Dr. Williamson Murray earned BA, MA, and PhD degrees in history from Yale University. A former Air Force maintenance officer, Dr. Murray presently teaches at Ohio State University where he is rapidly acquiring a reputation as one of the foremost US authorities on the German Luftwaffe. An avid scholar on military affairs, Dr. Murray has written numerous articles in professional journals on various facets of military history. Another major research effort, "The Path to Ruin: The Change in European Balance of Power, 1938-1939," has just been accepted for publication by the Princeton University Press. Dr. Murray still retains his commission in the USAF Ready Reserve, serving as a major in the Air Force Intelligence Service.


In a work of this nature, it is not surprising that many people played a considerable role in advising me as I began and conducted my research. The strengths of this book reflect their help; its weaknesses, my failings. In particular, I would like to thank Professor Philip Flammer of Brigham Young University who introduced me to the Air War College and played a major role in developing my interest in doing a study of the Luftwaffe.

At the Air University, Colonel Thomas Fabyanic, founder of the Airpower Research Institute (ARI), deserves special mention for his generous support of this project as does the current Director of the Institute, Colonel Kenneth Alnwick. Without the wholehearted support of Major General David Gray, former Commandant of the Air War College, this study could not have been conducted. I would also like to thank the following individuals at the Air War College for their help and guidance: Colonel Donald Frizzell, Lieutenant Colonels Donald Baucom, David MacIssac, David Lupton, and James True; and my colleagues in the ARI, Dr. David Mets and Dr. Kenneth Werrell. My special thanks to John Schenk and Dorothy McCluskie of the ARI for their thorough and detailed editorial assistance. I would also be remiss if I were not to express my thanks to those who helped with the typing of this manuscript and with arrangements for my travels: especially Edna Davis, Jo Ann Perdue, Mary Schenk, Betty Brown, and Norma Todd. I must thank Rose McCall for the excellent graphics and Steve Garst, Air University Review, for designing the cover. In the academic world, my colleagues Professors I. B. Holley and Hans Gatzke deserve thanks for their help and advice. At the Ohio State University, Kenneth Watman and Bruce Nardulli were especially helpful in reviewing the content of the final manuscript. I should also like to thank Harry Fletcher for his considerable help in guiding me through the archives at the Albert F. Simpson Historical Research Center. In addition, I received substantial assistance while working abroad in European archives. In Great Britain, Group Captain "Tony" Mason afforded me access to critical materials in the RAF Staff College archives; "J. P." McDonald guided me through the materials available in the Public Record Office (PRO) from his post in the Air Historical Branch; and "Freddie" Lambert and Suzanne Marsh provided invaluable research assistance. I must also thank Professors Paul Kennedy, John Gooch, Brian Bond, and Richard Overy for their help as well as friendship that they extended to me while I was in Great Britain. Dr. Noble Frankland provided his time and his vast knowledge at the Imperial War Museum. I also must thank the staffs at the PRO, the Imperial War Museum, and the RAF Staff College.

In Germany, the staffs at the military archives in Freiburg and the Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt played an invaluable role in furthering my work. In particular, I must thank Dr. Manfred Messerschmidt, Dr. Jürgen Förster, Dr. Horst Boog, and especially Dr. Wilhelm Deist and Oberstleutnant Klaus Maier for their help and friendship. Major General Hans W. Asmus provided enormous patience, wisdom, as well as great courtesy and hospitality during my stay in Germany. I should also like to thank Oberst Werner Geissinger for his considerable help in proofreading the German as well as the English in the various drafts of this work. In the military archives in Freiburg, Frau Eleonore Miiller was most helpful, always friendly, and invariably pleasant. Finally, I must thank my wife Marjorie and my children, Alexandra and Spencer, for their support and love in all the separations that this project entailed.


Military history is a window through which we may study the lessons of past combat. These lessons become clear only after thoughtful examination of events and factors that influenced them. Organizations that have not been willing to examine the past, especially their own, have usually paid a price for that oversight.

We stand today on the far side of a gulf of time which separates us from the experiences of the Second World War. Nearly forty years ago, the Allied Air Forces fought an extensive, costly battle for air superiority over the European continent. The air war over Europe represented a great struggle between fully mobilized industrial powers. This conflict had the scale, characteristics, and balance of strength between both sides which we might well experience in a future conflict. Though over time we were able to bring our massive productive superiority to bear in this war, it nevertheless was a struggle which challenged our staying power and stamina. The length and attrition of that conflict suggest that should we ever face another war on a similar scale, the clash of power may neither be short nor quickly decisive. We may again have to face a battlefield environment and set of challenges which are wholly different from what we have faced in recent conflicts.

Only a few of our senior officers can call directly upon the experience of World War II to guide them in leading the Air Force. Our combat experience base is limited mainly to the events of Korea and Vietnam. Should we have to fight a large scale war again, only history can provide the necessary insights. If history has had one direct lesson for the student of war, it is that nations and their armed forces will not be fully prepared for the war that comes. If this is so, we must acquire by an extensive study of past conflicts, a flexibility of mind and intellectual rigor that will permit us to deal with the unexpected and adapt to changing conditions as they are, not as we forecast them to be. History clearly points out that those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat old mistakes.

This book is a comprehensive analysis of an air force, the Luftwaffe, in World War II. It follows the Germans from their prewar preparations to their final defeat. There are many disturbing parallels with our current situation. I urge every student of military science to read it carefully. The lessons of the nature of warfare and the application of airpower can provide the guidance to develop our fighting forces and employment concepts to meet the significant challenges we are certain to face in the future.

General, USAF (Retired)


As with all military thought, a wide variety of political, historical, and economic factors guided the development of air doctrines in the period between the First and Second World Wars. Yet standing above all other influences was a revulsion against the mud and despair of the trenches. Thus, it is not surprising that an Italian senior officer, Giulio Douhet, would argue that airpower could prevent the repetition of a war that had cost Italy more than 400,000 dead. In terms of the first formulations of air doctrine, Douhet's thought did not prove particularly influential. In Britain, the development of doctrine, both within and outside of the Royal Air Force (RAF), already was well advanced by the end of the First World War.1 Douhet may have exercised more influence on American doctrine, since various translated extracts of his work found their way into the library and schools of the American Air Service as early as 1922.2 But the formulation of a precision bombing doctrine in the United States raises the question of how deeply his writings influenced early Army Air Corps pioneers.

Yet, Douhet's theories are symptomatic of intellectual attitudes current among military and civilian thinkers in the post-World War I era. They are, therefore, a useful point of departure. Douhet's central, single-minded argument was that the decisive mission for an air force was "strategic" bombing.3 All other missions would only detract from this role and thus were considered counterproductive and a misuse of air resources. Douhet excluded the possibility of air defense, denied fighter aircraft a place in future air forces, and argued that close air support and interdiction were an irrelevant waste of aircraft. The only role for the air force of the future would be that of "strategic" bombing. Douhet further reasoned that the more heavily armed bomber would always prove superior to the fighter in air-to-air combat.4 Underlying Douhet's arguments was a belief that bombardment of an enemy's population centers would shatter his morale and lead directly to the collapse of his war effort.5 Such an attitude underlay most airpower theories between the wars and reflected a fundamental disbelief in the staying power of civilian societies.

Douhet's approach represented the hope that airpower and "strategic" bombing would enable international conflict to return to an era of short, decisive wars and thus would allow Europe to escape the mass slaughter of the last war. However, nowhere in Douhet's writings is there a sense of the technological and industrial underpinnings necessary for air war. This may subconsciously reflect the circumstance that Italy possessed none of the resources, expertise, or industrial requirements for such a war. It is worth noting, however, that most other theorists of the period were similarly reluctant to recognize the technological and industrial complexities of their subject. In retrospect, what makes the present-day conventional wisdom that Douhet was the prophet of airpower so surprising is the fact that his theory denigrated all the major missions of modern air forces except "strategic" bombing. Douhet dismissed air defense, tactical air, airlift, reconnaissance, and air superiority as immaterial. Not surprisingly, he also argued that airpower eliminated the requirement for armies and navies; consequently, there was no need for interservice cooperation.

The theories of Douhet and other early airpower advocates, with their stress on the notion that "strategic" bombing was the exclusive air mission, have exercised a great influence on the development of air forces since that time. Commentators on airpower have all too often tied their subject directly and exclusively to "strategic" bombing, while ignoring other possible applications. Air forces, however, have had to perform a wide variety of tasks other than "strategic" bombing. The real contribution of airpower to final victory in the Second World War lay in the very diversity of its capability. Ironically, the conduct of air operations in that war resembled, in many facets, the strategy of the previous conflict except that attrition came now in terms of aircraft and aircrews rather than mud-stained infantry. Month after month, year after year, crews climbed into their aircraft to fly over the European continent. Those in charge of the air battle came to measure success by drops in percentage points of bomber and fighter losses rather than in terms of yards gained. As one commentator has pointed out:

Despite the visions of its protagonists of prewar days, the air war during the Second World War . . . was attrition war. It did not supplant the operations of conventional forces; it complemented them. Victory went to the air forces with the greatest depth, the greatest balance, the greatest flexibility in employment. The result was an air strategy completely unforeseen by air commanders . . .6

Thus, air war proved to have none of the decisive elements that prewar thinkers and advocates had so confidently predicted. Rather, air superiority and the utilization of airpower to break the opponent proved to be elusive and intractable problems. Enemy air forces could and did live to fight another day despite setbacks and defeat. Only the elimination of their supporting industries and resources, or the occupation of their bases by ground forces, guaranteed complete victory. The accomplishment of the former task proved extraordinarily difficult, while the latter indicated a degree of interdependence among air, ground, and naval forces that airpower advocates had so casually dismissed before the war. If the aircraft had added a new dimension to warfare, it had not changed the underlying principles.

While the concept of "strategic" bombing intrigued prewar air forces, practical factors--the "real world" of interservice relationships, defense priorities, political attitudes, and economic limitations--exercised an important influence over their establishment and development. Entirely different strategic factors determined control over the constitution and strategies of each different European air force, not to mention the Army Air Corps in the United States. To understand the course of those developments as well as the doctrine that guided the employment of airpower in the Second World War, one must grasp not only those factors influencing the air forces themselves but also the larger problems of national policy and strategy that influenced both politicians and the military.

The Luftwaffe, as with all military organizations, was a child of its time. The theories current throughout Europe in the 1920's and 1930's with respect to the future course of warfare in general and air war in particular also were present in Germany. Conversely, and not surprisingly, the peculiar forces that had guided and molded German history exercised their influence on the growth and development of the Luftwaffe. Like their counterparts in other nations, German airmen believed that their air force would be able to exercise an important, if not decisive, impact on a future war. To them, aircraft would be the definitive "strategic" weapon in the coming conflict.7 Those currents within the German military, typified by Erich Ludendorff's conceptions of total war and the mobilization of the population, not only made the mass movement of the Nazi Party attractive to many officers but also led to a greater acceptance of airpower theories among the air force officer corps.8 On the other hand, Germany's location and strategic situation presented the German military with a reality that they could not ignore; one major defeat on land might well seal the fate of the Reich before the Luftwaffe could have an impact. That represented a strategic situation quite different from that facing British and American airmen.

Besides reflecting its society, the Luftwaffe reflected the traditions and values of the Prussian officer corps. Like their brother officers in the army, Luftwaffe officers would prove imaginative, innovative, and highly competent in operational and tactical matters. They would, however, prove themselves lost in the higher realms of strategy and grand strategy, and it would be in those realms that the Reich would founder. After the war, the German generals and admirals would rush into print to prove that defeat had been largely the result of Hitler's leadership. In fact, their strategic concepts in the war proved to be as flawed as had the Führer's. The German generals and admirals aided and abetted Hitler's strategy in 1940; and when it succeeded beyond their wildest expectations with the fall of France, they reacted in awe, suspending reason for a blind faith in the invincibility of the Reich and its Führer. The strategic advice they tendered from that point forward ignored the industrial, economic, and political realities of war between industrialized nations that have existed since the American Civil War. The failure of German grand strategy and mobilization in 1940-41 insured not only the defeat of the German armed forces and the Luftwaffe in the coming years but a catastrophe for the German nation as well. Therefore, exploring the causes for the defeat of the Luftwaffe, the focus of this study, explains more than the downfall of an air force.


1. For a detailed discussion of this point, see the excellent work by Barry D. Powers, Strategy Without Slide-Rule, British Air Strategy, 1914-1939 (London, 1976).

2. Robert F. Futrell, Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine: A History of Basic Thinking in the United States Air Force, 1907-1964 (Montgomery, 1971), pp. 38-39.

3. For the purposes of this study, the use of the term "strategic" bombing will have the word strategic inclosed within quotation marks, as this author believes that the use of the word strategic by airpower enthusiasts to connote a particular form of bombing distorts the classical meaning of the word. The difficulty into which the misuse of this word has led historians might be best characterized by the following question: In May 1940, given Germany's military situation, what was the best strategic use to which the Luftwaffe could be put: supporting the army's drive to the channel and the crushing of French and British land power, or attacking French factories and cities? The answer is clear in a classical sense. Within the existing definitions of "strategic" and "tactical" bombing, it is not so clear.

4. General Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air (London, 1943), pp. 16-17, 44, 55, 218, 239.

5. Edward Warner, "Douhet, Mitchell, Seversky: Theories of Air Warfare," Makers of Modern Strategy, ed. by Edward Mead Earle, 2nd edition (Princeton, 1971), p. 489.

6. William Emerson, "Operation Pointblank," Harmon Memorial Lecture, No. 4 (Colorado Springs, 1962), p. 41.

7. For the basic groundbreaking work on this point, I am indebted to a lecture given in September 1980 at the Air War College, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, by Oberstleutnant Klaus Maier of the Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt, Federal Republic of Germany. See the further discussion and amplification of this point in Chapter I and in my article, "The Luftwaffe Before the Second World War: A Mission, A Strategy?," Journal of Strategic Studies (September 1981).

8. See, in particular, the articles dealing with airpower that appeared in the Militärwissenschaftliche Rundschau from 1936 through 1939.

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Transcribed and formatted by Jerry Holden for the HyperWar Foundation