Let’s be clear: if the German high command had any respect for American generals at the outset of World War II, they would never have declared war in the first place. But as we all know, respect is earned and not issued, so it took a little time for the United States to earn respect on the battlefield.
History may remember the most audacious personalities and events, while some figures end up quietly stealing the spotlight through bravery and determination. Jimmy Doolittle did both.
That’s right, it’s good ol’ Jimmy “Payback’s a Bitch” Doolittle.
Before the many, many armchair historians start clacking away at their keyboards try to remind me that Gen. George S. Patton existed and that Nazi High Command feared him the most, let me remind readers that fear and respect are not the same thing and that Patton’s history is often apocryphal. Even Patton’s personal biographer wrote he was not a “hero even to professional German officers who respected him as the adversary they most feared in battle.” For most of World War II, the German general staff barely noticed Patton at all.
This isn’t to imply that Patton didn’t deserve his accolades and reputation or that he didn’t do as history says he did. Patton’s shift from entrenched positions in North Africa to a more mobile kind of warfare, one designed to destroy the enemy’s forces rather than hold land, helped turn the tide for the Allies in World War II. But to the Germans, Patton was one threat among many. By 1944, Patton didn’t even warrant a one-paragraph briefing in the German High Command’s War Diary. In their view, the Allied invasion of Sicily was nothing to brag about. Even as 3rd Army commander in Europe, the Germans facing Patton used words like “timid” and “systematic” to describe his tactics.
Harsh words from the Germans. But they still lost.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Jimmy Doolittle was Maj. Jimmy Doolittle. He was promoted after the United States entered World War II, and of course, immediately began planning his infamous raid over Tokyo. The Doolittle Raid involved secretly getting 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers as close to Japan as possible aboard the USS Hornet, and then taking off on a short runway – something that had never been done – then flying these stripped-down tin cans full of bombs over the Japanese homeland and crash landing in China, hopefully avoiding Japanese patrols.
This is a plan so unprecedented and audacious that I can’t even come up with a modern real-world comparison. Three of the Doolittle Raiders died after dropping their ordnance, one crew was interned in the USSR, eight were captured by the Japanese, and all planes were lost. But Jimmy Doolittle was flying in the lead plane. It was his first combat mission. But while the Doolittle Raid may have awed the Japanese and the American public, it did little for Nazis. Doolittle wasn’t finished though. In just two years, he would be promoted to Lieutenant General and go from commanding a squadron of 16 bombers to commanding the entire Eighth Air Force – and the largest aerial formation ever assembled.
Lt. Col. James Doolittle wires a Japanese Medal of Peace to one of the bombs destined for Tokyo in 1942.
The air war over Europe was very, very different from the fighting on the ground and was a much longer war. By 1944, Doolittle was in command of Eighth Air Force in Europe, and the Allies were making preparations for the coming D-Day invasions. Doolittle and the Eighth were tasked with reducing the effectiveness of the Luftwaffe and giving the Allies complete air superiority over Europe. At the time, the German air forces were wreaking havoc on Allied bombers. American bombers would avoid any contact with the Luftwaffe if they didn’t have fighter protection, and even when they did, the Nazi’s twin-engine Zerstörergeschwader heavy fighters and Sturmböcke were still able to take their toll on Army Air Forces. But Operation Argument – better known as “Big Week” – changed all that.
The Germans had pulled their entire air force back to Germany. Doolittle wanted to plan Big Week in a way that would force Germany to respond with fighter interceptions so he could either destroy the Luftwaffe in the air or destroy the production of replacement aircraft. The Nazis, with their new heavy fighter tactics, were more than willing to challenge the Eighth Air Force bombers. But Doolittle had two surprises waiting for them. The first was the new longer-range P-51 Mustang fighter. The second was a revolution in bomber defense tactics: instead of being forced to stay close to the bombers, fighter escorts could sweep the skies clear well ahead of the bombers.
Doolittle targeted factories all over Germany, in 11 cities, including Leipzig, Brunswick, Gotha, Regensburg, Schweinfurt, Augsburg, Stuttgart, and Steyr, to name a few. Some 3,894 heavy bombers and 800 fighters took off from England, including the new P-51 flying well ahead of the bomber force. And the Luftwaffe arrived in force to greet them. The new fighters and their new tactics were devastating to the heavy German fighters. Allied airmen hunted down and picked off the fighters before they could get close to the bomber formations. During 3,000 sorties over six days, the Allies punished the German air force and industrial capacity. The air raids damaged or destroyed 75 percent of the factories that produced 90 percent of Germany’s aircraft. The Luftwaffe was “helpless” in the face of the aerial onslaught.
The Nazis lost hundreds of airplanes and pilots, and had the capacity to replace neither of them. The Allies would soon have total air superiority over Europe, just in time for the June 1944 invasion of France. Doolittle also ordered his fighters to hit any military targets on the ground if the opportunity arose. By the time Allied forces landed in Normandy, flak was taking down more Allied bombers than fighters were. The Nazis noticed, especially Adolf Galland, a fighter ace and senior commander of the Luftwaffe under Hermann Goering.
Courtesy of 8th Air Force.
Galland would become friends with many of the Allied officers he fought after World War II. One of those was James Doolittle. After the war, Galland told Doolittle that the German High Command had no idea what was happening to them until it was much too late, and they were overcommitted. His tactic of allowing fighters to sweep the skies instead of being in formation with the bombers took the Luftwaffe from offense to defense for the rest of the war, and never again would the Luftwaffe be a considerable threat to the Allies in the air. Because of this, the Germans knew Doolittle could destroy the German oil industry, as well as its communications and transportation infrastructure. The Army Air Force did just that.
Leading the way was one extraordinary leader, James Doolittle.