Subtitled “The Biggest Air Battle of World War II” this book tells the story of the combined bomber campaign in the last week of February 1944. That means Eighth Air
Force, Fifteenth Air Force and Bomber Command. That was a week with several thousand bombers and almost as many fighters over Germany every day.
Of course the story starts much earlier. 2/3s of the book are about set up. Everything from pre-war theory to aircraft and weapons development.The writer does an excellent job of introducing figures from the important ones, to the ordinary people caught up in the massive world war. And really that proves to be the book’s greatest strength. There are a number factual things I could take issue with, like the number of machine guns on an early Mustang or the impact of Hitler’s order to make the Me262 a bomber.
But in a big picture sense this book really excels. More than anything that means narrative history. If you’re looking for a good explanation of the development of the combined bombing offensive and the events leading up to, and including, the epic week that shattered the Luftwaffe; this book is hard to beat. The writer employees colorful language like a good story teller. He shows great skill in setting up dramatic moments and providing context for why those moments were dramatic and important.
My favorite example of that may the moment when Jimmy Doolittle, just recently given command of the Eighth Air Force, went to meet with Bill Kepner, the commanding general of his fighters. The story goes, Doolittle saw a sign up in the office that said “the first job of the Eighth Air Force fighter is to bring the Eighth Air Force bombers back alive”. Doolittle said “take that sign down, and put up a new one; the first duty of Eighth Air Force fighters is to destroy German fighters”. Previously fighters had been tied closely to the bombers, but essentially this set them loose to hunt. In a subtle way (that is, a way that would never be admitted publicly), at least for a period, that meant thousands of expensive 10-man bombers had become bait for drawing up the Luftwaffe to its destruction. Doolittle was called a murderer by his own men as a result. But the results proved the rightness of the decision.
By combining vivid story-telling with a strong human element this book is one of the most accessible accounts I’ve read of this aspect of the war. There is no shortage of published material dealing with the bombing campaign, several of which I would recommend highly. But “Big Week” is excellent as an introduction, or even for more jaded readers looking for a reminder of why this tuff is always so fascinating.