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Powered flight was born exactly one hundred years ago. It changed everything, of course—but most of all, it changed how we wage war.
November/December 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 6
Well, the Germans had overextended themselves on two fronts, and they had to depend upon superior artillery on the Western Front to hold their line. Long-range artillery has to be precise to be effective; you have to hit what you’re aiming at, and to do this, you have to know where your shots fall. It didn’t take long for both sides to figure out that with an airplane you could bringyour guns on target very quickly. So observation planes became critical, and that meant you needed fighter planes to shoot them down. Then you needed fighters to fight those fighters, so an entirely new generation of aircraft, the fighter airplane, grew out of it. They got all the glory, but they were an afterthought. They were necessary only because airborne observation had changed the nature of war.
By the same token, photo-reconnaissance accounted for a massive percentage of World War I air power use, and photo-reconnaissance is still one of the great strategic uses of air power, except now we do a lot of it with satellites. Itwasn’t like today, of course, when we can calculate the trajectory of incoming fire and fire on its source. But photo-reconnaissance let leaders see troop buildups, let them attack railheads, let them predict enemy action. It allowed strategic warfare.
AIR POWER PLAYED A ROLE IN THE FIRST WORLD WAR “RIGHT FROM THE VERY BEGINNING. IN FACT, IT SAVED FRANCE IN 1914.”
Did World War I have any other important effect on how the next war would be fought in the air?
Indeed it did, one that was enormous. The odd thing is that while the First World War saw almost every sort of air power that would be used in the Second—even the cruise missile— the only things we remember are the dogfights and the aces. We think of strategic bombing—striking targets designed to destroy a whole nation’s will to fight, as opposed to simply winning a battle—as a development of World War II. But it wasn’t. The German bomber and Zeppelin raids on London during World War I were an immense campaign. It’s been almost entirely forgotten, butit made a lasting impression on both belligerents. The Zeppelins dropped more than 200 tons of bombs and killed over 500 people, while the bombers killed another 800 and wounded over 2,000. The Germans thought that this was a very small return for a large investment, so German planners stayed away from strategic bombing when they prepared for the next war. But the British, who, after all, had had the bombs fall on them, thought the campaign was a success. They believedstrategic bombing would be vastly more destructive in the next war, and as a result, the British—and we Americans—eventually developed devastating strategic bombingforces. Germany never did. Moreover, Britain had a pretty good air defense system in place in time for the 1940 Blitz.
But the experience with tactical air power—that is, planes helping troops win specific battles—was the opposite. The Germans drew the right lesson, and the British the wrong one. The Germans had developed specialized aircraft for offensive and defensive ground support and had achieved excellent results. So Germany went into thenext war with its air forces well designed for close support of troops on the ground, and that made their blitzkrieg campaigns possible. However, in World War I the British had tried to do close air support with less specialized aircraft, and they took awful losses—as much as 30 percent each day they flew. They didn’t want any more to do with this kind of fighting. As a result, they had no good tactical aircraft and no close air support doctrine in 1939, and they paid a stiff price. It’s one of the reasons they got pushed out ofFrance.
Did the Germans do so well with close air support in World War I because they had better airplanes?
There’s a true irony of history at work here. The British suffered from having developed better, more powerful engines than the Germans. These engines were so good they thought they could use them in any role at all, and so they never developed specialized aircraft design. But the Germanengineers had to work around the weaknesses in their engines and thus were forced to design aircraft fitted for the task.
Many historians today believe that the Allies were wrong to focus on building strategic bombers. They say that the Allied bombing campaigns of the Second World War were a total failure, because German output rose right through 1944. In short, the Allies waged a criminal terror campaign that achieved nothing. What do you think?
The story is a lot more complicated than that. When the war broke out, none of the things happened that almost everybody believed were going to happen: There was no big strategic bombing attack on Great Britain, and no big attack on Paris or Germany. Nobody wanted to do it because they were afraid of what would happen in reprisal. When Great Britain started strategic bombing, she eased into it—and began because it was all that was possible. The British had beenthrown off the Continent, so they turned to strategic bombing, and people really believed in it, even though they had just been through the German strategicbombing campaign—theBlitz—and knew it hadn’t come anywhere close to bringing their nation to itsknees. They thought somehow the Germans would be different. Well, the Germans were just as tough as the British were. But remember, Britain really had no alternative.