Section 2: Prelude to War
Chapter 3: Air War, 1939–41
The unique capabilities of air power, merely suggested in the small-scale aerial activity of World War I, were effectively demonstrated in the conflict which broke out in 1939, for World War II was characterized from the outset by extensive use of the air weapon. Numerous forecasts of such a development had been voiced since the end of the earlier conflict, both in the aggressor nations and in those nations which became the victims of aggression. in 1919 an American aviation mission, sent to Europe by President Woodrow Wilson to study the future of military aviation, found “that any future war will inevitably open with great aerial activity far in advance of contact either upon land or sea, and that victory cannot but incline to that belligerent able to first achieve and later maintain its supremacy in the air.”1 For a variety of reasons, some of which have been suggested in the preceding chapter, full recognition was not accorded to this finding in the postwar development of our national defense. Only the fact of a second war, world-wide in its implications and holding forth from the first the prospect of our won eventual involvement, created again conditions favorable to a full exploration of the potentialities of the air weapon. Consequently, at least a brief account of the major belligerent air forces and their activities in the period prior to December 1941 must precede any attempt to describe the expanding role of the Air Corps after 1939 in our feverish preparations for war.
From the attention given to the development of air power in Japan, Italy, and Germany, it was clear by 1939 that those nations recognized the airplane to be a redoubtable weapon in achieving their expansionist ends. But the three countries varied in the doctrine, matériel, and
organization which characterized their air arms; different strategic and tactical concepts, reflecting in part differences in geographic position and productive capacity, gave peculiar shape to each of the totalitarian air force. Similar considerations determined the status of air preparations in Great Britain, France, and other nations opposing the Axis powers. In the military air doctrines developed by major world powers prior to the outbreak of World War II, and in the practical application of those doctrines during the first two years of conflict, lay significant clues as to the eventual viceroy of defeat of the several nations. even if the clues were not obvious at the time, it was at least evident that air power would be an important – perhaps decisive – factor in the outcome of the conflict.
The totalitarian nations had tested their air forces in combat during the years immediately prior to 1939, and their action in the localized struggles preceding the world conflict revealed trends and policies which were to characterize their later conduct of the war. In the Far East, Japan’s undeclared war against China, prosecuted vigorously after 1937, and Russo-Manchurian border fighting in 1939 gave the Japanese air forces an opportunity to gain valuable combat experience. In Europe, the members of the Rome–Berlin Axis seized upon the Spanish civil war of 1936–39 as a proving ground for their weapons, while the Italian conquest of Ethiopia in the mid-thirties also involved the use of warplanes in tactical experiments. These experiences gave the totalitarian powers an initial advantage over the Allies. The U.S. Army Air Corps made such efforts as were possible to keep informed of developments among its potential enemies and allies and to assimilate the lessons which penetrated the veil of censorship. That veil was particularly effective in concealing the activities and potentialities of the Japanese air forces, and American air officials tended to underestimate those forces.
Japanese Air Power
The Japanese air forces, divided into separate army and navy air arms, had developed under the influence of foreign aviation. In 1911 two Japanese army officers received air training in France, and they were followed by a few more officers during the next two years. In 1919 a French mission comprising some sixty airmen arrived in Japan to assist in army air training; in the same e army established an aviation section. By 1920 the first military aviation school had been
opened near Tokyo; two additional schools were established in 1922. Organizational changes came with the expansion of the Japanese Army Air Force, which soon occupied a place along with the infantry, field artillery, and cavalry. Before the end of the 1930s the post of Inspector General of Military Aviation had been created, making one commander directly responsible to the Emperor for the training of the air force.2
The Japanese Navy Air Force had a similar history in its origin, development, and gradual assumption of importance. Naval officers who had received aviation instruction in France and in the United States established a training school at Oppama near Yokosuka in 1912. The first Japanese aircraft carrier was completed in 1920, but little progress in training and organization was until 1921 when a British mission of retired RAF officers and others arrived in Japan to assist in reorganizing the naval air arm. later British missions instructed the Japanese force in aircraft inspection, tactics, gunnery, and armament. Though the London Naval Treaty of 1930 placed restrictions on Japanese naval construction, the Japanese continued to expand their naval air force, and four “replenishment plans” were approved during the thirties. Night carrier training was begun in 1933, and both carrier and shore-based strength of the naval air force continued to grow.
The functions of the two Japanese air forces were clearly divided. The army air force was designed solely to support the army ground forces, while the naval air force, in addition to supporting the fleet, was responsible for coastal defense, convoy protection, and sea and antisubmarine patrols. There was apparently little cooperation between the two forces, for they had developed independently and they were under the direction of respective army and navy commanders who showed little desire to coordinate the activities of the air arms. Despite the foreign influence which had aided in the establishment of the air forces, the Japanese concept of air power and of the role of the separate air arms did not constitute an exact copy of any foreign nation. In organization and theory, as well as in the design and manufacture of aircraft, Japan adapted Western ideas to her own needs, and the resulting mixture of Oriental and Western strains, while bearing resemblances to the air forces of other nations, did not duplicate any one of them.3
In the period of 1937–41, Japanese air power received its first extended
test in combat. In 1931 the Japanese army had moved into Manchuria, and from that stronghold drove into China in the summer of 1937. The air forces of the aggressor had virtually an open sky, for the weak Chinese Air Force was unable to offer strong opposition. Under the stimulus of civil war, from 1911 to 1928, the several factions in China had developed air services consisting of a few obsolete aircraft purchased from abroad. Upon establishment of the central government in 1928, a more stable program was possible, and during the thirties an expansion and improvement of Chinese military aviation was accomplished with the aid of foreign technical advisers. But the Chinese Air Force was in no sense prepared to meet the relatively modern air force with which the Japanese opened the war in 1937. By the end of the year the Chinese Air Force had been almost completely destroyed. Assistance from the Soviet Union and other nations enabled the Chinese to continue their air opposition, but their efforts were ineffectual. lack of a modern training program, inadequate maintenance and repair facilities, and deficiencies in organization accounted for much of the weakness of the Chinese force.4
At the outbreak of the conflict in 1937, air combat on both sides was poorly executed, although there was no question as to the courage of either Chinese or Japanese pilots. Bombing was inaccurate, but the Japanese improved with practice and they revealed a talent for modifying their tactics in order to meet changing tactics of their opponents. The Chinese, forced to fight a defensive war on their own territory, concentrated on improving their interceptor aviation. in the early days of the fighting, Japanese bombers without pursuit protection made daylight attacks on Nanking and other cities, but following a few disastrous encounters with Chinese pursuit planes, the bombing halted until pursuit planes could be brought from Japan to provide the necessary protection. Japanese bombing formations, which at first numbered about nine planes, soon increased to an average of twenty-seven planes per wave of bombers. The attacks, against both Chinese troop concentrations and Chinese cities, were usually preceded by one or two reconnaissance planes which gathered weather information and intelligence of enemy air dispositions. Carrier- and shore-based planes of the naval air force operated against the Chinese, particularly in attacks on Chungking and in support of ground troops in the Shanghai and Tsingtao areas. The air force of the Japanese army participated
on a larger scale, and personnel were rotated frequently in order to give combat experience to more airmen.5
In the Russo-Manchurian order fighting which broke out in May 1939, the Japanese Army Air Force received a much more severe and devastating test of its strength. The Soviet Sir Force, designed primarily as an immediate support to the Red Army, administered a resounding defeat to the Japanese force, which committed almost its entire strength to the engagement and post approximately 500 planes and 150 pilots. According to the Japanese, their losses were worthwhile because they brought about important changes in organization, training, and tactics. These changes, however, were accompanied by no marked departure from existing concepts of air warfare, and the chief development came in an accelerated rate of expansion.6
As the border fighting ended in September 1939, the poor record of the Japanese Army Air Force led foreign observers to conclude that the army’s force was inferior in both training and efficiency to the naval air force. There was some justification for such a belief. Training in the army flying schools was devoted almost exclusively to pilots, and training of other air crewmen was largely neglected until their assignment to tactical units. The navy, on the other hand, gave closer attention to the training of all members of the crew, and by 1941 its training program was designed to turn out annually some 2,500 navigators, bombardiers, gunners, and flight engineers. At the same time, the navy was training about 2,000 pilots a year, while the army was turning out pilots at the rate of approximately 750 a year. In equipment, too, the army air force lagged behind the navy air force. The latter possessed some excellent four-engine patrol bombers, while the army had nothing heavier than a two-engine bomber. Prior to 7 December 1941 the army air force flew almost exclusively over land, and its longest-range bombers had an operational radius of only some 500 miles. The navy’s force had been trained to operate over water with a radius of about 800 miles. Both forces, however, had a number of well-tried torpedo bombers, dive bombers, and level bombers, reconnaissance and transport planes, and several models of the Zero fighter – a fast, highly maneuverable but somewhat vulnerable plane with a maximum speed of approximately 350 miles per hour.* The
* The Japanese made no use of the manufacturer’s name in the designation of their aircraft, possibly because two or more manufacturers not uncommonly produced the same type plane. Their type numbers instead corresponded to the last one or two digits of the year of issue according to the Japanese calendar, by which the year 1940 was the Japanese year 2,600. Thus the planes brought into use during 1939 were designated as type 99 and those issued in 1940 were type 0. At first only one type 0 aircraft – the Mitsubishi type 0 single-engine fighter used by both the Japanese army and navy – was widely known to American pilots and called the Zero. When, in the fall of 1942, the Americans began to meet other type 0 aircraft, however, they gave up identification by serial numbers in favor of short, easily pronounced code names. By this nomenclature the more important of Japan’s tactical aircraft came to be known as follows: the Mitsubishi type 0 single-engine fighter (made also by Nakajima) became the Zeke, its float-plane counterpart the Rufe; the Nakajima type 97 single-engine army and navy fighter the Nate; and the Nakajima type 1 single-engine fighter the Oscar; the type 97 bomber made by both Nakajima and Mitsubishi became the Kate, the type 99 Aichi dive bomber was called the Val; and the Mitsubishi twin-engine medium bombers types 96, 97, and 1 were named the Nell, Sally, and Betty; the types 97 and 98 Mitsubishi light bombers became the Babs and Sonia; the two principal four-engine flying boats in use during 1942, the types 97 and 2 Kawanishi, were designated as the Mavis and Emily; and the type D-2 transport (the Douglas DC-2 adaptation) was named the Tess, while the Mitsubishi type 0 transport became known as the Topsy.
planes were hybrids of foreign designs, with German influence being particularly notable after 1936 when Japan threw in her lot with Germany by signing the Anti-Comintern Pact.7
By 7 December 1941 Japanese air strength consisted of some 2,7000 aircraft assigned to fully trained air units. Approximately 6,000 pilots had been graduated from air schools or training units, 3,500 of which were assigned to the navy and the remainder to the army. About 50 per cent of the army pilots had been in combat either in China or in the border fighting against the Soviet Air Force, while 10 per cent of land-based navy pilots had participated in the Chinese operations. Some 600 of the best navy pilots were assigned to aircraft carrier units. In contrast to the 200 hours in primary, basic and advanced training then being given to Air Corps cadets in the United States, the Japanese pilots were receiving about 300 hours in training units before being assigned to tactical units. The average first-line Japanese pilots in 1941 had about 500 flying hours, and the average pilot in the carrier groups which were destined to begin hostilities against the United States had over 800 hours. Though somewhat discounted by officials of other nations, the Japanese air forces had now reached a peak of efficiency, at any rate in their first-line strength, which gave them a commanding position in the Pacific.
There were, however, certain fundamental weaknesses. In their approach to the problems of air warfare, the Japanese took a limited view of its possibilities. To the ground force officers who commanded
army air units, the airplane was chiefly a tactical weapon for supporting ground troops at short range. While the navy’s concept was broader, it did not encompass the necessity of desirability of long-range, sustained air attacks on rear areas. There was nothing to indicate that the Japanese comprehended the logistical possibilities of transport aircraft, either for troop-carrier or for supply-dropping purposes. The lack of cooperation between the army and navy forces did not augur well for a war which might demand joint operations. Furthermore, the division of the forces extended into the production realm, where the army and navy competed for production facilities and raw materials and failed to provide for the exchange of information so vital to the efficiency of the Japanese aircraft industry.
Actually, the Japanese possessed neither the economic potential nor the extensive technical skill necessary for developing and maintaining a first-class air force. if other nations erred in underestimating the strength of Japanese air power in 1941, the Japanese high command for its part failed to appreciate the disparity between Japan’s air potential and that of prospective opponents. In 1941, for example, the aircraft industry in Japan turned out only 5,088 planes, while the United States, though only in the initial stages of its conversion to a wartime economy, produced 19,445. In comparison with the 11,000 pilots trained by the U.S. Army and during 1941, the Japanese training programs turned out about 3,000. The Japanese also seemed to have had little appreciation of the problem of replacements, for they sacrificed safety factors in aircraft to performance, and they made relatively little provision for air-sea rescue of highly trained personnel. In the matter of airfield construction and maintenance of aircraft, the Japanese had only rudimentary conceptions problems involved; no system had been developed for the rapid construction of airfields, while only small supplies of spare parts were kept on hand and the number of depots for major repairs was inadequate for extensive operations.8
The Japanese air forces were not prepared for a war of long duration. Their major dependence would be placed on the element of surprise and on a few well-trained airmen in the execution of skillfully laid plans. Confident of an early victory, they discounted the potential strength of their enemies.
The Italian Air Force
In the theory of aerial warfare and in the organization of their air forces the Italians were much further advanced than the Japanese. Following World War I, Italian aviation had sunk to a low level of efficiency and strength. By 1922 their first-line aircraft, approximately 100 in number, were becoming obsolete. But when Mussolini came to power in that year, he instituted a series of changes designed to build a powerful air arm. Making the air force independent of the army and the navy, Mussolini established a separate air ministry with himself as Air Minister.9 The new office, which had control over the placing of all orders for aircraft in Italy, encouraged the development of new models and began to place into production the two most promising designs offered in any one competition. By 1939 some twenty-nine firms in Italy were producing aircraft, while six firms were manufacturing aircraft engines.10 By this time the Air Ministry had steered the Regia Aeronautica (Italian Air Force) through a number of reorganizations to meet the expanding demands of Italy’s aggressive policy. When the country became an active participant in World War II, the Regia Aeronautica was organized into four parts: an independent air force, army operation units, a naval air service, and a colonial air force.11
For their air doctrines, the Italians depended almost entirely on the thinking of their noted Gen. Guilio Douhet. It was Douhet’s belief that the airplane had revolutionized the nature of war. As opposed to land and sea operations, in which the defensive attitude was easier than the offensive, aerial operations were carried out in a medium which facilitated offensive action. No longer would warfare be confined to armies on the field of battle or to vessels on the high seas; according the Douhet, the total population now became the belligerents, and victory could result only from the total application of a nation’s material and moral resources and the exhaustion of those resources of the enemy. He emphasized the necessity for swift and decisive destruction from the air, the rapidity of the successive attacks not allowing for material repairs or recovery of morale. This doctrine reflected Italy’s economic weakness and a vulnerable geographic position; for while her position in the Mediterranean was potentially dominating, it was also dangerously exposed, and her economic resources were decidedly limited. Italy’s best chance of success in warfare therefore seemed to lie in a
short, swift war, the victory to be achieved largely through the paralyzing effect of strategic bombardment.12 IN the matter of organization, Douhet advocated the establishment of the air forces as a separate arm and the coordination of air, army, and navy forces through a department of national defense. This last part of the Douhet doctrine was closely followed by the Italians, for after the establishment of the Air Ministry all Italian forces were reorganized and Marshal Pietro Badoglio became chief of staff of the United Armed Forces.13 But, when the test came, the Regia Aeronautica proved itself incapable of carrying out either a short or a long war against any reasonably determined opposition.
In its first “combat” test during the thirties the Italian Air Force faced no real opposition. In the war against Ethiopia, 1935–36, Italian bombers gained experience in the use of various types of projectiles, and experiments were conducted in dropping ammunition, food, and water Italian ground forces; even fresh meat was supplied for the troops by the dropping of live goats and sheep which parachuted to the desert and took up the march with the army until they were needed for food. Most of the planes used were obsolete, through the few Savoia-Marchetti bombers employed were of latest models. But in a country as primitive as Ethiopia there could be no chance to test Douhet’s theory of strategic bombardment; the air force was employed almost exclusively in giving close support to Italian ground forces.14
A more thorough test of Italian air matériel and doctrine was provided by participation, beginning in 1936, in the Spanish civil war. Again the opposition was slight. Russia, as well as Germany and Italy, too, an active part in the contest, but Soviet assistance to the Loyalists was limited, and the few obsolete aircraft which the Republicans acquired from France were quickly shot down or wrecked. The bombing by both factions in the conflict was largely tactical, although the Italians claimed to have accomplished a considerable amount of effective strategic bombing. Italian air units, based on the Balearic islands, Sardinia, and the mainland of Italy, at times operated as an independent force against cities and harbors; and the bombing, performed at heights ranging from 16,000 to 20,000 feet, was reported by the Italians to be “remarkably accurate.” According to Gen. Guiseppe Valle, addressing the Chamber of Fasci and Corporations on 5 May 1939, the war in Spain had demonstrated “the importance of the air arm in independent strategic action.” He pointed to the case of Barcelona,
where port facilities capable of handling as much traffic in one day as all the other Catalonian ports in ten days had been paralyzed, according to him, in a systematic offensive carried out by thirty bombers over a period of several months. But when all is said, there would appear to be more reason for regarding the Nationalist victory as an indication of the weakness of Loyalist forces than as proof of the tactical and technical soundness of the Italian Air Force.15
The U.S. Army Air Corps, at least, saw nothing in the aerial warfare in Spain or in China to suggest the advisability of change in its own doctrines. In both conflicts the combatants employed relatively small numbers of aircraft, and the bomber appeared to be regarded chiefly as a means of intensifying artillery fire and of increasing its range. In the few instances of strategic bombing, the number of planes employed was mall as to preclude the possibility of really significant results. As for the matter of individual technique, little emerged from the fighting in Spain or in China that was not already known as a result of the aerial activity of World War I.16 The Italian Air Force, closely watched by air strategists in the United States and elsewhere, again had failed either to prove or to disprove the doctrines of Douhet.
When Italy entered World War II in June 1940, just a few days prior to the collapse of France, Mussolini hoped that the Regia Aeronautica with its approximately 2,600 first-line aircraft would prove a dominating factor in control of the Mediterranean. The hope was not fulfilled, for numerous weaknesses in the Italian Air Force rapidly came to light, and the force began its descent from the fairly respectable reputation which it had held among the air forces of the leading world powers. Italy’s aircraft industry was unequal to the demands of large-scale warfare; production of combat types never exceeded 300 aircraft a month. The pattern of air force organization proved to be unstable and unwieldy in widespread operations. Training and morale were on a low level, and the temperament of the Italian airman tended to stress individual exploits rather than accomplishments of the group. Much of the equipment of the air force was obsolescent, while poor maintenance kept many of the planes on the ground. A great portion of the strength of the Regia Aeronautica was committed to the fighting in Africa, where the Italians attempted in vain to rout the British from their positions in the northern part of the continent. Initial Italian successes in the campaign were soon followed by the disintegration of Italian East Africa, and in the first retreat in Libya the Italians lost
approximately 1,200 aircraft. The Italian Air Force clearly had not been prepared for the defensive war which it was forced to fight. Although the efficiency of the force thereafter increased slightly under the stimulus of its working partner, the German Air Force, the Regio Aeronautica never exhibited sufficient power to be decisive in the outcome of prolonged hostilities. The fundamental weakness of the Italian Air Force was not in its theory of air power, which later events proved to be essentially sound, but rather in its inability to make proper application of that theory.17
The German Air Force
Germany possessed by far the most formidable air force of the three totalitarian nations. Following World War I, German aviation had been virtually abolished by the Treaty of Versailles. Determined to rebuild their military aviation, however, the Germans found ways of circumventing and then openly violating the terms of the Versailles agreement.18 Since the treaty had not prohibited German manufacture of commercial aircraft except for a brief period of six months, the German aircraft industry soon began to revive. In 1922 and again in 1924 limitations were placed on the number of civil aircraft which the Germans might manufacture, and representatives of the allied nations also laid down more specific rules defining the term “military aircraft” as used in the Treaty of Versailles. These restrictions had little effect, for German aircraft manufacturers promptly established subsidiary companies in neutral countries, where the production of aircraft could proceed without regard to limitations. Factories were built by Junkers in Russia, Sweden, and Turkey, by Rohrback, in Denmark, by Heinkel in Sweden, and by Dornier in Italy and Switzerland. The lid was officially removed in May 1926, when the Paris Air Agreement withdrew all limitations on the number and size of commercial aircraft which Germany might build, though the bans on military aviation and on the subsidization of sporting aviation remained.19
It was therefore under the guise of commercial aviation that the German Air Force began its recovery. The German Republic established a ministry of transport with an aviation department which had authority over all civilian aeronautics. Headed by a former officer of the German Air Force, the aviation department sought to promote the growth of “civilian” airlines, the advancement of aeronautical science, and the development of interest in aviation among the German people.
An air sport association encouraged the formation of flying clubs throughout Germany, which gave flying and gliding training to thousands of members. In addition, pilot training schools were set up, ostensibly for airline pilots; but at the end of the usual three years’ schooling, which was conducted in a strictly military manner, the pilots were actually qualified to operate bombers. Many former pilots of the German air force assumed controlling positions in the civilian airlines, while other pilots went to foreign areas, South American in particular, where they established commercial aviation companies.
In 1926 all German airlines, with the exception of one operating to Russia, were consolidated into the Deutsche Lufthansa, a heavily subsidized company which soon was extending its lines throughout Europe. The aircraft manufactured in Germany were still “civilian” aircraft, but they had been designed with a view to conversion for military purposes. Even at the time of its initial organization, the Lufthansa could have furnished the Reichswehr with at least two fighter squadrons, one bombardment squadron, and one auxiliary squadron of bombers. The extension of Lufthansa into other countries was accompanied by the establishment of German training centers outside Germany proper and by the assignment of officers to a number of foreign air forces for observation and training. By 1931 the German Air Force, officially nonexistent, was composed of four fighter, three heavy bomber, and eight reconnaissance-bomber squadrons, not including German units in Russia. As an indication of the rate at which airmen were being trained, in 1932 the air sport association (Deutscher Luftsportverband) alone trained 1,500 pilots and had under training 3,00 power pilots and 15,000 glider pilots.20
The military complexion of the clandestine Luftwaffe became much more obvious after Hitler’s assumption of power on 30 January 1933. Within three days the new chancellor placed Hermann Goering in charge of all civil aviation and air raid protection, which previously had been under the Ministry of Transport. members of all flying clubs of the air sport association were immediately put into uniform, and a large-scale flying training program was inaugurated among the members. Students in training under the Lufthansa were also placed in uniform, and “commercial” schools were expanded considerably. An extensive construction program of modern airdromes was begun in secret. The aircraft industry was greatly enlarged, not only by the expansion of existing plants, but also by the conversion of many companies
engaged in automotive, locomotive, and steel construction. And in May 1933 the German Air Ministry was established, Goering assuming the office of Air Minister.21
With the boldness and audacity which characterized the Nazi regime from the outset, Germany soon threw off all pretense concerning her rearmament, and it became evident that the German Air Force would have an important role in accomplishing Hitler’s plan of territorial aggrandizement. in March 1935 the Germans officially announced the formation of the Luftwaffe. Goering, who continued to head the Air Ministry, was made commander in chief of the Luftwaffe with Erhard Milch as his administrative deputy. The “new” air force was then composed of approximately 1,000 aircraft and some 20,000 officers and men. Its reserve supply of airmen was of course very considerable as a result of the training programs of previous years.
The decree of 1935, which officially brought the Luftwaffe into existence, stipulated that it was to be a third element of the Wehrmacht, independent of the army and the navy. The air force with its commander, Goering, thus came under the jurisdiction of Gen. Werner von Blomberg, Minister of Defense and head of the Wehrmacht. Goering, then reputed to be the second most powerful man in the Nazi regime, did not enjoy taking orders from von Blomberg, and the relations between the two men were far from harmonious. Personal differences, moreover, were reinforced by differing concepts of the place and role of the air force. Goering wished to make his Luftwaffe a completely independent organization, in control of its own supplies, recruiting, communications, and finances. he wanted to control all activities which were even remotely related to air, and with such power he hoped to direct the aircraft industry and the allocation of personnel to the advantage of the air force. The dominant influence within the Wehrmacht, however, naturally tended to be that of the old-line general staff of the German army, which strongly opposed the idea of an absolutely independent air force. neither the prospect of competition with it for manpower and matériel nor the idea of complete dependence upon Luftwaffe commanders for air-ground cooperation appealed to the army chiefs. Furthermore, the army remained for a time less an instrument of the Nazi party than was the Luftwaffe, and this fact was reported to be reflected to some extent in the attitude taken on issues raised by the air force.
Leaders of the Luftwaffe advocated a powerful strategic air force in
keeping with the theories of Douhet, but official policy regarded the airplane primarily as a tactical weapon for use in support of ground forces. The doctrinal position of army chiefs did not overlook the possible be provided by independent strategic operations, but such efforts definitely came second to air support for the ground forces; and, at a time when plans were being drafted for a quick conquest and exploitation of neighboring countries, there naturally existed a disposition to frown upon proposals for destruction by strategic bombardment of targets which otherwise might be promptly converted into German assets. Indeed, some question remains as to how far the German en themselves explored in their thinking the problems and potentialities of strategic bombardment. in any case, their job was first to act as an advance striking force, then to operate in direct support of an invading army. For that job they were well equipped, trained, and organized. though the Luftwaffe hardly proved to be so overwhelming a force as its advance notices indicated, it was without question a tough and skillful enemy.22
Following a series of retirements, including that of von Blomberg, Hitler in February 1938 assumed direct command of all the German armed forces. Under this arrangement the Luftwaffe, along with the army and navy, had direct access to the Fuehrer, while the Defense Ministry and the German Supreme Military Staff became Hitler’s advisers. But this change brought no essential alteration in the air force mission.23 Operationally and administratively the Luftwaffe had been organized on a geographical basis, and in February 1938 four air fleets were established, each composed of a number of air divisions. Each of these air divisions constituted a balanced force of bomber, fighter, and reconnaissance units and could be shifted from one fleet to another as the occasion required. in administration, supply, and maintenance, the provisions reflected an emphasis on operational mobility.24 German aircraft were generally satisfactory and some possessed outstanding qualities, but they were mainly fighters, transport planes, and bombers suited to the requirements of close support for ground armies.25 In the fighter class the Messerschmitt 109 was the main reliance, though a few squadrons had been equipped with the longer-ranged and speedier twin-engine Me-110. There were no four-engine bombers comparable to the American B-17 or the British Stirling; German bombers were two-engine mediums, chiefly the Heinkel 111 and the Dornier 17, and to these was added the Junkers 87, the
highly publicized dive bomber of Stuka, Goering had successfully opposed the navy’s desire for its own separate air arm, and the Luftwaffe held responsibility for coastal patrol, overwater reconnaissance, and other activities in conjunction with naval forces.
In the same month that Hitler issued decrees effecting the reorganization of the Luftwaffe, he asserted that the Reich would expand to include ten million Germans beyond her borders. Within one month Austria had become the first victim of Nazi aggression. During their occupation of Austria the Germans used approximately 400 aircraft, more than one-fourth of the number being transport aircraft which brought 2,000 soldiers to Vienna. The Luftwaffe soon absorbed the small Austrian Air Force and was again employed by Hitler in September 1938 when some 500 German aircraft assisted in the invasion of the Sudetenland. A year later the might of the Luftwaffe was released in open warfare. By that time, September 1939, the German Air Force was equipped with approximately 4,000 first-line aircraft, of which some 1,800 were bombers and 1,200 were fighters. Behind it stood an aircraft industry then capable of producing approximately 1,100 aircraft a month, but actually producing each month about 500 aircraft of all combat types.26 Clearly, it was not anticipated that the venture now about to be launched would involve too heavy a commitment. In its internal organization the Luftwaffe seemed to have achieved most of its objectives, and it was ready to prove its worth as a coordinate member of the Wehrmacht.
On 1 September 1939 the Luftwaffe and German army forces inaugurated a lightning-like campaign which saw the virtual annihilation of the Polish army within twenty days. The German Air Force, which had 1,000 bombers and 1,050 fighters in operational condition, met no affective opposition from the polish Air Force, which consisted of less than 500 planes of all types, most of them obsolescent. The Luftwaffe was used both to eliminate the air opposition and as an advance striking force for the army. So successful was the Polish campaign that the Germans saw no need for major change. Army commanders felt that the results justified their conception of the air force as a tactical weapon to be used primarily in support of the ground forces, while Luftwaffe chiefs took satisfaction in the performance of their fighters and dive bombers. There was no demand for the creation of new types of aircraft or for an increase in aircraft production.27
In the Scandinavian and western campaigns which followed during the first half of 1940, the Luftwaffe continued to perform with skill and success its established missions. The German invasion of Norway was swiftly executed in April 1940 with an excellent demonstration of airborne operations and of the potentialities of air power in controlling limited sea lanes. The Luftwaffe employed some 800 tactical planes in the brief campaign, while an additional 250 to 300 transport aircraft operated between Germany, Denmark, and Norway to establish air bases in a record time at strategic points in Norway. Reconnaissance and sea rescue work also figured in Luftwaffe operations. The badly outnumbered Norwegian air forces could offer only slight resistance.
The western campaign, which began on 10 May 1940, saw the continued success of the German forces as they sped across the Low Countries and France. Two air fleets of the Luftwaffe, comprising some ,00 planes, were more than sufficient to wipe out the weak air opposition of the invaded countries and to provide support for German army forces. For the first time, German parachute troops were successfully employed when the Nazi forces invaded Holland. The Netherlands army ceased resistance within four days. Leading the rapidly advancing Panzer divisions through the Low Countries, the Stukas bombed troop concentrations and installations of the defending forces, while German transport aircraft evacuated many of the wounded and carried supplies to air force units which quickly moved into bases in southern Belgium and northern France. most of the German air effort during May was directed toward close support of the army forces as they raced toward the Channel ports. At Dunkirk the Luftwaffe momentarily yielded supremacy to the RAF, which was able to gain the local air superiority necessary to allow most of the battered British Expeditionary Force to be evacuated from the port. The Luftwaffe then turned to completion of the drive against France, which proved to be a not very difficult task.28
The French Air Force, in particular, was ill prepared for the German onslaught.29 It had failed to fulfill the promise which it exhibited during the years immediately after World War I, when France had spent large sums on her air force and had been a leader in the field of aviation. A separate air ministry was established in 1928, but lack of continuity in leadership resulted from frequent changes in the French cabinet. With nine changes in the position of air minister
within ten years, and with frequent changes in the chief of staff, French aviation had little opportunity to develop in accordance with a definite, long-range program.
Until mid-1934 French army aviation, which like the German was used chiefly for army cooperation, was under the jurisdiction of the War Ministry, while naval aviation was controlled by the Ministry of Marine. In July 1934, the Armée de l’Air (French Air Force) was established by government decree as “an independent army capable of participating, on the one hand, in aerial operations and in the air defense of territory and, on the other hand, in combined operations with the land and sea forces.” In keeping with French military traditions, however, the air force remained closely attached to the army. The reorganization of 1934 did not affect commercial or naval aviation. Two years later another reorganization assured the French Air Force of autonomy, if not complete independence. In order that command of air units might be separated from command of territorial units, a decree of September 1936 established a unified command for all air units other than naval. The aircraft industry was nationalized at about this time, and a subsequent slump in production saw the output of military airplanes reduced within less than two years to the negligible rate of ten planes per month this time the combat efficiency, organization, morale, and equipment of the French Air Force had dropped to an unprecedented low.
Hurried attempts to rebuild the French Air Force were made after the Munich conference in 1938. Both local production and foreign purchases of aircraft were increased, but the revival came too late. France entered World War II with an air force which was deficient in every respect. Besides the low level of morale which characterized all the French forces, the air force did not have a sufficient number of bombers for offensive action, and it lacked sufficient fighter strength for defense against the Germans. Ground troops did not have adequate air support, while the lack of liaison and reconnaissance aircraft constituted a further deficiency. If any thought had been given to the use of the French Air Force as a strategic weapon, it had failed to materialize. The weaknesses of the French Air Force contributed substantially to the success of the Luftwaffe in the spring of 1940. After French surrender on 22 June, only the RAF remained for the Luftwaffe to conquer.
The success of the Luftwaffe up to this point seemed to indicate
that German air power was invincible; indeed, the very name inspired dread an d fear, as the Germans had intended it should. But the triumphs of 1939 and early 1940 had all been scored against weak opposition, and there were limitations to German strength which time would increasingly reveal. Satisfied with the performance of their aircraft for the purposes in mind, leaders of the Luftwaffe had put various models into early mass production; the emphasis tended to be placed on numerical strength rather than on technical superiority. At points, perhaps too much faith had been placed in speed at the cost of armament. The Luftwaffe, moreover, seems to have been lulled into a false sense of security by its early successes. Though its commanders explained the British escape at Dunkirk by pointing to the unfavorable weather and a failure of supply resulting from the speed of the German advance, the success of the RAF at Dunkirk indicated that British aircraft possessed technical advantages that in all-out combat might prove decisive. That test soon came in the Battle of Britain.
The RAF and the Battle of Britain
The German bombing of Britain in World War II was not unexpected by the British, nor was it without precedent. During the conflict of 1914–18, the Germans had made 52 air raids against the British Isles, dropping 73 tons of bombs which killed 857 persons and injured 2,058. These raids helped to bring the Royal Air Force into existence as an autonomous force, for the enemy’s action had pointed up the weakness of British air defenses and the desirability of carrying the air war to the German homeland. At the same time, British leaders in search of a strategy that would break the long and exhausting stalemate on the western front had by 1918 assigned to the air force an independent mission of strategic bombing. Accordingly, in March 1918 the air forces, theretofore divided between the army and navy, were unified in the Royal Air Force as a third and coordinate branch of the armed services, under the administrative control of the Air Ministry. Termination of hostilities that autumn did not permit the full development and execution of plans for a strategic offensive against Germany,* but, unlike the American Air Service, the RAF emerged from World War I with its independent mission and separate organization officially recognized.30
As was the case with military aviation in the United States, however, the survival and growth of the RAF after 1918 was accomplished only with difficulty. In addition to postwar demands for retrenchment, the Admiralty began to press for control of naval air units, while the army attempted to regain control of land-based aviation. But the lessons of World War I as they pertained to aviation were more deeply impressed on the British mind that they were on the American. Moreover, Britain’s geographic position and relatively small population with reference to Germany lent continuing validity to a doctrine of strategic bombardment which promised a means of striking at the very heart of the enemy and thus of avoiding the loss of life which in the first war had well-nigh bled England white. The RAF retained is autonomy; but, even so, sentiment for many years, like that in the United States, was hardly conducive to full military preparedness, and, after the new German menace became apparent, the RAF was forced to work against a decided disadvantage of time. Fortunately, the emphasis was placed upon quality. From 1935 forward, the Air Ministry proceeded with the development of long-range, heavy bombers – the twin-engine Manchester and the four-engine Stirling and Lancaster, the latter developed from the earlier Manchester. For the urgent needs of defense, the Hurricane and the Spitfire, two superlative fighter planes, were put into production after 1936. Production in quantity came slowly, for adequate manufacturing facilities were not immediately available. By September 1938, the month of Munich, only one squadron in the RAF had been equipped with Spitfires.
In its pilot and aircrew training, as in its equipment, the RAF demanded a high level of achievement.31 British air officials recognized that the geographic position of the British Isles was at once vulnerable and potentially threatening to any continental enemy. The situation demanded not only technical excellence of the air force but also an organization designed to facilitate the defensive and offensive functions which a European war would thrust upon the RAF. Accordingly, the RAF was organized into bomber and fighter commands. To these organizations there would be added later a coastal command, charged with special responsibilities for the protection of shipping.32
By autumn of 1939 the RAF possessed a modest but well-trained force of airmen. Its bombers, fighters, reconnaissance planes, and flying boats were few in number but efficient in operation, and “shadow
factories” were ready to go into production to supplement the existing aircraft industry. At the moment the British did not possess the means to carry out a strategic offensive against Germany, but it was hoped that the badly outnumbered RAF would be able to hold off any German air assault until its own offensive could be inaugurated. The initial burden of the air war with Germany therefore fell to the Fighter Command.
During late 1939 and early 1940, German air action against Britain consisted largely of mine-laying operations to the east of the British Isles, while the RAF carried pamphlets instead of bombs to Germany. An air contingent had gone to France with the British Expeditionary Force, but with the exception of the action at Dunkirk, the performance of the RAF on the continent gave outsiders little suggestion of its real caliber. Conclusive proof of its technical superiority and of its staying power awaited the Battle of Britain – a contest fought wholly in the air and one of the truly decisive battles of history.
By the summer of 1940 the breath-taking advance of German forces had destroyed all effective resistance in France and seemingly presented to the Nazis an inviting opportunity to establish beyond question their control of all western Europe by invasion of an ill-prepared Britain. In fact, the Germans were less well prepared to seize the opportunity that lay before them than were the British to fend off such attacks as came. Though the Luftwaffe urged an immediate invasion, its commanders could not promise security for supply lines across the English Channel against the Royal Navy. The German navy was unable to provide such a guarantee, and, moreover, it lacked necessary equipment for moving an invading force across the intervening waters. The army itself, caught unprepared, required time for preparation and was reluctant to move without more adequate assurance from naval and air forces.33 Immediate invasion appearing therefore to be inadvisable, the Germans decided to use the Luftwaffe as a strategic air force against the British Isles, with the hope that Britain would surrender or that at least an invasion would be made less difficult.
Preliminary to the battle, the Germans made sporadic raids during July and the first week of August 1940 in order to feel out British defenses.34 The Luftwaffe by this time was equipped with 1,100 fighters and 840 bombers in operational condition, and the German aircraft industry continued to turn out approximately 500 combat
aircraft a month. For their bombing of England the Germans used four main types of bombers: the Junkers 87, the Junkers 88, several models of the Heinkel 111, and the Dornier 17 (sometimes known as the Dornier 215), with a fighter escort usually by Messerschmitt 109’s and 110’s. The entire strength of the Luftwaffe was not thrown into the campaign at once. On 8 August the attacks began on a moderate scale, and during the next ten days mass formations of German bombers, accompanied by similar formations of fighters, made daylight assaults on shipping and southern ports. The effective opposition of Hurricanes and Spitfires, assisted by ground defenses, caused the Germans to call a brief halt after 18 August, on which day they sustained losses of seventy-one planes destroyed and twenty-three damaged. For the period extending from 8 August to 23 August total Luftwaffe losses were 403 destroyed and 127 damaged.* In contrast the RAF announced the loss of 153 planes.
In the second phase of the campaign, from 24 August through 6 September, the Luftwaffe revised its tactics. Bomber formations were reduced in size, while fighter escorts were increased. The attacks were directed mainly against airdromes and aircraft factories instead of shipping and harbors in an apparent attempt to knock out the RAF. As in the first phase, German losses were so heavy that the direction of the assault was again changed. The third phase, from 7 September to 1 October, saw the peak of the German air effort, which was directed toward industrial areas in general and London in particular. By the end of September the RAF had asserted its control of the air over the British Isles. During the third phase the British destroyed 435 planes and damaged 161, and total German losses since 10 July now amounted to 1,408 planes destroyed. Unable to sustain such losses, the Germans instituted still further changes in their tactics. Nearly all the so-called long-range bombers were withdrawn, while fighters and fighter-bombers continued the campaign with a decreasing number of daylight attacks and an increasing number of attacks at night. London was still the principal target, and the British suffered heavy casualties and extensive material damage, particularly during the night assaults when their fighter protection was not so effective as it was during the hours of daylight. nevertheless, the Luftwaffe
* These are the revised figures, based on German records, announced in May 1947 by Mr. Philip Noel-Baker, British Secretary of State for Air (See Flight and Aircraft Engineer [London], 22 May 1947, p. 482, for complete table.)
had failed to achieve its objectives, and the aerial blitz was gradually reduced to intermittent attacks which continued throughout the spring of 1941. The Luftwaffe had sustained its first major defeat and Britain had been saved, for an invasion was contingent first of all upon defeat of the RAF.
It will take no credit from the RAF’s outnumbered “few” to suggest that the Luftwaffe had been unprepared for the opportunity offered in the summer of 1940. Except for a few raids against French factories, the force had never been employed in a strategic effort of its own. Trained and equipped for another mission, the Luftwaffe lacked a heavily armed long-range bomber capable of carrying large bomb loads;* it tended to underestimate the bomb weight required to accomplish its ends; its fighters were not only technically inferior to the British but were at times misused; and faulty strategic planning was reflected in a tendency to shift targets before the completion of a sufficiently prolonged and concentrated effort.
The effect which the Battle of Britain had on subsequent planning of the German and British air forces was both characteristic and prophetic. True to their belief in the essentially tactical and supporting role of air power, the German army leaders felt that the results of the Luftwaffe’s independent effort over Britain vindicated their position, and with this opinion Hitler seems to have agreed. No insistent demand was made for new and improved types of aircraft nor was there any immediate program for increased plan production or pilot training.35 Organizationally, the Luftwaffe continued to hold its independent position among the German armed forces, but operationally it remained an auxiliary arm. For a time the German Air Force intensified its operations against shipping in the eastern Atlantic and tin the Irish and North seas. The attempted air blockade achieved a moderate degree of success, but the action of British fighter patrols and the arming of merchant vessels by mid-1941 appeared to be interfering considerably with Luftwaffe plans. Moreover, intensification of German air activity on other fronts in 1941 resulted in withdrawal of much of the Luftwaffe strength from the west.
For some months, Axis operations in North Africa, the Mediterranean, and eastern Europe received far more attention that did the dwindling assault on the British Isles, and the Luftwaffe and the RAF
* Its four-engine FW-200 (military version of the Focke-Wulf Condor) was employed almost exclusively in antishipping patrol.
became engaged in bitter aerial fighting on several fronts. Hitler had assumed personal control of all German military operations after 1940; in entering the desert fighting of North Africa, in sweeping through the Balkans, and in opening the eastern front the Fuehrer made extensive and effective use of the German Air Force in its accustomed role. By January 1941 the Luftwaffe had moved approximately 330 aircraft into Italy and Sicily, and on 18 January the Germans inaugurated the first of a long series of heavy air attacks on the island of Malta, a strategically located base for British operations in the Mediterranean. Before the end of the year, the island had experienced its one-thousandth air alert but continued to withstand the aerial pounding from the Axis.36 By using advanced bases in North Africa, the Luftwaffe also began to strike at British forces in the Suez Canal area and to participate more actively in the Western Desert campaign. Early in April 1941 bombers were moved into the Balkans in preparation for the next blitzkrieg. From bases in Hungary, Bulgaria, and southern Germany, the Luftwaffe on 6 April began extensive operations in support of German ground forces against Yugoslavia and Greece. British and Imperial forces, though fully occupied in North Africa, came to the aid of Greece; as in the Flanders campaign of the previous spring, however, the German onslaught overpowered all opposition, and Axis victories followed in rapid-fire succession. By the end of April, most of the British forces had been evacuated from Greece, the Germans had entered Athens, and Luftwaffe units had quickly moved forward to prepare for an airborne attack against Crete. That attack came on 20 May with a spectacular and successful demonstration glider-borne and parachute troop operations. After seizing key airdromes, the advance German forces were supplied and reinforced by Junkers 52 troop carriers, while Luftwaffe bombers attacked the British who were attempting to evacuate the island. But he first of June the British had been forced to yield Crete to the invaders. With new bases in Greece and Crete, the German Air Force was able to bring more strength to bear against British forces in the Western Desert; and, upon the opening of a British offensive in mid-June, the Luftwaffe for a brief period increased its support of German ground forces in North Africa.37
Undoubtedly spurred by successes in the Balkans and in the Mediterranean, the Germans on 22 June 1941 turned against the Soviet Union and inaugurated an offensive along the 2,000-mile Russian
front. Because Hitler was convinced that the Russian campaign would be concluded within a very short time, he was opposed to the destruction of Russian factories by bombing, and upon his insistence the Luftwaffe was used primarily as an extended form of artillery in support of ground forces. A similar employment of the Soviet Air Force as made by the defenders, but the opposition by that force was stronger than the Germans had anticipated and was more impressive than the performance of Russian air units in the Spanish civil war.
Soviet aviation, organized into a small naval air force and a larger army air force, had originated during the days prior to World War II and had been strongly influenced during the 1920s by the Germans.38 The Soviet government had given considerable attention to the stimulation of popular interest in aviation and to the development of an aircraft industry, but at the time of the German attack in June 1941 the Soviet Air Force was reported to be inferior to the German Air Force in standards of aircraft and personnel. Perhaps because of the nature of the fighting which developed in the summer of 1941, the Russians employed their air strength almost entirely as a tactical force in cooperation with ground forces. Production of fighters and short-range bombers received major emphasis. During the early weeks of the hostilities, the Soviet Air Force suffered tremendous losses in combat with the Luftwaffe. In addition, the rapid German advance disrupted the air supply and maintenance system and a large part of the Soviet aircraft industry. But the Russians displayed a remarkable ability to continue their defense under the most adverse circumstances. In late 1941 the IL-2, or Stormovik, was put into action along the front, where it proved to be outstanding in attacks against enemy ground forces. During the summer and fall of 1941 the Soviet Air Force was completely reorganized, some assistance began to arrive from other nations opposed to the Axis, and the regenerated air force, operating in close cooperation with the Red army, continued to hold up against all the aerial might which the Germans could throw into the battle.
In its initial assault against Russia, the German army had been supported by 3,300 aircraft out of a total strength of approximately 5,900 operational and nonoperational aircraft. in the drive toward Moscow in the autumn of 1941, the Luftwaffe deployed almost 60 per cent of its strength along the eastern front, and it suffered extremely heavy losses. yet the Russian operations caused no immediate increase in
German aircraft production; the German High Command, apparently still convinced that the hostilities could be concluded in short order, seemed to feel that no great expansion in the Luftwaffe was necessary. The operations in eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, and North Africa necessitated the use of so large a proportion of German air strength that air attacks against England and against British shipping in the west dwindled almost to the point of cessation. During the last six months of 1941 no night attack against Britain exceeded 15 per cent of the maximum scale of effort made during the autumn of 1940. The Luftwaffe was assuming a defensive attitude in the west. Hitler was said to have promised Luftwaffe leaders that the air offensive against Britain might be resumed after the defeat of Russia.39 But the opportunity had come and gone in 1940, and the future held for the Luftwaffe in the west only a defensive mission.
Operations of the RAF after the fall of 1940 were as widely dispersed as were those of the Luftwaffe. The RAF had heavy commitments in North Africa, where it was joined by units of the Royal Australian Air Force and of the South African Air Force, and there were defensive responsibilities in the Mediterranean and in the Far East as well as in the home islands and over the submarine-infested waters about Britain. These commitments, however, did not prevent British air chiefs from developing a central strategic focus in their war plans. Tactical employment of air power was one method of aerial warfare, and a very necessary one, but the core of RAF thinking was expressed in the simple statement that the “bomb is the primary weapon of air power; the bomber is the chief means of conveying it to its target; an air striking force composed of bombers is the chief means by which a nation wields its air power.”40 The aggressive cast of RAF thinking had not led to neglect of the air defensive, as the performance of Fighter Command revealed in the Battle of Britain. But RAF doctrine stipulated that its defensive aviation should be no larger than was necessary to provide a reasonable defense against air attack. The emphasis belonged to the air striking force.
Nothing in the Battle of Britain had shaken the strong conviction with which these principles were held by RAF leaders, who saw in the German effort the power of the air weapon even when misused. They knew too how near the Luftwaffe had come to the achievement of its objectives, that had Goering been willing or able to continue the bombardment in spite of tremendous losses, the RAF must ultimately
have been overwhelmed. They believed that a strong British offensive against vital German objectives was the real answer to whatever renewal of the attack the Germans might plan. Only in this way could the enemy be placed on the defensive and forced to divert to defensive purposes, as in the manufacture of fighters at the cost of bombers, the resources that would otherwise be used to punish Britain. England, driven from the continent and deprived of allies, could reach her enemy only by the air.
For some months Bomber Command was obliged to aid Coastal Command and to use most of its slim resources in attacking the so-called invasion ports. But plans for a systematic and growing offensive against German targets were at the same time carried forward. Excellent bombers had been developed with an emphasis on range and bomb load; during the year following the Battle of Britain, the first-line strength of the bombing force would be increased by 50 per cent.41 The scale of the bombing effort, now directed chiefly against the industrial Ruhr, remained relatively small in the fall of 1941, but British officials anticipated a monthly production rate of 500 heavy bombers by 1943 and looked forward to mounting ultimately an offensive at least fifty times greater than the existing scale of effort.42
On America’s entry into the war the AAF, with its own emphasis on strategic bombardment, would find in the RAF a stout and understanding ally. It is true that there were differences which distinguished the two forces: British experience had led to a preference for night and area bombing rather than the daylight, precision bombardment emphasized by the AAF. But these were differences of tactics rather than of strategy, of method and not of principle. Indeed, the differing methods favored were potentially complementary rather than irreconcilable.