Big Week Missions
February 20– 25, 1944
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty during Big Week on February 20, 1944, three members of the Eighth Air Force were awarded the Medal of Honor. All three Medal of Honor recipient’s actions took place on February 20, 1944, the first day of Big Week.
Mission # 226-235
BACKGROUND–In November 1943, Gen. Eaker had planned Operation Argument, a massive mission designed to annihilate the Luftwaffe. The strategy was referred to as “bait-and-kill”: the bombers (the bait) would destroy the German aircraft industry through coordinated continuous raids by the U. S. Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces and RAF Bomber Command. The German fighters and pilots sent up to defend these crucial factories would then be massacred by our fighters. The mission was cancelled because of incessant bad weather, not enough bombers, few Mustangs, and – finally – Eaker’s transfer. Some have said the weather was an unexpected blessing because the mission would have been carried out without enough long-range escorts.
THE MISSION- Soon after his arrival in January 1944, General Doolittle and his boss Gen. Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, U.S. Air Force Commander in Europe, had revived Operation Argument – now renamed Big Week. It was to be a large and complex six-day campaign fought all over Western Europe. The end game was still to annihilate the Luftwaffe and win the war. However, a more immediate objective of the strategy was to achieve air superiority in preparation for the Normandy D-day invasion planned for June. As the dreadful weather stretched into February, they waited for an opening. The date was set when the head of Caltech’s meteorology department, brought to England to advise the Eighth, forecasted a three to four day break in the weather starting the morning of February 20. Despite bleak weather over Germany reported by our reconnaissance flights the night before, Spaatz sent out the message “let ‘em go”.
“Clouds, ice, and swirling snow greeted the fliers as they headed for their briefings” on the morning of February 20th. This was not an auspicious beginning, and most aircrews doubted they would take off that day. Out on the tarmacs awaiting them was the largest strike force the U. S. Air Force had ever mounted: over 1,000 heavy bombers and almost 900 fighters. That did not include the Fifteenth Air Force, which missed the first day’s raids when diverted to provide emergency support to Allied troops struggling on the beaches at Anzio, Italy. The high command, determined to press on, gambled that the visibility over Germany would be favorable and so fly they did. The targets for the first day of Big Week were the huge fighter production assembly and component plants in Brunswick-Leipzig, just south of Berlin. It was not uncommon for our bombers to take off, form up over southeast England in dangerously ugly weather, only to be recalled or diverted when the forecasts of clear conditions over their targets proved wrong. However similar February 20th seemed that morning, this time would be different. As our bomber stream entered Germany the skies cleared and stayed that way for the duration of the mission, just as the Caltech weatherman had predicted.
As the air battle began, German fighter pilots were startled to see American escorts, now equipped with drop tanks, so deep into Germany and astonished when they found themselves suddenly pursued by Thunderbolts and Mustangs. “Prior to Doolittle’s order to release the escorts, Luftwaffe pursuit planes would usually assemble at lower altitudes knowing they would be safe there with the American fighters hovering above them, glued to the bombers. On February 20th, the enemy pilots were surprised and slaughtered.” That evening as Spaatz and his planners braced themselves for news of heavy losses, continuous teletype reports indicated “no losses, or only one or two”. They couldn’t believe it. The cost of the first day’s raid had been 21 bombers and 4 fighters, – “214 men of the nearly 11,000 who flew the mission. German losses were 153 fighter planes”. But the Luftwaffe quickly adjusted tactics, and during the following days of Big Week, the Eighth lost 226 bombers – approximately 20% of Doolittle’s force. The Fifteenth experienced proportional casualties. Despite such high losses, Spaatz and Doolittle were convinced that the Eighth Air Force, now “battle-hardened” and “airplane rich”, was destroying Germany’s war economy and winning the battle of attrition in the skies. They were correct about the attrition: during Big Week, Germany lost more than 600 fighters, a third of its strength, and 18% of its fighter pilots. The severe loss of skilled pilots, in particular, dealt a serious blow to Luftwaffe morale and capability.
AFTERMATH- Bombing effectiveness was only marginally successful: American heavies dropped an impressive 10,000 tons of explosives on eighteen air frame and ball bearing production centers, and the RAF dropped even more. Despite this massive pounding the impact was only a two-month delay in German aircraft production. An unintended result of Big Week was a reorganization of German fighter plane production, which shifted responsibility from Hermann Goering’s incompetent Air Ministry to Albert Speer’s armaments ministry. Under Speer, aircraft industry dispersal was accelerated, hiding many new plants from Allied detection. However, this widely decentralized production system became highly vulnerable to the increasing destruction of rail and transportation systems by marauding American fighters. By late 1944 German assembly plants found it impossible to obtain the parts needed to produce finished aircraft.
“Overrated at the time by the Eighth Air Force leaders, and underrated ever since by historians, Big Week was neither a victory nor a loss for the Americans. It was merely the opening engagement of what would be the most prolonged and decisive air battle of World War II.”
Many examples of selfless bravery took place over Europe during Big Week – some witnessed and acknowledged, many not. All were typical of the countless sacrifices made by men of the Eighth Air Force throughout WWII. Three of the seventeen Medals of Honor awarded to Mighty Eighth airmen were for acts of valor that took place on the first day of Big Week, February 20th.
Two were awarded posthumously, to S. Sgt. Archibald Mathies, and Lt. Walter E. Truemper; the other recipient was 1st Lt. William R. Lawley, Jr. The remarkable stories of all seventeen honorees are presented in our museum’s Hall of Valor.
All three Medal of Honor recipient’s actions took place on February 20, 1944, the first day of Big Week.
Article by Gary Silver, Museum Volunteer