Big Week: The Biggest Air Battle of World War II, by James Holland, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2018, $28
A title beginning with The Biggest Battle… is too often the sign of a lazy marketing department. But veteran military historian James Holland’s lively, anecdote-filled account of the Big Week (aka Operation Argument), a massive Feb. 19–25, 1944, bomber operation over Nazi Germany, emphasizes it did actually represent a major shift in Allied tactics. Though the Big Week itself occupies only the final 100 pages of Holland’s text, readers won’t complain, as they absorb his fireworks, frustration and the myriad controversies of 1943.
By 1943, weather permitting, Britain was sending out 500 to 1,000 bombers each night, devastating German cities but suffering heavy losses. By day increasing numbers of far more heavily armed but lightly loaded American B-17s and B-24s were damaging German industry but also suffering dire losses. At the same time the Luftwaffe—though overworked and hemorrhaging trained pilots, their fighters growing technically inferior—were increasingly aided by sophisticated radar and tactics and thus continued to shoot down upward of 10 percent of Allied sorties, an unsustainable rate. Planners worried that the invasion of occupied France, scheduled for spring 1944, would fail unless they could establish complete control of the air. Drastic changes were essential.
In January 1944 Eighth Air Force commander Ira Eaker was kicked upstairs to lead air forces in the Mediterranean theater, replaced by Maj. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, with Gen. Carl Spaatz in overall command. By then long-range P-51s were arriving in large numbers. Equally important was a change in tactics. Eaker had insisted fighters stick close to bombers, a practice many experts agreed advantaged the attacker. Bucking that opinion, the new command allowed fighters free rein to pursue the enemy. While fighter pilots of course loved that, bomber commanders complained they were being used as bait—and they had a point.
Everything came together during the Big Week, a maximum effort that dropped more tonnage of bombs on Germany than the Luftwaffe had dropped on England in the eight months of the Blitz. While Allied bomber losses remained heavy, the operation proved the nail in the coffin for the Luftwaffe. The Allied claim of 500 enemy fighters destroyed may have been an exaggeration, but the reality was bad enough. As Holland points out, the Big Week ensured the near absence of German aircraft on D-Day, although many historians (including the author himself in his new book, Normandy ’44) maintain the landings themselves were easier than anyone had predicted. This volume offers a superb narrative of the nail-biting bombing missions, heart-stopping dogfights and suffering on the ground in the service of a half-forgotten but important bombing campaign.