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Useful Notes / The Air War

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"With sufficient aerial means, one could totally cut off the arteries of a functioning army, putting it into the direst of conditions. But it is possible not only to cut off these arteries, but even strike at the heart, destroying the centres of production from which the army draws its life."
Giulio Douhet, ‘La Grande Offensiva Aerea’ (‘The Great Aerial Offensive’), June 1917

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The Air War of World War Two. One of the largest single components of the war as a whole, it absorbed at least a quarter of all US-UK military spending, accounted for a tenth of all their losses, and at the height of its effect upon German weapons production may have reduced the increase in German tank and SP-gun production in late 1944 by as much as 10% (according to the US Strategic Bombing Survey conducted in 1945). note 


By late 1944 the Air War finally had a noticeable effect upon the course of the war, as some of the increase in German production was diverted to aircraft production to defend German cities from Allied bombardment and the handful of Japanese factories still functioning despite the US Navy's ever-tightening blockade were physically destroyed. While the war was utterly lost by that time, it may have reduced Soviet and Allied deaths by many thousands - if not tens of thousands - through its slight effect upon German weapons output. Regardless of its costs or actual effects on the enemy, the Air War was one of the most universally beloved, romanticised, and propagandised elements of the war for the American and particularly the British people. This makes it a key part of the Anglo-American war and their memories of it.


     Theoretical Origins: World War One  

Giulio Douhet was a humanitarian who abhorred the suffering of innocents in warfare. This made his conclusion that targeting civilians could be a moral and effective use of airpower quite startling. To cut a long story short, he came to believe that if doing so shortened the war and thereby prevented more and greater suffering, it could be justified.

At the heart of Douhet's work was a revulsion of the massive sacrifices and minimal gains which Italy was making in The Great War. note  His first views on airpower were that it was a means to executing effective trench warfare. The reconnaisance value of aeroplanes was widely acknowledged, but Douhet was unusual in that he also advocated the use of aeroplanes against combat forces 'deep' within the enemy's tactical trench networks and logistical forces in the open areas behind them. In this role they would act as a sort of long-range artillery, helping the infantry to overcome tough enemy defenses beyond the depth of actual artillery pieces and preventing the enemy from reinforcing the area being attacked.

Douhet's advocacy of the 'operational' use of airpower to assist ground operations was somewhat unusual, but his musings upon the 'strategic' use of airpower were groundbreaking. Douhet believed that improvements in the technical capabilities and numbers of aircraft would eventually enable aircraft to have a decisive 'strategic' effect upon the enemy. More specifically, he hypothesized that the physical destruction and psychological shock of attacks on civilian industrial centres had the potential to seriously disrupt the enemy's means and/or will to continue replacing the losses sustained in ground operations. Most ambitiously of all, he also foresaw the possibility that airpower alone could win a war.

Douhet's ideas on the strategic potential of airpower appealed to air forces everywhere because, if it could be made a reality, it promised them independence and glory. For huddled masses yearning to be free from the tyranny of people who wanted to win wars by defeating the enemy's armies and occupying their countries, strategic bombing offered a way out. Of course, the inconvenient fact that the strategic use of airpower had only been half of Douhet's vision - the other being operational usage - was quietly ignored. This is because supporting ground operations meant helping their overlords and/or enemies score points with civilian governments and the public.

     Institutional Origins, Interwar Period 

For Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF), World War II was a life-or-death struggle for existence against its oldest and most bitter foes: the Royal Navy, and the British Army. The Germans were merely their opponent; but opponents came and went. The RAF's war went back to 1917, when the Royal Flying Corps secured independence from the British Army. However, the RAF was sullied and humiliated by its subordination to the British Army - which won all the credit for the battles won in 1917 and 1918. In the interwar period the RAF resolved to never let this happen again. Never again would the RAF be forced to help its enemies win their battles - and in the next war the RAF would, acting alone, win victories entirely for and by itself. One way or another, the next big war would make or break the RAF. If it managed to convince the British people and civilian government that it had done well, then it could be sure of continued independence if not expansion. If it did poorly, then its enemies might take control of it. And once the Army and Navy had done so, then they would never let their Air Forces pursue independent strategies ever again for fear that in doing so they could prove the value of their independence. One way or another, then, the next major war would be make-or-break.

For the USA's Army Air Force (USAAF) and Navy Air Force, World War Two was a war of independence against the tyranny of the US Army and US Navy. While in practice the two Air Forces had been able to pursue a semi-independent line, they were still formally under Army and Navy command and could not refuse to service their demands. For them too, for similar reasons to those of the RAF, the next war was a huge opportunity - and a risk. If they failed to win their own battles, then their already limited degree of independence could be limited still further.

Aircraft design became increasingly specialised as the interwar period went on, and as it did so the British and American Air Forces realised that they had a way of preventing their forces for being used in support of the Army and Navy. This method was two-fold:

  • Heavy emphasis on designing the aircraft they'd need to fight their own battles, acting alone (Heavy Bomber designs)
    • The benefits here were two-fold, as Heavy Bombers were more expensive machines.
  • Commissioning the fewest possible number of specialised aircraft designs for efficient support of the Army and Navy (Close-Air-Support/Ground-Attack and Torpedo-Bomber designs)

By and large this strategy paid off. The Anglo-American air forces successfully avoided designing or producing a single aircraft suited to helping friendly ground forces on the battlefield (CAS aircraft). On the other hand, they commissioned a great many Heavy Bomber designs. Both Air Forces also commissioned a large number of 'Tactical Bomber' aircraft which were better at independent operations than they were at supporting the Army or Navy, but could still do that. This was the work of Army- and Navy-supporters within the Air Forces, who felt that they should have at least a few aircraft capable of actually offering support to their enemies - if only because the Air Forces would be severely criticised if they did not have aircraft capable of doing so.

Although the Luftwaffe was established in 1935 as an independent institution from the Army (and Navy), it pursued cooperation with the Army rather than attempting to pursue independent strategies (i.e. Strategic Bombing). The Luftwaffe was free to do this because its institutional independence was set in stone: Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering was Hitler's friend, was an Old Nazi with good connections to the rest of the leadership, and had used his control of the Gestapo (later assigned to Himmler's SS) to acquire a personal business empire. Thanks to Goering's politicking the Luftwaffe even secured political independence in its manufacturing and armaments, a feat only rivalled by the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy (acting separately, naturally).

The Luftwaffe decided to pursue cooperation with the Army not just because they had no need maintain their political independence, but because the Great War had decisively proven that Aerial Observation and Air-Ground attack were very helpful to the Army. Great War experience had also shown that the effects of Strategic Bombing - as conducted by German Navy Zepplin raids upon Britain - would likely be negligible unless very large fleets of bomber aircraft could be produced. Given the relative paucity of Luftwaffe resources it therefore made very little sense to expend much resources in developing a Strategic Bombing fleet in the short-medium term, though some experimental prototypes were tested with a view to the long-term goal of waging war upon the USA.

The Luftwaffe's hypothesis that Air support would continue to aid ground operations was confirmed in the Spanish Civil War, where the experimental ground-attack designs of the "Condor Legion" had a surprisingly large impact against forces without sufficient air cover or Anti-Aircraft (AA) weapons. The Luftwaffe's Junkers Ju-87 "Stuka" dive-bomber, a Close Air Support (CAS) aircraft well-armed with cannons (oversized machine guns which fired armour piercing shells) and bombs, first proved its worth and fragility in this conflict. While it certainly had an armament and price tag befitting a mass-production CAS aircraft it lacked the manoeuvrability, armour, and internal layout/robustness to take much punishment from enemy AA weapons or aircraft. In any case, even if the instruments of that strategy left something to be desired, on the verge of the war's outbreak in Europe the Luftwaffe was uniquely confident that it had made sound strategic choices.

     Shifting the Goalposts: Spain and China 



     Early, Awkward Fumblings 1940- 44 

     Reaping the Whirlwind, 1944- 5 

     Crimes Against Humanity/War Crimes 

Neither side can claim a moral high ground in the air war. The purpose of German bombings of London was specially to grind the British morale into dust, which failed. The Anglo-American air forces specially targeted German cities such as Hamburg and Dusseldorf because of their industrial capacity, helping hamper the Germans' ability for war production. However, they also launched "terror raids," firebombing cities in order to destroy German morale. A dark example of this was the firebombing of Dresden, which took place in February 1945, only a few months before the end of the war. Of course, the morale aspect often failed as the raids became as routine to civilians on both sides as the weather.


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