Airpower’s Century

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BOTH SIDES THOUGHT THE BOMBERS WOULD WIN WORLD WAR II, “BUT AS IT TURNED OUT THE AIR WAR WAS WON BY FIGHTERS.”

And when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, and Russia demanded a second front, Britain had to do something, because Stalin could have turned around and tried for a compromise peace with Hitler and then Britain would have had to fight a vastly more powerful Germany. So the British dedicated immense resources to strategic bombing, and the Royal Air Force believed it was doing well. Ultimately it found out that it hadn’t been, that only a small percentage of the bombs were getting anywhere near the targets, and the only thing that it could be sure of hitting was a city. So the British opted to bomb cities, what we would today rightly call terror bombing, because the idea was to terrorize the population into quitting.

The RAF eventually had a fleet of a thousand bombers over Germany. They did a huge amount of damage and established what Albert Speer called a second front in the air. It wasn’t as good as invading, but it was the best the British could do, and it probably kept Russia in the war, which meant that Britain ultimately won the war.

There were two strategic bombing campaigns. The American one targeted German industry and in the long run badly hurt it, and in the second campaign both the British and American forces devastated Germanhighways and railroads and a number of other targets. So in the end the strategic bombers were a success, and for a number of reasons. First of all, you want to measure 1944 German production not against 1941 production, which was low because the Germans organized it badly, but against what it would have been in the absence of strategic attack, which would have been much higher.

Also, didn’t this bombing draw in German fighter planes that could have kept making trouble elsewhere?

Americans and the British both had the wrong idea about fighter planes. They thought: We’ll send fighters over to Germany, and the Germans will come up, and we’ll shoot them down. But the Germans would just sit on the ground, because the Allied fighter planes weren’t doing any harm. The only way you could get the Germans in the air was to attack a target sufficiently valuable that they had to come up and defend it. The irony is that both sides more or less believed that the bombers would win the war, but as it turned out, the air war was won by fighters, which then permitted the bombers to win. It hurts me to say that, because I’m a bomber pilot, but the fighter pilots won the war in 1944, when they were able to exhaust the Luftwaffe to the point that Allied bombers could move with impunity. So there’s a circle: Even those massive portions of the strategic bombing campaign against targets that didn’t matter, or couldn’t be destroyed—the cities, or the will of the Germans to fight—nonetheless forced the relocation of the Luftwaffe’s fighters to Germany, away from the fronts, which allowed them to be destroyed, and hugely contributed to the Allied victories on the ground.

Didn’t Germany’s defense against strategic bombing suck up all sorts of other resources?

Hitler would probably have been better advised to say, “We’ll accept the damage. We won’t make the choice for anti-aircraft guns instead of anti-tank guns, because the air campaign isn’t gaining any territory and the tanks are.” The thousands of gunners, the tens of thousands of shells they required, and the 88-millimeter guns taken away from the front: All these had an immense effect, and in the west, possibly a decisive one.

One of your main arguments about air power is that it not only kept the Cold War mostly cold but also let us do as well as we did when it heated up. You’ve written that air power didn’t win the Korean War, but it kept us from losing it.

We were vastly outnumbered in Korea, and on three different occasions the only thing that saved us was air power. It slowed North Korean momentum during the first attacks, and it stopped us from being pushed into the sea when we were holding the Pusan perimeter. But the greatest contribution was through interdiction; air power cut off the flow of supplies to North Korean front-line forces. When the Chinese made their tremendous attack and almost pushed us into the sea again, the same thing happened. Once things settled down, we hit their supply lines, and they couldn’t mount another massive attack against us.

Isn’t that interdiction campaign still criticized for not fulfilling the claims its supporters made?