Big Week: The Biggest Air Battle of World War II
by James Holland
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2018
It coincides well with the often surprising nature of the Second World War that the largest battle of the war isn't the one most people would name and that the pivotal part of the greatest amphibious land assault in the history of the world took place in the air. Operation Argument took place in the third week of February 1944 and featured the United States Strategic Air Forces and the RAF Bomber Command in a round-the-clock series of sorties against Germany. The effort was extraordinary and the goal was straightforward: to clear the German Luftwaffe from the sky over Europe and establish total Allied air control in the run-up to D-Day and the Normandy invasion.
The story of Operation Argument – known from its own time and ever since simply as “Big Week” – receives what will surely be its most detailed and comprehensive popular history in James Holland's new book Big Week: The Biggest Air Battle of World War II. In these pages, Holland (author of the ongoing “War in the West” trilogy about the war as a whole) writes the kind of bolts-and-model numbers hyper-detailed account of the events, people, and aircraft that will give joy to any reader who specializes in this pivotal sliver of WWII. He grounds his larger story in flesh and blood by following a small handful of fighter squadron airmen on both sides as they go through the tasks of those days, both quotidian and terrifying.
This is largely not a ground-eye-view of the “strategic bombing” that went on over the course of Big Week, and Holland's book is clearly meant to celebrate the lives and heroism of the Allied bombers whose adventures and anecdotes fill these pages. As in his other works, Holland displays here a novelist's knack for description and capturing character, as in this look at RAF Air Marshal Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris:
Bull-faced, with piercing pale eyes, greying, gingery hair and a trim moustache, he was prepared to be utterly ruthless in his pursuit of strategic bombing: ruthless with other commands or other parts of the RAF that challenged his own command for resources; ruthless with anyone who crossed him; and ruthless most of all with the Germans, whether they be servicemen, civilians, factory workers, women or children. As far as Harris was concerned, any resources being used to further the German war effort – factories, supplies, or manpower – were legitimate targets for attack.
Big Week will certainly act a the definitive detailed operational account of Operation Argument, and it doubles nicely as a tribute to men like Harris. Readers wanting an equally detailed examination of whether or not women and children actually can be viewed as “legitimate targets for attack” will have to look elsewhere – perhaps to A. C. Grayling's Among the Dead Cities.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.