Skip to main content

Air Power in Review

ISSUE:  Autumn 1942

Victory Through Air Power. By Alexander P. de Soversky. Simon and Schuster. $2.50. The Coming Battle of Germany. By William B. Ziff. Duell, Sloan & Pearce. $2.50. Airways, By Henry Ladd Smith. Alfred a. Knopf. $3.50.

Out of the present world conflict, especially since its extension to the Pacific area, one fact has become clear, Air power is world power. Who rules the air will rule the world. Secretary Stimson has said: “Air power has decided the fate of nations. Germany with her powerful air armada has vanquished one people after another. On the ground, large armies had been mobilized to resist her but each time it was that additional power in the air that decided the fate of each individual nation.”

Local air supremacy over Dunquerque and the heroic air defense on the part of the Royal Air Force Fighter Command saved England in the summer of 1940. Unexpected strength of the Soviet Air Force was a major factor in the resistance of Russia which stalled the Wehrmacht during the winter of 1941-42.

With the experience of the first two years of the war to guide them, Japan’s military leaders seem to have grasped the revolutionary strategy of air power and applied it with a skill and boldness in both land and sea engagements. Nippon’s conquest via wings has proceeded with a sea-air war and a land-air war which has hitherto made a wide sweep of practically everything in its path. Where she has been temporarily halted, as in the Coral Sea and Midway engagements, the credit goes almost exclusively to Army, Navy, and Marine air power. Sea power, and land power as well, no longer exist apart from air power.

From these facts, now very widely accepted, arises a very urgent question. Is air power alone enough? Can air power win the war? Put in this bald way, the answer is almost certainly, “No.” Air forces, ground forces, and sea forces are all parts of a team, and teamwork wins battles as well as football games. The United Nations must attack to win, and to set the Axis back on its heels is going to require the biggest all-out effort the world has ever seen—air forces, ground forces, supply services, Navy, Marines, pro-duction front, psychological warfare, and civilian defense, The decision of what role air power is to play, however, is something else again. Here is where the Italian General Douhet’s theory of aerial blitzkrieg comes in, and General Billy Mitchell’s estimate of the relative values of air, land, and sea forces and new strategy for global war. The Douhet theory is that a nation’s air force should be as strong as possible, with a unified command for army, navy, and air; that the offensive should be entrusted to the air force, with the army and navy in a secondary role, this offensive to take the form of all-out bombing attacks on the enemy’s vital centers and civilian population to break his will to war. Many prominent American Air officers have long held the view that air power’s role is not merely that of softening up the enemy. Rather, air power itself will deliver the crushing blow, with the ground forces (including, of course, air-borne troops) and ships coming to clinch the victory.

Two recently published books have already done much to highlight this important subject. The first is “Victory Through Air Power” by Major Alexander P. de Seversky. The second is “The Coming Battle of Germany” by William B. Ziff. The two volumes supplement each other and may well be discussed together.

Major de Seversky’s book is a forceful and highly provocative volume designed for popular consumption. As the June selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, a condensation in the July Reader’s Digest, and its appearance as a serial in dozens of important newspapers throughout the country in August, the book has been widely read and discussed. There is no doubt in the mind of this reviewer that Major de Seversky has proved his case as to the decisive value of air power, and his facts and arguments are so marshalled as to make them intelligible to millions of laymen. Nevertheless, the warning of Harry Scherman, president of the Book-of-the-Month Club is very much to the point: “Warning to Layman: in reading this remarkable book about the air, keep your feet on the ground. Perhaps the kind of air strategy of which Major de Seversky is so brilliant an exponent is already planned and in process of execution on our side.”

In addition to this failure to allow that many of the things he was advocating might be moving along behind the scenes, there are two other aspects of the book which should put the reader on his guard. One of these consists of a considerable number of detailed statements and criticisms which are not strictly accurate and which leave a wrong impression in the mind of the reader. An example of this is found in the treatment of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. The remarks are very largely true about the earlier versions of this airplane, but definitely not true of the B-17E model which has been in action on several fronts since spring; if too late to alter the text, at least a footnote could have been included on this vital improvement.

The other point to be watched arises from the fact that there is so large a personal element in the book. Many of the criticisms of American airplanes and of the officials in charge of the program appear to result from frustration in connection with his own aircraft factory.

Despite these limitations, “Victory Through Air Power” is a book to be read, and one which will be reckoned as one of the major factors in arousing this country to the new strategy of air warfare.

Mr. Ziff s volume, “The Coming Battle of Germany,” is fully as positive as to the decisive place of air power as Major de Seversky’s, and is even more comprehensive in its scope. As General Gillmore points out in his valuable Introduction, it fills in the blanks left by the slightly earlier volume. It is a hard-hitting book, thoroughly realistic, and reveals not only an accurate knowledge of military aviation, but a clear conception of modern warfare, including economic and psychological warfare.

Against a masterly appraisal of the present grim situation of the United Nations as the “have-nots,” as regards strategic materials, the author shows step by step how Axis strategy has proceeded to cut off our Allies, attempting to isolate Australia, China, and Russia. The only sufficient answer to this is an attack in full force directed at the very heart of our principal enemies, Germany and Japan. Mr. Ziff feels strongly that our first priority mission is to destroy the Third Reich by an all-out air attack on her cities while she is still heavily engaged on the Russian front; this accomplished, our second job is to proceed overland, roll up the Japanese flanks and rain destruction on their islands. The book provides detailed and convincing plans as to just how this can be done.

With the popular swing in the public mind toward the supreme value of the offensive there is danger that a proper view of defensive operations may be lost in the shuffle. This is amply corrected in Mr. Ziff’s able chapter on “The Defense of the Americas.” Again, overwhelming air power is his answer, including adequate numbers of bombers, fighter planes, and transports, with a web of fighter bases and sound detector systems by which marauders can be intercepted before reaching their objectives.

The final chapter “Organization for War” is a penetrating analysis of the top-heavy and inefficient setup still prevailing in Washington, despite numerous attempts at streamlining and reorganization. Of this Mr. Ziff remarks, “This war cannot be won by conferences and committees any more than it can be won by the countless little AEF’s we are sending all over the world. It can only be won by some great military leader who is willing to act tough and who has absolute power and authority of direction. None of the present correlating agencies is an adequate substitute for such a singleness of leadership. . . . Wars can only be won by unity of action, by youth, by integrity of knowledge, and by methods in which imagination and technological skill play a part. It is the unusual and the extravagant which wins wars, not the stolid and the commonplace.” This last sentence may be regarded as the key-note of this stimulating and provocative volume. . . . “If we fight the Battle of Germany now, the Battle of America will never be.”

It is probably no exaggeration to say that the greatest challenge this global war has offered to date is that of the air transport or cargo plane. Although the airplane is primarily for transport and not for combat, the fighting airplane has been accepted for nearly three decades, but not so the transport or cargo airplane. One of the principal factors in the success of air power is an adequate and speedy system of supply. That means air transport. Fighting units must be moved and supported where the enemy least expects them.

The Army Air Force Air Transport Command is a spreading global network that carries planes, materiel, men, and mail wherever required to accomplish the mission of the Army—an airline to everywhere. Under this Command the established American airlines have already worked miracles in the creation of airways—across oceans, acrobs Africa, across Greenland, across Arabia. In a recently published volume, “Airways,” Henry Ladd Smith recounts the history of commercial aviation in the United States. This saga of American commercial flying from World War I to the present time is the product of exacting research and is well documented. In addition to this, the men whose vision and energy made possible the present-day maturity of commercial aviation are clearly mirrored in these pages. It is a timely and noteworthy volume.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading