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.