Authors: Bill Yenne
Tags: #eBook, #WWII, #Aviation, #ETO, #RAF, #USAAF, #8th Air Force, #15th Air Force
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SIX DAYS THAT CHANGED THE COURSE OF WORLD WAR II
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The week of 20–26 February, 1944, may well be classed by future historians as marking a decisive battle of history, one as decisive and of greater importance than Gettysburg.
—General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold,
Commanding General of the USAAF,
in his report to the Secretary of War, February 27, 1945
The author would like to thank Colonel J. A. (Bill) Saavedra, USAF (Ret.) of the Office of Air Force History in Washington, DC, and Thomas P. Lauria of the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell AFB, both of whom provided an immense volume of research material. It is through them that I had access to information about the life of Archie Mathies, an inspiration to us all, and access to the memoirs of Richard D’Oyly Hughes, the most influential unsung hero in the story of Big Week and the events that led to it. Finally, the author wishes to thank Tom Colgan of Berkley Caliber, who made this book possible.
On a blustery June day in 1944, Larry Kuter took an airplane ride. Far beneath him, one of the greatest military enterprises in world history, certainly one of the biggest in World War II, was unfolding. Down below, across a fifty-mile swath of the shores of France’s ancient province of Normandy, 156,000 Allied soldiers were going ashore to begin the great campaign to drive the German armies out of the nations of Western Europe they had occupied for the previous four years.
The Allied soldiers, including 57,500 Americans, came ashore in places with code names alien to those who actually lived in Normandy—especially Normandy’s newest residents, the Germans manning the artillery and the reinforced concrete fortresses. They came ashore on beaches named Sword, Gold, Juno, and Utah. At a fifth beach called Omaha, the Americans took it especially hard, chopped to pieces by heavy machine gun fire and shelling.
Allied planners aboard some of the five thousand ships that stood offshore in the English Channel, or in the various headquarters in Britain, were fixated on this great battle unfolding in surf and sand and rocky cliff.
However, Larry Kuter’s eyes were on the
. As the Flying Fortress in which he was a passenger flew almost listlessly through the freezing air,
his binoculars were trained not on the vast drama unfolding two thousand feet below, but on the eastern fringes of the great blue dome of sky.
He saw a cluster of airplanes at his own altitude, marked with the same white star as the B-17 in which he flew. He saw another cluster of airplanes beneath him, and their wings were marked with the roundels of Britain’s Royal Air Force.
The bomber diverted from overflying the channel and drifted inland over France, then back over the channel, crisscrossing the invasion beaches—Sword, Gold, Juno, Utah, and Omaha. Down there, Allied soldiers were being hammered relentlessly by a well-armed enemy, but up where Kuter scanned the skies, things were downright peaceful.
The sky was full of airplanes that day, but they were all friendly. It was not supposed to have been that way. Once, a very short time before, Germany’s Luftwaffe had been the most powerful and effective air force in the world. Indeed, only a few months ago, Flying Fortress crews who ventured into the skies over Europe did so at considerable peril, knowing that the Luftwaffe maintained total air superiority in the skies across the continent.
Six months earlier, any Allied aircraft that ventured into continental airspace was liable to be pounced upon by a gaggle of angry Messerschmitts hurling 20mm explosive shells at the rate of seven hundred rounds per minute. Indeed, many Flying Fortresses like the one in which Kuter now rode had been turned into crumpled, falling piles of wreckage by those shells—and in these skies. Dozens of times, the floors of these Flying Fortresses, like the floor beneath Kuter’s feet, had been covered with pools of American blood because of the Luftwaffe.
Four years earlier, when Adolf Hitler’s legions had swept across Europe, defeating nations as powerful as France in a matter of weeks, they had done so beneath an umbrella of airpower that attacked and pounded Germany’s enemies into submission. Nothing moved on the ground but that it was seen from above and strafed by a Messerschmitt or bombed by a Stuka.