Key point: A desperate strategy.
April 7, 1945, should have been just another high-explosive day over Nazi Germany. That morning, as they had done on so many mornings for the past three years, the bomb-laden B-17s and B-24s lumbered into the sky from their airfields in southern England. An armada of 1,300 bombers, snug under the protection of 850 P-47 and P-51 fighters, droned majestically over the North Sea toward their targets in northern Germany. Marked for destruction were oil facilities and arms factories near Hamburg, as well as airfields where the revolutionary Messerschmitt 262 jet fighters were based.
No combat mission over Nazi Germany could ever truly be a “milk run.” Yet the Eighth Air Force had come a long way since the dark days of late 1943, when its raids against Regensburg and Schweinfurt cost 20 percent of the bombing force. By April 1945, only a month away from Hitler's suicide and the Thousand-Year Reich's surrender, Germany's defenses were disintegrating. The Luftwaffe, crippled by fuel shortages and lack of trained pilots, was only capable of sporadic—albeit still deadly—attacks. German jets outclassed the slower propeller-driven Allied bombers and fighters, but there weren't many of them. At this stage in the war, the biggest problem for the American and British bomber fleets wasn't German aircraft, but rather finding fresh cities that hadn't already been bombed to rubble.
Since the first Flying Fortresses had appeared over Germany in January 1943, the Luftwaffe had thrown everything it could think of to knock down the big American four-engined bombers. Single-engine fighters, twin-engined fighters, bombers converted into fighters, fighters carrying anti-tank guns, aerial rockets, and aerial bombs dropped into the bomber formations. The Luftwaffe was caught in a chicken-and-egg crossfire: to shoot down massed formations of heavy bombers bristling with machine guns, the Germans needed heavily armed and armored fighters. But these clumsy “assault fighters” were easy prey for the nimbler American fighter escorts.