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The Air Battle of St. Mihiel

Air Campaign Planning Process Background Paper
Lt Col George M. Lauderbaugh

Airpower Research Institute

[See Before and After maps at bottom of page.]

In July 1918 the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) was assigned its first great mission of World War I; the reduction of the St. Mihiel salient on the famed western front. The salient was a V in the German line approximately 35 miles wide at its base and 15 at its apex.1 The salient had been formed in September 1914 as part of the German attempt to envelop the fortress of Verdun. It had remained a troublesome bulge in the line for over four years and all attempts to eliminate it had been futile. General John Pershing, Commander of the AEF had insisted that the Americans be given an independent portion of the front. Up until this point American forces had seen battle only as a portion of larger British or French armies. Thus, St. Mihiel would be the first great test of American troops as well as the mettle of their General.

St. Mihiel was also the greatest air battle of the Great War. Some 1476 allied air planes would participate in the offensive; the largest assembly of aviation assets the world had ever seen to that time.2 They would be opposed by some 500 German aircraft in the four days of the battle (12-16 Sept 1918).3 Moreover, St. Mihiel was significant because of the combined operation of air forces from the US, France, Italy, Great Britain and Portugal. For the most part, allied air assets were under a single command, the First US Army Air Service. Command of the largest air operation in History was entrusted to an obscure American Colonel, William (Billy) Mitchell, who had limited combat experience, especially in comparison to his allied counterparts.

1. Who did the air campaign planning? (Personalities and Organizational levels)

The air campaign plan for St. Mihiel was primarily the brain child of Billy Mitchell. General Mason Patrick, Commander US Army Air Service reviewed the plans, and final approval came from General Pershing. The viewpoints and personalities of these three men gelled particularly well for this campaign. While Mitchell did not have a completely free hand in planning the operation, there appears to have been minimal intervention or amendment by his superiors. In addition, there was excellent cooperation among Allied Forces. French, Italian and Portuguese forces were placed under command of the First Air Service.4 While the British maintained an independent air force for the battle, there was strong cooperation with the other allies. The French liaison officer, Major Paul Armengaud, proved invaluable in the planning process.5

The staff of the First Air Service completed the majority of the plans for the St. Mihiel Air Campaign. Mitchell organized his staff as follows:

1. An operation section, which made the plans and provided for the execution of all military operations. It was the duty of this section to answer the questions where, when and how the military operations were to be carried out.

2. An information section was created to receive and distribute all of the information secured from the air, both by visual observation and photography as to the movements of our own army and that of the enemy.

3. The balloon section had charge of the captive balloons and their operations.

4. The material section was charged with the responsibility of constructing the airdromes, arranging for the supply of materials, airplanes, gas, oil, ammunition, photographic and radio equipment . . . , and all other items necessary for the supply of the squadrons, groups, wings, and brigades.

5. The last section was the administrative section, which had supervision over correspondence, replacement of personnel, securing of personnel, recording of the location of the men and their pay.6

2. What process was used?

The first step in the planning process was the organization and staffing of the First Air Service Headquarters. This was completed by mid August and the five sections previously mentioned began to function. A public school building was commandeered to house the headquarters and a 12 by 12 foot relief map of the St. Mihiel sector was obtained from a French balloon company. Mitchell staffed his headquarters with "the old staff officers whom I had trained, with Colonel T. D. Milling as Chief of Staff, the best one I have seen in any service."7

The organization and planning process was a continual one. Not only was it applied to the headquarters but to the entire First Air Service as well. Mitchell had to develop a force structure to carry out his plans. Wings, groups and squadrons had to be established. Some already existed, but many had to be put together, virtually overnight. In addition, support organizations for communications, logistics, intelligence and personnel administration were established. The scope of the organization and staffing function was indeed monumental. In addition, appointments had to be made with a very limited number of experienced personnel. In some instances a pursuit squadron was organized and staffed, but only bombers were available and the unit's mission was changed with assigned personnel training into the new weapons system.8 Flexibility was a key characteristic of all planning done for this campaign.

Another step in the process was to determine the objectives for the ensuing air campaign. The overall objective for the battle was quite simple. The German forces were to be forced out of the salient. This in turn fit into the larger plan of the allied offensive, which was to break the German lines at multiple points and to destroy the German army in the West. From this overall objective, a number of sub-objectives were established for the air campaign.

On 20 August 1918, Colonel Mitchell issued a memorandum that spelled out objectives for the St. Mihiel Air Campaign. The general objectives of aviation were: 1. destruction of enemy air forces so that they could not over fly allied lines, 2. reconnaissance of enemy positions to include direction of artillery fire, and 3. destruction of enemy ground forces through bombardment and strafing. Aviation assets were allocated into three categories, observation, pursuit and bombardment.9

From these general objectives specific targets were identified. Target selection was made at four different levels. A limited number of targets were designated by the First Army Staff. The majority, however, were identified by Mitchell and his First Air Service staff. Subordinate commands, especially army corps directed missions in their sectors, most notably observation and balloon busting. Finally, as operations order number 38 for the Third Pursuit Group provided, "If better objectives are seen in the immediate region of the roads assigned, Flight Commanders may decide to attack them."10

Yet another part of the process was to gather information, or what is termed today, intelligence, about the enemy. This aspect of planning created a dilemma. All levels thirsted for information about the enemy. However, an increase in aerial observation could tip the enemy off about the impending offensive. Thus a balance had to be struck and deception used to maintain the security of the operation. Phony patrols, false movements and communications, construction of dummy airdromes and a host of other methods were employed to maintain secrecy. These ploys were only partly successful. The Germans had identified the salient as the likely area for the next allied push; but, they miscalculated the day of the attack and were caught in the middle of their withdrawal.

It would seem logical that intelligence would be gathered before objectives or targets were established. Indeed this was the case. An important point to remember about the planning process for St. Mihiel is that the steps were not always sequential. Thus a variety of steps were being performed at different levels on any given day.

After staffs had been organized, objectives determined intelligence gathered, and forces assembled, the plan had to be communicated to the employers. We can learn some important lessons about the communication of plans from St. Mihiel. As Mitchell observed,

When commanding, I always drew up my own orders for the military operation of the fighting units, and personally checked the sending and receipt by the unit commander of their special orders. When orders were not obeyed, it was usually the commanding officer who was at fault. Either the orders had not been delivered or they were so written that nobody could understand them. I always kept an officer at my headquarters, whose name I shall not mention, who I had read all the orders. If he could understand them anybody could. He was not particularly bright but he was one of the most valuable officers I had.11

A review of the plans, memos and orders for St. Mihiel reveals a remarkable clarity of expression. In the first place each document is brief, usually no more than three pages. A typical plan was divided into four parts, early preparation, preparation immediately preceding the attack, the attack, and exploitation of the attack. In each phase the intent of the plan would be clearly spelled out in a few declarative sentences. For example:

A. Early Preparation

The plan broke missions out into three categories bombardment, pursuit and reconnaissance and provided a brief statement regarding each. The nitty gritty of each branch's role was contained in annexes to the basic plan.

In the case of bombers, the preparation phase simply stated, "To hinder enemy concentration by railroads, (Arrival of reinforcements and supplies of any nature). Destruction of enemy aviation on its flying fields."13 This was followed by a specific target list that tasked each unit. The plan tasked British Air Forces as well, but the mission orders were issued by General Trenchard. The annex further defines targets for the remaining phases of the attack, artillery preparation, the initial attack and the exploitation of the battle.14

The exploitation instructions were very brief and specific targets were not predetermined. "Objectives will be determined according to the situation at the time being," and in close coordination with the infantry. Targets would be identified and attacked in the order presented.15 Pursuit and reconnaissance received similar directions.

One of the most extraordinary documents from this campaign is Circular Number 1 which 1st Army Air Service issued August 19, 1918. This 34 page manual provided procedures for all aspects of air operations. It was also an invaluable training guide, and training was definitely an important part of air campaign planning. As instructions for observation crews mandated "The more practices of aerial liaison with infantry that can be carried out the better. It is impossible to overdo it. In the course of these exercises every one must endeavor to simulate, as far as possible, the conditions that will be met during the actual attacks."16 Another section described what facilities should be maintained for instructional purposes. They included, radio buzzers to practice key manipulation, copies of the latest pamphlets on adjustment of artillery fire, blackboards and instruction charts with schematics of machine guns.

Moreover, each Group was tasked to draw up a course of instruction for all their observers and to recruit instructors and guest speakers. Not surprisingly there was a strong emphasis on maps and an observers' room was established to disseminate information.17

Circular 1 also prescribed the daily routine for all the players. It included instructions for staff meetings, scheduling, and general administration. Although mundane, these tasks were nevertheless important and provide insight into the planning process.

More importantly, the circular outlined duties and responsibilities and provided functional statements for each position in the 1st Army Air Service. Brief statements such as, "The Photographic Officer is charged with the equipping of the airplanes with the proper cameras and number of magazines, and the prompt transportation to the photo laboratory of these articles upon the return of the mission,"18 or "The Engineering Officer is responsible that the airplanes are inspected and no unsafe planes are used"19 were clear and to the point. Today, they may be considered oversimplified, but they nevertheless have a refreshing crispness. In sum, everyone who read the circular knew what his job was, but also had a high degree of flexibility in carrying his duties out.

The capstone to the planning process for St. Mihiel was leadership. Colonel Mitchell's leadership was the glue that held all the disparate parts of the plan together. On-scene observers remember Mitchell as being everywhere, seemingly at the same time. He was frequently in the air, checking the progress of plans. He would drop in on airfields and chat with crews. His boundless energy enabled him to review the volumes of orders that went out and the reports that came back in. While meticulous in his review of details, Mitchell did not stifle his staff or his operators. While he set demanding standards, to be sure, and dealt harshly with incompetents, his goals were also realistic and obtainable. His example of indefatigable resolve was infectious. His subordinate commanders and crews also displayed a confidence that was disproportionate to their combat experience. Or perhaps, their confidence was derived from this very lack of experience. Whatever the source, one discerns an attitude of professionalism that at times masks the enormity of the task that confronted the airmen of this era.

3. What was the doctrinal guidance?

The principle of air superiority was emphasized and in turn confirmed in the great air battle at St. Mihiel. As Mitchell put it the bulk of his aviation assets was, "To be put into a central mass and hurled at the enemy's aviation, no matter where he might be found, until complete ascendancy had been obtained over him in the air."20 After initial success was obtained, superiority and ultimately supremacy was to be maintained. "In addition to this, his airdromes were attacked both night and day, so as to force him either to arise and accept combat, or to lose his airplanes in the hangars themselves on his own fields."21

While Mitchell understood the need for air superiority, he also realized there was a compelling need on the part of the infantry for air protection. Thus, part of his theory of operations was to assign to the infantry the aviation they needed for their own operations. This included both observation and pursuit squadrons. The remainder of air assets which included over 1,000 of the 1,476 assigned went into the strategic reserve whose purpose was destruction of the German Air Forces.22

The element of surprise was used to great advantage in the campaign. As part of surprise, the principle of security was employed. Operational security was maintained without difficulty. This was accomplished without the elaborate OPSEC procedures we have today. Certainly there was encrypting and information was restricted on a need to know basis. One interesting aspect was no mention in any of the plans about how to handle the media!

Another principle of great importance was communications. As mentioned earlier, Mitchell stressed the need for clear instructions in plans and orders. In addition, great emphasis was placed on the technical aspect of communications. The Air Service replaced the horse cavalry as the eyes and ears of the Army. Large portions of the instructional circular are devoted to methods of communication. A number of redundant systems were employed and included radio, Very pistol, voice, dropping of written messages and ground signals.23 Moreover, disruption of the enemy's communication systems was given high priority. Time and time again the literature of the participants ties the effect of air superiority to insuring secure communications for the Allies and denying it to the Germans.

The concept of the air land battle was formulated during this campaign. With the exception of balloons, Mitchell's diagram of the American system of the employment of aeronautics (Attachment one) could be used today to depict the Army's plan for an air land battle.24 Mitchell understood that the airplane made war three dimensional. This particular diagram demonstrates his understanding of how an air force and an army could work together in a major offensive.

Finally, one of Mitchell's greatest worries, was achieving "combination in the air."25 In the first place he was concerned about coordinating the effort between large numbers of machines. Formation of half a dozen planes had had problems and now the scale was up to sixty planes in formation. Secondly, he expected problems between the various branches of aviation, such as pursuit, observation, and bombardment. Interaction between the branches was key and Mitchell eluded to problems of the ground army with its branches. "To my great satisfaction I found out from the first big fight that we went into that our combination in the air was wonderful."26 He attributed the success to the quality of his airmen, training and the team experience crews had from their youth through such sports as football, baseball, hockey and polo.27

It is important to note that the branches of aviation that would later become our present day MAJCOMS were in their infancy. The success certainly can be attributed to the factors that Billy Mitchell related. However, these different branches had not had time to establish their own turfs and bureaucratic power. His admonition that air power is most effective when all parts are used in combination is well taken.

4. What was the end product of the planning process?

The end product of the planning process was the plan of employment, described by its author, Mitchell, as:

the most important document which has to be prepared at the beginning of a battle, and from its complete and through understanding does success or failure result. A plan of employment tells each branch of aviation what it must do in accordance with the general object of the operations, and how every detail is to be handled as occasions may arise.28

5. What factors were considered most important?

The most important factor in the campaign was providing air cover for Allied ground forces. To accomplish that end, Mitchell assigned pursuit and aviation squadrons directly to ground forces. Throughout the document, the importance of covering the Allied advance is evident. Tied to this primary factor was the need for "air ascendancy."

The enemy air force was the prime target for the strategic reserve. The intent was to kill it through air-to-air combat or on the ground. To accomplish this end, the allies assembled a force that gave them a 3-1 numerical advantage. After protection of the infantry and destruction of the enemy air capability, the German army was the last objective of the campaign. As mentioned earlier, other key doctrinal factors included surprise and security.

6. What factor was considered least important?

The destruction of German land forces was strictly a secondary consideration for the 1st Air Service.

7. What were the roles of non military influences?

American command and an independent sector were the political influences on this campaign. At issue was the role of the American Expeditionary Force. Was it to be a massive manpower pool for the seasoned French and British commands to use to back fill their losses? In a military view, there were some sound arguments for such an arrangement. The Allies had been fighting for nearly four years and obviously had much more combat experience. Melding American and Allied units could reduce the danger to the new troops and speed up the learning process. In addition, there might be significant risk in giving the green Americans a large portion of the front. If the Americans faltered during a German offensive, an entire segment of the line might be broken without a chance that it could be reclosed.

Pershing was adamant that American manpower would not have a secondary role. His army would become a full partner in the alliance. This would not only enhance American morale, but would increase America's standing as a first among equals. Ironically, it was non military factors that led to American direction of the war's greatest air battle

8. Was the campaign a success or failure?

St. Mihiel was an unqualified success. The salient was reduced in four days and the German army was severely mauled. The AEF increased its stature and this was prelude to Meuse Argonne that would help bring the war to an end in less than two months. Air ascendancy was achieved; the Luftwaffe was rendered ineffective. Many of the principles of massive air formations where proven to work.

9. In retrospect what factors should have been considered and what were their relative importance?

There was a lack of strategic vision in the employment of air power for this campaign. For example, the term strategic was used to describe air strikes only 60 kilometers into enemy territory against targets such as rail centers, supply depots and air fields. In addition, the whole concept of operations for air power was to support ground power. The center of gravity was defined as the enemy's armed forces. While the enemy air force was the main objective of Allied aviation, there was no attempt to destroy the German aircraft industry. The idea that air forces can operate independently of other forces had not yet germinated in Mitchell's fertile mind.

To be sure, the capabilities of strategic bombardment were very limited. However, strategic air campaigns had been experimented with by Germany and Great Britain. The famous Zeppelin and Gotha Bomber raids on London, while largely ineffective in their material destruction, had a psychological impact. To counter the Zeppelins, the British had launched a raid of Fredrickshafen and at least attempted to destroy the source of German strategic air power.

10. What were the limitations faced in planning the campaign?

The severest limitation at St. Mihiel and indeed all of WWI was the total lack of preparedness by the United States to engage in such a conflict. For example, "On 6 April 1917, not a single air unit had been trained for warfare. The two flying fields operated by the Army had only 55 trainers, of which General John J. Pershing later said, "51 were obsolete and the other 4 were obsolescent."29 Moreover, the Aviation section had only 131 officers, 1,087 enlisted men and out of this group there were but 26 fully trained pilots and none had combat experience. Yet a mere seventeen months later the Americans planned, executed and won the greatest air battle of the war!

Coupled to this overall situation of unpreparedness was the lack of experienced crews. Even when crews could be found, there were no air frames for them to fly. St. Mihiel was fought with airplanes provided largely by Britain and France. In fact, no plane of complete American manufacture saw combat in WWI. Another limiting factor was that the strategy was out in front of the technology of the aircraft employed.

11. What were the surprises of the event?

The greatest surprise at St. Mihiel was that it went so well. Perhaps this was not a surprise to Billy Mitchell, his staff, or the airmen who achieved this victory. For they exuded a refreshing sense of confidence that they would prevail. However, in retrospect there were significant problems that could have resulted in a different outcome. Paramount among these was the lack of peacetime readiness. St. Mihiel, for the Americans, was a novice operation. There was a lack of training, air power doctrine was being invented rather than studied, and equipment was in short supply. These rather significant problems were overcome by Mitchell's vision, his indefatigable leadership, the courage and innovation of American airmen, and good fortune. Fog and friction don't always work against you.

There were plenty of snafus, however. Shortly before the battle, a flight of six bombers went on patrol in bad weather. They became disoriented, flew well over German lines, ran out of gas and were captured. Reports tell of a shortage of wheels for planes. In other instances, orders arrived after deadlines for execution. Balloons tangled in telephone lines strung by the Signal Corps. Rain turned runways to mud and clouds obscured targets.30

In the first two days of the campaign, the Germans fiercely contested control of the air. Kill ratios were about even, 63 German planes were destroyed in air-to-air combat, while the allies lost 62 to all causes. Allied balloon busting was more one-sided. Thirty Hun balloons were killed in the air, many more died in their nests, while only four Allied balloons were downed by enemy fire. Air superiority was gained more by superior numbers and a relentless attack on German air fields than innate American airmanship.31

In an important work, Air Service American Expeditionary Force 1918, H. A. Toulmin Jr. provides an inside view of the organizational problems confronting the Air Service in France. His chapter VI, "Air Service Disorganization, May 1918" is most enlightening. A quick scan of the chapters sub headings reveals the problems and the solutions that ended in success at St. Mihiel; "Air Service Had Failed to Live up to Any of Its Promises," "Air Service Had No Organization," "No Plan for Accommodating the Various Units," "Service Lacked Vision," "Air Service Needed Discipline," "Difficult to Secure a Program, a Plan or Course of Action,"...... yet "Individual Commanders of the Air Service Were Men of Ability" and then..... "Commanding General of Air Service Changed," "Man Capable of Applying Sternest Discipline was a Necessity," "General Patrick," "General Patrick Came to the Air Service a Stranger," "General Patrick Seeking the Facts," "Impartial and Judicial Judgment," and finally "Reasons Air Service Failed to Accomplish Required Results; Lack of Organization, Coordination, Discipline, Common Plan, Follow Up Organization."

Of great surprise to the Air Service regulars was that their worst nightmare, the placement of a non flyer, General Mason Patrick, in command of their service led to the fulfillment of some of their best dreams.

End Notes

1. H. A. Toulmin, Air Service American Expeditionary Force 1919 (New York, D. Van Norstrand Company, 1927), 360.

2. Brigadier General William Mitchell, Memoirs of World War I (New York, Random House, 1960), 238.

3. Ibid., 240.

4. Toulmin, 355

5. Maurer Maurer, ed., The U.S. Air Service in World War I, Vol. III, (Washington D.C., The Office of Air Force History, 1979), 53.

6. Toulmin, 357.

7. Stanley M. Ulanoff, ed. Bombs Away!, (Garden City, N.Y. Doubleday and Company, 1971), 46.

8. Maurer, 162.

9. Ibid., 52.

10. Ibid., 157.

11. Mitchell, Memoirs, 235.

12. Maurer, 89.

13. Ibid., 92.

14. Ibid., 91

15. Ibid., 95

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid., 17

18. Ibid., 18

19. Ibid., 18

20. William Mitchell, "The Air Service at St. Mihiel," Worlds Work, XXXVIII (Aug 1919), 365

21. Ibid., 365.

22. Ibid., 365.

23. Maurer, 32-33.

24. Mitchell, "Air Service at St. M.," 366

25. Ibid., 360

26. Ibid., 360.

27. Ibid., 360.

28. Ibid., 364.

29. James J. Hudson, Hostile Skies (Syracuse University Press 1968),

30. Ibid.

31. Maurer, 656.


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