PREPARING FOR “BIG WEEK”

As far back as November 1943 the Americans had planned a massive new attack on the German aircraft industry by both the Eighth and Fifteenth air forces. The RAF agreed to join by launching area attacks on the cities in which the aircraft plants were located. The plan was expected to be costly and needed a week of clear weather over Germany, as well as reasonable weather over England and Italy. But the weather over Germany remained miserable for almost all of the first seven weeks of 1944. Until late February the Eighth was able to carry out just two visual missions over Germany, and one of these was partly abortive and the other a lucky accident. The Fifteenth Air Force was tied down, hitting nearby targets in support of the Anzio beachhead, which was in grave danger from a German counteroffensive.

The Eighth continued radar bombing. Some radar missions were effective; the IG Farben chemical plant at Ludwigshafen was damaged twice. And the fighter escort did better. In November and December, the P-51s and P-38s of the target-area escort had often been hard pressed to defend their charges and sometimes suffered lopsided losses themselves to the Germans. In early 1944 the bombers still suffered dreadfully sometimes, but even small forces of American fighters usually inflicted disproportionate losses on the attackers.

On January 11 conditions in Germany seemed promising for visual attack, and the Eighth put up 663 bombers. While the 1st Bombardment Division’s B-17s would bomb the Oschersleben Focke Wulf plant and a Junkers plant at Halberstadt, the other two divisions would hit aircraft components and assembly plants that were building the Me-110s around Brunswick. If weather hid the targets, Brunswick itself would be bombed. With long-range fighters still few, only the 1st Division would be escorted all the way to the target. The Germans were expected to concentrate against it. Its target was farthest in, and it might seem to be going to Berlin. The other divisions would have to fend for themselves as they neared Brunswick.

The meteorologists had been overoptimistic; as the bombers flew into central Germany the weather deteriorated. The 2nd and 3rd Divisions were recalled, but the 1st was so close to its target that it was allowed to proceed. The commander of the 3rd Division’s leading wing decided he too might as well go ahead, and he ignored the recall signal. Weather had interfered with the rendezvous of the escort (this was before the change in policy), and only one P-38 squadron and the 354th Fighter Group accompanied the 1st Division. The Germans reacted violently, and the biggest air battle since Schweinfurt resulted. The P-51s had rendezvoused late and were short of gas, and most left shortly after the bombers reached Oschersleben and Halberstadt. The Germans inflicted heavy losses on the bombers, although failing to disrupt a very accurate attack. In all, 60 bombers went down for 39 German fighters, even though the fighter-versus-fighter clashes were thoroughly in the Americans’ favor.

One of the Mustang pilots on this mission was Major James H. Howard. He was already an ace and a highly experienced fighter pilot, having shot down six Japanese aircraft while flying P-40s with the American Volunteer Group in Burma. Now, high over Germany, Howard found himself alone, the only Mustang accompanying a group of Fortresses which was about to be attacked by over thirty Messerschmitt 110s.

Howard went straight for the enemy fighters in a head-on attack, destroying one Bf 110 immediately. Disconcerted, the rest broke in all directions as the Mustang sped through them. The Germans formed up for a second attempt and once again Howard broke them up, sending another fighter down in flames. It was only the beginning. Three more times the enemy attacked, and three more times Howard fought them off single-handed. During the two final attacks, only one of the Mustang’s guns was working, but Howard managed to shoot down a third enemy fighter and damage at least three more. At last, probably short of fuel or ammunition, the Germans broke off the action and dived away.

For his exploit, Major Howard later received the Medal of Honor. He was the only British-based fighter pilot to win the highest US decoration for valor during the Second World War. He later increased his score to twelve. He remained in the USAF after the war, reaching the rank of Brigadier-General. He then became a successful businessman, eventually retiring to Florida.

The Oschersleben mission, with its heavy losses, was hardly an Allied success, but on top of the Battle of Bremen it should have warned the Nazis that they would be in big trouble when the escorts became more numerous, and that the writing was on the wall for the twin-engine fighters. If anything, they were even more vulnerable to single-engine fighters than the B-17s.

Then the weather closed in. For two weeks the Americans could not strike Germany at all; then they resumed radar bombing. When the weather proved worse than expected, an attempted visual mission to Brunswick on January 30 had to fall back on H2X. Two groups passing Hannover saw a hole in the clouds and sensibly seized a chance to bomb the rubber plant there. This and the Oschersleben mission were the only visual attacks on German targets between October 14, 1943, and February 20, 1944.

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