Pre-WWII Air Corps Bomber Doctrine II

General Marshall, who had openly opposed the president’s fixation on air power during the conference, preferred to strengthen the entire Army, not just one component. Furthermore, he and Arnold both agreed that “a lot of airplanes by themselves…were not air power.” Consequently, the War Department, applying its best military judgment, planned a balanced program.

The War Department did not grasp that what the president wanted was airplanes. Marshall later realized that the president “was principally thinking at that time of getting airships for England and France,” but when in December the military officers returned to Roosevelt with their conventional program, the president was incensed. The military leadership interpreted his anger as an inability to understand the complexities of modern armies, but they misread Roosevelt’s intentions. They recommended a professional approach that would develop an army capable of defending the hemisphere. Roosevelt simply wanted airplanes. When his military chiefs made their recommendations, he retorted that the “services were offering him everything except planes” and that “he could not ‘influence Hitler with barracks, runways, and schools for mechanics.’” The military chiefs failed to recognize that Roosevelt’s “emphasis on sheer numbers of planes and his irritation at arguments for the supporting apparatus that would make them effective attested to an interest similar to Hitler’s in an air force whose appearance would be more important than its use.”

In spite of the president’s wishes, the military chiefs prevailed and Roosevelt “felt compelled to accept a balanced force.” The War Department modified the 10,000-airplane program: by January 1939, the totals had been adjusted to 6,000 aircraft.

For the Air Corps, the president’s sudden emphasis on air power was an institutional windfall. In September 1939 the appointment of General Marshall as chief of staff further enhanced the air arm’s position. Marshall understood the importance of aviation in a political as well as an operational sense.

In May 1940 President Roosevelt told Congress that he wanted a program that could produce 50,000 aircraft a year and “provide us with 50,000 military and naval planes.” Shortly thereafter, on June 26, Marshall approved the first aviation objective of organizing fifty-four combat groups by April 1942. The size and complexity of the expansion program resulted in a reappraisal of the air arm’s position within the War Department. General Arnold became the deputy chief of staff for air in November, a position above both the office of the chief of Air Corps and the GHQ Air Force. Robert A. Lovett was appointed as the special assistant to the secretary of war in December to manage air affairs. In April Lovett filled the reestablished position of assistant secretary of war.

These new arrangements were not satisfactory, because the office of the chief of the Air Corps and the GHQ Air Force still shared the management of air matters. Henry L. Stimson, the secretary of war, directed in March 1941 the placement of the air arm “under one responsible head.” He also told the War Department “to develop an organization staffed and equipped to provide the ground forces with essential aircraft units for joint operations, while at the same time expanding and decentralizing our staff work to permit Air Force autonomy in the degree needed.” In June 1941 the Army Air Forces was created, with General Arnold as its chief, assisted by an air staff.

On July 9, 1941, President Roosevelt directed the secretary of war and the secretary of the Navy to begin “exploring at once the over-all production requirements required to defeat our potential enemies.” By September the “Joint Board Estimate of United States Over-all Requirements,” a document designed to support the ABC-1 and Rainbow-5 war plans that assumed an Anglo-American coalition, had been prepared. The plan was based on defeating Germany first. The Joint Board’s report included an air section prepared by the new Air War Plans Division (AWPD). This document, called AWPD-1, would form the basis for the organization of the American air effort in the coming war.

Four officers prepared the important sections of AWPD-1: Colonel Harold L. George, Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth N. Walker, Major Laurence S. Kuter, and Major Haywood S. Hansell. All were staunch bomber advocates and former instructors at the Tactical School. The plan they prepared reflected the essence of the radical air power doctrine that focused on the preeminence of the long-range strategic bomber:

The effectiveness of an Air Force in contributing to the defeat of an enemy is measured by the efficiency of the bombardment component in destroying vital enemy objectives. Day bombing, in which the target may be most readily seen, will result in the highest bombing accuracy.

AWPD-1 proceeded to explain how Germany could be defeated by air power. The plan recognized three major tasks for the Army air forces:

a. Destroy the industrial war making capacity of Germany.

b. Restrict Axis air operations.

c. Permit and support a final invasion of Germany.

The air planners outlined 154 targets that would “virtually destroy the sources of military strength of the German state.” These targets were grouped into six prioritized target categories that would ensure the disruption of the German industrial fabric: fifty to disrupt electric power, forty-seven to disrupt the transportation system, twenty-seven to destroy 80 percent of the synthetic petroleum production, eighteen to destroy airplane assembly plants, six to destroy 90 percent of aluminum production, and six to destroy magnesium production.

The air planning team realized that its entire plan hinged on the question of whether it was feasible to deeply penetrate German territory and conduct precision bombing without prohibitive losses. They themselves raised this issue and outlined the threat posed to their plan by German air defenses. German fighter opposition had made “daylight bomber operation excessively expensive” until “the appearance of the British Sterling bomber and the American [B-17] Flying Fortress.” The defensive fire power of these more capable bombers would enable them to cope with the fighter problem. German antiaircraft artillery, although capable, would not prevent success. These assumptions led the planners to the conclusion that “by employing large numbers of aircraft with high speed, good defensive fire power, and high altitude, it is feasible to make deep penetrations into Germany in daylight.”

AWPD-1 conceded that the failure of the German daylight bombing offensive over England had been caused by the superiority of British pursuit airplanes. The planning group believed that the Germans had had to meet the “British pursuit on unequal terms.” The solution posed to redress the German “technical deficiency” was to increase the armament and armor on bombers. The planning group recognized that this approach might not work, since it was “not impossible that the present relative superiority of the interceptor over the bomber may be maintained.” In that event, they recommended the development of escort fighters “designed to enable bombardment formations to fight through to the objective.”

The planners, even after revealing a crucial weakness in one of their key assumptions—that bomber formations could rely on their own defensive armament to fight their way through to their objectives—did not give high priority to any alternative plan. Although they concluded that pursuit could pose a significant threat to bombardment and recognized a “possible need” for escort fighters, the project received little attention. AWPD-1 recommended a research and development effort, not a crash program. A squadron of thirteen escort fighters would be established to test the concept. Furthermore, only “if the need for this weapon is determined” would production plans be altered.

AWPD-1 was the quintessential expression of American strategic bombing theory. The plan was alluring because the airmen seemed to promise that “precision bombing will win the war.” Indeed, AWPD-1 specifically stated that “if the air offensive is successful, a land offensive may not be necessary.” Furthermore, the air offensive could be initiated in April 1942, well in advance of any possible major ground operations. The air officers asked only “that this project be given priority over all other national production requirements.” And it needed a high priority. The plan called for an Army Air Force of 251 combat groups equipped with more than 63,000 operational aircraft and staffed by 2 million officers and enlisted men.

AWPD-1 was approved by Secretary of War Stimson on September 25. His endorsement was significant on two levels. First, it recognized that the air effort would require immense resources. Second, and perhaps more important for the air power advocates, it provided license for the air arm to try to prove that it could be a decisive, independent force. Regardless of whether ground officers believed the air power advocates’ claims, they had pragmatic reasons to at least try to implement the plan, because “there was certainly much to be gained if it worked. If it did not, the Army and Navy would be called upon to do what they had been planning on doing anyway.”

For air officers, AWPD-1 had enormous significance. It was the enunciation of an air power manifesto that had been twenty years in the making. Clearly, the future institutional form of the air arm depended on its contribution to winning the impending war, but the Air Forces had also staked out an irreversible position: unescorted, high-altitude, daylight precision bombing would have a decisive impact on the outcome of the war.

General Arnold understood the implications of AWPD-1. Realizing he would be hard-pressed to stay abreast of the expansion program, and when war came, the deployment of the air arm, he moved to forestall any further calls for independence. In late August General Marshall learned that the American Legion planned to introduce a “storm of resolutions” for a “unified air service or independent striking arm” at its national convention. Marshall apparently asked Arnold to help defuse this movement. In September 1941 Arnold sent letters to Norman M. Lyon, chairman of the National Aeronautics Commission, American Legion, and Warren Atherton, chairman of National Defense, American Legion. In these letters, Arnold explained his position: “Our expansion is being effected in accordance with ou[r] plans and program but not without the greatest effort on the part of all of our Air Force officers…. Additional work, and no one can gainsay but that there will be a tremendous amount of it in connection with the transformation from an Air Force organization to a separate Air Force, may be just enough to ‘break the camel’s back.’” On September 2 Arnold informed Marshall that he had written Lyon and Atherton and had explained to them “why a separate Air Force is undesirable [at this time].”

Arnold’s stance that the Air Forces should remain within the War Department did not mean that he did not try to gain greater autonomy over air operations. He and his subordinates did not find the arrangements for control of the air arm satisfactory. The air staff members chafed under their continued subordination to the War Department General Staff. Furthermore, the chief of the Army Air Forces only “coordinated” the operations of the office of the chief of the Air Corps and the former GHQ Air Force, now renamed the Air Force Combat Command.

The War Department reorganization in March 1942, discussed in the next chapter, corrected most of these deficiencies. The Army Air Forces was made an autonomous force, coequal with the Army Ground Forces and the Services of Supply. Furthermore, the War Department General Staff was restructured so that 50 percent of its members were air officers.

As the War Department grappled with its organizational problems, the planning and production to deploy American air power against Germany accelerated. Ominous lessons from the air war in Europe also began to surface. In the closing months of 1941 the British had determined that daylight bombing was suicidal and that existing technologies employed under combat conditions precluded precision bombing. A September 1941 report by the Royal Air Force (RAF) noted that performance of American-supplied B-17s in “daylight Continental bombing missions thus far are not encouraging.” German fighters had shot down two B-17s, while “as yet the B-17’s gunners have failed either to shoot down or damage a single enemy plane.” Furthermore, German antiaircraft weapons were reported to be accurate up to 30,000 feet. Eventually, the British abandoned daylight precision bombing for a new strategy centered on area bombing of German cities at night.

The American bomber enthusiasts were not deterred by either the British experiences or the earlier German failure during the Battle of Britain. In a January 1942 memorandum for General Marshall, Laurence Kuter faced the issue squarely by posing the question: “How can the AAF [Army Air Forces] (Victory Program) succeed in softening up the enemy when the RAF and GAF [German Air Force] have been unable to do the same thing?” Kuter explained that the issue was one of training:

Attrition in airplanes in the Bomber Command of the RAF is over 50% per month and at the same time they are accomplishing no material results. The inevitable consequence of this vicious cycle which is initiated by entering combat without the training required to effect material accomplishment and at the same time having to withstand extraordinary attrition has resulted in the unpalatable fact that the bombardment combat crews of the RAF are no longer trying.

General Arnold was as confident as Kuter but more diplomatic. He wrote in a March 1942 letter to Air Chief Marshall Sir Charles F. A. Portal, British chief of air staff, that he believed that with the “greater defensive fire power of our bombers, and a carefully developed technique of formation flying with mutually supporting fire, that our bombers may be able to penetrate in daylight beyond the radius of fighters.” American airmen were convinced that their doctrine and technology, in the hands of trained bomber crews, could succeed where others had failed. They soon had the chance to prove their contentions.

On February 20, 1942, Brigadier General Ira Eaker and six other air officers arrived in England. Two days later Eaker assumed command of the newly established VIII Bomber Command. Over the coming months he and his staff laid the foundations for the envisioned American bomber offensive against the Continent. It was a difficult task. Plans for the invasion of North Africa and diversions of air groups to the Pacific theater sapped the strength of the force being assembled for what the air officers viewed as the main effort against Germany. In mid-June the Eighth Air Force became operational under the command of Major General Carl “Tooey” Spaatz. In early August Eaker wrote Arnold that the initial B-17 group appeared ready for its first mission. In his letter, he also expressed the crucial assumptions developed by American air power advocates between the two world wars:

The tempo is stepping up as we approach the zero hour. Tooey’s and my theory that day bombardment is feasible is about to be tested where men’s lives are put at stake.

It will interest you to know that several months ago when the date of our entering operations seemed far away, a great many people told us that day bombing could be done by well trained crews and airplanes despite the stiffness of fighter opposition. As the hour approaches for the test, with the chips down, a lot of these people have grown luke warm or actually deserted our camp. Tooey and I however, remain steadfast in the belief that it can and must be done. Everything depends on it. Here are the reasons, well known to you why we must bomb by daylight:

We can hit point targets in day bombing. A smaller force can therefore destroy vital objectives.

The British bomb by night and the German defences sleep by day; when we are at them in the day time, they will be alerted 24 hours a day and get no rest.

The operational losses will be greatly reduced; It is much better to combat the normal weather in this theater in daylight than at night.

Navigation will be greatly improved; crews with much less training and experience can do an acceptable job.

Our aircraft, super-charged and unflamed dampened, are not well suited for night bombardment.

Tight formations can be flown and pursuit protection can accompany.

We can see the enemy fighters and knock them down; we shall not be slinking through the forest evading the enemy, but shall be boldly looking for him; asking for combat in order to reduce his air power, knowing that our production and replacement capacity is superior to his.

By chance, or by keen foresight on your part, you have two zealots in Tooey and myself who believe whole-heartedly that the foregoing reasons are compelling and that daylight bombing can be done without irreplaceable losses.

Spaatz also wrote Arnold and was more to the point: “The question of the ability of a formation of B-17’s to take care of itself against fighter attack must be decided.”

Their confidence seemed justified. On August 17 twelve B-17s of the 97th Bombardment Group flew the first American mission against the Rouen-Sotteville marshaling yard in occupied France. The force suffered no losses, and Sergeant Kent R. West, a B-17 gunner, bagged a German fighter. On August 19 twenty-two B-17s hit the Abbeville/Drucat airfield, again without loss. The next day eleven bombers attacked the Longeau marshaling yard, with all planes returning to base. Spaatz, as assured as Eaker, wrote Arnold on August 21 that these first three missions proved the soundness of American training and equipment. He further noted that “our daylight bombing of precision objectives will be decisive provided we receive an adequate force in time.” Three days later, after only one week of operations, Spaatz concluded that “daylight bombing with extreme accuracy can be carried out at high altitudes by our B-17 airplanes.” Furthermore, Spaatz was convinced “that such operations can be extended, as soon as the necessary size force has been built up, into the heart of Germany without fighter protection over the whole range of operation.”

Arnold used Eaker’s and Spaatz’s reports as ammunition to obtain more resources for the Eighth Air Force. Early in September he wrote Harry Hopkins that the Eighth Air Force’s operations had shown the validity of American bomber doctrine and the B-17’s worth in battle. Therefore, it was time to concentrate the air resources for a decisive effort against the “German war machine.”

Arnold also wrote to Spaatz that AWPD-1 was being revised. He noted that the underlying premises for the new plan remained the same, with Germany the principal enemy. He asked Spaatz to keep up the pressure for more resources and to continue to send him reports on the bombing effort, which he was using to show that precision bombing was the correct strategy. Arnold also stressed the importance of the Eighth Air Force’s success to supporting a “lick Germany first” policy and in arguing that the air offensive should be extended against Germany itself: “The accuracy of your precision bombing to date and the remarkable record with respect to losses that you have established has done much to convince everyone that our former theories are now facts.”

General Arnold was exuberant. By late October it seemed that two decades of struggle to build American air power were finally paying off. Arnold wrote to Hopkins about “miraculous results,” noting that the Eighth Air Force had conducted 16 missions, with 336 bombers reaching their targets. Only 9 bombers had been lost, and 498 enemy airplanes had been engaged, 63 of which had been destroyed, 97 probably destroyed, and 107 damaged.

The airmen’s claims about the invincibility of the B-17 and the soundness of their doctrine were, Arnold believed, being proven. This initial success probably further confirmed in his mind the validity of the advice he had received from Eaker earlier in the month. Eaker believed that as soon as the Eighth Air Force bomber strength had increased, an air assault against Germany proper was possible. On October 20 he wrote: “I am absolutely convinced that the following answers are sound and I am certain Tooey agrees with me. Three hundred heavy bombers can attack any target in Germany by daylight with less than four percent losses…. The daylight bombing of Germany with planes of the B-17 and B-24 types is feasible, practicable and economical.”

In the next year, Arnold provided Eaker with enough planes and air crews to test their shared assumptions.