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Has Air Power Made Good Its Claims?

ISSUE:  Summer 1943

By Lieut. Colonel Harold E. Hartney, Air Corps (Inactive)

In answering any question about the claims of air power in this war, the first thing to settle is, whose claims? Regardless of what air extremists and typewriter strategists may say about the ability of air power to win the war single-handed, no responsible air officer of the Army or Navy would support this thesis. The air enthusiasts say that the airplane has sounded the death knell of the battleship, that even the carrier is on the way out, and that air power alone can control the sea lanes. It is true that airplanes have sunk battleships, destroyers, carriers, and other war vessels; witness Taranto, Crete, the Prince of Wales, and the amazing battle of the Bismarck Sea. But that does not mean that navies are through, or reduced to supply and convoy duty.

It is the same on land. Extreme air advocates may insist that by putting all the eggs in the air power basket and sending thousands of bombers every night over enemy territory, his main war industries, communications, and so forth, can be destroyed, and that by bombing alone a decisive victory can be won. All the ground forces would have to do would be to march in and take over. Again it may be noted that a real element of truth is contained in this idea. When the present bombing raids of the Royal Air Force and the U. S. Army 8th Air Force reach the scale of a genuinely sustained offensive, especially if aided by an enlarged effort of the recently revived Independent Bombing Command of the Soviet Air Force striking from the east, we shall have more evidence in hand as to the important role of strategic bombardment in the final victory.

After nearly four years of fighting, the supreme lessons of the war stand out clearly: There is no such thing as sea power without air power. There is no such thing as land power without air power. There is such a thing as air power used independently of ground or sea forces, and the only answer to it is superior air power, as illustrated in the air Battle of Britain and the rising tide of the air offensive over Germany.

In the broadest view, air power may be used (1) tactically, that is, in close co-operation with sea or ground forces; (2) strategically, by striking the enemy directly through the air, without the aid of surface arms; and (3) logistically, as a modern method of rapidly transporting men and munitions to the fighting fronts. Each of these has its part to play in modern war.

Tactical air power is sometimes referred to as “battle aviation,” or as “co-operative,” “co-ordinated,” or “auxiliary” air power. This latter term goes back to the famous Italian General Douhet, who rejected this concept in favor of what he regarded as the primary function of air power, strategic bombing. This, he maintained, could in and of itself force a military decision and bring a nation to its knees. Douhet’s ideas have, as we shall see, influenced many, and perhaps none more than Air Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering. After the Spanish Civil War, Goering’s ideas lost ground more and more in the Nazi high command, which held to the principle that the Luftwaffe did not constitute a separate formation, but came directly under the Army, with which it constitutes a compact whole. The Luftwaffe was therefore set up as a short-range army co-operation machine. Its chief weapons were the Ju-87 stuka; the Me-109 single-seat fighter; the Me-110 twin-engine long-range fighter and light bomber; Dornier and Heinkel medium bombers, fast, but lightly armed; and the Ju-52 trimotored troop and cargo transport. These planes were all in mass production in dozens of scattered plants by 1938, and a year later were thrown into action with the fast moving panzer divisions. This was the blitzkrieg, with screaming stukas as mobile artillery smashing enemy defenses, then the tanks dashing through to encircle the troops. Against nations ill-prepared in the air it worked like a charm, but against Russia’s defense in depth (notably at Smolensk), coupled with the unexpected strength of the Red Air Force, the blitzkrieg was stopped.

Russia, too, has never been particularly influenced by Douhet. The Soviet Air Arm has always been an integral part of the Army, its full title being the “Military Air Fleet of the Red Army.” Most of the Russian planes are single-seat fighter and light and medium twin-engine combination dive bombers and attack planes (sometimes called “assault” or “storming” planes, the best known of which is the IL-2 Stormovik, heavily armored dive bomber and anti-tank fighter). The Russians hold that the shortest route to victory is annihilation of the enemy’s field forces by coordinated attacks of all arms. The Soviets also developed long-range bombers, however, for raids on enemy industrial centers.

In the United States the hitherto small but effective Army Air Corps has become the Army Air Forces, one of the three main components of the Army, rapidly heading out to become the world’s largest and most powerful air force. The Naval Air Arm is also an integral part of the U. S. Navy and has developed a team of specialized planes which outclass all other naval aircraft in the world. Army aviation was developed in the early 1920’s under three main categories: (1) Bombardment aviation; (2) Attack aviation; and (3) Pursuit (now called Fighter) aviation. Long-range bombardment, following Douhet more closely than the other countries mentioned, and inspired by the vision of the dynamic if not always patient Billy Mitchell, was regarded as the key to genuine air power. However, close cooperation of air and ground forces has always had considerable attention on the part of U. S. Army airmen, and two American attack airplanes are reckoned as outstanding on the world’s battlefronts, the Douglas Havoc A-20 twin-engine fighter-bomber, and the North American Mustang (P-51 Army reconnaissance-fighter, and A-36 attack fighter and fight dive or level bomber).

In Great Britain we have an outstanding example of a completely separate and independent air arm. The Royal Air Force on April 1, 1943, celebrated its Silver Jubilee as an independent military organization, a status which it attained in the midst of the first World War. It is thus only natural that the struggle of high-ranking British Army officers to control the types of airplanes developed in England, so as to make sure of proper air support for their ground operations, has been very long drawn out. As a matter of fact, it was only after the Germans had demonstrated the overwhelming effectiveness of the co-ordinated plane-tank team as a battle-winning combination that a fourth command (the Army Co-operation Command) was added to the three classic commands of the R. A. F., Bomber Command for offense, Fighter Command for defense, and Coastal Command for patrol. Two remarks in the 1941 Year Book of the Luftwaffe are most illuminating (if somewhat humiliating) on this point: “The enemy might have seen from the campaigns of the past the pregnant results of full co-operation between the army and the air force in modern war. But he has not done so because he neither could nor would.” The other one is no less searching: “The aircraft of the enemy fly about over the field of battle, when they should be co-operating closely with the ground forces. Our opponents often have no idea where their air formations are located, and when they get information it is already too late. Everywhere they arrive too late.”

But North Africa proved that the British could, would, and did learn the lesson. As often in warfare, they learned it the hard way. Twice in the see-saw campaign between Egypt and Libya the R. A. F. had definite air superiority over the Nazi and Italian air forces in the desert. Military analysts almost unanimously declared that the main reason why the earlier British victory did not “stick” was the failure of the air-ground co-operation, a most difficult and complicated undertaking, and one requiring a great deal of planning and organization, a tremendous amount of practice, and split-second timing all the way through.

Although not generally realized, air power was the main reason why Rommel, after driving Auchinleck’s armies from Gazala over 350 miles to El Alamein in several weeks, was suddenly stopped a bare 70 miles from Alexandria and the whole tide of the war turned. Rommel had sped on so fast that he had to pause to bring up quantities of supplies. This gave the British a breathing spell to dig in and reform their lines. As part of the strategic decision reached by Roosevelt, Churchill, and the Allied military leaders regarding the Middle East and North Africa, the U. S. Army 9th Air Force was set up in Egypt in June, 1942, to assist the R. A. F. Middle East Command administer a knockout blow and eventually drive the Axis completely out of Africa. The crying need of the hour was for bombers, especially for long-range heavy bombers (a year later, these bombers are more than ever in top demand—in England, in China, in Australia). During the early summer they were flown across Africa in a steady stream by the British and American Air Transport services—Wellingtons, Bostons, and Hali-faxes for the R. A. F., and Fortresses, Liberators, and Mitchells for the 9th Air Force Bomber Command. Smashing raids were carried out, resulting in heavy damage to Axis docks and shipping at Tobruk, Bengasi, and ports in Crete and Greece. More than two-thirds of the shipping bringing supplies to the Afrika Korps was sunk, as well as large numbers of Ju-52 transport planes. Rommel’s heavy supply line was dried up. This was strategic air power, not tactical, but there is no report that the Army turned it down on that account I

However, in the meantime something else was happening nearer at hand. This was the development of tactical or co-operative air power of the highest quality, which paved the way for all that was to follow.

Royal Air Force twin-engine Bostons and Beaufighters and adapted Hurricanes (“Hurribombers”), with external racks for carrying two 500-pounders, teamed up with 9th Air Force Fighter squadrons flying Curtiss P-40E’s (“Kittybombers”) and Warhawks (P-40F’s with Merlin engines). They blasted supply depots, trucks, mobile guns, and tanks all along the line, to the tune of several hundred forties per day. Several months later it was revealed that even in these early stages of the campaign the British were making good use of a new secret weapon, the Hurricane IID, called the “Hurribuster,” an anti-tank fighter equipped with the amazing punch of two 40-mm. Bofors cannon, one under each wing near the fuselage, and firing shells weighing over two pounds apiece. This hard-hitting tank-buster (or “can-opener”) has been called the most effective and most revolutionary tactical development of the war to date, a description hitherto applied to Russia’s remarkable IL-2 Stormovik anti-tank assault plane and dive bomber.

During all this time, stable-mates of these fighter-bombers, used purely as fighters, maintained air superiority, taking excellent care of the opposing stukas and Mefs (Me-109F’s), and the Italian Macchis and Fiats. R. A. F. Blenheims, Bostons, and Baltimores and 9th Air Force Mitchells, a foursome of hard-hitting two-engine bombers, plastered enemy concentrations and airdromes behind the lines, further immobilizing his air power. Taken altogether, this Allied pattern of tactical or co-operative air power was more flexible and less costly than the Nazi bomber-tank team.

It paid excellent dividends in the El Alamein breakthrough and in the long chase of the Afrika Korps to the Mareth Line. In the final clean-up in Tunisia we find the first large-scale example of the irresistible strength of an aerial striking force employing all its capabilities in an integrated pattern.

Similar aerial tactics were worked out by Lieutenant General Kenney’s 5th Air Force in the remarkable campaign which drove the Japs over the Owen Stanley mountains and eventually cleared them out of Papua and eastern New Guinea, removing a dangerous threat to Port Moresby, Over 18,000 troops were flown in to the combat area, with all their equipment, supplies, food, ammunition, and medical supplies. Airacobras, Marauders, Mitchells, Lightnings, and even, on occasion, the big Flying Fortresses were effectively used in fast low-level attacks to break up enemy concentrations and demolish his supply line. General Mac-Arthur paid eloquent testimony to the effectiveness of his air-ground co-operation a few days after the campaign was completed. One reason for this remarkable success may be found in the fact that General Kenney was given practically a free hand for his air operations.

Before we consider the place of strategic air power in the war, a note on the tactical use of the dive bomber may not be out of place. There is a good deal of evidence that this highly specialized type of plane is on the way out—not only the Ju-87 stuka, once the terror of Europe’s skies against nations poorly prepared in the air, but the type itself. Its place is being taken by twin-engine, low-level fighter-bombers, heavily armed and armored, capable of longer range operations than permitted by the single-engine, highly vulnerable, specialized plane; on occasion these larger, more powerful planes can be used very effectively in shallow-angle dive bombing, as well as the so-called skip bombing, The Army sums it all up in its phrase, “minimum altitude bombing.” In a way the Germans started this with their Ju-88 fast twin-engine level or dive bomber, but they did not follow through with the low-level tactics developed by the United States, England, and Russia. Its germ was the attack aviation developed by our Army Air Corps in the early 1920’s. Planes of the new type to watch out for are (1) an adaptation of our Douglas A-20 Havoc, and (2) Russia’s successful PE-2 and YAK-4, which the Russians are using in a similar manner to the large numbers of A-20’s they are receiving from us. These Havocs, Bell Airacobras, and North American Mitchells, and the other ships we are sending the Russians through Lend-Lease, are playing an important part in the renewed air activity of the past few months.

Strategic air power is air power par excellence. Sometimes referred to as “pure” or “independent” air power, it is regarded by many air officers as the only form of air power worthy of the name air power. Just as navies plus airplanes make up sea power, and armies plus airplanes make up land power, so long-range heavy bombers with properly trained aircrews and operating bases make up air power. It is in this sphere that the arguments for an independent air force, represented by a full cabinet officer, as in Great Britain, have the greatest cogency. Strategic air power, with its ability to strike far behind the enemy lines with sustained air offensives against his industrial and communications system, is a war-winning weapon and capable of delivering a decisive blow, so softening up the enemy that an invasion by combined forces, land-sea-air (“omnibious” rather than amphibious), becomes a far more rapid and altogether less costly proposition than it would otherwise be.

This was demonstrated in the first part of the campaign which drove the Axis out of Africa. In recognition of this, at Casablanca the most effective air organization ever seen in action was worked out, strategic air power being given a place of great importance. The whole set-up was called the Mediterranean Air Command, under Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder. This command included (1) the Northwest African Air Forces under Lieutenant General Carl Spaatz, (2) the R. A. F. Malta, and (3) the Western Desert Air Forces, which, combined into one, made up the highly successful team which started Rommel on the run, the R. A, F. Middle East and our 9th Air Force. Of these the R. A, F. Malta and the Western Desert Air Forces were largely used strategically, i. e., in bombing operations smashing the ports, shipping, air transports, and airdromes—anything to dry up the Axis supply lines. In addition to this, the Northwest African Air Forces included a Strategic Air Force under General Doolittle, composed of such heavy bombers as Fortresses and Liberators, medium bombers as Marauders and Mitchells, and long-range fighters as Lightnings and Beaufighters, Also strategically effective in this campaign, although not generally recognized, were the increasingly heavy bombing raids begun months before by the planes of R. A. F.’s Bomber Command and the 8th Air Force based in England. These blasted German war plants and threw many a monkey wrench into the communications system through which supplies and equipment flowed to the Axis.

It should be pointed out that strategic bombing is not j confined to huge raids by four-engine heavy bombers, but includes such activities as those carried on by the R. A. F.’s “train-buster” squadrons of Bostons, Hurricanes, Whirlwinds, and Mosquitoes, which have been knocking out and severely damaging an average of 150 locomotives per month. This is hitting the enemy where it hurts. The Bureau of Economic Warfare recently reported that Germany had been forced to cut down her production of tanks to replace the serious depletion of locomotives.

It is very significant that since Major General Eaker’s remark that the highly successful raid made by some 100 Fortresses and Liberators on the Vegesack submarine works on March 18th was the “end of the experimental stage of daylight precision bombing of occupied Europe,” these raids have been carried out with increasingly devastating results and with larger numbers of our heavy bombers. On the Vegesack mission seven of fifteen submarines actually in the construction ways were hit, and heavy damage was inflicted on eighteen of the buildings. It was estimated that several months would be required to get the yards working again. One of the reasons for the accuracy of the bombing on this and subsequent occasions (notably on the long-range mission against Kiel on May 14th, photographs of which indicate that almost every bomb struck the target area) was the widespread use of an automatic device enabling the bombardier to exercise direct control of the plane during the bombing run rather than by inter-communication orders to the pilot. Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal described the Vegesack mission as a complete answer to all criticism of high-altitude, daylight, precision bombing. The case may now be regarded as proved, the main problems now being to build up the required strength in bombers and trained air crews. It seems evident in surveying the difficult problems of global air strategy that while more bomber strength is now being sent to Chennault in China and Kenney in Australia-New Guinea, at present most of the big stuff is going where the enemy can most quickly be given some staggering punches.

Strategic bombing is at the moment almost the only way we are able to bring any pressure on the enemy from bases in India, China, the Southwest Pacific, and the Central Pacific, with activities by our 10th, 14th, 5th, and 7th Air Force Bomber Commands respectively. There is evidence also that Russia is fast coming into the picture of strategic bombing, after a long period in which close tactical co-operation with the Red Army was practically the only way in which she was using her air power. Two facts stand out. While the Soviet Independent Bomber Force was reorganized well over a year ago with the object of conducting long-range raids on the eastern sections of the Reich and the occupied satellite nations, it is only since April that these raids have been carried out on any considerable scale, The 200-plane raid on Insterburg (April 22) was a good example. The results of these raids have been successful, with surprisingly light losses. The movement of Nazi arms production to the east is thus threatened from a new quarter. The air circle is getting smaller, and ‘round the clock bombing is being strengthened by ‘round the circle bombing —from England, Africa, and Russia. The other fact is the greatly increased activity of Russian bombers in attacks against the German supply line, hundreds of freight cars and supply trucks having been smashed during the past few weeks.

While bombardment is offensive in its nature, its value in the strategic defense is also of the highest importance. In the remarkable victory of the Bismarck Sea early in March, during which land-based air power decisively stopped and then annihilated an enemy invasion fleet, the long-held convictions of American air officers have been triumphantly vindicated. This battle will have an important place in the history of warfare. The bomber was demonstrated as a first line of defense. Minimum altitude bombing, hitherto tried v/ith definite success, was here given a conclusive demonstration. The victory was overwhelmingly complete. Our losses were unbelievably light.

The advocates of strategic bombing are frequently criticized as claiming that “bombing alone can win wars,” or that the air arm has to fight a “separate war.” A recent speech of Sir Archibald Sinclair, the British Vir Minister, contains what may well go down as a classic utterance in this regard. He referred to the triumphs of the Eighth Army as providing the model for combined work by ground troops and air power, and stated that “it is not only on the squadrons of Army Co-operation Command that the Army will rely when it is fighting on the continent of Europe. The whole resources of the Royal Air Force will be united with those of the Army . . .” Later in the address he outlined the various functions of the Royal Air Force in the order of their importance: (1) to protect our war industries, communications, and homes from the attacks of the enemy (Fighter Command); (2) to take its share with the Navy in the defense of overseas routes (Coastal Command); (3) to combine with the two other services in offensive operations against the enemy’s forces (entire R. A. F.); and (4) to attack the enemy’s war industries, transport, and military bases (Bomber Command). Strategic bombing is thus placed last of all. This is one of the main reasons why the tempo of heavy bombing raids has not increased more rapidly. However, on May 21, following Churchill’s speech in Congress, Sir Archibald indicated that the green light had been given for greatly stepping up the heavy bombing operations. “There is only one hope of getting to Berlin without the slaughter which the land battles of the last war entailed, and that is by the paralysis of German war power by the Bomber Command. These aerial attacks are more than raids. They are battles.”

In the above order, however, we do see teamwork plus; and the need of a unified high command is most apparent, with top officers who understand land, sea, and air operations. For some years the Germans have picked hundreds of their ablest officers and sent them periodically for training and operational experience with ground forces, the fleet, and the Luftwaffe. Britain has also been doing this for the last few years. One of the most encouraging things to come out of our war effort is that at last the United States has set up a similar program. This fulfills the dream of many an officer in the Army Air Corps.

There is now an Army Air Force School of Applied Tactics for the final polishing-off of air officers. Ground officers have their Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth (all Air Corps generals have hitherto taken this course). The Navy War College is at Newport, R. I. A joint Army-Navy Staff College is now centered at Georgetown University, Washington, D. C. Under the new co-ordinated set-up there will be a constant interchange between staff schools of qualified officers above junior grade. Air, ground, and naval officers attend all three of the service schools and then complete their training at the joint Army-Navy Staff College. All this is not to minimize air power in any way. Air power will certainly be the dominating and decisive factor in the war, but teamwork will win the victory.

Although space does not permit enlarging on the theme, it may surprise some readers to be told that of the three ways in which air power is effectively used, tactically, strategically, and logistically, it may well be that the third is the most important of all. Certainly, without it the other two could not function; in addition to which, it has been claimed with good reason that “logistics is 70 per cent of victory.” More wars have been lost through faulty logistics than mistaken strategy or tactics. Transport provides the lifelines of military success. It is still necessary to get there first.

Within a few months of Pearl Harbor the Army Air Forces were engaging the enemy on nine widely scattered fronts, with North Africa added shortly after. Naval and Marine airmen were also slugging it out over vast areas of the Pacific, thousands of miles from their home bases. The greatest single reason for this remarkable spread of American air power is the phenomenal growth of the Army’s Air Transport Command and the Naval Air Transport Service. Taking advantage of the vast pioneering experience of Pan-American Airways, and ably assisted by many of our domestic airlines, the Army ATC soon developed four great airways, and in terms of distance and volume of traffic has become the world’s biggest airline, flying men and munitions to the fighting fronts. In the combat areas the job has been taken over by the Troop Carrier Command, with outstanding success in New Guinea and the North African campaign. Their motto is “They who get there first conquer.” This widespread use of the airplane in war has brought to millions a vivid sense of one world, and will help to produce a better world in the days to come.


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