On the first of September, 1939 the beginning of the deadliest war the world has ever seen was initiated. By the fall of 1939, Hitler had a nearly seven years as the Chancellor of Germany and was beginning to initiate his plans to bring mainland Europe under Nazi control. This World War was drastically different than the previous one only twenty-one years prior, mainly because of the revolutionary new developments from both the Allies and Axis in aerial power. With the new developments in the sky, many had strong faith in the role of aerial warfare and strategic bombing.
Although many believed the new developments in aerial warfare would bring a quick and swift victory, less casualties, and an ability to devastate the enemy through heavy bombing on civilians, strategic bombing was an inefficient strategy to the Second World War and resulted in a longer war of attrition than anyone had imagined. Aerial warfare was originally used in the First World War in a tactical way. Planes began their journey in war by being unarmed and solely used for reconnaissance.
Shortly after airplanes were introduced for reconnaissance, air-to-air combat was initiated as each country attempted to gain aerial supremacy. After ‘fighter planes’ were introduced to take control of the skies, new ideas emerged for the next role of aerial warfare: ground attack. These ideas of surprise attacking ground forces or enemy supplies were originally developed and were set to be tested in 1919, but due to the end of WWI on the 11th of November, 1918 the theories were never able to be tested.
During post WWI development, strategic bombing became a highly sought after strategy of warfare. One of the key entrepreneurs of strategic aerial bombing was Italian Air Marshall Julio Douhet. Douhet insisted that the future wars fought would be short, involve total warfare, and “violent to a superlative degree. ” Douhet spent much of his time and effort as a leader in this strategic aerial warfare that would be put to the test in WWII. Another advocate of strategic bombing was Billy Mitchell, a strong believer and supporter of Douhet.
Mitchell, whose ideas also stemmed from the British Air Marshal, Hugh Trenchard, was convinced after seeing the Germans destruction of London in WWI that bomber warfare was the way forward. On November 9th, 1918, Mitchell’s first squadron of night bombers arrived in England. Mitchell planned to destroy German crops, forests, livestock and morale. A mere two days after the first American bombers arrived in England, the armistice was signed on November 11th, 1918, marking the end of the First World War. It would be twenty-one years later before Mitchell’s ideas would be tested. Miller, 35) Over the interwar years between WWI and WWII many aerial ‘prophets’ emerged who thought that strategic bombing was the way forward. This group of strategic bombing advocates consisted on Italian Air Marshal Guilio Douhet, British Air Marshal Hugh Trenchard, and US born Billy Mitchell. These revolutionary thinkers believed that bombarding the enemy relentlessly would result in a decreased morale, a destruction of enemy resources and would ultimately bring the war to an end in a matter of weeks, without having to send in thousands of infantry.
Douhet believed that the First World War indicated that virtually everything, such as industries, cities, transportation, workers and innocent civilians would be targeted. With the way that Douhet predicted war moving, he believed that air power could reach those targets. Douhet presumed that through a combination of high explosives, incendiaries and gas bombs, that “air attacks could break the enemy’s will at the outset of war. ” (Murray, 86) For strategic bombing to be successful, Douhet argued that strategic bombing should be the main focus.
Douhet also predicted that there was little possibility for enemy fighter planes to intercept and destroy bombers. (Murray, 86). Trenchard was a strong believer of developing the RAF’s strategic bombing strategy in the interwar periods, just as Douhet was. Trenchard said in an interview that “the development of air power in its broadest sense, and including the development of all means of combating missiles that travel through the air, whether fired or dropped, is the first essential to our survival in war. (Trenchard) The third strategic bombing ‘prophet’ was United States Army General Billy Mitchell. Mitchell, who is regarded as the father of the modern day US Air Force was a strong believer of the importance and significance of strategic bombing on the battlefield. In his journal at the end of WWI, Mitchell, who was serving in France at the time, wrote “ I was sure that if the war had lasted, air power would decide it. ” (Miller, 33. ) These three revolutionary thinkers developed the idea of modern day strategic bombing.
All of their ideas though that they put forth in the interwar periods that would be put to the test in the Second World War would fail. Although they hypothesized in the interwar periods of a quick victory, destruction of enemy morale and that bombers could reach their targets without fighter escorts; all of their expectations failed when put to the test in the Second World War, and brought more devastation to the battlefield than anyone could have imagined.
Even though a large majority of people supported the ideas of these three strategic bombing ‘prophets’ their assumptions and expectations of strategic bombing broke down in the Second World War and resulted in the opposite of a quick and decisive victory: a six year war of attrition. In Giulio Douhet’s The Command of the Air, he argued that strategic bombing would result in a shortened war, and would prevent the death of thousands of infantry men, seen in the First World War. Douhet) Many leaders around the world supported the new ideas put forth in Douhet’s book. One of these leaders was England’s Prime Minister at the time of the Second World War: Winston Churchill.
In an interview on July 8th, 1940, Churchill spoke of strategic bombing fondly, saying “there is one thing that will bring him… down, and that is an absolutely devastating exterminating attack by the very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland. ” (Miller, 5. Although Churchill, and the strategic bombing ‘prophets’ believed that strategic bombing was the way to a victorious outcome in the war, it was quickly realized that strategic bombing in itself was not going to solely win the war. In June of 1943 the United States began daylight bombing Nazi Germany with their well-equipped B-17 Flying Fortress’s and Norden Bomb sights that were invented by Navy Scientist in the early 1930’s. The American’s soon came to accept that their bombing strategies with minimal escort fighters were a complete failure.
In October of 1943 a mere four months after the American bombing campaign began, fewer than one out of fourth Eighth Air Force crew members were expected to make it to there twenty-five mission requirement. (Miller, 7) The loss to American airmen was devastating, and also came as a shock to the leaders of the Allied forces as many expected Mitchell, and Trenchard’ s thesis to be realistic for future battles. The devastation of American aerial crews such as those in the Eighth Air Force points to the decision that the Combined Bomber Offensive was a strategic failure.
After American B-17’s were devastated over Germany in their attempt to daylight bomb the Nazi’s the Eighth Air Force had resorted to only night time bombing. Night bombing was highly inaccurate and Americans experienced just as much devastation to crew members. With American bombers taking heavy fire the moment they entered German air space, many pilots resulted in releasing their payload anywhere that they could. Although the bombs were still being released over Nazi Germany, the bombing became highly inaccurate and thousands of American airmen perished each mission.
By the end of the Second World War, over 26,000 American airmen died in the skies over Nazi Germany, which would bring more casualties than the entire Marine Corp; the infantry that they sought to remove from the battlefield and replace in the air as they believed it was much ‘safer’ and more effective. The devastating losses to the American and British air crews, such as the Eighth Air Force’s journey that is documented in “Masters of the Air” shows why strategic bombing in the Second World War was a strategic failure.
With such a high loss of life, and minimum precision bombing, the combined bomber offensive is an example of an ineffective strategy in WWII. (Murray, 12) Despite the devastating and tragic losses that were experienced on the aerial front that leads to the conclusion that the strategic bomber effort was not only unnecessary is that while the Germans were experiencing heavy bombing their production of artillery, which was the number one target of American bombers, still increased dramatically year to year.
The reason that may have led to this continual increase in production of German artillery is discussed in the Butt Report. The report, first circulated in early August of 1941, and showed that on average British and American bombers were dropping bombs within five miles of their intended targets. These inaccurate bomb drops show the in-significance and utter failure of the combined bomber offensive during the Second World War. Because the American and British took on such heavy fire while they were attempting to fly to the drop zone, many dropped their payload anywhere that they could.
This carelessness and lack of precision, which was mainly a result of the lack of defense that the American and British bombers had against the German fighters is a reason that the combined bomber offensive was ineffective and a failure. (Oxford) Another reason that the strategic bombing offensive was a failure in the Second World War can be attributed to John Kenneth Gailburg, a Canadian economist who after the war studied the production levels of German artillery during the combined bomber offensive.
Gailburg’s report showed that although the American bombing offensive targeted the German production facilities, the production of tanks such as the Panzer 38(t) dramatically increased from 1942-1944; from 652 in 1942, 1,008 in 1943, and 2,356 in 1944. These statistics create confusion and unrest about how ineffective the bombing campaign really was. Overall the strategic bombing offensive only drew out the war, as bombing the Germany failed to bring an end to the war quickly like many had predicted and did not slow or stop German artillery production in any way.
In the interwar period many began to believe that strategic bombing was the way forward. The aerial front was perceived as a vast and nearly unconquerable territory that could have hundreds of bombers fly through the air, and safely return home after dropping thousands of pounds of ammunition on the enemy’s resources and civilians, breaking the enemy’s morale and drawing a much quicker end to a World War. Although these ideas seemed realistic, the reality of the Second World War bomber offensive was significantly different.
The bomber offensive was highly unsuccessful in a strategic sense due to the extremely high number of casualties, and a lack of shortening the war. On top of the devastation it caused to both sides, the bomber offensive failed to impact the enemy artillery production and ultimately created a long war of attrition, something many had hopped strategic bombing would avoid. The statistics and lack of effectiveness show that the highly anticipated strategic bombing ideas were a failure in the Second World War.
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