Key point: Strategists debated the proper role of airpower. Ultimately, cities were partially bombed out of anger even though such attacks did not break Berlin's will.
Behind the strategy that governed the American air war in Europe during World War II lay events and ideas that dated back to World War I and the 1920s. The first strategic bombing raid in 1915 deployed not airplanes but German Zeppelins, rigid airships that dumped ordnance on the east coast of Great Britain. Two years later Germany’s Gotha bomber, a machine capable of a round trip from Belgian bases, struck at Folkestone, a port through which British soldiers embarked for the front. This raid killed 300 people, including 115 soldiers. The bomber had proven itself as a weapon against a military target.
A few weeks later, 14 Gothas attacked London in the first fixed-wing assault upon civilians and their institutions. The dead and wounded totaled 600, and the raid wrought consternation among the public and the government. The British hastily summoned fighter units to gird the cities. To counter the defensive cordon, the Gothas flew night missions. With primitive navigational tools and no bombsights, the raiders drizzled explosives without any pretense of hitting military or industrial targets. Theoreticians of war now had a new factor to enter into equations: the terror of massive strikes upon workers producing the stuff of war.
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Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, who had only earned his wings in 1916, commanded the air force for General John J. Pershing and his American Expeditionary Force in France. Mitchell met Maj. Gen. Hugh M. Trenchard, commander of the Royal Flying Corps, who quickly persuaded the American that the “airplane is an offensive and not a defensive weapon.” Mitchell grasped the possibilities of taking the war behind the lines and plotted a huge raid that would blast German military and industrial targets in the autumn of 1918. A correspondent for the Associated Press wrote, “His navy of the air is to be expanded until no part of Germany is safe from the rain of bombs…. The work of the independent force is bombing munitions works, factories, cities and other important centers behind the German lines…. Eventually Berlin will know what an air raid means, and the whole great project is a direct answer to the German air attacks on helpless and unfortified British, French and Belgian cities.”
World War I ended before Mitchell could demonstrate what his “navy of the air” might achieve, but he continued to expound his ideas. While accepting the need for control of the skies through destruction of the enemy air forces, he said, “It may be … the best strategy to damage and destroy property, and to kill and disable an enemy’s forces and resources at points far removed from the field of battle of either armies or navies.” Implicitly, Mitchell accepted war on civilians.
In 1921 and 1923, Mitchell demonstrated that bombers could sink some anchored warships. The experiments confirmed that aircraft could destroy substantial stationary targets, but admirals scoffed that vessels under way could easily avoid the attacks. The Army dismissed the show as irrelevant for its vision of warfare, which was to slug it out with hostiles while capturing territory.
While Mitchell and Trenchard promulgated their ideas of aerial offensives, a contemporary Italian, General Giulio Douhet, preached that modern war involved the entire society, including “the soldier carrying his rifle, the woman loading shells in a factory, the farmer growing his wheat, the scientists experimenting in the laboratory.” Douhet spoke not only of smashing wartime production but argued, “How could a country go on living and working, oppressed by the nightmare of imminent destruction.” He conceded that such a war without mercy eliminated considerations of morality.
Americans partially bought into the Douhet’s theories. They buried the idea of indiscriminate raids that slaughtered nonmilitary people and emphasized hitting industrial production, transportation facilities, and military centers. Promoters of strategic bombing hypothesized that by destroying the goods of war and the will of the people to resist, conflicts could be shortened and the wholesale carnage of the World War I battlefield avoided.
Mitchell’s outspoken demands for an independent air force ended his career, but acolytes like Henry “Hap” Arnold, Carl Spaatz, and Ira Eaker retained positions in the military hierarchy. They successfully promulgated the doctrine of strategic bombing, accurate targeting of enemy installations and facilities. Toward that end, in 1933 the War Department approved a prospectus for a plane capable of traveling at speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour and with a range of more than 2,000 miles. The new bomber could be used to defend either coast, but if deployed overseas it would require bases in England or sites like the Philippine Islands. Boeing produced the first model of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, which roared through the sky at 232 mph during a 2,100-mile trip from Seattle to Dayton. The advocates of air power were delighted, but unfortunately the prototype crashed and burned on a test flight. Instead of ordering 65, the War Department scaled back to a mere 13.
To carry out daylight precision bombing the Army adopted a tool ordered and then discarded by the Navy as unsuitable for dive-bombers: the Norden bombsight. In the crucial seconds over an objective, a bombardier manipulated the device to guide the plane as he lined up the target and then released the explosives.
“I Can Shoot Those Things Down Very Easily.”
Douhet also taught his disciples that heavily armed bombers in mass formations could operate by day against fighter defenses. The publicity on Boeing’s creation hailed the new airplane as a “Flying Fortress,” but it was hardly as impregnable as the name indicated. The first B-17s lacked armor plate to protect the crew, carried only five machine guns, and made no provision for a tail gunner. The B-17 faithful believed that was sufficient since, in their minds, the aircraft could attain altitudes beyond reach of interceptors. In the late 1930s, a hot shot fighter pilot, Lieutenant John Alison, confounded the assurance of promoters of the early B-17 when he convincingly demonstrated he could push his fighter close enough to the weaponless rear of a Flying Fortress and shoot it down. His feat, however, did not immediately persuade the bomber command to install a tail gun. Nobody in the Air Corps was going to listen to a pursuit pilot, a second lieutenant who claimed, “I can shoot those things down very easily.”
The conviction that strategic bombers could operate unmolested by enemy aircraft influenced the development of U.S. fighters. Escorts to protect the big planes would be unnecessary, and the design for a fighter focused upon a machine that would protect the ground forces. Not until the Battle of Britain in 1940 and the appearance of the Messerschmitt Me-109 did the American experts realize that the speed and altitude of an enemy fighter challenged their assumptions about the invulnerability of the B-17. The standard American fighter, the Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk—a good gun platform, while speedy in a dive—had a limited ceiling and rate of climb. It would not be deployed in the European Theater.
Desire for an interceptor with longer range and performance higher in the sky had belatedly resulted in the twin-engine Lockheed P-38 Lightning, and aeronautical engineers returned to their drawing boards to blueprint what would become the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt and the North American P-51 Mustang. At the same time manufacturers modified the big bombers, now including the Consolidated B-24 Liberator, which had slightly more range and bomb weight capacity than the B-17, adding better means to defend themselves: up to 12 .50-caliber machine guns, a tail gunner, and armor for the crew. When the enemy changed tactics during World War II and began head-on attacks, a chin turret would be added to give greater firepower forward.
From the start of World War II, the British intended to follow Trenchard’s maxims on carrying the war to the industrial centers and the population of the foe. In May 1940, when the Royal Air Force attempted daylight strategic raids by its fleet of bombers, German ack-ack and interceptors killed more flyers than the enemy lost on the ground. B-17s purchased from the United States carried out a few daylight missions with dismal results and curdled RAF enthusiasm for the Flying Fortress. American analysts noted that the Brits insisted on operating above 30,000 feet, which overloaded the oxygen systems, froze weapons, and reduced airspeed, making the planes vulnerable to the Me-109s. The RAF B-17 missions relied on an inferior bombsight, and the maximum number of aircraft in formation was a mere four. The British, using their own bombers, switched to nighttime assaults, on industrial areas. They made no pretense of discriminating between residential neighborhoods and factories.
The British tried to convince the Air Corps that it too should operate after dark. That would have negated the entire basis for the designs of the B-17 and B-24 and wasted the hundreds of hours training of bombardiers with the Norden device. Faith in daylight precision bombing thus remained intact as the United States entered World War II. There was no disagreement with the British on the purposes and potentials of air power. Maj. Gen. Ira Eaker, who headed the American bomber command in 1942, said, “After two months spent in understanding British Bomber Command, it is still believed than the original all-out air plan for the destruction of the German war effort by air action alone was feasible and sound and more economical than any other method available.” He did agree that since the resources then available were limited, a ground effort might be required.