In the years after World War I, the brain trust of the U.S. Army evolved two conflicting opinions on how best to apply air power in the next war.
The Army Air Corps’ emerging bomber faction believed directly attacking the vital centers of a country, instead of bombing combat troops, was the best solution. This theory held that destroying an enemy’s war-making capabilities, its will to wage war, would lead to victory without the need to risk soldiers or even spend money on them.
These beliefs were incorporated into the phrase “strategic bombing,” pioneered by Giulio Douhet, an Italian military theorist who in the 1920s argued — horrifyingly — for the widespread use of chemical and biological weapons. Douhet later served as chief of aviation under Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
The second group looked to aviation as a kind of mobile artillery to support ground troops. After all, no one ever won a war without troops conquering territory — so the addition of aerial artillery would make soldiers that much more effective.
This thinking coalesced around the phrase “army cooperation” in the United Kingdom and “close air support” in the United States.
In the spring of 1943, American and British forces successfully defeated the German and Italian armies in North Africa. This experience informed U.S. Gen. Pete Quesada and others who wished to experiment in the unperfected art of “close air support” that would pay off once the invasion of France began.
But first, the Allies’ strategic bombing advocates wanted to put their theories to the test.
The occasion came during planning for the invasion of Sicily and mainland Italy. The first stop was Pantelleria, an island that been occupied in the distant past by Carthaginians, Romans, Moors and Normans, and which Mussolini had made into a penal colony.
The onslaught on this small, 32-square-mile island — 10 square miles larger than Manhattan — was known as Operation Corkscrew. It would have been a trivial footnote in history except that it appeared to offer an opportunity to provide ostensible evidence that bombing alone can win wars.
Thus, the bombing of Pantelleria became an experiment, one anticipated to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that bombing would ratify what up to then had been a matter of faith, but would soon offer proof that through bombing alone, surrender was a certainty.
“All these forces were assembled to test the assertion that if you destroy what a man has, and remove the possibility of his bringing more in, then in due course of time, it becomes impossible for him to defend himself,” Maj. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle said.
If bombing alone did not force a surrender, the Allies planned to invade the island by June 11. In an attempt to avoid the need for an invasion, the Allies generated 5,284 sorties, dropping a total of 12.4 million pounds of bombs on Pantelleria.
The Allies’ rain of bombs began on May 8, 1943. As June 11 approached, cannons from five British cruisers and seven destroyers intensified the downpour.
In some respects, the presence of warships contaminated the results of the strategic bombing test, but one could look the other way and pretend the ships’ guns were the functional equivalent of small bombs.
“I want to make the capture of Pantelleria a sort of laboratory to determine the effect of concentrated heavy bombing on a defended coastline,” Gen. Dwight Eisenhower told Gen. George Marshall.
“When the time comes we are going to concentrate everything we have to see whether damage to material, personnel and morale cannot be made so serious as to make a landing a rather simple affair.”
The person in charge of the aerial operation, Lt. Gen. Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, had been convinced of the strategic bombing theory for a long time. He believed that if you knew where to drop enough bombs, you could have a decisive result.
“Spaatz … committed to the assault the entire Strategic Air Force and part of the Tactical Air Force, an armada of four heavy-bomber groups, seven medium-bomber groups, two light-bomber groups, and eight fighter groups, a total of … [1,017] operational aircraft,” Wesley Craven and James Cate wrote in the official history Army Air Forces in World War II.
“Against this concentration the Axis had 900 operational combat planes within range of the island, most of them committed to tasks other than defending Pantelleria.”
On June 11, the Italians surrendered — 33 days after the bombing began.
It’s hard to blame strategic bombing advocates for crediting the aerial onslaught for the surrender — and credit it they did. But the fallacy in this post hoc thinking derives from the belief that the order of events was the cause of the result without considering other factors.
For one, the Allied bombers were virtually unopposed for more than a month. Allied bomber crews would face a far bloodier situation during the strategic bombing campaign in the heavily-defended skies above Germany.
The results were also unanticipated. The 11,000 defending Italian soldiers on Pantelleria dug in deeper and twice refused requests to surrender. However, when Allied troops finally began their approach to the island, the Italians gave up.
Secondly, the Italian troops — along with a handful of Germans — did not mount a robust anti-aircraft defense.
“In the opinion of a small group of captured Luftwaffe technicians, a company of German soldiers would have made a better showing than” all the Italians, a 1959 Air Force historical review stated. Had the defenders been all German, the bombers would have “been less successful.”
But the bombing itself was hardly successful. It inflicted little damage on the island’s coastal defenses and anti-aircraft batteries, and the damage which did exist could have been repaired by a determined crew.
Around 22 percent of the B-17 Flying Fortresses involved in the bombing hit their targets within a 100 yard radius. “For the medium bombers,” the review noted, “approximately 6.4 percent, … [and] for light and fighter-bombers about 2.6 percent.”
The abysmal and unopposed performance should have been a warning of how much worse bombing accuracy would become over Germany with fighter and flak opposition, particularly in the winter months, rather than a celebration of the proof that strategic bombing alone would force a surrender.
Claiming Pantelleria was a strategic bombing success is like a basketball team bragging about successfully making unopposed layups.
According to one of Eisenhower’s biographers, the bombing of Pantelleria was “one of the greatest examples of overkill of the war.”
Eisenhower’s comments to Britain’s Fleet Adm. Andrew Cunningham aboard the cruiser HMS Aurora tends to confirm the “overkill” comments. “Andrew, why don’t you and I get into a boat together and row ashore on our own,” Eisenhower said. “I think we can capture the island without any of these soldiers.”
The experience on Pantelleria also refuted one of Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold’s “truisms” scattered throughout his autobiography, Global Mission. “Normally it takes five years from the time the designer has an idea until the plane is delivered to combatants,” Arnold wrote.
Pantelleria was an exception. A group of A-36 Apaches — a ground support variant of the P-51 Mustang — took part within seven months of the plane’s first flight and less than three years after the P-51’s first flight. A-36s would make 138 sorties over the island, dropping 57.5 tons of ordnance.
Finally, Eisenhower clearly wasn’t convinced that bombers alone could win wars — because he continued to rely on massed ground forces for the invasion of France the following year.
The Allies landed in Sicily and continued to the Italian mainland, landing there on Sept. 3, 1943. Italy capitulated five days later.
The speed with which Italy surrendered, six times faster than Pantelleria, might also be an insight into a country’s “will to wage war.” Forty days prior, Mussolini had been ousted and arrested. That likely had more to do with collapsing Italy’s will to wage war than bombing from above.
This article by James Stevenson originally appeared at War is Boring in 2016.