Did ‘airpower theory’ do more harm than good before the outbreak of – and during – the Second World War?
‘Air power theory’ had a harmful affect on foreign relations and military planning both before and during the Second World War. With the word limit in mind, the essay will focus on the European theatre and more specifically on the roles of Britain and Germany, as the principal and rising powers. Interwar air theory needs some definition, there were many theorists and the similarities between their arguments will form the basis of the definition of ‘air power theory’ used in this essay is discussed in the first paragraph.
This theory, with its over riding belief that by bombing the enemy you can force them to capitulate, was proven incorrect within the first years of the Second World War. The perceived successes of air power in Iraq, the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, and the 1937 Guernica bombing, convinced many that air power theory could destroy the will of a nation to continue fighting, this allowed its harmful affect to continue into the war. There are the foundations that the theory would establish itself. Despite this, fear of air bombardment was prevalent and visible through both diplomatic and military actions.
Air Power Theory was “warmly embraced” prior to the full translation of Douhets The Command of the Air and this embracement went far beyond military thinkers. The out break of the Second World War cannot be solely blamed on its influence, however, the theory certainly guided Britain’s decision making through the critical stages of the Munich crises. Militarily it also allowed a ineffective bombing campaign to be launched in the latter stages of the war.
A more rational, fact based evaluation, would have shown many of the theories point to be incorrect. They would lack sufficient firepower, until the use of atomic weaponry 1945, to deliver a knock out blow. There are many factors involved in war time decision making, but air power theory was the over riding principal in the minds of many politicians and military leaders.
The works of Mitchell, Trenchard, and Douhet are the embodiment of interwar airpower theory. Although their views are not always the same, there are consistent points they agree on. In 1921 General Giulio Douhet published his famous work, The Command Of The Air. It was not fully translated into English until 1943 but abridged versions were often quoted in the Air Force Review which allowed his ideas to take hold.
Douhet argued not that airpower made land and sea forces redundant, but that “the complete destruction of the objective”, he wrote in reference to both military and non-military strategic targets, “has moral and material effects…which may be tremendous”. A destruction that could only be achieved with aeroplanes. In essence, Douhet argued that a strong independent air force, with ‘command of the air’, would be able to cut off both the navy and army from their supplies and strike a significant moral blow to the civilian population forcing an opponent to surrender.
A knock out blow to a capital city such as London would force a nation to capitulate before suffering extreme damage. Similarly, Brigadier William ‘Billy’ Mitchell argued in 1930 that the destructive effect of air power would be appalling and would bring about a rapid and decisive victory. In a critical difference between the two theorists, Mitchell refused to accept that the bomber could not be stopped.
Mitchell argued for equal offensive and defence measures. Douhet and Mitchell held similar ideas, a strong independent air force is needed to deter enemy attack, and that an offence was the best for of defence. Douhets sums this up, he states, “the striking power of a aeroplane is so great,… for protection it needs a greater striking force for defence rather than for attack”, and this is interwar air power theory in its purest form.
The idea of devastating air power was prevalent within Britain. Trenchard had been the first to advocate the “sustained and continuous attack on one large centre after another” in 1916/17, a idea that Churchill agreed with having seen reports from the Kurdish rebellion. Theorists such as Fuller and Liddell Hart also that argued air power would have a devastating impact on civil will and moral. In 1925, Liddell Hart took to airpower as a method of exploiting the enemies weak points (Douhet would call these strategic nodes) and negating the need for deadly frontal assaults that politicians and public alike, dreaded. Certainly they took lessons from Britains colonial efforts and later the Abyssinia invasion.
The success of the RAF in defeating the Kurdish rebellion of 1920, particularly the mass hysteria caused by an raid over Suleymaniya, in which the entire village was destroyed, convinced the British establishment that airpower could produce a proverbial ‘knock out blow’. Analysis of the raids was flawed. The Kurds continued their resistance despite Suleymaniya for many years. Despite this the core idea of a ‘knock out blow’ had taken, Smith goes further, describing a “national heart attack”, and this was the perception of airpower theory.
A theory which since 1945 has been described, inaccurately, as bomber theory. If the planes of 1920 could destroy villages, the march of technology would allow full European air forces to destroy European cities. Stanley Baldwin, a prominent member of the British parliament, declared in 1932, “no power on earth can protect him from being bombed… the bomber will always get through”. Baldwin would follow this comment with a speech to parliament in 1934, in which he gave the conclusion of a Ministerial Committee, he stated, “When you think of the defence of England you no longer think of the chalk cliffs of Dover, you think of the Rhine”, offence is the best form of defence.
Parliament had tacit accepted Douhets ideas that the plane posed a threat to every city. Britain had been shaken by air power theory, before the Hitler had publicly admitted Germany was rearming. The German bombing of Guernica in 1937, film of which would resonate throughout European cinemas, would cement this belief and fear of the destructive power of aerial bombardment. It would convince many that a strong bomber force would be Britains only response if war broke out. No longer could a strong Navy be responsible for security. By 1937, air power theory had cast itself a place inside the military and diplomatic worlds of every major power. It has become the over riding and accepted philosophy, one based on incorrect analysis.
Having established that the air power theory had become a critical part of governmental decision making, we will now turn to the events leading up to the Second World War. By 1935, Germany, had become the principal enemy for both Britain and France, and Hitler successfully used air forces, both military and civilian, to his advantage. Freed from the shackles of Versailles the Luftwaffe was a sign of its renewed strength. During the 1936 Olympics, visiting dignitaries were shown flybys of new aircraft and the American military observer, Colonel Lindbergh, made the first of his many visits, meeting with factory owners.
He would even fly a new combat fighter in 1938; a master piece of aggressive diplomacy, for Lindbergh would later report that Germany possessed a far greater strength than she did. During a unsettling time for international diplomacy this only stoked the fear of a sudden knock out blow. For the hysteria concerning the Luftwaffe it lacked the real ability to carry out the theory. With the end of WW1, Germany had initially taken to the ideas of Douhet with Seeckt and Wever, both ardent supporters, influential in rebuilding the Luftwaffe. Wever, in particular, had ordered heavy bombers, and set the foundations for a strong aerospace industry. His death in June 1936 would be a significant blow to German strategic air power.
His successor, Goering, had placed a new focus on lighter and cheaper dive bombers for close support operations. This, unfortunately, because of Lindberghs reports, was irrelevant. Real harm would reveal itself through British and French diplomacy climaxing in the Munich Crises. The diplomats at Munich have often been described as guilty men this assessment ignores their fear of a sudden aerial bombardment. When Chamberlain met Hitler on 15th September 1938 he did so with one aim, to protect British cities from aerial attack. It was Chamberlains first flight, terrifying as it must have been, with the over stated intelligence of Lindbergh’s reports.
He had also accepted the 1937 Inskip report. The Inskip report had given a high priority to air defence and was the polar opposite to the aggressive defence doctrine accepted elsewhere – but assumed Germany would start a conflict with the destruction of London and Paris. Hitler had indeed threatened Schuschnigg, the Austrian Chancellor, with the destruction of major cities if he did not bow to his demands. The subsequent fly over of the combined Austrian and Germany air forces was a symbolic mark, Germany had a air force was not afraid to use it.
Convinced that Britain could not defeat Germany, nor defend the British or French mainland, Chamberlain looked to make the best out of a bad situation. British policy, guided by ‘conceptions of air power’ sought to defend home territory first. An aim that was incompatible with the defence of Europe. With the primary focus on trade and defence of empire the fate of Czechoslovakia was of little concern; Inskip had convinced parliament that Germany could destroy London if her demands were not met.
Anschluss with Austria, in which Hitler had threaten the destruction of Prague, had set the mood for aggressive German action. A.J.P Taylor points out neatly, “Chamberlains policy rested on the dogma that Hitler was acting in good faith”, unknown at the time, Hitler was not. Chamberlain was guilty of one crime, that is, believing the threat of aerial theory. War broke out in 1939.
The climax of war time air power theory was set to materialise with the strategic bombing campaigns launched by both sides. From their earliest planning meetings in March 1941, Britain and America had taken air power theory as the basis of a joint war effort. They agreed a sustained air offensive was necessary in the event of general war. The Blitz was the first attempted use of air power theory to knock a country out of a war.
The early ‘blitzkrieg’ had been a success, but relied heavily on tactical air power and the Luftwaffe would prove un-capable of breaking Britain. Hitler, having used the threat successful to force Anscluss in 1938, was convinced the Luftwaffe could destroy the British will to fight. The Luftwaffe under Goering had cancelled orders for the necessary heavy bombers; the Allies were however convinced of the need for specific strategic air craft and the B-17 and Lancaster were in development prior to the outbreak of war. To blame the German inability to destroy British moral in the Battle of Britain on a lack of sufficient bombers, as Richard Overy has tried, ignores a fundamental problem with applying air power theory.
To trust air power theory is to believe it can break civilian moral. Van Creveld is convinced the Douhet believed this because he based his ideas on the weaker and less resiliant Italian public. British theorists at the time certainly used a racial element in their writing, convinced that the “Boche would squeal first”, but would not admit the damaging realist they did not possess the necessary firepower to significantly damage the enemy.
In August 1942 Churchill further confirmed his belief in the theory; “If we use it with determination and concentration… We [can] smash the German machine by the ‘bomber blitz’”. Similarly the Americans had build doctrine based on the fundamentals of Mitchell, the Allies had a false hope in the use power, despite the German failure over the skies of Britain. Even with ‘command of the air’, which was achieved with long range fighters such as the Mustang, the losses to Bomber crews were horrific.
The night bombing offensive between 3 September 1943 and 2 September 1944 for example cost Bomber Command 17,479 flying personnel killed in action and several hundred thousand civilians. Despite these loses Germany, nor Britain in 1940, civilian moral was not dented sufficiently to force capitulation. The human and material cost of applying air power theory was enormous, for only useful limited effect. German production continued to rise despite strategic air raids. The harmful effect of Douhets ideas was taking its toll. Until the development of the atomic bomb, conventional air power could not achieve the ’knock out blow’ desired. It was a theory fundamentally flawed when applied with conventional technology.
Although it raised many moral questions, the use of two atomic bombs on the 6th and 9th of August 1945 brought the Pacific War to an early close. Mitchell had argued that “the influence of air power on the ability of one nation to impress its will on another in armed contest will be decisive”.
Despite this overwhelming show of destructive power the Japanese Supreme War Council was still torn by indecision on 9th August. It took the direction of the Emperor himself, in a unprecedented move, to force a surrender upon his people. Japan had surrendered after decisive application of air power, a positive solution indeed. With atomic bombs, the proverbial ’knock out blow’ had become a reality.
‘The bomber will always get through’ was Baldwin’s statement in 1932. The principals of air power theory were prevalent throughout both military and diplomatic decision making. Despite the meagre results of interwar air power, stoked by the fires of Guernicina and the Lindbergh reports, Britain and France bowed to a theory which until 1945 was unattainable. Although the outbreak of the Second World War cannot be narrowed down solely to the theory, it was not far from the minds of parliament, that they accepted the Inskip report shows real concern.
The propaganda efforts of Hitler also secured him a bloodless Anscluss, the condition of the Luftwaffe being a irrelevant factor. Fear of the bomber guided the foreign policy of European countries to appease Hitler and forced a reorganisation of their priorities; away from the network of defensive alliances, towards national security solely. The climax of this fear is undoubtedly the Munich disaster, which set in motion the wheels of war. The questionable results of Bomber Command and USAF air offensive did more harm than measurable good, a faith in the ideas of Douhet was blinding those in command into an unnecessary waste of men, material, and finance.
The application of nuclear power, finally, proved Douhets theory was a measurable reality. Overall the picture is bleak. The expense on men and material was for little gain. Had Baldwin known the facts and stated, as Mitchell had argued, that the bomber will not always get through, history, without the harmful affect of air theory, would be significantly different.
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