You ever get a little distracted working on other projects (i.e., 3 anthologies and a full novel) and neglect an earlier project? Until I looked at the dates, there was no way I thought it’d been a over a year since I last wrote on air combat (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V are here in case you want to catch up), but here we are:
Badasses, Part I: The Top Shelf
When last we left Adolf Galland, he had problems. Namely, due to the Allies’ ability to turn farmboys into pilots in less than 90 days and advances in technology, the roof was starting to cave in on Fortress Europa. Despite these issues, in January 1944 Galland still had some glimmers of hope. If the Jagdwaffe could at least keep the Allies to air parity, the Wehrmacht as a whole might be able to keep the Allies on their side of the Channel. In turn, if the Allies did not launch a Second Front, there was a slight chance the Russians might reconsider that whole “Unconditional Surrender” thing. After all, Stalin was becoming increasingly vocal about “Allies are doing lots of flying, Red Army is doing lots of dying…”. Although of course it seems like crazy talk now, at the time the Germans figured the odds were decent the dominoes could fall their way provided they didn’t lose control of the air.
As we know, things didn’t go that way. In January 1944, the Luftwaffe, with between 800-1000 fighters available, could contest airspace over the Greater Reich with some degree of success. By June 1944, Allied air superiority was so total that it bordered on air supremacy. The Jagdwaffe, once the terror of 8th Air Force bomber crews, was so depleted by 6 June 1944 that they could muster less than 100 sorties to contest allied aircraft over Normandy. Indeed, so steep were the Jagdwaffe‘s losses, it simultaneously lost its ability to provide meaningful air cover on the Eastern Front as well.
How did this happen? The common narrative is that the Allied air forces basically jumped on the Luftwaffe‘s shoulders sortie-wise until the latter’s knees buckled. There is some merit to that, as alluded to in the last two entries of this series. As students of air warfare can tell you, however, numbers don’t tell all. Nor can it be solely chalked up to technology, despite the advantages brought by the P-51 and modifications to the P-47 / P-38. Instead, both numerical advantages and technology had to be harnessed by people, i.e., the commanders, squadrons leaders, and individual pilots of the 8th Air Force. It was these men, pretty much badasses at every level, who conducted themselves with such ferocity they snapped the Jagdwaffe‘s neck in a little over half a year.
A Change At the Top
It’s a staple of Hollywood that every organization has a “fixer,” i.e., the guy you call in when there’s a big mess that needs cleaned up. It wouldn’t be too much hyperbole to say, looking at Spaatz’s World War II biography, that he was basically General Hap Arnold’s go to guy. Need to plan a massive worldwide expansion because Germany just skull dragged France and the Japanese are getting restless? “Carl will do it.” Problems getting Air Forces organized in the Med? “Better call Carl.” Ira Eaker kinda crapped the bed and the 8th Air Force is at its morale nadir? Well, I imagine that kinda went down like this:
“Carl, could you…”
“Should’ve left me in command of it in the first place. I want a damn promotion.”
“Okay, fine, done, you’ll be the head of the United States Strategic Air Forces.”
“I’m hearing a plural but only seeing one number here…”
“Yeah, give us a little bit of time to stand it up, okay?”
“I hear Ira would be a really good commander in the Mediterranean, and Ike wants that Brit guy to plan his air campaign. They can swap places.”
*long sigh* “Who do you want to command the 8th, Carl?”
*indistinct chatter in the background* “Well, I talked with the staff, and they said Jimmy Doolittle’s not busy these days. It’ll make Ike happy too.”
Sure the above is almost wholly apocryphal, but it pretty much conveys a lot of the switcharoo that happened in January 1944. General Eisenhower didn’t have a problem with Spaatz, but he did want “his gang” in key positions. In addition, Ike had learned some things in the Med and from observing his British counterparts. Eaker was an airpower zealot (as evidenced by the 8th Air Force impaling itself on German defenses), and Eisenhower didn’t feel like replicating his British counterparts interactions with Bomber Harris. In addition, Doolittle understood that everyone’s primary objective was to the opening of a Second Front by June 1944. In just about everyone’s mind but Eaker’s, the airpower folks had had their opportunity to prove they could knock Germany out of the war without a ground offensive in France. Now it was time to set the table for said offensive, and fast. Spaatz, as perhaps the best operational planner in the Air Force, could figure out where to hit the Germans to get the Jadgwaffe to come up and play.
Executing that plan would fall to a man who, if the Axis powers had put out a collective most wanted list, probably would have easily cracked the Top Five. “I raided Tokyo so hard the Japanese Navy went to Midway…” was Jimmy Doolittle’s greatest hit, of course. But the man had also overseen a lot of carnage in the Mediterranean before getting tapped to take over the 8th. During that campaign, Doolittle learned a lot about the tactical and operational employment of fighter aircraft. This knowledge, in turn, led to one of Major General Doolittle’s first acts upon taking over the 8th Air Force. Entering the headquarters, Doolittle’s gaze allegedly fell upon a sign reminding VIII Fighter Command’s pilots that their first job was to protect the bombers. After barely a moment’s reflection, Doolittle immediately ordered “Take down that damn sign.”
Subsequent days showed that Doolittle was not just undertaking interior design for fun. First he conducted a sit down with his fighter pilots, especially Hubert Zemke (56th), Don Blakeslee (4th), and other experienced group commanders. Second, Doolittle then directed the 8th Air Force’s staff, especially fighter commander Major General Ira Kepner, to actually listen to the suggestions (e.g., the “Zemke fan” which I’ll discuss next installment) . Finally, Doolittle gave overarching guidance that the fighters, once escort handover would be complete, would get “down on the deck” on the way home. In effect, this was the equivalent of telling a bunch of hyper aggressive teenagers with hot rods and machine guns to not only go looking for trouble, but come back with evidence they’d found it.
After months of being shackled under Eaker, the 8th Air Force’s fighter pilots were initially reticent to fully embrace these changes. Bad weather in much of January also hindered these plans. As January drifted into February, however, these changes at the top had set up the USAAF and Jagdwaffe‘s fighter pilots for a bit of an “argument.” A whole “Big Week,” one might say. What this meant at the operational and tactical level, however, will have to wait for Part VII.
Featured image is Itfonhom’s “Shoo Shoo Baby.” You can find more of his digital art on his website or his Devianart page. If you’re looking for a digital artist, I highly recommend him. He’s done 3 pieces for me (more discussed here) and I’ve been happy with them all.
Sourcing is from the numerous books found in my historiographical paper.