A FLIGHT OF B-29s, by John McCoy. (Courtesy USAF Art Collection)
There are many dangers associated with passing judgment on the strategic offensive against the Axis in World War II. In the first place, those of us who participated in the plans and operations are undoubtedly biased in our views, because we are appraising our own efforts.
Secondly, even after forty years and a vast amount of research and writing by many people, there are still gaps in available knowledge. Critical judgments on the diversion of forces and effort away from the agreed-upon grand strategy and objectives may fail to give proper weight to the imperative of tactical urgency, as well as to the pressures for changes in strategy from the highest political levels. Nor is it possible to reconstruct the confusion, obscurity, and ignorance which attend all military operations in war.
Finally, it is easy to be misled into underestimating the most implacable of all our enemies -- the ever-present bad weather. Many tons of bombs that were dumped on "other" targets may represent the bombing of secondary targets when the cloud cover at primary ones was heavier than predicted. The degree to which this diminished the efficiency of the various strategic air offensives will, of necessity, remain a matter of speculation. Judgment of operational capability affected selection of vital target systems, particularly since this was a new art in warfare. Moreover, selections were sometimes made by
civilian industrialists whose judgment of industrial effect was highly respected, but who should not have been expected to judge military capability to destroy or paralyze. To cite one example, the Committee of Operations Analysts dropped German electric power from first to thirteenth priority, not because it was not vital, but because they considered its paralysis to be beyond military capability. The relatively small amount of bomb tonnage needed to destroy the German electric power system was actually available and could have been applied.
The Strategic Air War against Germany
A distinguished body of modern historians has reached critical and adverse conclusions about the bomber offensive in Europe. In public places it has been openly proclaimed that the offensive was ineffective, inefficient, and wasteful. No doubt it was more ineffective, inefficient, and wasteful than it need have been. The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey noted that the strategic air offensive could, in some instances, have been better applied. But as both a careful student and a participant, it seems patently clear to me that the Combined Bomber Offensive was a stunning success.
It provided the sine qua non for the invasion of Western Europe. It achieved its intermediate objective of overriding importance, "elimination of effective air opposition." It paved the way for the landings over the beaches and for the breakout from the beachhead. It destroyed the sources of fuel production on which all elements of the Wehrmacht depended. And it succeeded in delaying the arrival of enemy forces in the crucial few days after D-day.
After the invasion and breakout from Normandy, strategic air warfare provided a major contribution to victory in the subsequent combined operations on the Continent. It was a full partner with air supported ground operations in bringing Germany to defeat. One of the most powerful nations in modern history was rendered impotent by air power. The viability of the economic system of Germany was destroyed. In the words of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey: "It was decisive."
Given the actual development of escort fighters, it also seems
certain that any of the three strategic air plans (AWPD-1, AWPD-42, and the CBO) could have been carried out as planned. And the Combined Bomber Offensive could have included the destruction of most of the German powerplants and the disruption of the power distribution system by demolishing the switching stations. Further, it appears to me that the U.S. strategic air forces should not have been dismembered by sending forty percent of the aircraft to the Mediterranean to be used chiefly for theater objectives. The air power could have been better used to destroy and disrupt the electric power system. Coupled to this would be the collapse of the synthetic petroleum system, the loss of nitrogen for explosives, and disruption of the German transportation system. Altogether, they would have produced in May or June of 1944 the chaos which characterized the German war industry and the German state in January, February, and March of 1945.
I also feel it would have been possible to achieve this fatal chaos before the Normandy Invasion. The greatest single deterrent to this achievement was probably the decision to invade North Africa, and later to extend military operations the length of the Mediterranean, including Italy. This was, of course, a political decision. Even during a war, one can not quarrel with the right of political leaders to base major decisions on political rather than military factors. The action was quite within the bounds of American political philosophy. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff had their day in court, expressing with candor and vigor their opposition to this Mediterranean strategy. They contended it was a dangerous diversion from the main military objective -- the defeat of Germany. President Roosevelt made it clear he understood the military reasoning of his professional military advisors. But he had other elements to deal with as well. Thus, the right of the President and Prime Minister Churchill to override the advice of the U.S. Joint Chiefs and reach a political decision, and the propriety of their action in this case, are beyond question. The decision's outcome must be evaluated in terms of political accomplishments. Its effect on military achievements and other political goals should likewise be weighed.
From the military point of view, the decision confirmed the dire
predictions of the U.S. military advisers. The Mediterranean Theater absorbed enormous resources and energies and drew the Allies into an area of conflict unlikely to make a timely and maximum contribution toward military victory over the principal enemy. This diversion of effort and the attendant critical delay of the main offensive were felt most acutely in the prosecution of the air offensive against Germany. In particular, the decision to invade Italy following the conquest of Sicily entailed a massive, time-consuming, and costly campaign that sapped the energies of the available heavy bombers in support. Ultimately, the strategic air bases in the vicinity of Foggia, Italy, were significant assets in the strategic air offensive. Even so, they were not appreciably better situated than those in Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica would have been. There was sufficient base capacity there and in England to accommodate the entire strategic air forces. This delay and diversion were most unfortunate in terms of their preventing the "fatal weakening" of Germany before the Normandy Invasion and adding to the invasion's subsequent cost.
Had the Allied heads of government stood steadfast in support of the plans (chiefly the air plans) they had initially accepted, the strategic air offensive against the vitals of Germany could have been mounted earlier and in greater force. Major air strikes on the Luftwaffe fighter component began in February 1944 after at least a four-month delay. Equal air forces had been on hand in October 1943 but forty percent of them were in the Mediterranean, not under a common strategic air force commander. Had Big Week begun in October, with all available bombers operating under unified command, there could have been six months of air assault and the fatal weakening of Germany prior to the invasion. The collapse of Nazi Germany's industrial and economic heart and the loss of munitions support for its armed forces, which occurred in January 1945, could have been brought about before the invasion.
Despite the delays and the dilution of the strategic air offensive against Germany itself, there is good reason to believe that the "fatal weakening" could still have been produced previous to the invasion, if General Eisenhower and his staff had been willing to accept the urgent recommendations of the strategic air force commanders. The Combined
Chiefs of Staff should not have yielded complete control of the strategic air forces for six months, even in the face of Eisenhower's open threat to resign his command.
In short, the heads of State and the Combined Chiefs of Staff could have supported their decision at Casablanca with the same determination and unwavering persistence of bomber and fighter crews flying to their objectives. The Committee of Operations Analysts could have confined themselves to listing industrial targets in Germany in order of their effect on the state and its war-making capacity, without speculating on operation feasibility. The Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Forces, could have understood the advantages the strategic air offensive could have brought to him. Had they done these things, the final invasion and land operations would certainly have been far less bloody and less costly. The invasion might have been a major mopping-up and occupation operation.
In summary, the greatest U.S. contribution to the strategic concept of air warfare and its practical application was made by Col. Harold L. George. The idea was first developed by George and his associates at the Air Corps Tactical School. Under his guidance as Chief of the Air War Plans Division, the concept was translated into sound strategic plans for employment of U.S. air power. This was done in the face of strong opposition from proponents of surface warfare. The concept envisioned undermining of the enemy's will and his capacity to wage war, by bombing selected industrial, economic, and military systems. The most persuasive testimony of the soundness of Colonel George's precepts was their passing the crucial test of the world's first great air war. The result was a Germany in chaos, bereft at last of the power to subjugate the free people of Europe.
The Strategic Air War against Japan
Further proof of the precepts of strategic air power lay in the assault on Japan. The defeat of that nation and its surrender were without invasion and with military forces still intact. Devastated and its will broken, Japan could not wage war nor protect its people. Unquestionably the Japanese could have continued to resist, killing
thousands of invading Americans and losing thousands of their own. But the potency of the air offensive convinced the Japanese that defense against it was impossible and resistance futile. Even more important, I believe Japan could have been defeated without widespread urban destruction.
The decision to switch to urban incendiary attacks was not necessarily faulty. Persistent cloud cover frustrated efforts to destroy selected targets by optical bombsighting. And the delay in acquiring AN/APQ-7 radar sights would simply have fortified the claims of those who saw invasion as the only reliable option for the defeat of Japan. Moreover, Japanese structures and cities were uniquely vulnerable to incendiary attack. There may have been factors bearing on the decision of which I am unaware. But given the circumstances as they existed, including a dedication to grand strategy based on invasion, I consider the decision to launch incendiary attacks on Japanese cities quite sound. The effects were decisive.
The fault was with the grand strategy. Invasion should not have been regarded as the sine qua non of victory. There was an intense concern with "time," caused by the arbitrary selection of a November 1945 invasion date. Still, there should have been no limitation on strategic operations dictated by the shortage of time. Time was on our side. With every day that passed, the combination of sea blockade, aerial mining, and strategic bombing was bringing Japan nearer to inevitable disaster.
The question of whether grand strategy should have been changed is to a degree academic and pointless. Certainly the Army Air Forces could not have changed it alone. There is, however, another very significant point. The turn to incendiary area attacks and the devastating atomic bombs did not in themselves prove that selective strategic bombing should be abandoned elsewhere or under other circumstances. Selective bombing was decisive against Germany and could have been decisive against Japan. Improvements in weapons and sighting techniques have multiplied the effectiveness of conventional weapons attack perhaps a hundredfold, surmounting the limitations imposed by "our most implacable enemy," the weather. Technology is opening a path toward defense against nuclear missiles. Such a defense
of our military capabilities and most particularly of our urban centers -- the focus of our "national will" -- offers promise of inhibiting nuclear war. If such a condition transpires -- and it is crucially important to the American nation that it should transpire -- then wars of the future may again be determined by accurate delivery of non-nuclear weapons against properly selected targets. Then selective destruction by strategic air forces with conventional weapons may once more be the instrument for "fatal weakening" of a great industrial power and the arbiter that hastens the peace agreement. It is an option we should furnish ourselves.
Ten years before this climactic assault on Japan, I proposed at the Air Corps Tactical School three basic functions for employing armed forces in support of national purpose and national policy. These were (1) the forceful acquisition of enemy territory, either for permanent acquisition or in order to control the enemy nation and its capability to resist; (2) the application of compelling force, without acquisition of enemy territory or the intent permanently to acquire, in order to destroy or paralyze his capability to wage effective warfare and to sustain the "will to resist" of the enemy people; and (3) the provision of defenses which will sustain our own capability to fight and to bolster the will of our people to endure and persist. This framework still has merit for evaluating military requirements and alternatives in support of national purpose.
Invasion of the Japanese home islands was not an imperative requirement. Reviewing the principles and precepts on which AWPD-1 and AWPD-42 rested, it is quite apparent that, in the case of Japan, invasion was merely a form of compelling and not an end in itself. We did not want to hold Japanese territory permanently. If this had been our aim, invasion would have been a must. The Japanese would not have surrendered even after the atomic bombings, had our purpose been to dismember their nation. What we wanted was to prevent the Japanese expansion, strip Japan of its conquests, and remove the menace of Japanese aggression from the Pacific basin. We needed to exert a compelling force to this end, and it could be imposed by sea blockade and air bombardment as well as by invasion. To be sure, temporary occupation by ground forces would be needed while
civil order was reestablished under favorable terms. But forceful invasion was just one of several alternatives. Nor was "unconditional surrender" vital to our war aims.
The destruction of the cities and the enormous loss of Japanese civilian lives were in no sense an objective of the United States Government or of the strategic air offensive. They were means toward achieving the ultimate goal -- capitulation of the Japanese Government. The wholesale destruction of the Japanese cities entailed an unwelcome reconstruction burden after the war, and the excessive loss of life could not be compensated for at all. An alternative would have clearly been preferable, but it would have required the capability to destroy targets in any type of weather. We achieved this capability at the close of the conventional-weapons air war against Japan.
Whether to drop the atomic bomb caused much soul searching. Preparing for the Allied meeting at Potsdam, President Truman asked his chief advisors (military, political, and scientific) if they favored dropping the bomb.
But the problem was more subtle than first appeared. It was not confined to the morality of killing Japanese civilians with a single weapon; it also embraced the potential loss of half a million or more American lives and perhaps ten times that many Japanese lives (civilian and military) through invasion and subsequent battles in Japan. The atomic bomb was needed both to convince the Japanese that further resistance was futile, and to convince the American army that invasion was unnecessary. The result would be a tremendous saving in Japanese and American lives. The "bomb" may not have been needed to bring defeat to Japan, but it was needed to save the Army from its obsession with a costly invasion. And the bomb's demonstrated power would be required after the war to deter Russian domination of Europe.
As for Japan, the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey stated:
The Bombing offensive was the major factor which secured agreement to unconditional surrender without an invasion of the home islands -- an invasion that would have cost hundreds of thousands of American lives. The demonstrated strength of the
United States in the B-29 attacks contrasted with Japan's lack of adequate defense made clear to the Japanese people and to the government the futility of further resistance. This was reinforced by the evident deterioration of the Japanese economy and the impact it was having on a large segment of the population. The atomic bombs and Russian entry into the war speeded the process of surrender already realized as the only possible outcome. It seems clear that, even without the atomic bombing attacks, air supremacy over Japan could have exerted sufficient pressure to bring about unconditional surrender and obviate the need for invasion. Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is this Survey's opinion that certainly prior to 1 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bomb had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.
An Alternative Grand Strategy for World War II
The strategic air offensives against Germany and Japan, carried out in the context of the Allied grand strategy, were magnificent and decisive accomplishments. But, as is always true in history, other courses of action could have been pursued. A different grand strategy might have been equally decisive and perhaps more efficient. One such alternate overall grand strategy for conducting World War II might have had these broad dimensions:
- Strategic offensive against Hitler's Germany, with:
- A sustained and unremitting air offensive against the sources of German military, economic, and social strength through selective bombing of:
- The German aircraft engine industry.
- The German electric power system.
- The German transportation systems.
- The German oil and chemical industries.
- The German antifriction bearing industries -- coupled with air combat to defeat the German fighter forces.
- Provision for (a) invasion of the Continent after completion of the strategic air offensive (if invasion should then be necessary), and subsequent defeat of German ground forces, or (b) occupation of Germany if the air offensive caused collapse of military power or produced surrender.
- Initial defensive operations in the Pacific with minimum diversion of resources from the air war against Germany, and to curb the expansion of the Japanese aggression and provide adequate surveillance measures to prevent surprise attack.
Priority allocation of resources to forces engaged in the European war.
As soon as victory in Europe could be assured, development of forces for the war against Japan and initiation of such military operations for regaining or securing essential base areas as could be undertaken without impairing the success in Europe, coupled with intensive sea operations against Japanese shipping and the Japanese navy.
On defeat of Hitler, reallocation of priorities and transfer of resources to the Pacific for the defeat of Japan, primarily by sea blockade and selective air bombardment, more specifically to complete such of the following as had not been accomplished in phase two:
(1) Principal thrust across the Central Pacific to defeat sea forces and to capture the Marianas, Guam, Okinawa, and Iwo Jima as air bases for the strategic air offensive; the capture of sea bases essential to effective prosecution of a sea blockade and control of essential sea areas. Japanese forces overseas to be cut off from the home islands and left to die or surrender for lack of sustenance.
(2) Conduct of an effective sea blockade of the Japanese home islands, including sinking or capture of Japanese ships.
(3) Conduct of an effective strategic air war to bring about the collapse of Japanese resistance and to undermine the civil and social
structure through selective air attack, using both visual and APQ-7 radar techniques against:
- The Japanese Air Force, through destruction of the Japanese aircraft engine and airframe industry.
- The Japanese electric power system, primarily through destruction of thermal power plants and switching and transformer stations in the power transmission system serving the principal industrial areas.
- The Japanese transportation systems, including Japanese sea transportation (accomplished through aerial mining of home waters, and air attack of shipbuilding and repair facilities and ports), and the principal railroads, which were meager in capacity and very vital and vulnerable.
- Japanese steel industry, through destruction of coke ovens.
- Petroleum storage and refineries.
- The Japanese food resources by destruction of fertilizer chemicals.
(4) Preparation for:
- Incendiary attack of Japanese urban areas, if this became necessary to bring about capitulation of the crippled nation.
- Atomic attack of Japanese urban areas, if necessary.
- Occupation, if Japan surrendered.
- Invasion if all else failed.
Secondary effort: operations in the Southwest Pacific to recapture the Philippines, isolate large bodies of Japanese troops, and impose heavy casualties.
This proposed air strategy for Japan bears an interesting resemblance to that of AWPD-1 for Europe. Both proposals stemmed from the basic concepts developed at the Air Corps Tactical School.
Any serious consideration of this speculation, and any derivation of lessons must take into account these circumstances in which the war was fought:
(1) Security of the American homeland. The United States was in
no danger at any time. There was no threat to the American people and no external leverage directed against the civil will to resist. The primary limiting factor at home was domestic impatience. The industrial machine was intact and unhampered.
(2) We had time to build and react. Our Allies in Europe held the enemy at bay while we armed.
(3) There were major drains on the German economy. The Germans were fighting a major war on the Eastern Front. The efficiency of the U.S. strategic air offensive was conditioned by the strain inflicted upon German industry by the war with Russia, and later by large-scale operations in Western Europe and the Mediterranean. But presumably this pressure on Germany would have continued, even without the American and British invasion of Normandy. And the decisive effectiveness of the air offensive did not depend on the Normandy Invasion.
(4) Japan was an island nation with insufficient resources at home to support the war and to maintain its population. This significantly enhanced the efficacy of the strategic air offensive. Furthermore, Japan's highly flammable cities were very vulnerable to incendiary attack.
Finally, in considering the results of our incendiary attacks versus selective bombing, we must recognize a most unwelcome but nonetheless real concurrent effect. Incendiary destruction of great cities has had a powerful and redundant impact upon the United States Air Force. Forgetting the compelling effectiveness of selective bombing against Germany, Americans remember only the slaughter of a million civilians in Japanese cities. A most grievous outcome of our abandoning traditional "selective target" bombing for incendiary destruction of sixty-six Japanese cities was a deep and pervasive revulsion among the American people against strategic bombing of all sorts. This reaction was more powerful and debilitating to the Air Force than the cumulative efforts of the German and Japanese air forces.
Should civilian reaction be permitted to cripple the United States Air Force by shackling the strategic air offensive completely -- whether or not it is dedicated to selective bombing? If so, it may deny to the
United States its most effective means of compelling by force in just causes. Actually, if we are denied the efficient application of strategic selective bombing, we will have no means of exerting strategic power whatever, short of massive nuclear exchange. To avoid this crippling, the American public must be better informed on the power and efficiency of conventional weapons, and on selective bombing as a decisive factor in winning wars. Selective target bombing in World War II proved to be the best way to destroy the war-making capabilities of a modern industrialized nation. And it is likely to be far less inhumane than the mass killings on the battlefields, or the vengeful actions of an invading army against helpless civilians in cities. Selective bombing with conventional bombs and other weapons is now many times more effective than it was in the Second World War.
Postscript: Forty Years Later
As I reflect back, later, on the only two great strategic air wars the United States has ever fought, many lessons emerge that can be applied to our ever-present need for security. The principles and concepts underlying the American doctrine of selective strategic air warfare bore up remarkably well in the cauldron of World War II. The devastation of Germany and Japan in 1945 testified eloquently to the power of the strategic air strike force, even before the dropping of the atomic bombs. Germany reached economic and industrial collapse while her borders were still intact. Japan surrendered without a single American soldier on her home soil. Among the strategic precepts confirmed by experience are:
(1) Modern great nations are dependent upon industrialized systems for the prosecution of war and for the sustenance of the civil structure. Destruction or crippling of those vital systems through correct strategic targeting can lead to national collapse.
(2) Conventional bombs and warheads can destroy any manmade structure or system. New weapon-delivery systems have improved accuracy so markedly as to multiply the destructiveness of conventional weapons manyfold.
(3) The air strike force did deliver such weapons with adequate accuracy, without incurring intolerable aircraft losses or causing excessive civilian casualties.
(4) Area attack of urban areas is an effective last-resort measure.
(5) Defense of the source of power -- our people -- is essential before an efficient air offensive can be launched or sustained.
(6) Bolstering the national will through defenses is also necessary to prevent collapse of national resolution in crisis. Wars can be lost without fighting at all.
Few will question the first two precepts in terms of World War II, or in regard to present and future applications. As to the third, new conditions must be examined. Air power has basically two limiting factors: the "will of the people" and of their civilian political leaders to apply air power, and the capability to penetrate enemy defenses without intolerable losses.
Limitation stemming from a lack of will on the part of the people and their civilian political leaders is something new to us. That civilian "will" has never before been subjected to danger and threat from a foreign foe. Since the Civil War in the 1860s, our citizens have been safe and secure at home. Civilians suffered because of the loss of friends and relatives, but they were themselves quite safe and secure. A new element confronts Americans now -- national fear.
Fear can bring military defeat by causing our civilian leaders to curb the power of military forces to deal vigorously with an enemy. This is not new. Britain had to swallow the humiliation of Munich because her cities were vulnerable to air attack and her air defenses were not yet ready. Political fear inhibited all effective action by the French military forces in 1939, when the opportunity to act vigorously was ripe. The delay bred of fear led to the defeat and humiliation of France. Whether this outcome was preferable to the casualties that might have ensued from prompt military victory, only Frenchmen can judge.
The same fears restrained British military action early in the war, and much of that inhibition came across the channel from France. It took that vigorous and courageous political leader, Winston Churchill,
to guide the British people in facing up to danger. But even here the great British politician could not have prevailed, had not he and a handful of others provided for a belated but effective air defense system for British cities.
After the war, there was a period of panic in Europe as our Allies realized they were powerless to oppose the massive Russian armies camped in East Germany and poised for a thrust through Western Europe. The new North Atlantic Treaty organization (NATO) set goals of 200 divisions, then 150, then 100, and finally 80, as each country defaulted its required contribution. Finally in desperation and with reluctance, NATO turned to American air power to save it from domination by Russian armies or the fear of Russian aggression. The solution, based on enormous U.S. nuclear superiority and relative safety of American cities, worked admirably for 2 decades until the Russians developed a powerful atomic threat of their own. During these 20 years, the threat of U.S. atomic air power repeatedly frustrated Russian threats on Berlin. But the growth of Russian strategic atomic power has eroded our initial great advantage.
Since then we, too, have felt the debilitating hand of political fear. In Vietnam we would not let our military leaders operate efficiently against North Vietnam until very late in the struggle. We feared escalation would bring in Soviet or Chinese forces. Bombing of selected targets in Hanoi and Haiphong ultimately produced prompt results at the peace table. By then we were weary of the struggle and were settling for withdrawal of our troops and recovery of our prisoners of war. We were not directly afraid of the North Vietnamese. We feared that their sponsor, the Soviet Union, would openly enter the war and perhaps escalate it to an international nuclear exchange.
Our fear may or may not have been well founded. Military strategists discounted the likelihood of Soviet nuclear escalation, since we had a huge nuclear superiority in the early days of the war in Vietnam. Civilian leaders, however, took quite a different view. Their fear may well have been the telling factor that shaped our destiny then. It may do so in the future. Soviet nuclear power is very real indeed today and our cities are defenseless. Our allies in Europe are confronted with a double fear -- Soviet nuclear power and enormous
Soviet conventional power. There probably is no sure and certainly no easy solution. But one requirement stands clearly on the horizon: If we intend to support our rights and aspirations abroad and fulfill our pledges and obligations, we must have the offensive power to compel by our military forces, especially our air forces. We must also have a defense for our cities which can bolster our will and preserve our industry and heritage. Both are needed to give credibility to deterrence against direct attack of the United States, and against imposition of political and economic hegemony over important allies and trading partners. These conditions constitute a great change from the national security we enjoyed in World War II. The strategic air offensive proved decisive in that war. But before it can be used again, we must find a way to create for ourselves the security at home that was our legacy then.
Fortunately, new technology offers fresh hope for devising a system of antimissile defense for our country, and the President has called for a major effort to develop that technology into an effective system. It is the sine qua non of American military capability and will to support our national goals.
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