the bombing force for a given mission. While aircrews were required to fly 25 missions before rotating back home, it did not take long for the men to realize that, statistically, they would never make it to the end of their tours. The odds of survival, given the 8 to 10 percent loss rate, meant that an individual crewman would be lost, killed, or captured somewhere around his 10th to 12th combat mission. In the first ten months of operation, the 8th Air Force lost 188 bombers and approximately 1.900 crewmen. These numbers meant that 73 percent of combat fliers who arrived in Great Britain in mid to late 1942, failed to complete their assigned tours.
The prewar doctrine that promised precision was only tested over the clear and peaceful skies of the United States. However, the war torn-condition in Europe proved to be a very different and difficult environment. One USAAF officer quipped, there is a lot of difference between bombing an undefended target and running a barrage of six-inch shells while a swarm of pursuit fighters is working on you.
Another problem with the American doctrine was that it neglected the requirement for long-range fighter escorts for the bombing fleet. Believing that the bomber’s own defensive armament would be enough to fend off enemy attacks, the USAAF failed to develop a fighter plane that could escort the slow and lumbering bombers to and from the target areas. Once the USAAF realized the need for fighter escorts, developing that capability also proved to be problematic.
The primary USAAF fighter until January 1944 was the P-47 Thunderbolt. The plane was powered by a powerful 2800 Pratt and Whitney 2500 HP engine. Armed with eight .50 caliber machine guns, the P-47 was surprisingly nimble despite its short, stubby appearance. However, with its own internal fuel tank, the P-47 could only fly 230 miles – as far as Antwerp or Amsterdam – hardly sufficient range to protect the bomber formation during a mission deep into Germany. In August 1943, P-47s equipped with a 108-gallon belly fuel tank could provide fighter escort duties for the bombers as far as 375 miles. This meant that once the bombers flew as far as Bremen, the P-47s had to return to base and leave the bombers naked to the German defenses. As a result, the Luftwaffe fighters needed only to wait until the P-47s returned to their base to then begin their attacks on the helpless bombers. Even with the introduction of a 150-gallon belly tank, or the use of two 108-gallon tanks, the P-47s could still only escort the bombers some 475 miles, as far as cities such as Frankfurt or Hamburg. Technology was not the only limitation to the American problem. American doctrine at the time required the fighter escort to remain with the bomber formation in order to provide maximum defensive power.
The 1942 Army Air Force Manual 1-15 stipulated that Their fighter aircraft mission precludes their seeking to impose combat on the other forces except as necessary to carry out the defensive. As a result, the individual fighter pilot was hamstrung as to his ability to pursue and destroy enemy fighters as they slashed their way through the bomber formations. When Jimmy Doolittle replaced Gen Ira Eaker as the commander of the 8th Air Force in January 1944, he changed fighter applications and did away with the defensively minded tactics of his predecessor. To Doolittle,
After taking command, Doolittle walked into the office of the VIII Fighter Command and saw a sign that read, The First duty of the Eighth Air Force Fighters is to bring the bombers back alive. Doolittle asked Gen William Kepner, the new Commander of VIII Fighter Command, Bill, who dreamed that up?” Kepner replied, it was here when we arrived. To this Doolittle replied, Take that damn thing down and put up another saying, The first duty of the Eighth Air Force is to destroy the Germans Figthers. Doolittle continued We’ll still provide reasonable escort for the bombers, but the bulk of the fighters will go out hunting Jerries. Flush them out in the air and beat them up on the ground on the way home. Your first priority is to take the offensive.
Kepner and his fighter pilots were happy to comply. Toward this end Doolittle instituted a policy called ultimate pursuit and turned fighter doctrine on its head. He directed that the fighter escort turn into the aggressors and attack enemy fighters instead of just counterattacking. VIII Fighter Command pilots were now authorized to pursue and destroy the enemy. This change in doctrinal thought translated into different tactics for escorting fighters. In late January USAAF fighters began to spread out about 30 miles wide and with lead elements ahead of the bomber formations. Fighters provided area coverage for the heavy bomber formations and not the usual close coverage that restricted offensive action. Each fighter group designated one of its three squadrons to be the bouncing squadron that could be released to seek and destroy enemy aircraft not operating around the bomber formation.
If no enemy approached, a majority of the fighters were allowed to search the flanks of the bomber formations at all altitudes. If no enemy aircraft still presented themselves, the American fighters were free to go look for targets of opportunity. As a result, American fighters were now on the hunt. In addition to the offensive mindset, the USAAF also targeted the weakest link in the Luftwaffe, its ability to man its defensive fighter force with adequately skilled pilots. The manpower demands of the war placed a huge strain on the German population. In addition to having to mobilize its population, training was also required. This was especially problematic for the Luftwaffe as skilled airmen were in short supply as the war dragged on. Many of Germany’s best pilots remained in combat for years with several meeting their fate at the hands of the Allied air forces. Seasoned fighter pilots were becoming a scarce commodity and the Luftwaffe could ill afford to pull these experienced pilots off the front lines and turn them into flight instructors. As a result, newly minted Luftwaffe pilots lacked the skill and finesse required to take on the ever-increasing Allied threat.
As Allied airpower matured, so too did its ability to mobilize and train aircrews for combat. In his 1944 New Year’s message to his field commanders, USAAF Chief Hap Arnold tasked his airmen to destroy the enemy air forces wherever you find them, in the air, on the ground, and in the factories. In this vein, and as a result of the Allied superiority in both men and machines, mass and attrition were now becoming elements of the air war. In addition to the doctrinal change, the American air forces also received a new technological advantage. The P-51 Mustang single-engine fighter was arriving at operational units in late 1943. Carrying six .50 caliber machine guns and powered by a Merlin Packard V-1650 engine that boasted some 1700 HP, the plane had both firepower and performance. When the streamlined P-51 was fitted with long-range fuel tanks, the maneuverable fighter could travel some 850 miles and escort bombers as far as Vienna in Austria.
Prewar technological blinders precluded the development of a long-range fighter that would have the maneuverability to hold its own in aerial combat. Engineers thought that in order to have a long-range fighter, it would require two engines and a huge fuel tank that would subsequently make the plane a sitting duck to single-engine defensive fighters. The P-51 broke that paradigm and had both the range and maneuverability needed to best the German defensive fighters. By 1944, the American bombers had effective fighter escorts to almost any target over Germany. The speed, range, and maneuverability of the P-51 combined with the new tactics were a game changer in the air war.
As 1943 closed, the US air fleet in Europe was growing in size and capability. Following Arnold’s dictates, planners focused the growing American air armada directly on the German Luftwaffe and its supporting aviation industry. In order to establish air supremacy for the upcoming Overlord cross-channel invasion, the Allies needed to attrite the Luftwaffe and remove it as a threat to the amphibious assault and subsequent operations ashore. Operation Argument was the plan specifically designed to attack high-priority German aircraft industry targets such as final assembly plants, anti-friction bearings, and component part manufacturing plants. In addition, the plan was designed to force the Luftwaffe into a decisive fight and grind the German air force down through attrition.