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The New International, January 1945


Walter Jason

Airpower in World War II

What Is Its Strategic Role?


From The New International, Vol. XI No. 1, January 1945, pp. 28–29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The most significant and controversial dispute in military circles everywhere has been over the role of airpower in modern warfare. Airpower had a stormy development in its early days. Its place in World War II is by no means a settled question. In America during the 1920’s a public rupture between General Billy Mitchell, pioneer advocate of airpower, and the War Department brought the general’s court martial. In Europe the hectic career of Mitchell was paralleled by Douhet, the brilliant Italian military theoretician, who spent a year in prison for his fervency in demanding that airpower be given a trial. Today Major de Seversky, author of Victory Through Airpower, contributes many ideas that keep alive the dispute over airpower.

The confusion on the subject was illustrated recently by two separated but related events. The bombing of Cassino failed to pulverize the town and drive the Germans out. It required a sharp struggle on the part of the infantry to do the job. Old-line military men rushed to print to remark, “The infantry is still the queen of battle.” This was supposed to put airpower proponents in their place. A few months later, General Montgomery, an infantryman, credited the British break-through at Caen to airpower. “Where properly applied, airpower is decisive!” he exclaimed. And what happened to the queen of the battle? The question doesn’t end there.

Questions of political and military prestige have been deeply involved in the dispute. Lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers have been involved. Nor was the sordid hand of Vested Interest missing. General Mitchell publicly charged that airpower developments in America were hindered by steel and auto interests seeking to preserve important and profitable government contracts.

Careless statements of airpower proponents; general misunderstanding of the use of airpower; rock-bound conservatism of the powerful brass hats, always resisting innovations; and the swift twists and turns of world events: all these factors combined to confuse even more than ever before the so-called public on the question of airpower. When Major de Seversky writes: “On the basis of the Battle of Britain, students in America jumped to the conclusion that airpower alone cannot achieve a definitive victory over an enemy,” it just doesn’t make sense to people who see a vast Army and Navy, working with a powerful airforce, struggling hard to defeat Germany militarily, while the Russian Army rolls in from the East. For de Seversky’s statement implies obviously that the Army and Navy aren’t necessary.

In fact, Douhet, the original and certainly the most influential apostle of airpower in the world, was accused precisely of such views. His exact views, not those often attributed to him in the American press, are stated succinctly by him:

When I say that the aerial arm will be the decisive one I do not mean that the aerial arm will be the sole factor. If I were to maintain that the aerial arm will be the sole factor of victory, logically I would have to ask for the abolition of the army and of the navy, for if victory can be determined by a single factor, and that factor the aerial arm, the other two would be completely useless. Consequently I am completely in accord with Engineer Ettal. In the Franco-Moroccan War, aviation was not the sole factor of victory. I will say more: neither will it be in future wars.

Douhet, Mitchell and other pioneers of airpower argued for a realization that airpower would play a prominent or decisive role in the next world war. General staffs were accustomed to planning their strategy of warfare on the basis of two factors: land forces and sea forces. The advocates of air-power insisted that airpower be introduced as the third factor vital to any serious calculations of future warfare. They insisted, furthermore, that just as armies and navies had special strategic roles in their respective spheres, land and sea, that air forces had a similar role to play in the skies. The views of the airpower proponents were accepted proportionally by various nations according to their military needs, industrial capacity, and political situation in world affairs. And the military minds of the various nations reflected the status of their nation in world politics.

Airpower in Europe and America

The German general staff took the airpower views seriously. They grasped the potentialities of the new weapon, and sought to work out theories of strategy to enable proper use of airpower. Tactical employment of airpower was especially given attention, and brought, as we shall see, effective results. Russia’s military was air-minded, too. Russian economy, however, was unable to furnish the vast quantities and the quality of planes that Germany could produce. Stalin depended on vast manpower superiority and lend-lease equipment to rebuild Russia’s war machine after the Nazi blitz successes in 1941. The Royal Air Force, achieving independence as an arm of the military machine, concentrated on the only aspect of airpower the politics of England allowed – defensive planes. The British Spitfire which resulted, still is considered the best fighting plane in the world. In America airpower was a stepchild. At best it was considered an auxiliary. Only after the Bismarck, the Prince of Wales and the Repulse were sunk in battles against planes did Navy brass hats, for example, quit their campaign to discredit the use of airpower. (Major de Seversky has written an excoriating chapter on the record of the American military in this connection which is worth reading.) By and large, the record of the military in regard to air-power is similar to its record on the reception of all new weapons and ideas. Only the hardest knocks of world events brought changes.

Even today airpower is denied its proper place in the councils of strategy, although day-to-day events hammer home the vital role of the air forces. Confusion between strategic and tactical employment of airpower still flourishes. In the campaign of the Lowlands, which led to Dunkerque, the co-ordination of the various arms of the Nazi military machine was a classic example of the tactical employment of airpower; as part of a team in battle. The entire campaign was literally letter perfect, equalled in military history only by the ancient battle of Cannae. In a tactical sense, airpower can be called “artillery of the air.” That is how General Montgomery used it at Caen. It was an effective substitute in that particular instance for the usual artillery barrage.

It would be considered silly indeed to argue whether a rifle, a machine gun, a mortar, or a Browning automatic were the most important weapon in an infantry company. Each has a ro1e; each plays a separate and supplementary part to another weapon. Likewise in arguing about tanks, anti-tank guns, artillery infantry and engineers as part of a combat team – each is part of a machine. In land fighting in this war the airplane is a new weapon which has been added to this machine. How each weapon is used and what relative weight each has in a battle depend on factors like weather, terrain, strategic objectives, etc. In jungle warfare, strafing by airplanes has little effect compared to strafing on the rolling plains of Poland. Tanks are one thing in swamps and another on plains. There is no fool-proof mixture, guaranteed at all times to produce the same result, like a recipe for a cocktail. Concrete battle conditions alone determine in each particular case whether the plane, the tank, the artillery or the private is decisive.

Tactical Use of Airpower

The bombing that didn’t work at Cassino achieved much better results at Caen. At Cassino the air force was called upon to do the impossible. Functioning as “air artillery” it was ordered to wipe out German resistance in that town. If a ground artilleryman had received such an order he would properly have muttered, “Headquarters has gone nuts.” But the enthusiasts of airpower, allowing themselves to be misled by the over-optimistic head of the American Air Forces, sought to do the impossible. It took the infantry some hard fighting to finish that particular job. At Caen the British plan called for surprise to be achieved by the use of airpower instead of an artillery barrage to launch the break-through attack. It worked. The British tank and infantry forces didn’t expect the air forces to wipe out the enemy. They expected and received co-operation in reducing his strength. This is a good example of proper tactical employment of the airplane as a weapon.

Today the German Stuka dive bomber is pretty much in disrepute. Superior Allied and German planes have reduced its effectiveness to almost zero. Yet in its day, and in relation to the airpower of the world at the time, the Stuka was a perfect weapon for tactical employment in co-ordination with other arms. It did terrorize the civilians, creating panic and road jams. It did frighten inexperienced soldiers. But in pitting this weapon against the modern fighting machines of the British and American air forces, the Nazi high command showed how it had fallen into the usual rut of military minds and thus found itself with an outmoded weapon.

Strategic use of airpower involves planning a campaign via air against enemy industrial centers, and transportation-communication facilities. This is done apart from the tactical employment of air fleets in co-ordination with armies and navies in battles or campaigns. It adds a third dimension to warfare. It attempts to “knock out the enemy by air.” The first major attempt along these lines, was the German attack on England, the so-called “Battle of Britain,” from August 8 to October 31, 1940. Its failure brought the assertions from the military opponents of airpower that “airpower has failed.” And bigger and better armies and navies were planned. In reality, the question was not settled by the Battle of Britain. The Nazi attack was actually a gamble on the immediate psychological effect of large-scale bombing on a people. That is why London was the main target. It was a hit-and-miss, hit-and-pray-for-success expedient. For the German military machine had not conceived of the possibility existing either on land or in the air which actually did exist – the relative helplessness of England. German bombers, poorly armed and armored, flew by the hundreds across the channel, unprotected by fighter escorts and operating without sound strategy or tactics. The result was the massacre of the Luftwaffe. The qualitatively superior British Spitfires had a field day against the hordes of bombers. Over 2,375 German planes were downed, and that did not include operational losses which were probably equal in number. The Battle of Britain revealed that the Nazis had developed airpower but had not developed a sufficiently rounded-out theory of employing it, strategically as well as tactically.

The question remains: could strategic use of airpower be decisive in winning a war? Or, more exactly, could Germany be bombed out of the war? The question will never be answered. RAF plans to do that were never carried out. The Russian Drang Nach Westen and the invasion of Festung Europa have removed the question from a possibility to one of those historical “if” questions. In so far as the strategic use of airpower has been carried out, the effect in Germany has been serious. How serious it has been will be known definitely only after the conclusion of the present war. Certainly airpower has won for itself a seat at the strategy council table. A successful invasion of Europe without clear-cut air superiority would have been impossible. The most die-hard infantry or naval officer perforce must admit that today. (It is ironical that this was actually established at Dunkerque as a sort of reverse proof. British local air superiority enabled the badly mauled army to escape successfully.)

It may not be answered, but the question still remains. The flight of the B-29’s against Japan’s industrial centers once again raises the whole issue of the strategic use of airpower. The Navy men in the “Battleships vs. Airplanes” argument are silent. But the majority still relegate the airforce to an auxiliary arm of the fleet. The work of the B-29’s challenges this theory. Suppose, for example, that the millions of dollars poured into the construction of battleships at seventy times the cost and time of the construction of a B-29 had been used for producing B-29’s and even more powerful planes. Would island-crawling be necessary? Would the Tarawas and Saipans occur with such deadly regularity? Always in the past the airpower proponents have been shouted down in asking such questions. Each time, if not completely right, they turned out to be more right than their opponents. Even the “crackpot” idea of rocket planes arises to haunt the self-assured military minds. Tomorrow assuredly there will be more surprises. Living events are more powerful than the most rock-bound military theories.

The simple fact of the matter is that technological developments of modern industrial society inevitably made themselves felt in the most conservative of social institutions, the military machine. The airplane represents the apex of this technological development. The sky is still the limit to its future. Until the world shakes off a social system in which wars are an integral part, it is inevitable that airpower, as the expression of industrial and economic might, should play a more and more prominent role in warfare and in the armed truce called peace. The airpower advocates have been on the side of historic developments, so to speak. That is why their record looks so good as against the military mind desiring to live always in the status quo.

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