The Combined Bomber Offensive: Classical and Revolutionary,
Combined and Divided, Planned and Fortuitous
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Robert F. Futrell
One of the problems of the podium as opposed to the pen is to stimulate an audience which may be more receptive to generalizations than to exact details. To emphasize his message a speaker tends to make his blacks a bit blacker and his whites a little whiter. Let me hasten to say that Dr. Frankland's paper is intended to inform rather than to titillate, but I believe that he has in some instances used fluorescent rhetoric where a drab grey of tedious evaluation might have been more appropriate. I agree with his apparent belief that we can understand history only when we can arrange often diverse facts into categories of meanings, but I suggest that these categories ought to be very seriously considered in order to insure that they do not do too much violence to exact fact.
When Dr. Frankland speaks of the "classical and revolutionary" backgrounds of the Combined Bomber Offensive, it seems to me that he follows the usual interpretation and assumes that the doctrines of the British and American proponents of strategic air power were very much the same. In an earlier address he has defined "classical warfare" as "the clash of offence and defence, or, in yet another word, the battle." In terms of this definition, Brigadier General "Billy" Mitchell could better be described as a "classical innovator" than as a "revolutionary," since he emphasized the need to control the air by air battle as well as his new theory of making war by strategic air bombardment against an enemy's will and capability to wage war. In later years, Major Alexander P. de Seversky has observed that, as a former Russian naval air officer, he was always strongly influenced by the sea power lessons of Mahan. Close reading of Seversky's Victory through Airpower (1942) will reveal more of the classical Mahan than of the revolutionary Douhet.
It is doubtful that American strategic air power advocates considered that aviation had "overturned the established principles of war." At the Air Corps Tactical School, such men were a little dubious about Major General J. F. C. Fuller's principles of war (objective, mass, offensive, economy, movement, surprise, simplicity, security, and cooperation) because the principles had generally been written about as if they pertained only to the conduct of operations on or near a ground battlefield. But Mitchell had learned the importance of applying these principles to aviation from General Trenchard in 1917, and in 1936 the Air Corps Tactical School was teaching: "Air operations, like other military operations, are governed by the same fundamental principles that have governed warfare in the past."
The revolutionary theory of strategic bombing came into the U.S. Army Air Corps during the 1920s both from independent thinking and from Douhet. The influence of Douhet came first through Mitchell (as Colonel Hurley shows in his biography)' and then directly from a study of Douhet's writings. The real breakthrough in strategic air thought occurred during the Ohio maneuvers of 1929, when interceptor aircraft gave little difficulty to penetrating bombers. In reporting the maneuvers on 26 May 1929, Major Walter H. Frank, the Tactical School's assistant commandant, expressed agreement with Douhet's position "that an air force is principally an offensive weapon rather than a defensive one." In the classrooms at Langley Field in 1930, Lieutenant Kenneth Walker stated the bomber credo: "A well organized, well planned, and well flown air force attack will constitute an offensive that cannot be stopped." Following their move to Maxwell Field, Tactical School bombardment instructors worked out their industrial fabric theory of national power. As the key economic targets surfaced in AWPD-1 in August 1941, they were judged to be electric power, transportation, oil, and petroleum. And by 1935 the full-blown theory of high-level, daylight, precision bombing of pinpoint targets was being taught.
At the same time that the strategic bombing doctrine was maturing, circumstances made U.S. Army Air Corps thinking more pragmatic than dogmatic. Long-range bombers had to be justified for coastal defense—to repel hostile naval forces approaching Vancouver and Nova Scotia under the RED-ORANGE plan. As established in 1935, the GHQ (General Headquarters) Air Force was expected to commence battle before friendly ground armies made contact with invasion forces, but when the surface battle was joined all aviation—including long-range bombers—would support the friendly ground armies. Air Corps bomber, pursuit, and attack groups were assigned to the GHQ Air Force rather than to separate bomber, fighter, and army-cooperation commands. At the Air Corps Tactical School the "bombardment invincibility" doctrine was at its zenith between 1934 and 1936, but pursuit instruction was restored to equal emphasis in the curriculum after 1936.
In the late 1930s American strategic air enthusiasts remained confident that the bomber could penetrate and destroy, but they indicated that they would like the added assurance of long-range escort fighters—provided they could be developed, which appeared unlikely. Spurred on by the nagging doubts of General H. H. Arnold that a bomber could penetrate without fighter escort, the Air Corps and Army Air Forces devoted an extraordinary amount of attention to the development of a long-range pursuit aircraft. The search for such a plane, which the Air Board of 1939 described as a "pursuit fighter" designed "for the accompaniment and protection of bombardment aviation when engaged on missions exposed to effective attack by hostile pursuit," brought forward a progression of large, twin-engine, turret equipped "X" and "Y" model aircraft. The most notable were the Bell YFM-1A Airacuda, the Lockheed XP-58, and the Northrop XP-61. Of these planes only the P-61 became operational and it turned out to be a night fighter rather than a bomber escort. The efforts to develop a special escort fighter failed, and it was also true that Arnold's periodic demands for increased bomber protection usually ended in new studies looking toward increased bomber firepower and better defensive formations. But I think that it is pertinent that the Army Air Forces kept a long-range fighter development project always warm—even if only on a back burner.
When the great Army Air Forces planners—Hal George, 0. A. Anderson, Walker, Hansell, Vandenberg, Kuter—prepared AWPD-1 in August 1941, they were careful to keep a number of options open. Three lines of U.S. air action were possible against an already strained German economy and society. The first required destruction of Germany's electric power and transportation systems, oil and petroleum resources, and the undermining of morale by attacks against civilian concentrations. The second line of action— representing intermediate objectives that might be essential to accomplish the principal effect—required neutralization of the Luftwaffe by attacks against its bases, aircraft factories, and aluminum and magnesium production. The third line of action—which might have to be undertaken to safeguard operating air bases—included attacks against submarine bases, surface seacraft, and invasion ports. The planners advocated a concentration of daylight, precision attacks against specific targets. They did not favor attacks against cities unless their inhabitants were known to be low in morale, either because of suffering or deprivation, or because of a recognition that their armed forces could not win a favorable decision. The planners believed that by relying on speed, massed formations, high altitude, defensive firepower, armor, and simultaneous penetrations at many places, heavy bombers could make deep penetrations of German defenses in daylight hours. But they urged that it would be well to develop a large, heavily armed, escort fighter. The planners suggested that a transcendent six-month air offensive against Germany might eliminate the need for a surface invasion, but if the invasion proved necessary for exploitation of the air victory, it should not be undertaken until the air campaign had been completed.
Where American air doctrine in some measure visualized a unity of air power and permitted optional employments, it seems to me that British air doctrine—as manifest in organization and equipment—was somewhat less flexible. I am led to believe that the Royal Air Force's Bomber and Fighter Commands were quite separate organizations. Where American bombers could make a fight for air superiority, the British bombers could not and possibly were never intended to do so. Witness Air Marshal Sir John Slessor's statement made in 1936: "Air superiority is only a means to an end. But it happens that to go straight for the end is best, in fact the only sure way of achieving the ends." While the Spitfire was a remarkable interceptor, it seems to have been designed for a very specific need and with little potential for growth into a long-range fighter. In this regard a statement made by Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding in January 1941 may be applicable: "The primary objective of the fighter airplane," he said, "is the interception and destruction of the enemy bomber. The fighter should remember that the attack on the enemy fighter is only incidental to the main objective." Unable to attempt to establish command of the air, RAF Bomber Command would be compelled to follow late World War I and pre-Douhet tactics of attempts to evade German defenses and to attack area targets under cover of darkness. If Dr. Frankland wishes to describe RAF Bomber Command's conceptual input into the Combined Bomber Offensive strategy as being "revolutionary," I believe that we should note that American strategic air thinking can best be described as being both "classical" and "revolutionary."
In order to save time, I will waive remarks about our speaker's second subtitle: Combined and Divided. I should observe, however, that I long ago enlisted—and have several times renewed my membership—in the corps of those who accept the "specious" argument that if sustained strategic air attacks had been mounted with substantial bomber forces against the decisive target systems named in AWPD-1, Germany's economy could and should have been destroyed before—instead of after—the Normandy invasion. While the British were disappointed that the American bombers did not tack on to their night formations, I do not believe that it can be rightly said that the division of the Combined Bomber Offensive into night and day operations prevented the Americans from making worthwhile contributions to the bombing effort against Germany in 1942-43. The essential problem in this period was that the Eighth Air Force was too small, even before many of its units were diverted to support the Allied surface operation in North Africa. And the targets handed down to it (especially the almost invulnerable submarine pens) were little calculated to accomplish any great decision. As far as target destruction was concerned, I will agree that the major part of the U.S. Army Air Forces operations in the European Theater from 17 August 1942 to June 1943 was wasted effort (except for training and experience), but my reasons are different from those advanced by Dr. Frankland. I believe we should notice, however, that the early air attacks against continental Europe caused a pull-back of Luftwaffe units from the Mediterranean and Eastern Fronts, thus hastening German defeats in those areas.
If we accept my earlier proposition that American strategic air doctrine was more pragmatic than that of the Royal Air Force, we can deal rather shortly with some of the "fortuitous developments" discussed under the heading, "Planned and Fortuitous." The thesis that hidebound American strategic air officers, following a blind dogma of bomber invincibility, brought the Eighth Air Force to "America's Waterloo" at Schweinfurt in 1943 simply cannot be sustained, although it seems to be suggested by our speaker and was stated in almost so many words by a Harmon Memorial lecturer in 1962. And I do not think that we should accept the melodramatic story of the P-51 Mustang—how it was developed by chance and arrived in the European Theater of Operations just in time to win air superiority—without closer scrutiny. Parenthetically, the really interesting story regarding the long-range fighter has to do with auxiliary fuel tanks which had long been used for ferrying purposes, but which high-ranking Air Corps officers rejected for tactical usage in 1939 because they were believed to be a fire hazard and mistrusted in 1941 because their fittings added "unnecessary weight and operational complexities that are incompatible with the mission of pursuit." Where the extended-range P-51 served with distinction in Europe, the P-47N flew even longer-range bomber support missions in the Pacific.
I am certain that the establishment of Allied air superiority over Europe in the winter of 1943-44 was attributable to far more factors than the fortunate arrival of the Mustang fighter on the scene. Germany's oil and petroleum fuel situation was critically weak from the war's beginning, and shortages of aviation fuel seriously hindered the training of replacement pilots. When experienced Luftwaffe flyers were killed, they had to be replaced by trainee pilots whose flying time had been cut short by the scarcity of aviation gasoline. By robbing their Eastern and Mediterranean fronts, the Germans almost doubled their single-engine fighter strength on the Western front during 1943, but during the winter of 1943-44 the number of U.S. bombers on the Western front quadrupled while Luftwaffe strength in units increased very little. For example, in the fall of 1943, 300 U.S. bombers and 200 escort fighters were opposed by 200 or more enemy fighters. In May 1944 comparative figures show 1,000 bombers and 900 escort fighters opposed by some 300 enemy interceptors. The establishment of the U.S. Strategic Air Forces under General Carl A. Spaatz on 1 January 1944 further augmented the mass of coordinated American bombing effort against Germany and diluted Luftwaffe interception capabilities.
Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering's mistakes also contributed to the Allied air victory. In December 1943 Goering issued orders to Luftwaffe pilots to concentrate their attacks on Allied bombers and to avoid combat with Allied escorts. This order ignored a basic fact of air fighting: that when aircraft of roughly equal performance meet, the one who seeks to avoid combat is at an almost certainly fatal disadvantage. Noting Goering's mistake, Major General Jimmy Doolittle on 4 January 1944 ordered Eighth Air Force fighters to take the offensive—"to pursue the Hun until he is destroyed"—rather than provide position defense to friendly bombers. In this same season, Luftwaffe fighters were being retrofitted with rockets, which were effective against bombers but were relatively ineffective against fighters. Goering's mistakes—which were indeed "fortuitous" and could hardly be preprogrammed in American plans—had a lot to do with the Allied air victory. Seen in this light, it may have been well that the Casablanca and POINTBLANK directives were not too specific, since their vagueness permitted air commanders to make needed on-the-spot professional decisions.
As for the charge that American air commanders may have been deficient in judgment in not having abandoned daylight strategic bombing, Major General Haywood S. Hansell has written: "There is a thin line between stubborn and stupid adherence to a preconceived idea on the one hand, and courageous persistence in the face of apparent reverses on the other. The commander who correctly gauges the proper line of action, who remembers that his enemy is also being hurt, and who is driven by a relentless will to win—generally does win." While the usual interpretation is that heavy losses forced American air leaders to make a reassessment of strategic bombing in the autumn of 1943, a close reading of their correspondence of the time reveals their confidence that strategic bombers, employed in force, could still perform their mission over Germany. But they were concerned because an early attainment of Allied control of the air was necessary if the OVERLORD and ANVIL invasions on the coasts of France were to succeed in mid-1944. General Arnold was addressing this situation when he issued orders to the commanders of the Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces on 27 December 1943, for his message read: "It is a conceded fact that OVERLORD and ANVIL will not be possible unless the German Air Force is destroyed. Therefore, my personal message to you—this is a MUST—is to, 'Destroy the Enemy Air Force wherever you find them, in the air, on the ground and in the factories.' " l:
Dr. Frankland's reference to the Royal Air Force's development and use of very large conventional bombs is well taken, since large bombs also proved very useful in the Korean air interdiction campaigns. While his time and focus did not permit it, I wish that he might have been able to elaborate on the intelligence problem of targeting a strategic air campaign, which he briefly mentions. In this regard it seems to me that these points ought to be noted: the critical importance of identification and selection of really significant bombing targets, the waste of costly air resources that can come from improper selection of objectives; the need to make rapid, repetitive strikes against targets selected for destruction, thus accomplishing the desired end before the enemy can devise countermeasures.
As you have no doubt surmised, I do not entirely agree with our speaker's view that "fortuitous circumstances came to the rescue of the so-called 'Combined Bomber Offensive.' " And I regret that we are not in agreement. Because World War II provided air power with its first opportunity to show that it could do something more than support surface campaigns, I think that it is unfortunate the historians have been unable to agree upon precisely calculated value judgments in regard to the conflict. While some purists seem to believe that historians ought to record what happened and not seek to highlight useful information, I note with pleasure that Dr. Frankland believes that "the fruits of . . . discovery and explanation may be relevant as well as interesting in the context of the problems confronting the world today."
Before we close, I think that we ought to try to look at some of the reasons why different meanings can be drawn from the history of the Combined Bomber Offensive. Some of the thoughts that come to my mind here spring from studies being made at the Air University by the CORONA HARVEST project, which is charged with evaluation of the employment of air power in the current war in Southeast Asia. One of the surprising things learned early in this project was that no one had ever attempted to establish any measurable criteria for judging the successful accomplishment of an aerial mission. Although bombing surveys and evaluation boards—and historians, in train—made exhaustive surveys in World War II, these evaluators lacked essential standards for judging accomplishment, a deeply comprehensive data base for making quantitative evaluations, and the techniques for exploiting comprehensive data if it had been available. Unable to handle quantified data, evaluators and historians tended to fall back upon the slippery facts of experiential history and to base many of their judgments upon the intensely personal experiences and views of the participants in the conflict. These varied views and experiences have permitted different interpretations. As Major General Orvil Anderson once remarked: "If you will let experience be your teacher, you can have any damn lesson you want."
On the basis of experience, I would agree that at the end of World War II most participants accepted the conclusion that "strategic bombing could find effective expression only in the command of the air and command of the air was found to be a product of victorious battle against the opposing air force." The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey drew the summary lesson that establishment of control of the air in Europe had been essential not only for surface operations but for the effective prosecution of the strategic air campaign. Even in the dark days of Schweinfurt and Regensburg, however, Major General Ira C. Eaker, the Eighth Air Force commander, did not lose faith in the effectiveness of massed heavy bomber operations. After the war's end, Eaker speculated that the bombers probably would have been able to defeat the German Air Force without fighter escort, but that the loss in bombers might have been ten per cent instead of two per cent. Yet another postwar assessment emphasized the importance of offensive fighter employment and suggested that the Eighth Air Force fighters would have contributed more to the air victory if they had been used as fighter-bombers against German fighter bases. Thinking in terms of poor bombing accuracy and the limited potential of iron bombs, General Hoyt S. Vandenberg pointed out in 1949 that the Eighth Air Force might have been willing to accept its 1943 loss rates if it could have accomplished an assured destruction of significant targets.
While we can portray the history of the Combined Bomber Offensive largely on the basis of the personal beliefs of the men who participated in it, I submit that we cannot establish absolute historical truths in regard to it without making a most exhaustive investigation and analysis of the exact importance of each of the factors that played a part in the history. We cannot safely assign value judgments to particular actions, unless we have first tested alternative actions that might have been pursued. In short, I think that there is merit to the arguments of the new econometrics school, which demonstrates that historians can profitably use historical data to prepare models that will permit them to test and evaluate counter-factual conditional propositions of the past. Only by testing a full range of alternate possibilities would it be feasible to make a final judgment as to whether the "revolutionaries" were wrong when they thought that bombers could perform a decisive mission without a prior establishment of air superiority. There are those who say that Schweinfurt and Regensburg were an adequate test, but here again we are depending upon opinion rather than exact factual analysis.
In conclusion, let me say that Dr. Frankland has done us a service by giving us some meanings as well as the facts about the Combined Bomber Offensive. I have quarrelled with some of his meanings, often going far afield for the sake of making points. More in order to clarify my own thought than to correct Dr. Frankland, I have attempted to demonstrate that valid meanings should be based upon more detailed analyses than we historians have been wont to practice in the past. Despite all this, I point out that his major purpose to demonstrate that a proper study of the past can in fact be interesting and relevant to the present—has been eminently successful.
1. Alfred F. Hurley, Billy Mitchell, Crusader for Air Power (New York, 1964), p. 75
2. Report, Maj. W. H. Frank, Assistant Commandant Air Corps Tactical School, to Brig. Gen. Benjamin D. Foulois, Director of Air Corps Maneuvers, subj. Report on Maneuvers, 30 August 1929, inclosing: Critique, Air-Ground Maneuvers Fifth Corps Area, May 1929; Address by Major Frank in Auditorium at Wright Field, Ohio, 26 May 1929.
3. Air Corps Tactical School, The Air Force, February 1931, p. 56; conversations with Maj. Gen. H. S. Hansell (USAF-Ret.) regarding the contributions of Brig. Gen. Kenneth Walker to strategic bombing doctrine.
4. Document prepared by Air War Plans Division (AWPD).
5. Report, The Adjutant General, War Department, to Chiefs of All Arms and Services et al., subj: Air Board Report, 15 September 1939; see data on "fighter-multiplace" in James C. Fahey, U.S. Army Aircraft (Heavier than Air), 1908-1946 (New York: Ships and Aircraft, 1946), p. 28, and Air Materiel Command case histories of the XP-58 and XP-75 airplane projects.
6. Wing Commander J. C. Slessor, Air Power and Armies (London, 1936), p. 10.
7. Memorandum of a talk presented by Air Vice Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding in Washington on 11 January 1941 by Lt. T. N. Charles, Plans Division, Office, Chief of Air Corps (OCAC).
8. William R. Emerson, Operation Pointblank, A Tale of Bombers and Fighters (U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado: The Harmon Memorial Lectures in Military History, No. 4, 1962), passim.
9. Burdette S. Wright, Vice President and General Manager, Aeroplane Division, Curtiss-Wright Corporation, to Maj. Gen. H. H. Arnold, Chief of Air Corps, 21 May 1940; Office of Chief of Air Corps, draft memorandum for Mr. Donald Nelson, Director of Production Management, subj: Approval of Change Order, n.d. and routing and record sheets attached thereto recommending disapproval; Maj. H. S. Vandenberg to General Spaatz, 4 March 1941, and Brig. Gen. Carl Spaatz, Chief, Plans Division, Office, Chief of Air Corps (OCAC), to Executive OCAC, 10 March 1941; see also Air Technical Service Command, "Case History of the Droppable Fuel Tank," February 1945.
10. Eighth Air Force, "Tactical Development," August 1942-May 1945, pp. 50-51.
11. Maj. Gen. H. S. Hansell, manuscript history "American Air Power in World War II," Chap. V, pp. 38 39.
12. W. F. Craven and J. L. Cate, eds., The Army Air Forces in World War 11, Vol. III: Europe: Argument to V-E Day (Chicago, 1951), p. 8.
13. Maj. Gen. Orvil A. Anderson (USAF Ret.), "Development of U.S. Strategic Air Doctrine, ETO World War II," Lecture to Air War College, 20 September 1951, p. 28.