Airpower’s Century

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Walter Boyne’s résumé makes for unusual reading. He is the author of 42 books and one of the few people to have had bestsellers on both the fiction and the nonfiction lists of The New York Times. A career Air Force officer who won his wings in 1951, he has flown over 5,000 hours in a score of different aircraft, from a Piper Cub to a B-IB bomber, and he is a command pilot. Boyne retired as a colonel in 1974 after 23 years of service (in 1989 he returned for a brief tour of duty to fly the B-IB). He joined the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, becoming acting director in 1982 and director one year later. Upon his retirement in 1986, he took upwriting and consulting; his fourth career, in television, began five years ago.

He is also an inventor (he has been awarded a patent on an advanced information retrieval system), he founded Air & Space, the nation’s best-selling aviation magazine, and he is a member of almost every major aeronautical association and a fellow of the French Académie Nationale de l’Air et de l’Espace. American Heritage readers who have not yet read Colonel Boyne may well have already seen him; he is a familiar figure on television,appearing as a commentator on aviation and military events on all the major networks.

In the wake of a war that has shown the astonishing effect of American air power, and during the centenary of heavier-than-air flight, it seemed appropriate to commemorate the Wright brothers with a look at the effect their invention has had on the military history of this momentous century, through a discussion with so accomplished a historian of that invention’s career. Colonel Boyne has published four books this year: Dawn Over Kitty Hawk: The Novel of the Wright Brothers; Chronicle of Flight; Operation Iraqi Freedom: What Went Right and Why; and The Influence of Air Power Upon History. I spoke with him mostly about the last of these.

Your book argues that the two great achievements of air power’s first century were to help ensure the Allied victory in World War II and to stop the Cold War from turning hot. Most people would agree with this, I think, but you also make a truly surprising claim: that air power played a decisive role in World War I.

Yes, and right from the very beginning. In fact, it saved France in 1914. This is not well remembered, even though the generals at the time acknowledged it. The French and British had only very small and very amateur flying forces, but they already believed in what they could do. Again and again in the history of air power, the crucial thing is that the leaders have to be open to the possibilities of a new technology.

To understand air power’s dramatic early effect on the war, you have to understand the strategic situation. Germany assumed that it had to knock out France right away and then turn east to deal with Russia. The Germans planned to hold the French in the south and wheel through Belgium in the north, executing a vast flanking movement. French planners unknowingly cooperated with this plan by attacking in the south, in effect thrusting their head into a sack. So the German strategy was working: They swept through Belgium and pushed back the French and British armies in the north.

British and French reconnaissance aircraft turned the situation around. Their greatest coup came on the last day of August, when a British plane noticed that the Germans had stopped moving east—in effect, abandoning their strategy —and had turned to envelop Paris. Two more British aircraft confirmed this, and acouple of days later French planes saw the same thing. The first French aircraft relayed the news directly to the military governor of Paris, and he persuaded the French and British high command to make a stand at the Marne. They held, and at that point the Germans lost the war. They’d planned on knocking out France in six weeks, and now it wasn’t going to happen. But what is amazing about all this is not that pilots realized what was happening; what is amazing is that field marshals believed them, and acted on the intelligence.

You point out that, strangely enough, the same thing happened on the Eastern Front, but there air power saved Germany.

That’s right. In the east, Germany planned to hold the Russians with weak forces while they were busy crushing France. They thought they had six weeks to deal with France, but Russia mobilized much faster than the Germans thought possible, and in a matter of days the Russians were poised to destroy the German armies they faced. The parallel to the Marne is uncanny. German reconnaissance aircraft spotted the Russian buildup, confirming intelligence gathered from radio intercepts, and thisallowed the German commander, Paul von Hindenburg, to win the Battle of Tannenberg, which cost the Russians 140,000 men. It was the Marne of the East, and it saved Germany. As Hindenburg said, “With-out airmen, no Tannenberg!” Again, what is surprising is that Hindenburg, who was 67 years old, had the insight to exploit this new technology.

Most of the historians I’ve read simply don’t mention air power in the early days of the war, but they do think it eventually became very important indeed. How?