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World War II, air war, Allied offensive counter-air campaign

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Beginning in early 1943, Allied air forces began a project to achieve air superiority over Europe through "Offensive Counter-Air" operations.


In April 1943, General Henry Arnold, commanding United States Army Air Forces, realized that neither the strategic bombing campaign against Germany, nor the cross-channel invasion strategy (Operation OVERLORD) that he knew was planned, could be achieved without air supremacy, achievable only through direct offensive counter-air (OCA). He replaced Ira Eaker with Carl Spaatz and Jimmy Doolittle, both of whom fully appreciated the priority of air supremacy. Spaatz and Doolittle ordered that all bombing mission be provided with fighter escorts all the way into Germany and back; they also initiated using B-17s as bait for Luftwaffe fighters to draw them into combat with the escorts.

Doolittle's slogan was "The First Duty of Eighth Air Force Fighters is to Destroy German Fighters." While this mission could be accomplished through deliberate attacks on fighters in the air, there was more to it than that.

  • Kill fighters in the air often with deceptive maneuvers (see Operation BOLO for a Vietnam-era variant), RAF "Rhubarb" missions from low altitude and bad weather, and intruder missions where fighters would mingle with German fighters, vulnerable in taking off and landing;
  • Destroy fighters on the ground and disrupt their airbases; and
  • Stop fuel production and interdict fuel distribution.

Attacking aircraft production

In one "Big Week" in February, 1944, American bombers protected by hundreds of fighters, flew 3,800 sorties dropping 10,000 tons of high explosives on the main German aircraft and ball-bearing factories. The US suffered 2,600 casualties, with a loss of 137 bombers and 21 fighters. Ball bearing production was unaffected, as Nazi munitions boss Albert Speer repaired the damage in a few weeks; he even managed to double aircraft production. Sensing the danger, Speer began dispersing production into numerous small, hidden factories.[1]

Paradoxically, the Luftwaffe would have to come out and attack or see its planes destroyed at the factory. Before getting at the bombers the Germans had to confront the more numerous, better armed and faster American fighters. The heavily armed BF-110 could kill a bomber, but it slowness made it easy prey for the speedy Thunderbolts and Mustangs armed with numerous fast-firing machine guns. The big, slow twin-engine Ju-88 was dangerous because it could stand further off and fire its rockets into the tight B-17 formations; but it too was hunted down. Germany's severe shortage of aviation fuel had sharply curtailed the training of new pilots, and most of the instructors had been sent into battle. Rookie pilots were rushed into combat after only 160 flying hours in training compared to 400 hours for the AAF, 360 for the RAF and 120 for the Japanese. They never had a chance against more numerous, better trained Americans flying superior planes.

Offensive counter-air patrols

Air superiority depended on putting the offensive counter-air force in positions where they fought on terms of maximum advantage. For example, British "Rhubarb" operations exploited bad weather, so they could approach German airfields, shoot down aircraft committed to landing or takeoff, and strafe ground facilities.

The Germans began losing one thousand planes a month on the western front (and another 400 on the eastern front). Realizing that the best way to defeat the Luftwaffe was not to stick close to the bombers but to aggressively seek out the enemy, Doolittle told his Mustangs to "go hunting for Jerries. Flush them out in the air and beat them up on the ground on the way home." On one occasion German air controllers identified a large force of approaching B-17s, and sent all the Luftwaffe's 750 fighters to attack. The bogeys were all Mustangs, simulating B-17 flight patterns. Discovered too late, they shot down 98 interceptors while losing 11.

The actual B-17s were elsewhere, and completed their mission without a loss. In February, 1944, the Luftwaffe lost 33% of its frontline fighters and 18% of its pilots; the next month it lost 56% of its fighters and 22% of the pilots. April was just as bad, 43% and 20%, and May was worst of all, at 50% and 25%. German factories continued to produce many new planes, and inexperienced pilots did report for duty; but their life expectancy was down to a couple of combat sorties. Increasingly the Luftwaffe went into hiding; with losses down to 1% per mission, the American bombers now got through.[2]

By April, 1944, Luftwaffe tactical air power had vanished, and Eisenhower decided he could go ahead with the invasion of Normandy. He guaranteed the invaders that "if you see fighting aircraft over you, they will be ours." Indeed, on D-Day Allied aircraft flew 14,000 sorties, while the Luftwaffe managed a mere 260, mostly in defense of its own battered airfields. In the two weeks after D-Day, the Luftwaffe lost 600 of the 800 planes it kept in France.

Cut the fuel supply

From April through August, 1944, both the AAF's and the RAF's strategic bombers were placed under Eisenhower's direction, where they were used tactically to support the invasion. Airmen protested vigorously against this subordination of the air war to the land campaign, but Eisenhower forced the issue and used the bombers to simultaneously strangle Germany's supply system, burn out its oil refineries, and destroy its warplanes. Mission accomplished, Ike returned the bombers in September.[3]


  1. Craven & Cate, 3:43-6
  2. Craven and Cate 3:664
  3. Murray, Luftwaffe 183, 207, 211; Craven & Cate, 3:47