Clean Sweep: VIII Fighter Command against the Luftwaffe, 1942–45

Image of Clean Sweep: VIII Fighter Command against the Luftwaffe, 1942–45
Release Date: 
May 9, 2023
Osprey Publishing
Reviewed by: 

“provides a wonderful balance of narrative history with personal recollections, examining both sides . . . and giving the reader a front seat to some of the amazing flying stories of these early heroes of air combat.”

Between 1942 and 1945 the U.S. Army Air Force fought a long and costly battle of attrition to gain mastery of the air over Western Europe. This struggle, which produced more casualties than the Marines suffered in their island campaign across the Pacific, saw the maturation of air power as a strategic and tactical weapon vital to the overall Allied war effort.

In another of his masterful volumes on air combat, author Thomas McKelvey Cleaver narrates the evolution of American fighter combat against the highly experienced German Luftwaffe. Using a wide variety of sources, including numerous memoirs and interviews with surviving pilots of both sides, Cleaver provides a strategic, technical, and personal look at the men and machines that helped decide the fate of the Allied invasion and liberation of Europe.

The effectiveness of strategic bombing in World War II has long been debated, particularly given the overly optimistic projections made by airpower theorists during the interwar years on the ability of bombing and airpower to singlehandedly win future wars. The American Air Force in particular was fixated on the mission of daylight precision bombing and was determined to prove that heavily armed bombers could conduct missions deep into Germany without the need for fighter escort. Partly this was due to their determination to prove the utility of strategic bombing and to pave the way for an independent Air Force, but mostly it was because of the inability of American fighter planes to have the range to escort bombers deep into Germany.

When the VIII Fighter Command was created in mid-1942, their first tentative steps at meeting the German Luftwaffe met with mixed success. German fighters were able to choose when to engage them and spent most of their effort avoiding fighter combat and concentrating on shooting down Allied bombers. They did this with great efficiency, and heavy Allied bomber losses through the summer and early fall of 1943, especially the disastrous losses suffered during two raids on Regensburg and Schweinfurt, nearly ended the American bomber offensive.

Fortunately for the Allies, the realization finally sank in with senior generals that long-range fighter cover was needed, and new technologies began their introduction to the growing number of fighter squadrons engaged in the battle. Beginning with the simple addition of drop tanks to extend the range of the P-47 fighter, American fighters now were able to fly deeper into Germany and the war of attrition began to intensify.

The author provides a lot of technical detail on the fighter aircraft used by both sides, showing the rapid adaptation of new airframes, weapons, and tactics as the daily battle in the skies over Western Europe absorbed more German resources and as American production of new and upgraded aircraft in massive numbers began to overwhelm German defenses, although at a very high cost in men and machines.

The introduction of the P-51 Mustang, arguably one of the finest fighter planes of the 20th century, finally gave VII Fighter Command the ability to focus more on attacking the Luftwaffe directly, and in early 1944 this became a primary focus as the Allies began their final effort to prepare for the Normandy invasion. Gaining air dominance over the beachhead was a prime concern of the Supreme Allied Commander and the 8th Air Force began a series of massive bomber raids into Germany for the primary purpose of drawing the Luftwaffe into a battle of attrition that the Germans could not win.

The now fully equipped, trained, and highly experienced VIII Fighter Command was able to decimate the Luftwaffe, providing the air superiority required and ensuring the Allies could now bomb targets in Germany almost at will. Even the introduction of jet fighters by the Germans late in the war was not enough to overcome the massive numbers of fighters and bombers America now had in the war, and the remaining Luftwaffe fighter pilots fought an increasingly futile battle up to the end of April 1945.

Cleaver provides a wonderful balance of narrative history with personal recollections, examining both sides of the battle and giving the reader a front seat to some of the amazing flying stories of these early heroes of air combat. The reader will meet some of the legendary American fighter pilots of the war—Don Gentile, Don Blakeslee, Francis Gabreski, and even Chuck Yeager, who was a young fighter pilot shot down over France. This is another excellent volume in his library of American air combat.