The Biggest Air Battle of World War IIby James Holland
From acclaimed military historian James Holland, the vivid and dramatic story of the Allied air campaign that paved the way for D-Day
During the third week of February 1944, the combined Allied air forces based in Britain and Italy launched their first round-the-clock bomber offensive against Germany. Their goal: to smash the main factories and production centers of the Luftwaffe while also drawing German planes into an aerial battle of attrition to neutralize the Luftwaffe as a fighting force prior to the cross-channel invasion, planned for a few months later. Officially called Operation ARGUMENT, this aerial offensive quickly became known as “Big Week,” and it was one of the turning-point engagements of World War II.
In Big Week, acclaimed World War II historian James Holland chronicles the massive air battle through the experiences of those who lived and died during it. Prior to Big Week, the air forces on both sides were in crisis. Allied raids into Germany were being decimated, but German resources—fuel and pilots—were strained to the breaking point. Ultimately new Allied aircraft—especially the American long-range P-51 Mustang—and superior tactics won out during Big Week. Through interviews, oral histories, diaries, and official records, Holland follows the fortunes of pilots, crew, and civilians on both sides, taking readers from command headquarters to fighter cockpits to anti-aircraft positions and civilian chaos on the ground, vividly recreating the campaign as it was conceived and unfolded. In the end, the six days of intense air battles largely cleared the skies of enemy aircraft when the invasion took place on June 6, 1944—D-Day.
Big Week is both an original contribution to WWII literature and a brilliant piece of narrative history, recapturing a largely forgotten campaign that was one of the most critically important periods of the entire war.
An Amazon Best Book of the Year
“With the aid of diaries, memoirs and his own interviews, Mr. Holland gives a detailed, crewman’s-eye view of combat from inside the British, American and German aircraft during the months leading up to Big Week and during the week itself. For those hoping for war-movie stuff, rest assured that the enemy fighters do come in at 6 o’clock, the guns do hammer, the sun does glint and the ‘chutes do blossom in the sky. Still it’s a serious and important story as well as a dramatic one, and Mr. Holland tells it with verve and authority.”—David A. Price, Wall Street Journal
“Holland excels at writing engaging, accessible books, weaving the latest scholarship in with personal accounts gleaned from diaries, archives, and interviews . . . Big Week is a story about people [and] Holland also brings less celebrated figures to the fore . . . [The book’s] major accomplishment is to firmly place Big Week and the events surrounding it within the larger historical narrative of the Allied campaign in Western Europe. It was, Holland argues, the turning point of not just the air battle, but of the entire war.”—Richard R. Muller, World War II Magazine
“Highly detailed . . . The interplay of personal stories with the broader strategic picture makes this book especially illuminating . . . A fascinating must-read for World War II aficionados.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“This objective work, comprised of narratives often based on personal interviews with the author, provides views from both sides, including firsthand accounts of actions by fighter pilots and bomber crews. A solid popular history on an important event. Recommended for readers interested in World War II’s air war, particularly in Europe.”—Library Journal
A Military History Book Club Main Selection
An Amazon Best Book of the Month (History)
“Detailed, well-researched, and comprehensive . . . Holland makes a strong case . . . [He] shifts smoothly between high-level strategy and tactical battlefield events, producing a good refresher to the large strategic picture for those who are deeply read in WWII history and an excellent introduction to the war in Western Europe for the general reader.”—Publishers Weekly
“An illuminating read from a skilled historian . . . Holland delivers a detailed, opinionated account of fighting in North Africa, the Atlantic submarine campaign, and the air war while acknowledging (and often describing) the far larger war in Russia . . . Expert, anecdote-filled, thoroughly entertaining.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Holland puts the case for Allied technological and military skills as a vital factor in turning the war’s tide, and makes us eager for the third and final part of what now ranks as a towering work of historical research and writing.”—BBC History Magazine
“Holland’s two greatest qualities, his engaging writing style and his ability to weave multiple threads into a convincing whole, are on display once more in this accessible and authoritative history . . . Holland, a successful fiction author as well, keeps his reader gripped with an engrossing tale, which both educates and entertains. In Holland’s own words this is ‘a truly epic and astonishing story’ and the same could be said for his book.”—History of War (UK)
“Holland shoots down the myth of German invincibility . . . All the great turning points of 1941–43 are here. A triumph”—Sunday Express (UK)
“Holland brings a fresh eye to the ebb and flow of the conflict . . . [A] majestic saga”—Literary Review (UK)
“This second volume easily reaches the benchmark set by its predecessor . . . The style is crisp, engaging, absorbing, it really does have the feel of a fresh and revisionist perspective on the momentous events that occurred between 1941 and 1943.”—Soldier (UK)
A Military History Book Club Main Selection
“This is narrative history as intimate, intricate tapestry . . . Mr. Holland’s success is built in part on an engaging writing style and in part on a genuinely fresh approach to events that have been so often—and apparently definitively—recounted. This is at heart an operational narrative, but with a difference: Mr. Holland takes the time and space to enhance his recounting of troop and ship movements and clashes of arms with the stuff of wider humanity. He deftly interweaves the experiences of refugees, of civilians, of the warriors’ loved ones and of the political elites, while never distracting us with meaningless sentimentality or extraneous personal detail. This is harder to do than it looks. Mr. Holland’s achievement is exceptional . . . [An] epic narrative.”—Wall Street Journal
“Impeccably researched and superbly written . . . [Holland] skewers a number of myths about the early years of the Second World War . . . Holland’s fascinating saga offers a mixture of captivating new research and well-considered revisionism. The next two volumes should be unmissable.”—Guardian
“Fascinating.”—Daily Mail (UK)
“James Holland is the best of the new generation of World War II historians. His epic new venture convincingly challenges many received ideas about the war and draws some exciting new conclusions.”—Sebastian Faulks
“With this magnificent, hugely readable debut, James Holland’s The War in the West is set fair to become one of the truly great multivolume histories of the Second World War.”—Andrew Roberts, New York Times-bestselling author of The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War and Napoleon: A Life
“This brilliant, lucid and intimate history is a game-changer, the Second World War will never seem the same again.”—Professor David Edgerton, Hans Rausing Professor of the History of Science and Technology, King’s College London
“James Holland has produced a gripping multi-layered study of the War in West. It weaves together accounts from all levels of those caught up in the opening stages of the war and provides an accessible and captivating narrative. More importantly still it offers a challenging reappraisal that forces us to rethink our attitudes to the conduct of the most destructive and important war in history. Essential reading.”—John Buckley, Professor of War Studies, Wolverhampton University and author of Monty’s Men: The British Army and the Liberation of Europe
“In The Rise of Germany, James Holland weds his typically deft writing to years of research and thought about the early years of World War II. He seeks—and finds—that elusive middle ground between the high politics of Hitler, Churchill, and Roosevelt and the personal experience of the soldier in the field. Holland writes on the operational level as well as any historian working today. I am already making room on my shelf for volumes two and three. I would read anything Holland writes.”—Robert M. Citino, author of The German Way of War and The Wehrmacht Retreats
“A hugely engaging, scholarly, and ambitious book that strips away the myths surrounding the Second World War and—uniquely—tells the human stories, not just the political and military history. A must-read for anyone with an interest in this turbulent and transformative period.”—Tracy Borman, author of Thomas Cromwell
“Holland’s achievement here is presenting multiple perspectives based on extensive research in such a page-turner. This is as much a gripping drama played out on a huge stage with distinctive characters and rapidly unfolding action as it is a book on one of the most significant periods in all of world history.”—Thomas Clavin, co-author of The Heart of Everything That Is
“Holland nimbly weaves the complex military, diplomatic, political, economic, and social patterns that marked the conflict on a global scale . . . [He] keeps the reader engaged by showing the major events through the eyes of the participants—at the strategic level with politicians and generals, and at the tactical level with common soldiers and civilians . . . A worthy history that both general readers and WWII enthusiasts can enjoy.”—Publishers Weekly
“Holland skillfully integrates the broad political, diplomatic, economic, and military narrative with stories of individuals, civilians, and soldiers from all the belligerents.”—Library Journal
“A lively study.”—Kirkus Reviews
February 19, 1944
Some 170 miles away to the south at US Strategic Air Force Headquarters at Bushey Park, General Toohey Spaatz was taking direct control of Operation ARGUMENT. While he still believed air power alone could bring about the defeat of Germany, he had accepted that OVERLORD was going to happen and that from April, his strategic air forces—and those of the RAF—would come under the direct authority of Eisenhower as Supreme Allied Commander.
Yet for OVERLORD to be successful, that all-important criteria— air superiority over much of France and northern Europe— remained. Since the start of the year, Eighth Air Force had been chipping away at the Luftwaffe. Doolittle’s and Kepner’s new fighter tactics were bearing fruit and with more long-range Mustangs on their way, the time was right for a much more concentrated and sustained assault on the Luftwaffe. No longer was it a matter of bombers heading to a target, dropping bombs and heading back. It was also now a matter of using the bomber formations as bait to entice the German fighters into combat with their own increasingly large fighter force. Strategic air power had always been about bombers. Now, six months a er the first deep-penetration bombing raids, that belief had been cast aside, because perhaps even more important than the bombers were the fighters. Fighters piloted by men of superior skill and training. Fighters that had greater endurance too, that could maraud deep into Germany, hammering the beleaguered enemy in the air and on the ground.