Badasses, Part II: The Shooters
As discussed in the last segment, in February 1944 General Carl Spaatz and his subordinate, Major General Jimmy Doolittle, decided it was time to take the fight to the Luftwaffe. However, deciding to go kick a whole hostile air force’s rear end was one thing. Getting the right folks to do it, on the other hand? Totally different story. Although it’s kind of taken for granted almost 80 years after the fact, in February 1944 the 8th Fighter Command hadn’t exactly been striking fear in the Jagdwaffe. Oh sure, if someone was particularly unlucky and chased B-17s too far west, it was all too easy to get sideways with a P-47 or even a P-38. But in general, German fighter pilots could almost set a watch by when the American escorts, tied to the bombers, were going to have to turn around and go home.
This persisted into the first major operation of 1944, Operation Argument (a.k.a., “Big Week”) from 20-25 February 1944. In a hurry to start blasting German fighters out of the sky, Doolittle directed the 8th Air Force to begin going after fighter factories, a target the Germans had to defend. In a rare instance of cooperation, Bomber Command was given a direct order to support these operations with night time raids in the same vicinity, with commensurate intruder operations against German airfields. Operationally, this meant that German aircrews were truly subjected to regional, around the clock targeting. Tactically, while not giving his pilots true free reign, Doolittle did relent in allowing the general pursuit of any Germans found near the bomber stream. Where previously American fighters were chastised for abandoning the Big Friends to go collect scalps, it was now expected that fleeing German fighters would be hunted and killed.
Results were mixed. On one hand, Big Week was the coming out party for a new, aggressive 8th Air Force. Doolittle’s forces, in conjunction with Eaker’s 15th Air Force’s supporting attacks, served notice that the brief holiday of 1943 was over. The American fighters began to attrit their opposite numbers, with the heaviest blows falling on German twin-engined aircraft often forced to pull double duty. Many Nachtjager who had feasted upon Lancasters and Stirlings suddenly found that hunting Fortresses and Liberators was a wholly different game. A large number of these Experten did not survive the salutary lesson.
Even in the single-engine Gruppen, the killing and wounding of flight and squadron leaders began to inhibit attempts at pilot management. Jagdwaffe commanders were forced to give key leaders less time to recover from wounds, combat fatigue, or impart combat lessons to their new pilots. In the confusing mess of aerial combat, these fresh faces who were just barely qualified for basic flight found themselves alone. With the Mustangs engaging at increasingly longer ranges, the 8th Fighter Command (and increasingly 15th Air Force fighters) often happened upon these neophytes with predictable results.
Despite this, the Jagdwaffe still inflicted great hurt upon the 8th and 15th Air Force. Bomber losses to fighters, while lower than 1943, were still at a dangerous level. Even as they feasted on neophytes, a combination of fuel starvation and crafty German tactics meant the better pilots often got away. Although the more experienced flight and squadron leaders still increased their kill totals, it was clear that the exchange rate was not going as well as Doolittle had hoped. Group commanders became convinced that something had to change, or there was little chance that German airpower would be broken before June 1944.
Enter The Fan
Doolittle consulted his group commanders at the end of Big Week and the subsequent March 1944 raids deep into Germany. Historians give most of the credit for the ensuing refinement of tactics to Colonel Hubert Zemke, commander of the 56th Fighter Group. Much like Adolf Galland during the Battle of Britain, Zemke chafed at being tied to the lumbering B-17s and B-24s as they penetrated hostile airspace since mid-1943. To match the bombers’ speed, Allied fighters had to engage in wasteful weaving at altitude that ate their fuel. This was especially dangerous for the lumbering P-47s, as it put them at a speed disadvantage if the Germans decided to bounce the escorts.
Instead of close escort, Zemke proposed having fighter groups provide escort to bombers that resembled more of a “zone offense.” American fighters would take off and make their best economic speed to a prominent landmark along the bombers’ route. From there, individual squadrons would disperse into their component four-plane flights, then “fan out” in a half circle oriented in the direction of travel. The orders from this point were then simple: Shoot whatever the hell they found with an iron cross on it.
Needless to say, bomber pilots felt a great deal of consternation about this tactical change given their losses through April 1944. First, in the bad European weather, German fighters could simply slip by the advancing P-47s and P-51s. At that point, the bomber pilots argued, it would be like July-October 1943 all over again. Zemke, supported by aggressive fighter pilots like Don Blakeslee, David Schilling, and Francis Gabreski, countered that the German formations were too large to miss. With a dwindling number of experts having to shepherd their more inexperienced comrades to the intercept point in large attack wings, the Jagdwaffe were far more likely to be spotted than evade American flights. Moreover, said American groups would already be at high speed and likely have an altitude advantage over the still climbing German interceptors.
According to contemporary reports, Zemke was allegedly so passionate during his arguments that he bordered on insubordination. Major General Ira Kepner, as head of the 8th Fighter Command, felt that the plan was incredibly risky. Lieutenant General Doolittle, with a couple of months of only moderate improvement, was willing to try something new. In late April 1944, he directed that his two most experienced fighter groups, the 4th and 56th, give Zemke’s tactic a try. Doolittle also directed that, in the absence of enemy fighters at altitude, the escorting fighters descend to low level and start shooting up German airfields.
The 8th Air Force’s “shooters” proceeded to visit one of the most brutal beatdowns in military history upon the Jagdwaffe . Zemke’s tactics combined with Doolittle’s directive had the effect of turning loose a couple hundred homicidal 19 and 20-year-olds upon the German countryside. These men, in turn, were led by by aggressive, determined leaders who’d had enough of the German Experten‘s crap during 1943. Roving 12 and 14 bands of flying murderhobos, with the least experienced amongst them having over 200 hours, hunted their counterparts everywhere. Whether at altitude, returning home at low-level, in their own landing patterns, or having just hopped out of their aircraft, German flight crews found themselves on the wrong end of 6-8 machine guns with alarming frequency. As can be seen from those videos, the resultant experiences were often brutal, violent, and fatal for young men barely qualified in their aircraft.
This is not to say the Allied Fighters had it all their own way. Part of the problem with going hunting by flight was sometimes the Jagdwaffe showed up with an entire squadron. Or an American ace like Zemke ran into one of the true Experten like Gunther Rall, who then proceeded to shoot down almost their entire flight.
However, Rall’s arc is also instructive to the effects of numbers: Immediately after shooting up Zemke’s flight, Rall’s own squadron was bounced by at least 12 and possibly as many as 24 P-47s coming to Zemke’s aid. In the ensuing combat, Rall had his thumb shot off, the other 3 members of his flight were KIA, and the German ace was knocked out of the war until 1945.
Unlike Rall, Zemke was able to apply this operational lesson. As Operation Overlord loomed, the 8th Fighter Command changed their tactics to hunting by squadron, not flight. With even the most inexperienced American pilot two to three times more qualified than all but the most battle hardened German, this had predictable results. When the numbers were equal, many Jagdwaffe began to die. German attrition, already horrendous, became unsustainable in less than a month. By June 6th, the Jagdwaffe was utterly incapable of challenging Allied air superiority for the Luftwaffe‘s bombers to even have a chance at stopping the invasion fleet. Irrespective of arguments regarding bombing accuracy or effectiveness, the Strategic Bombing Campaign had achieved one of its key goals: air supremacy that allowed the establishing of the Western Front. As American, British, Canadian, and other Allied forces streamed ashore, the German Air Force prepared itself for a desperate attempt to challenge tactical air superiority in support of its ground forces.
Featured image is Itfonhom’s “Big Week.” You can find more of his digital art on his website or his Devianart page. As I’ve said before, if you’re looking for a digital artist, I highly recommend him. He’s done 3 pieces for me (more discussed here and here) and I’ve been happy with them all.
Sourcing is from the numerous books found in my historiographical paper.