THE PREWAR DEVELOPMENT OF BRITISH AND AMERICAN
DOCTRINE AND AIRPOWER
The discussion of Chapters I through VII has concentrated on the development of the Luftwaffe and on its conduct of operations during the Second World War. For the benefit of the general reader not familiar with the prewar development of doctrine and force structure in Britain and the United States, the following discussion is included. One must note that while the theme of "strategic" bombing would play a major role in these developments, the Royal Air Force and the American Army Air Corps (later the Army Air Forces) came to have substantially different doctrinal emphasis in their approach and attitudes towards the coming war. Those differences, in fact, go far in explaining the directions along which the Americans and the British traveled during the conduct of the "strategic" bombing campaign.
THE ROYAL AIR FORCE
The Royal Air Force was the first independent air force. It owed its creation in World War I less to the strategic and military requirements of the hour than to the hue and outcry in the British press and public over the bombing of London by German aircraft based in Belgium. Both the army and navy acquiesced in the surrender of their air forces with scarcely a murmur. However, not all airmen were enthusiastic about a new service. Some in France feared that creation of the RAF might detract from the support that the Royal Flying Corps provided Haig's plodding offensive in Flanders. "Boom" Trenchard, the first Chief of Staff, argued strenuously against standing air patrols to defend London (the only possible means of air defense in 1917) and opposed the transfer of fighter units from France to defend Great Britain.1 Trenchard's first tenure as Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) proved less than auspicious, and in 1918 the Cabinet moved him to a relatively less important position. He assumed command of the independent bomber force in France that showed, whatever its promise, little performance in the remaining months of war.2
The last years of the war saw a crystallization of certain patterns in strategic thinking that would dominate the Royal Air Force throughout the interwar period. The political response to the Zeppelin raids had been, in many cases, to see air warfare in apocalyptic terms.3 However, Trenchard, soon to be closely identified with the concept of "strategic" bombing, was dubious at first about the
establishment of a bombing force to attack targets within Germany.4 His attitude mostly reflected a deep sympathy for Haig and a desire to concentrate maximum forces in support of the western front.5 However, already by the spring of 1917, some in the Royal Flying Corps were emphasizing the impact on morale of air attacks:
The moral[e] effect of a successful cavalry action is very great; equally so is that of successful fighting in the air . . . . The moral[e] effect produced by an aeroplane is . . . out of all proportion to the material damage which it can inflict, which in itself is considerable, and the mere presence of a hostile machine above them inspires those on the ground with exaggerated forebodings of what it is capable of doing.6
Establishment of the Royal Air Force as an independent service reinforced this tendency to accentuate the importance of the airplane in attacking morale. The political rationale behind the RAF's creation seems more to have been the launching of reprisal raids on Germany than the defense of British territory. As one recent commentator has noted: "Indeed, an essential continuing characteristic of the RAF was established in its very creation; it was an offensive service arm which was created to deal with defensive needs."7 Trenchard, himself, once he had returned to France to command the independent bombing force became a convert to the concept of attacks on German industries and cities. This formative period determined his attitude towards airpower for the remainder of his life.
By the summer of 1918, the British were strong advocates of the creation of an independent "strategic" bombing force drawn from Allied air forces. In response to a French position paper asking whether or not it was desirable to establish a coordinated plan for attacking targets within the Reich, the RAF replied with an emphatic yes. British representatives to the Inter-Allied Aviation Committee suggested that "strategic" bombing "must be conducted in pursuance of a carefully conceived policy and with a thorough elaboration of detail." Attacks on enemy railroads and airfields in the vicinity of the battlefield should be the task of units assigned to cooperate with ground forces. The "special long-range striking force" would have a more important task: "the dislocation of the enemy's key industries." They argued that "a general inter-Allied plan for bombardment of military, industrial, and morale objectives in Germany by an Allied strategic striking force should be formulated without delay." The launching of attacks by the pooled resources of Allied air forces would force the Germans to divert significant resources from the western front to home defense and to exacerbate further Germany's strategic difficulties. In conclusion, they noted:
. . . that the alternative to such diversion would be that the German government would be forced to face very considerable and constantly increasing civil pressure which might result in political disintegration. In this connection, if the Allies are to reap the full benefit of the reaction in Germany due to the failure of the German effort in 1918, it is essential that no time shall be lost in developing coordinated and widespread strategic air attacks to synchronize with a period of acute popular depression.8
This emphasis on the results that "strategic" bombing would have on German morale is contained in an October 1918 Air Ministry paper on both the morale and material impact of air raids against Germany. This document suggested: "In the period August-October, evidence has accumulated as to the immense moral[e] effect of our air raids into Germany." The deduction drawn was that the enemy's fighting capacity decreased
as the number of raids increased . . . . Though material damage is as yet slight when compared with moral[e] effect, it is certain that the destruction of "morale" will start before the destruction of factories and, consequently, loss of production will precede material damage.9
Trenchard, directed by the Supreme War Council in Versailles to draw up a detailed plan for the proposed "strategic" bombing force, began his work with a statement of his philosophical approach to the problem:
There are two factors--moral[e] effect and material effect--the object being to obtain the maximum of each. The best means to this end is to attack the industrial centres where you:
Do military and vital damage by striking at the centres of supply of war material.
Achieve the maximum of effect on the morale by striking at the most sensitive part of the German population--namely, the working class.10
The actual conduct of operations, however, pointed out most of the considerable problems that Bomber Command would face in the Second World War. Aircrew training, lack of aircraft, and serviceability, as well as weather and navigational difficulties, all combined to keep Trenchard's bomber force at a rather limited stage of effectiveness.11 Some of these problems, including even the thorny problem of nighttime navigation, were examined at least in conception, if not in detail, by elements within the Royal Navy Air Service in the years before creation of the Royal Air Force.12 Nevertheless, the full complexity of the problem of accurately placing bombs on targets unfortunately remained obscure to many post-war commanders.
With the coming of peace, the British government made wholesale cuts in military expenditures. For all intents and purposes, by 1933 the British had disarmed almost as thoroughly as the Treaty of Versailles had disarmed the Germans (the Royal Navy was, of course, an exception). Trenchard, once again as Chief of Air Staff, confronted a dwindling establishment of squadrons and personnel due to decreased military funding. With relatively few resources, RAF commanders justifiably feared that loss of aircraft or crews to the navy (for aircraft carriers) or army (for close air support missions) would threaten the existence of their service.13 Army and navy leaders may well have persisted in demands for the return of such aircraft precisely to remove one of the hungry mouths at the treasury's increasingly spare dinner table.
The RAF was saved from a quick death at the end of World War I when Lloyd George had entertained the idea of ending the independence of the air service. The choice of Churchill to hold both the War Office and the Air Ministry did not appear fortuitous in December 1918; however, not only did Churchill defend the new service but he also was instrumental in bringing Trenchard back as Chief of Staff.14 And Trenchard, through the sheer force of his personality as well as his skillful political maneuvering, insured the continued existence of the fledgling service. Among other devices, Trenchard expanded the emerging trends in strategic thinking that were present in the Royal Air Force at the end of the war into a full-fledged doctrine of "strategic" bombing. Outside influences seem to have played almost no role in this development. Harris claims never to have heard of Douhet before the war, while Slessor admits in his memoirs that not only had he never read Douhet but had never even heard of him before the war.15 Trenchard's doctrine postulated that airpower alone could defend Britain and that its massive striking power could destroy England's enemies at the onset of war. In the 1920's, there was some difficulty in persuading the politicians of the efficacy of such a view, although for a short time France appeared as a putative enemy, perhaps because it was the only serious military power within range of British aircraft. Unfortunately for the British, by the end of the decade, Trenchard's doctrine had become dogma within the halls of an Air Staff and organization that down to the outbreak of the war defined airpower almost exclusively in terms of "strategic" bombing.
In conference with leading members of his staff in July 1923, Trenchard underscored his faith in "strategic" bombing and his belief that the British people would exhibit greater staying power in a bombing exchange. Trenchard argued:
I would like to make this point again. I feel that although there would be an outcry, the French in a bombing duel would probably squeal before we did. That was really the first thing. The nation that would stand being bombed longest would win in the end.
Trenchard said that he strongly disagreed with the view that it would be better to add four fighter squadrons to defend Great Britain than four bomber squadrons to hit the French. He suggested that 48 more bombing aircraft would exercise a strong impact on French morale, while the downing of a few bombers "would have very little effect." One senior officer objected that if a French squadron came over Britain with 12 aircraft and returned with 4, it would adversely affect their morale. Trenchard agreed that this would have a greater effect on the morale of the
French pilots than it would on ours. Casualties affected the French more than they did the British. That would have to be taken into consideration too, but the policy of hitting the French nation and making them squeal before we did was a vital one--more vital than anything else.16
In March 1924, the Air Staff presented its case in a memorandum on the proper objectives of an air offensive. It argued that the forces employed in attacking an enemy nation
can either bomb military objectives in populated areas from the beginning of the war, with the objective of obtaining a decision by moral[e] effect which such attacks will produce, and by the serious dislocation of the normal life of the country, or, alternatively, they can be used in the first instance to attack enemy aerodromes with a view to gaining some measure of air superiority and, when this has been gained, can be changed over to the direct attack on the nation. The latter alternative is the method which the lessons of military history seem to recommend, but the Air Staff are convinced that the former is the correct one.
For the conduct of the air offensive against an enemy power (the belligerent countries, not named, would be "separated by 20 or 30 miles of sea"), the Air Staff suggested that fighters would play almost no role. The distances involved would make it impossible to build a fighter that would have sufficient range and efficiency. Thus, the Air Staff could state "as a principle that the bombing squadrons should be as numerous as possible and the fighters as few as popular opinion and the necessity for defending vital objectives will permit."17
In May 1928, Trenchard further elaborated for the benefit of his fellow chiefs of Staff the view expressed in the above memorandum that air forces could alter "the lessons of military history." The CAS claimed that it would not be necessary for an air force, as with the other services, to defeat the enemy's armed forces in order to defeat his nation. "Airpower can dispense with that immediate step . . . ." While Trenchard admitted that it would be wrong and "contrary to the dictates of humanity" to conduct "indiscriminate bombing of a city for the sole pupose of terrorizing the civilian population," he argued that it was an entirely different matter "to terrorize munition workers (men and women) into absenting themselves from work or stevedores into abandoning the loading of a ship with munitions through fear of attack . . . ."18
If Trenchard can be accused of taking a too single-minded approach to the question of airpower, his accomplishment in defending the independence of the Royal Air Force was his greatest monument. Moreover, he identified and supported such strong personalities as Dowding, Tedder, Portal, and Slessor, among others. They and their service would be Trenchard's contribution towards the winning of the Second World War. One should also note that throughout the 1920's when Trenchard and the Air Staff were creating their doctrine of "strategic" bombing, RAF officers serving in the world of colonial pacification, police actions, and border skirmishes were actively engaged in air operations that had little to do with "strategic" bombing. Their experience and the flexibility of mind that such tasks demanded proved of vital importance once the war began.
By and large, however, such experience had little impact on the higher levels of the Air Staff. Trenchard's persuasive influence endured long after he had
relinquished his position. Even the work of Slessor, usually a perceptive thinker on airpower and later Chief of Coastal Command in the war, showed the heavy imprint of official thought. Slessor's position as the Chief of Plans on the Air Staff in the late thirties makes his views, aired publicly in 1936, of particular significance.19 While he was more willing to recognize the potential of modern mechanized warfare than most of his army contemporaries, Trenchard's influence was unmistakable in Slessor's discussions of air war. He argued that the coming war would be nearly all air combat and that Britain could only gain and maintain air superiority through a "resolute bombing offensive" against enemy cities and industries. Such a strategy would force the enemy to use his air strength in a defensive, not offensive, role, thereby diverting strength away from the primary task of "strategic" bombing, which alone would be decisive. Aerial bombardment would help intimidate the poorer and more unreliable segments of the population and would force the enemy to divert further strength from his strategic effort. Ground operations would rarely occur, and armies would mostly serve as frontier guards while the bombers flew overhead.20 Slessor reasoned that
it is difficult to resist at least the conclusion that air bombardment on anything approaching an intensive scale, if it can be maintained even at irregular intervals for any length of time, can today restrict the output from war industry to a degree which would make it quite impossible to meet the immense requirements of an army on the 1918 model, in weapons, ammunition, and warlike stores of almost every kind.21
Considering that "strategic" bombing represented the raison d'être for the Royal Air Force, it is surprising that so little was done to prepare for this task. Prewar doctrine called for trained aircrews to precede the bomber force and to mark the targets for following aircraft. In the late 1920's, when asked how trained aircrews would find their targets, Tedder replied, "You tell me!"22 Unfortunately, the RAF would not really face up to this problem until 1941 when analysis of mission photography revealed that half of the bombs dropped on Germany were landing in the countryside.23
Admittedly in the late 1930's, there was no clear conception of the parameters involved in the coming air war in terms of weapons or tactics. There was considerable difficulty in estimating capabilities with so little prior experience. In 1938, the Joint Planning Committee conceded:
In considering air attack, we are faced with the difficulty that we lack the guidance of past experience in almost all the factors which affect it, and consequently the detailed methods of application and their effects are almost a matter for conjecture. We do not know the degree of intensity at which a German air offensive could be sustained in the face of heavy casualties. We do not know the extent to which the civilian population will stand up to continued heavy losses of life and property.24
However, evidence did exist on the difficulty of locating and damaging targets. In May 1938, the Assistant Chief of Air Staff admitted that
it remains true, however, that in the home defense exercise last year, bombing accuracy was very poor indeed. Investigation into this matter indicates that this was probably due very largely to [the] failure to identify targets rather than to fatigue.25
A 1937 experiment underlined the extent of the accuracy problem. The RAF placed 30 obsolete aircraft within the circumference of a circle possessing a 1,000-yard diameter. For one week, Bomber Command attacked the stationary aircraft from high and low level. At the test's completion, the effort had destroyed only 2 aircraft, had damaged 11 beyond repair, had left 6 damaged but reparable, and had missed 11 entirely.26 The First World War had already indicated that night bombing represented an even more complex challenge than daylight operations. In September 1917, Lieutenant Commander Lord Tiverton of the Royal Naval Air Service reported to the Air Board that "experience has shown that it is quite easy for five squadrons to set out to bomb a particular target and for only one of those five ever to reach the objective; while the other four, in the honest belief that they had done so, have bombed four different villages which bore little, if any, resemblance to the one they desired to attack."27
These difficulties in finding and then hitting targets whether by day or by night plagued British airmen and scientists despite the immense resources that were available to them throughout the Second World War. The poor bombing capability in the 1930's, given the available assets, is not particularly surprising. Nevertheless, where the Air Staff is vulnerable to criticism lies in its unwarranted confidence that no substantial problems existed and, therefore, its general unwillingness to initiate an effort to address these difficulties.
This emphasis on "strategic" bombing as the doctrine seriously affected the development of other aspects of airpower in Britain during the interwar period. Even air defense, which would win the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, received little recognition from the Air Staff during the early 1930's. The RAF's position was that air defense had little prospect of blunting an enemy bombing offensive and, therefore, represented a waste of aircraft and resources. Sir Warren Fischer of the Treasury reflected bitterly over the course of the rearmament debates in a letter to the Prime Minister in October 1938. He recalled that:
When I insisted on the insertion in the report of passages such as these on the need to build up Britain's air defense system, the representative of the Air Staff acquiesced with a shrug of his shoulders. The Air Staff proposals were, of course, again quite insufficient.28
In February 1937, the RAF set forth its estimates on the air threat from Germany over the coming two years. Among other things, it argued that Germany's bombing capacity would increase 600 percent in 1937 and that a German air offensive in 1939 would do ten times more damage than an attack in 1937. The underlying
assumption was that air defense could play little role in counteracting this massive German buildup. Among the Chiefs of Staff, only the Chief of Naval Staff, Lord Chatfield, cast doubts on the Air Staff's pessimistic estimates. Referring to the resources that the government had allocated to defensive measures, Chatfield felt that it was illogical to estimate German capability at such a high level.29 Ironically, it was the Chamberlain government, which for the most part had an abysmal record in rearmament, and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, in particular, that forced an unwilling Air Ministry to invest substantial resources in air defense.
The Air Staff itself pushed the development of the two-seater as the fighter of the future.30 A memorandum generated during the late spring of 1938 argued that:
The speed of modern bombers is so great that it is only worthwhile to attack them under conditions which allow no relative motion between the fighter and its target. The fixed-gun fighter with guns firing ahead can only realize these conditions by attacking the bomber from dead astern. The duties of a fighter engaged in "air superiority" fighting will be the destruction of opposing fighters . . . . For these purposes, it requires an armament that can be used defensively as well as offensively in order to enable it to penetrate into enemy territory and withdraw at will. The fixed-gun fighter cannot do this.31
Slessor, from the planning staff in the Air Ministry, had suggested in 1936 that the RAF needed only a few single seaters for air defense since the two-seater offered better prospects of employment.32 It was only because of Dowding's spirited objections to the two-seater "Defiant" in June 1938 that the British maintained a high level of "Spitfire" and "Hurricane" production.33
It is worth emphasizing that the creation of Fighter Command as an effective defense force and the articulation and conception of an air defense system was due almost entirely to Dowding. As the Air Member for Supply and Research in the early thirties, he provided critical support for the development of radar as well as for the single-seater fighter. As the Commander of Fighter Command in the late thirties, he waged a lonely fight with the Air Staff to build up an integrated air defense system based on the "Spitfire" and "Hurricane."34 He then conducted and won the Battle of Britain with the force and strategy that he had created--surely as great a conceptual triumph as the creation of the German panzer force.
Dowding was helped considerably by Chamberlain's refusal to buy a big bomber air force. As was the case with so many defense decisions made in the thirties, the preference for fighters over bombers stemmed from the fact that fighters were cheaper rather than from any firm belief in the efficacy of air defense. In this case, given the enormous cost of a bomber program and the scarcity of resources available for repairing Britain's military unpreparedness, feelings that Britain could only afford a major fighter program seem quite reasonable.35 Unfortunately, even here shortsightedness dominated; after the Munich Conference of September 1938, the Cabinet addressed the obvious weaknesses of the air defense system through the dubious expedient of increasing the numbers of fighters on order by extending the number of months in each contract without increasing the number of fighters
produced each month. Thus, there was no effort to increase substantively fighter production after Munich. The fact that "Spitfire" and "Hurricane" production was marginally exceeding production targets throughout the post-Munich period suggests that production might have increased almost immediately and certainly within six months.36 It was not.
The record of the Air Staff concerning other aspects of airpower was scarcely better than its record on fighters; furthermore, it was in no way mitigated by interference from the Chamberlain government. The RAF resolutely rejected close air support as one of its missions. After a 1939 combined exercise, General Sir Archibald Wavell commented that the RAF had obviously given no thought to supporting ground operations, and thus its pilots were incapable of performing that mission.37 He was substantially correct. In a 1937 Chiefs of Staff meeting, the army minister, Leslie Hore-Belisha, suggested that the Spanish Civil War indicated the value of close air support. The CAS immediately asserted that this was a gross misuse of airpower. Air Ministry reports, he added, disclosed that the Italians had been so impressed with low flying support missions that they had diverted 50 percent of their aircraft to that mission. He hoped that such reports were true but doubted whether the Italians would be so stupid.38
As late as November 1939, Air Staff doctrine on close air support ran along the following lines:
Briefly the Air Staff view--which is based on a close study of the subject over many years--is as follows: The true function of bomber aircraft in support of an army is to isolate the battlefield from reinforcement and supply, to block or delay the movement of reserves, and generally to create disorganization and confusion behind the enemy front . . . . But neither in attack nor in defense should bombers be used on the battlefield itself, save in exceptional circumstances . . . . All experience of war proves that such action is not only very costly in casualties but is normally uneconomical and ineffective compared with the results of the correct employment of aircraft on the lines above.39
The above is indeed a somewhat surprising document when one considers that the Polish campaign had just ended. In France in 1940, requests by the First Armored Division for close air support met with objections that such calls were impracticable and unnecessary.40 Moreover, in July 1938, the Chiefs of Staff dismissed the employment of parachute troops with the argument that such a task would divert aircraft from more useful employment as bombers.41 The result of such attitudes was that the RAF neither possesses the aircraft nor the training to carry out interdiction, close air support, or transport missions at the outbreak of war in 1939. Only at a great cost in aircraft and crews would the RAF develop these capabilities in North Africa.42
In 1936, Harris--working in the Plans Division of the Air Staff--claimed that reconnaissance of enemy bases was the only way to locate naval forces and that the employment of aircraft over the ocean would be a waste of effort. In addition, Harris told the Joint Planning Committee that the Air Staff reserved the right, at any
time, to withdraw aircraft from subsidiary missions (i.e., naval support or reconnaissance) for use in the primary mission of "strategic" bombing.43 Not until late 1937 did the CAS unwillingly concede that aircraft allocated for convoy protection could only be transferred by the Air Staff to other functions with the approval of the Chiefs of Staff and War Cabinet.44
RAF attitudes provided substantial support to the appeasement of Germany. The belief in RAF circles that the Luftwaffe was preparing to launch a "bolt from the blue" played a major role in framing the gloomy prognostications that Chamberlain used to such effect in persuading his Cabinet to support his policies.45 Symptomatic of the atmosphere created by fear of an air war was the December 1938 warning issued by the Emergency Reconstruction Committee of the CID (Committee of Imperial Defense):
On the assumption that the enemy may make his maximum effort at the beginning of the war, the estimate accepted by the CID is that the weight of bombs dropped might be 6,000 tons during the first week and 7,000 during the next fortnight. It had been in this connection estimated that a 500-lb bomb dropped on a built-up area like London would on the average destroy 8 and damage 92 homes. If, therefore, every bomb found a previously undamaged target in a closely built-up area, then in the first three weeks 465,000 would be totally destroyed and 5,375,000 damaged out of some 14 million houses in the country.46
Even this Committee found such an assumption "extravagant," but the damage had been done. The conclusion by the Air Ministry in September 1938 that, in the final analysis, fear of a German "bolt from the blue" was unwarranted could not counteract the impression that many appeasers had gained from the Air Staff's apocalyptic estimates. As Sir Samuel Hoare argued to his colleagues in the Cabinet over an army report on a possible land commitment to the continent:
The impression made upon him by the report was that it did not envisage the kind of war that seemed most probable. In a war against Germany, our own home defences would be the defensive position behind the Maginot Line . . . . The problem was to win the war over London . . . . We should need in the initial stages all our available troops to assist in the defense of this country.47
In summation, the myopia of the Air Staff hindered the development of a broadly based conception of airpower in Great Britain. Admittedly, Trenchard's devotion to his service and his advocacy of airpower saved the Royal Air Force as an independent service. Moreover, one must admit that the evidence from World War I did not provide clear, unambiguous evidence on the impact of airpower. But when all is said and done, too many of those in the higher positions of the Royal Air Staff between the wars allowed doctrine to become dogma and failed to examine the assumptions on which they based their air strategy in the light of current capability and the difficulties that emerged just in peacetime flying. The result was that outside of air defense--and the Air Staff's role there was somewhat ambiguous--
the RAF had prepared only for "strategic" bombing; in all the other aspects of airpower (close air support, interdiction, airborne operations, long-range reconniassance, and maritime operations), the Royal Air Force had done far too little in anticipating the requirements of the coming war.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF AIRPOWER IN THE UNITED STATES
The peculiar position of the United States, isolated geographically from European centers of power, had a decided impact on the development and articulation of American airpower both before and during the Second World War. The nature of the American continent, relatively secure from the direct threat of enemy attack, enabled the United States to maximize her reserves of manpower and industrial plant. If that security allowed the United States to build up its military potential undisturbed, it also made it exceedingly difficult to bring that military potential to bear: The distance from America to the centers of enemy power required a logistical structure reaching out from America across several thousand miles of ocean. Throughout the prewar period, that very geographic isolation had the predictable effect of encouraging American politicians to believe that the United States was immune from the diseases of war and power politics that beset the rest of the world.
The naiveté that characterized the debate over foreign policy spilled over into discussions of national security. As in Britain, there was little money available for the services: In this case, only two--the army and the navy. Locked within the body of an unsympathetic army, air enthusiasts increasingly advocated a theory of airpower as an independent strategic force capable of deciding the next war by itself. This line of argumentation undoubtedly served a similar political purpose to that of Trenchard and the Air Ministry in Britain. In the case of the latter, the "strategic" bombing argument provided a raison d'être for the continued independence of the RAF, while in the former arguments for "strategic" bombing suggested an independent role for the Air Corps and eventual independence from the army. The evolution of American "strategic" bombing theory, however, differed considerably from British doctrine. Whereas the British became enamoured with a direct assault on an enemy's population to break his morale, Army Air Corps thinkers turned to a more sophisticated, surgical approach to "strategic" bombing. Instead of attacking an enemy's morale directly, they suggested that precision bombing could take out a critical element of an enemy's economic structure with a relatively few aircraft. This approach would minimize civilian casualties, destroy the enemy's economy, and cause a general collapse of morale. The elements in this theory were not necessarily unique to American thinkers,48 but American attitudes in this period made the theory particularly attractive. It appealed to a growing American enthrallment with technology, and it reflected an idealistic intellectualism that would have been appalled at a direct assault on the enemy's population.
American "strategic" bombing theory did not immediately emerge from World War I. It took longer to evolve into its final form of the late 1930's and drew from a
wider variety of sources than had British thought. The development of American airpower theories grew out of collective experiences of World War I, especially among those American flyers assigned to fight in France. "Billy" Mitchell, whose argumentative personality dominated the early history of American airpower, was influenced not only by aerial combat but also by meeting British air officers, especially Trenchard.49
If Mitchell's stridency set the tone for the debate in the United States, his view on airpower differed substantially from Trenchard's or Douhet's. Mitchell remained a firm believer in the importance of gaining and of maintaining air superiority. Unlike many British or his successors in the Air Corps Tactical School, Mitchell argued strongly for pursuit aviation as well as bombers. In his first book, he suggested that the proper ratio of aircraft within the Air Corps should be 60 percent pursuit, 20 percent bombardment, and 20 percent observation. For him, the first task in air war would be the defeat of the enemy air force; not until that mission had been achieved could effective bombardment take place. While Mitchell did rate the defensive possibility of bombers quite highly, he regarded enemy pursuit forces as the most serious threat to successful bombing operations. Thus, the task of American pursuit was not necessarily to escort bomber formations but to seek out and to attack enemy fighters.50
In the early 1920's, the thrust of teaching at what was eventually the Air Corps Tactical School followed Mitchell's arguments closely. The instructions on air tactics drew heavily on the lessons and experience of the First World War; and based on that experience, pursuit aviation received pride of place. The school emphasized aerial "barrage" as a technique to protect ground forces. Because close protection of the bomber or observer aircraft in World War I had proven costly, a more flexible and aggressive use of fighter formations was advocated. Since pursuit aircraft had been largely responsible for achieving air supremacy, the school argued that pursuit aviation was the Air Service's chief arm.51 One tactics course went so far as to claim that, "Pursuit in this relation to the Air Service . . . may be compared to the infantry in its relation to the other branches of the army. Without pursuit, the successful employment of the other air branches is impossible."52
Nevertheless, if pursuit aviation received pride of place at first, certain factors pushed the school's doctrine in another direction. The goal of air superiority seemed to serve a largely negative function: Its achievement had little impact unless one could utilize it to accomplish further tasks. In the mid-1920's, American thinkers turned increasingly to bombardment as the exclusive mission for aircraft. Here the lessons of the last war were moot. There had not ever been sufficient bombing capability in the war to have a decisive impact on events. With little historical evidence available, the theorists (as in Italy and Britain) thought in terms of future potential rather than past experience. The tendency, quite naturally, was to cast that potential by referring to aircraft not yet on the drawing boards. Even in the early 1920's, those interested in bombardment argued that defensive machineguns and "compact formations" could protect bombers sufficiently against enemy fighters. Altitude and speed would also help. The actual mission of bombardment
aircraft would be to attack enemy airbases, thereby assisting fighters in the destruction of enemy forces. There does not seem to have been much target analysis beyond enemy air forces.53
At the mid-point in the 1920's, a significant shift away from pursuit aviation towards bombardment took place. Where early training manuals had discussed the potential of aerial bombardment, the manual for the 1925-26 academic year emphasized more forcefully the role of bombardment in air warfare.54 Moreover, where previous texts had pointed at the enemy's air forces as the chief target, Air Corps thinkers now suggested that independent strategic operations could achieve a decisive impact by destroying the enemy's will to resist. By 1926, training manuals argued that bombardment might "have a direct, although not . . . immediate effect . . . by attacking the enemy's aircraft industry." The destruction of that target system would lead to the collapse of the enemy's air force. The possibility of attacking the enemy's aircraft industry was only one among many, but the critical point was the suggestion that the enemy's economy possessed "vital parts" or "sensitive points," the destruction of which would bring an entire section of economic life to a halt.55 It would not take a great intellectual jump for Air Corps thinkers to argue that the destruction of a vital portion of the enemy's industrial potential would cause the collapse of this entire economic structure and, therefore, his will to resist further.
This change in thinking from a position that emphasized a balance between pursuit, attack and bombardment to a heavy emphasis on bombardment was the result of several factors. First, the advocates of a more balanced approach left the school to be replaced by individuals who favored bombardment.56 The second was probably due to the influence of Douhet, whose writings were now available in translation, as well as Mitchell's increasingly strident advocacy of airpower, especially the value of bombardment.57 While, as suggested earlier, Mitchell never lost interest in pursuit, his publicity campaign for airpower, contributing directly to his court-martial, emphasized the potential of attacking industrial centers and the possibility for directly destroying war-making potential.58 Those at the Air Corps Tactical School found it relatively easy to emphasize the latter while ignoring the former aspects of Mitchell's arguments. Finally, certain technical changes, such as heavier bomb weights and more capable bombers, suggested a greater capability for bombing than had hitherto been possible. The result was that, while earlier instructors at the Air Corps Tactical School had recognized that combat experience in the last war indicated that bombers would suffer unnecessarily high losses when not protected by fighters, the emphasis on bombardment at the school became increasingly an emphasis on bombing unprotected by pursuit aviation.59
These developments in targeting doctrine and theory occurring in the middle 1920's were decisive for future formulations. The changes that took place from this point on represented refinements rather than changes in basic philosophy. For obvious reasons, daylight operations would simplify the problems of navigation and bombing accuracy; as was to be the case in Britain, the first advances in design that moved aircraft capabilities beyond those of the last war came in bomber design.
Thus, the new bomber aircraft that the Air Corps possessed through the thirties enjoyed superiority over most fighter aircraft in nearly every performance characteristic. Combined with the enhanced flying capabilities were new increased defensive armament. Furthermore, since there was little combat experience on which to draw, Air Corps thinkers emphasized the defensive potential of daylight bomber formations. As early as 1930, one text used at the Air Corps Tactical School suggested that:
Bombardment formations may suffer defeat at the hands of hostile pursuit; but with a properly constituted formation, efficiently flown, these defeats will be the exception rather than the rule. Losses must be expected, but these losses will be minimized by proper defensive tactics.60
The combination of easier operating conditions, the assumed defensive capacity of bomber formations, and the small differential between bomber and fighter capabilities led the Air Corps School doctrine towards the assumption that daylight, unprotected bomber raids could be conducted without serious difficulty. As one instructor put it in the early thirties: "A well-planned and well-conducted bombardment attack, once launched, cannot be stopped."61
By 1935, the bombardment advocates were arguing that even if enemy pursuit possessed "overwhelming superiority in all factors influencing air combat, . . . escorting fighters will neither be provided nor requested unless experience proves that bombardment is unable to penetrate such resistance alone."62 There were, of course, factors that gave such a position greater validity in 1935 than in 1940: Without radar, air defense forces were at considerable disadvantage in finding and attacking bomber formations. Nevertheless, the line of argument within the school clearly implied that even should enemy fighters discover the attacking formations, the bombers could fight their way through to the target. It was not so much that bomber advocates rejected the concept of long-range fighter support for their formations, they simply assumed that such aircraft were not necessary and could not be built. In the late 1920's, there was some interest in such aircraft among pursuit supporters who suggested that with drop tanks and extended range, fighters could support bombers in deep penetration raids.63 Nevertheless, in all fairness, one must note that in the 1930's, the few advocates of pursuit aviation were not enthusiastic about using fighters to escort bombers. One veteran of the school recalled that the foremost pursuit expert, the future General Claire Chennault, showed little interest in using fighters to escort bombers.64
America's geographic isolation also reinforced the direction of Air Corps thinking. It was hard to imagine an enemy bomber force acquiring bases from which it could attack the United States. Thus, air defense never had the significance that it came to have in Britain. Moreover, bomber-pursuit exercises heavily favored the former, thus furthering the impression of bomber invulnerability.65 Arguments between navy and Air Corps pioneers like Mitchell had centered on the issue of which was more suitable for the defense of America: bombers or battleships. In its first taste of interservice squabbling, the early Air
Service articulated a position that bombers could protect the United States from an enemy at less cost and with greater effectiveness than could the navy.66 That argument remained alive until World War II.67
For using airpower to attack and destroy an enemy's will, American geography similarly favored the bomber. Although the United States had suffered relatively few casualties in the First World War compared to European nations, American popular opinion had reacted almost as violently in the post-World War I era to the terrible bloodletting in the trenches as public opinion in France and Britain. As with the RAF, American airpower theorists argued that by attacking the enemy directly thmugh aerial bombardment, the Air Corps could destroy his economy and break his will to resist--all at little cost and few casualties. The fundamental assumption was that airpower offered an escape from the trenches and horror of the last war. As Harold George suggested in a lecture: "Airpower has given to the world a means whereby the heart of a nation can be attacked at once without first having to wage an exhausting war at the nation's frontier."68 Moreover, bombers could deploy from the United States to overseas far more quickly than a great army.
While early arguments had centered on attacking the enemy's aircraft industry as a means of defeating his air force, instructors at the school now looked for specific industries, the destruction of which would handicap not merely an industry but perhaps the entire economy. Interestingly, the 1932-33 manual suggested that destruction of the enemy's fuel industry would render an opponent's air forces harmless and make further attacks on engine and aircraft factories, or airfields unnecessary.69
Acquisition of the B-17 and Norden bombsights in the mid-thirties gave the Air Corps an aircraft capability to fulfill what had hitherto only been theory. In the last half of the 1930's, the general theory that targeting an attack on the enemy's industrial base could prove decisive went one step further and became a specific argument that sought to identify targets within an industry or within the economy. The destruction of these targets would so dislocate or disorganize the enemy that his economy could no longer function. Again, George noted: "It appears that nations are susceptible to defeat by the interruption of this economic web. It is possible that the morale collapse brought about by the breakup of this closely knit web would be sufficient, but connected therewith is the industrial fabric which is absolutely essential for modern war.70 Contributing further to the elaboration of this theory of precise, exact targeting was the Army Air Corps' force structure in the late thirties. Neither for the present nor for the immediate future was it realistic to forecast a large bomber fleet. Thus, a target doctrine in which a small number of bomber aircraft using precision bombing could break the back of the enemy's economic system obviously possessed great appeal for the theorists. They argued, for example, that the destruction of 49 selected electric plants in the northeastern United States should prove sufficient to strain the economic capacity of the nation to the breaking point.71
By the end of the 1930's, airpower theorists in the Army Air Corps had evolved a theory of air warfare that was a precisely thought-out body of interconnected
assumptions. They based their argument on the belief that a well-led, disciplined bomber formation could fight its way through enemy controlled airspace unsupported by fighter escort. Once the bomber force had made its high altitude, deep penetration, it could, through precision bombing aided by the technological means provided by the Norden bombsight, place an adequate number of bombs on the selected target to assure destruction. That target would represent a section in the enemy's economic web, and its destruction would result in wide dislocation within his economy. The full impact of these dislocations would eventually destroy both the means and the will of the enemy to resist. The theory was undoubtedly the most carefully conceived of all the theories and strategies that airpower enthusiasts hammered out between the wars. Considering that little information was available based on actual combat experience, its evolution represented a triumph of human ingenuity and imagination.
Given the many unknowns, the planners had to work with a body of assumptions. What they were unwilling to see was the fact that the relationship between these assumptions was geometric rather than arithmetic. There was then an accumulation of risk that made the theory unrealistic and unworkable. As one commentator on the development of doctrine in the Air Corps Tactical School has noted:
By accepting a concept based upon nonaccumulation of risks or problems, the school admitted its inability to recognize that in the realm of force application, a single factor or condition cannot be changed without affecting all other factors. The school ignored what seemingly was obvious: that each premise, supported by assumptions, contained inherent weaknesses. Taken individually, the shortcomings were not serious; if taken collectively, they might have undermined the entire concept.72
What needs emphasis is not the supposed faults in the doctrine evolved by these Air Corps theorists but rather the difficulty in peacetime in calculating on the basis of existing information, the nature of a future war. In fact, the real lesson may be that when one embarks upon a military campaign after a long period of peace, one must recognize that much of peacetime doctrine, training, and preparation will prove faulty. The truly effective military organization is one that recognizes and adapts to real conditions on the battlefield and absorbs its combat experience into its doctrine and training. The serious questions that one can raise against those who led the air war against Germany does not deal with the evolution of doctrine and theory through 1939 but rather whether the leaders adapted their tactics, equipment, and strategy to the conditions of air war in Europe from 1939-43, or whether they allowed preconceived judgments to filter out reality until "Black Thursday" over Schweinfurt faced them with defeat.
1. Powers, Strategy Without Slide-Rule, pp. 64-65.
2. Gavin Lyall, "Trenchard," The War Lords, Military Commanders of the Twentieth Century, ed. by Field Marshal Sir Michael Carver (Boston, 1976), pp. 182-83.
3. See, in particular, the speech by Pemberton Billing quoted in Powers, Strategy Without Slide-Rule, p. 16.
4. Ibid., p. 103.
5. Andrew Boyle, Trenchard (London, 1962), p. 228.
6. "Fighting in the Air," issued by the General Staff, March 1917, p. 1, Trenchard Papers, RAF Staff College, Bracknell, D-33.
7. Powers, Strategy Without Slide-Rule, p. 100.
8. Supreme War Council, Annexure to Process Verbal, Third Session 1-A, Aviation Committee. "Remarks by the British Representative for the Third Sessions of the Inter-Allied Aviation Committee held at Versailles, 21st and 22nd July 1918." Trenchard Papers, RAF Staff College, Bracknell.
9. Air Ministry, "Results of Air Raids on Germany Carried Out By British Aircraft, January 1st-September 30th, 1918," D.A.I., No. 5 (A.IIB, October 1918), Trenchard Papers, RAF Staff College, Bracknell, D-4.
10. Quoted by Group Captain R. A. Mason in "The British Dimension," Airpower and Warfare, ed. by Alfred F. Hurley and Robert C. Ehrhard (Washington, 1979), p. 32.
11. See, in particular, Trenchard's report on the operation of his force, June 1918, "Report of Operations Carried Out by the Independent Force During June 1918," Trenchard Papers, RAF Staff College, Bracknell.
12. Mason, "The British Dimension," pp. 30-31.
13. See D. C. Watt's discussion of this point in his article: "The Air Force View of History," Quarterly Review (October 1962).
14. Powers, Strategy Without Slide-Rule, pp. 163-64.
15. Interview with Arthur T. Harris, RAF Staff College Library, Bracknell; Sir John Slessor, The Central Blue (London, 1956), p. 41.
16. Webster and Frankland, SAOAG, Vol. IV, Appendix 1, Minutes of a Conference Held in the Room of the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Ministry, on 19 July 1923.
17. Public Record Office, Air 20/40, Air Staff Memorandum No. 11 A, March 1924.
18. Webster and Frankland, SAOAG, Vol. IV, Appendix 2, Memorandum by the Chief of Air Staff and Comments by His Colleagues, May 1928.
19. Sir John Slessor, Airpower and Armies (London, 1936).
20. Ibid., pp. 15, 65, 68, 80.
21. Ibid., pp. 214-15.
22. Guy Hartcup, The Challenge of War (London, 1967), p. 126.
23. See particularly the report of Mr. Butt to RAF Bomber Command, "Examination of Night Photographs, 15 August 1941," Webster and Frankland, SAOAG, Vol. IV, p. 205.
24. PRO CAB 53/40, COS 747 (JP), 15.7.38., CID, COS Committee, "Appreciation of the Situation in the Event of War Against Germany in April 1939," p. 47.
25. PRO AIR 2/2598, Air Ministry File, #541137 (1938).
26. Basil Collier, The Leader of the Few (London, 1957), p. 170.
27. Quoted in Mason, "The British Dimension," pp. 30-31.
28. PRO CAB 21/902, Letter from Sir Warren Fischer to Neville Chamberlain, 1.10.38., p. 4.
29. PRO CAB 53/7, COS/198th Mtg, 18.2.37., CID, COS Committee Minutes, p. 31.
30. The Luftwaffe faced the basic same choice, between a two-seater (the Me 110) and a single-seater (the Me 109). It did, however, opt proportionately for considerably more Me 110's than the RAF opted for Boulton Paul "Defiants." This is probably a result of Dowding's strong objections to the two-seater program.
31. PRO AIR 2/2964, 17.6.38., Air Staff Note on the Employment of Two-seater and Single-seater Fighters in a Home Defence War; see also Air 2/2964, 20.6.38., Minutes by DDops (Home).
32. Slessor, Air Power and Armies, p. 51.
33. PRO AIR 2/2964, Headquarters Fighter Command RAF Stanmore, Middlesex, 25.6.38.
34. See, in particular, Mason, Battle of Britain, pp. 82-92, 99-102.
35. See, in particular, G. C. Penden, British Rearmament and the Treasury (Edinburg, 1979); and to a lesser extent, Robert Paul Shay, Jr., British Rearmament in the Thirties (Princeton, 1977), for discussion of the financial limitations on British rearmament.
36. See particularly: PRO CAB/143, DPR 285, 14.10.38., CID, 24th Progress Report: "Week Ending 1.10.38.," DPR 291, 14.12.38., 25th Progress Report; DPR 297, 26th Progress Report; PRO CAB 16/144, DPR 305, 27th Progress Report, 18.4.39.; DPR 312, 28th Progress Report, 14.6.39.
37. John Connell, Wavell, Scholar and Soldier (New York, 1964), p. 204.
38. PRO CAB 53/8, COS/219th Meeting, 19.10.37., CID, COS Subcommittee Minutes, p. 149.
39. PRO CAB 21/903, 18.11.39., "Bomber Support for the Army," memorandum by the Air Staff; see also the letter from Admiral Lord Chatfield to Chamberlain, 15.11.39., on the air force arguments against the provision of special units for the close support of the army.
40. Major General Evans, "The First Armored Division in France," Army Quarterly, May 1943, pp. 57-58.
41. PRO CAB 53/40, COS 747 (JP), 15.7.38., CID, COS Subcommittee, "Appreciation of the Situation in the Event of War Against Germany in April 1939," Joint Planning Committee Appreciation.
42. See the outstanding discussion of the air war in North Africa by Tedder, With Prejudice.
43. PRO CAB 55/2, JP/127th Mtg., 3.12.36., CID, Joint Planning Committee of the COS Committee, p. 5; see also the argument between Admiral Lord Chatfield and Ellington on the provision of aircraft to protect trade routes: CAB 53/6, COS/190th Mtg., 21.12.36., CID, COS Subcommittee Minutes, pp. 240-43.
44. PRO CAB 53/8, COS/221st Mtg., 4.11.37., CID, COS Subcommittee Minutes, p. 12.
45. In particular, see Chapter II in my dissertation; "The Change in the European Balance of Power, 1938-1939."
46. PRO CAB 4/29, 1499.13, 16.12.38., CID, Subcommittee on Emergency Reconstruction Report, p. 85.
47. PRO CAB 24/276, CP 94(38), "Staff Conversations with France and Belgium, Annex II," CID: Extract from Draft Minutes of the 319th Meeting, 11.4.38., p. 157.
48. See, in particular, the arguments advanced by Professor Dr. -Ing. Steinman, Min.-Rat im RLM, Az. 67c. Tgb. Nr. 50/40, Berlin, 27.5.40., BA/MA, RL 7/56.
49. Craven and Cate, The Army Air Forces in World War II, Vol. I. pp. 12-13.
50. Alfred F. Hurley, Billy Mitchell (New York, 1964), pp. 63-83.
51. Thomas H. Greer, The Development of Air Doctrine in the Army Air Arm, 1917-1941 (Air University, 1955), pp. 8-9.
52. Quoted in the outstanding dissertation on prewar planning: Thomas A. Fabyanic, "A Critique of United States Air War Planning, 1941-44," St. Louis University, 1973.
53. Ibid., pp. 9-10.
54. "Employment of Combined Air Force" (Langley Field, Virginia, 1925-26), AFSHRC.
55. "Bombardment Text" (Langley Field, Virginia, 1926-27), pp. 62-65, AFSHRC.
56. Fabyanic, "A Critique of United States Air War Planning," pp. 16-19.
57. For the availability of Douhet's writings in translation, see Robert F. Futrell, Ideas, Concepts, and Doctrine, Vol I (Air University, June 1971), p. 38.
58. Hurley, Billy Mitchell, p. 93.
59. Fabyanic, "A Critique of United States Air War Planning," pp. 18-19.
60. "Bombardment Aviation" (Air Corps Tactical School, Langley Field, Virginia, 1930), p. 109, AFSHRC.
61. Haywood S. Hansell, Jr., The Air Plan That Defeated Hitler (Atlanta, 1972), p. 15.
62. "Bombardment Text" (Air Corps Tactical School, Maxwell Field, Alabama, 1935), p. 140, AFSHRC.
63. "Pursuit Text" (Air Corps Tactical School, Langley Field, Virginia, 1929), Vol. II, Chapter III, pp. 109, 137, AFSHRC.
64. Hansell, The Air Plan That Defeated Hitler, p. 19.
65. For Chennault's description of such exercises, see Fabyanic, "A Critique of United States Air War Planning," p. 29.
66. For a full discussion of Mitchell's views on the utility of the United States Navy, see Hurley's Billy Mitchell.
67. For the arguments and exercises in the 1930's, see Curtis E. LeMay with MacKinlay Kantor, Mission With LeMay (New York, 1965), pp. 139-52.
68. Hansell, The Air Plan That Defeated Hitler, p. 34.
69. "Air Force" (Air Corps Tactical School, Maxwell Field, Alabama, 1932-1933), p. 8, AFSHRC.
70. Hansell, The Air Plan That Defeated Hitler, p. 33.
71. "Air Force: National Economic Structure" (Air Corps Tactical School, Maxwell Field, Alabama, 1938-1939), p. 24, AFSHRC.
72. Fabyanic, "A Critique of United States Air War Planning," p. 47.
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