“THE BOMBER WILL
ALWAYS GET THROUGH”
Aerial Bombardment: Theory and History
War, despicable and despised, has nevertheless been one of mankind’s most widespread and popular activities. “Human history is in essence a history of ideas,” said H. G. Wells, a noble idea in itself. However, human history is more realistically described as a history of warfare. The chronicles and annals, century after century, millennium after millennium, are dominated by war.
Mercifully, there have been periods of peace; but, for the most part, they have been brief. The era beginning with the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914 was relatively calm. To be sure, there were smaller wars aplenty—the Mexican War, the Franco-Prussian War, the Sino-Japanese War, the Boer War, and the Spanish-American War—and one large one, indeed: the American Civil War.
However, for a full century there was no great multinational conflagration such as the Seven Years’ War or the Napoleonic Wars. Then came a period of hitherto unimaginable ferocity. The three decades from 1914 to 1945 might well be regarded as a modern Thirty Years’ War, interrupted by a turbulent recess before the principals returned to the battlefield and even greater bloodletting.
The frightful and bloody battles of World War I remained fresh in the minds of both victor and vanquished throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Time did nothing to erase the memories. The contests for small patches of ground in France and Flanders and the Eastern Front had resulted in millions of dead and maimed. Families around the world grieved for their dead sons, brothers, and fathers and recoiled at the idea of another such conflict. It was inconceivable to most civilized people that the world would ever again witness such carnage.
Battle deaths among the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire) were 3,500,000. Among the Allies, who lost 5,100,000 soldiers, the French nation was scarred like no other. Most of the Western Front was on French soil, and over 1,380,000 Frenchmen died on the battlefield or from war wounds, almost 3.5 percent of the entire population of the country. Twenty- five percent of all Frenchmen between the ages of eighteen and thirty died in World War I.
The other Allies suffered great casualties as well. Britain, with 743,000 deaths, and the commonwealth, with another 192,000, were particularly stunned by the losses, as was Italy, with 615,000 dead.
United States battle-related deaths were nowhere near those of most of the other belligerents. Just 48,000 Americans died in battle in World War I. Disease caused the greatest number of deaths; more than 62,000 Americans were carried off by the great influenza epidemic of 1918.
While America has honored its war dead—indeed, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington are major tourist attractions—its wars have generally faded from memory. The simpler monuments in the cities, towns, and villages of America have become a familiar part of the background of everyday life and eventually are barely noticed as people go about their daily tasks. Memorial Day is now more than likely a day devoted to pleasure than to remembering the dead or decorating their graves. As each generation of veterans dies out, their contributions slip into history.
This has been so from the American Revolution to the First Gulf War. Each war and the reasons for fighting it become hazy with time. For decades after the Civil War, veterans’ reunions, stirring speeches, and grand parades kept the memories and the sacrifices fresh in both the North and the South. Today, few people notice the bronze or granite Union or Confederate soldier who keeps watch over countless village greens and courthouse squares.
In Europe, which has suffered the devastations of centuries of warfare, memory has not been so quick to fade. War memorials and burial grounds have not been allowed to disappear into the background. This is especially true in France and Belgium, the scene of so much carnage. One cannot ignore the perfectly maintained burial grounds that dot the landscape and that reflect the nationalities of the dead interred there. There are the somber Germanic memorials, the rather more nationalistic American tributes, the sad formalism of the French, and the tranquillity of the English cemeteries. In the latter, the flower of an entire generation lies at peace in gardens much like those in Kent or Surrey or the Cotswolds.
The Great War stayed fresh in the memory of the survivors, and in the interwar years thousands of people from both sides made pilgrimages to decorate the graves of the dead in France and Belgium. The senseless battles, the mindless charges and assaults, and the mountains of dead hovered over every postwar conference, every planning session, every strategic discussion. Diplomacy, however misguided, had as its end the avoidance of any repetition of the Great War.
The memories of World War I did not serve just to underscore the need for a permanent peace. In the defeated countries, memory also fostered revanchist emotions, a desire for revenge. “The world must be made safe for democracy,” the American president had said in his message asking Congress to declare war on Germany in 1917. No sooner had the war ended than Wilson’s words began to echo with a hollow sound. Absolutism rose instead: Communism in Russia, Nazism in Germany, Fascism in Italy, and a virulent militarism and expansionism in Japan.
Another war seemed inevitable to many, and when it came it would prove to be the most devastating conflict in the history of mankind. And there was one great difference between World War II and any preceding war. Because of a new method of warfare, with its more powerful weapons, great numbers of the dead would be noncombatants, far from the front lines.
Among less traditional military planners of the major powers, this new weapon was of particular interest in that it was potentially capable of such power and destruction that it might ensure permanent peace. The airplane might well prove to be the weapon that would put an end to warfare itself.
In 1914, when World War I began, powered flight was still in its infancy. The Wright brothers’ first flight had been just a little more than a decade before, in December 1903. The infant was a robust one, however, and grew so quickly that there seemed to be some new breakthrough almost daily.
In 1908, the Wrights shipped one of their aircraft to France, where Wilbur flew a series of demonstrations of the plane at the racetrack at Le Mans. In the delirious crowd was Louis Blériot, a French aviation visionary who would make history himself in less than a year. On 25 July 1909, Blériot flew the English Channel from Calais to Dover. The flight was short, only thirty minutes, but it was a powerful portent.
Governments immediately began buying aircraft for their militaries. By the beginning of World War I, the French air force comprised 1,000 planes. The British had an equal number, and the Germans 1,200.
But the birthplace of aviation lagged far behind the European countries’ exploitation of aircraft for their militaries. The isolation from Europe and its gathering problems was a strong argument against increased spending for any arms, least of all aircraft, and the American isolationist politicians were aided and abetted by the military traditionalists. Many of the ranking generals were veterans of the Indian wars of the 1880s and were blind to the importance of the airplane; and the admirals, naturally, were wedded to the doctrine of invincible sea power and its most visible component, the battleship. Consequently, when war came, the U.S. Army Air Service had less than 250 aircraft, few of them combat-worthy.
Even in those nations with a relatively advanced air force, airplanes initially were used almost exclusively for reconnaissance over enemy lines. In short order, however, other, more aggressive uses recommended themselves. The first recorded aerial bombardment occurred as early as 1911. In the Italo-Turkish War, Italian pilots dropped small bombs on Turkish troops in Tripoli. The next year, in the First Balkan War, two Bulgarian airmen leaned out of their cockpit and dropped thirty bombs, weighing just a few pounds each, on Edirne, Turkey.
These two minor engagements, with just a handful of bombs and only minor damage, did little to advance the cause of aerial bombardment, and little more was thought about it by most military planners.
There were a few isolated bombing incidents at the beginning of the war—all but two on the Continent—but they were little more than calling cards. Then, on 19 January 1915, the first fatalities occurred. A German dirigible raid, the first of fifty-two in World War I, killed four people in England. In the next three years, another 556 people were killed from bombs dropped from German zeppelins. The first raid on London was on 31 May 1915.
The zeppelin raids were by no means a strategic threat to England, and the casualties were minuscule, at least compared to what was occurring across the Channel. It was not lost on the populace and the politicians, however, that 90 percent of the casualties were civilians.
Two years after the commencement of the dirigible raids, the Germans increased the pressure on English civilians. Gotha bombers began dropping 1,000-pound bomb loads on the British Isles. The first raid, on 25 May 1917, killed 95 people, 80 percent of them civilians. On 13 June the bombers attacked London. Not surprisingly, the attacks on the congested British capital caused a far greater number of deaths and injuries than other German air raids, and as would be the case in World War II, the attacks caused a great public outcry.
There were other parallels with the great conflict that was to come. British defensive measures forced the Germans to give up daylight bombing by August 1917, and the following May they ended their aerial bombardment of England. While they were active in the skies over England, the German raids totaled just 27. There were 836 deaths, however, and 72 percent of them were civilians.
The British also were active in aerial bombardment in World War I, and they had the honor of staging the very first long-range air raid. Three two-seater Avro 504s bombed the zeppelin sheds at Friedrichshafen on 21 November 1914. The raid accomplished little—one of the planes was shot down and the pilot almost murdered by an enraged mob—but it proved that long-distance aerial bombardment was not just theoretical. It was practicable.
Total civilian and military deaths in the three years of dirigible and bomber attacks on Great Britain were, according to historian John Terraine, “less than those sometimes suffered by a single division of the citizen army on the Western Front in one day.”
The effect of the German bombing cannot be measured in lives lost or property destroyed. Neither of those measures was of much consequence. The aerial bombings ushered in a whole new way of looking at war. By May 1918 it was clear that morale bombing would henceforth be a powerful force in military planning. Aerial theorists soon appeared to codify and give philosophical weight to the arguments of the men in the field.
The first great proponent of airpower, the preeminent theorist, was Giulio Douhet, an Italian general and aviator. Douhet was no stranger to controversy. In World War I, he was court-martialed—and imprisoned— for exposing the weakness of Italy’s air force. Vindicated when the Italians were defeated at Caporetto, he subsequently became head of the Italian army aviation service. In 1921, Douhet published II dominio dell’aria (The Command of the Air), which soon became the bible of airpower apostles, priests, and converts. Early in his work, in a few well-chosen words, Douhet laid out the essential elements of his thesis.
“As long as man remained tied to the surface of the earth, his activities had to be adapted to the conditions imposed by that surface,” said Douhet. “Since war had to be fought on the surface of the earth, it could be waged only in movements and clashes of forces along lines drawn on its surface.” Far removed from these lines of combat, civilian populations had good reason to feel distant from the battlefield. “The majority went on working in safety and comparative peace to furnish the minority with the sinews of war,” he said.
This state of affairs arose from the fact that it was impossible to invade the enemy’s territory without first breaking through his defensive lines.
But that situation is a thing of the past; for now it is possible to go far behind the fortified lines of defense without first breaking through them. It is airpower which makes this possible.
The airplane has complete freedom of action and direction; it can fly to and from any point of the compass in the shortest time—in a straight line—by any route deemed expedient. Nothing man can do on the surface of the earth can interfere with a plane in flight, moving freely in the third dimension. All the influences which have conditioned and characterized warfare from the beginning are powerless to affect aerial action.
By virtue of this new weapon, the repercussions of war are no longer limited by the farthest artillery range of surface guns, but can be directly felt for hundreds and hundreds of miles over all the lands and seas of nations at war. No longer can areas exist in which life can be lived in safety and tranquility, nor can the battlefield any longer be limited to actual combatants. On the contrary, the battlefield will be limited only by the boundaries of the nations at war, and all of their citizens will become combatants, since all of them will be exposed to the aerial offensives of the enemy. There will be no distinction any longer between soldiers and civilians.
In yet another bold break with tradition, Douhet also called for separate, autonomous air forces. These independent air arms might coordinate their activities with the army and the navy, which might, indeed, have their own planes; but they would in no sense be subordinate.
Soon, the English military historian and theorist B. H. Liddell Hart provided powerful support for the Douhet doctrine. Great destruction could be visited on urban areas and the civilian population if the bombs and the means of delivering them were developed. There would be no front lines, with great armies throwing themselves against each other. Instead, said Liddell Hart, fleets of bombers would “jump over the army which shields the enemy government, industry, and the people and so strike direct and immediately at the seat of the opposing will and policy.”
However, the theorists surmised, these new weapons would never actually be used. They were to be deterrents to war. Indeed, the very threat of such terror would lead to the quick end of any war—if, indeed, diplomacy between potential adversaries had allowed the situation to deteriorate to that point. But if war did come, said Liddell Hart, and cities such as London were bombed, “Would not the general will to resist vanish . . . ?”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Firestorm by Marshall De Bruhl. Copyright © 2006 by Marshall DeBruhl. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.