Strategic bombing seems like an obvious application of air power, but it took a substantial amount of research and development to build air fleets capable of projecting that power. That, in turn, required the support of planners and politicians committed to the concept of strategic bombing. It is here that the vision of a theorist enjoys key importance. While several air power enthusiasts contributed significantly to the development of strategic bombers, it was the work of Italian General Giulio Douhet that offered the clearest and most influential vision.
In World War I, the rudiments of strategic bombing developed without such a vision. The early German zeppelin raids were somewhat opportunistic, in that the existence of a zeppelin fleet made them possible, while Britain’s control of the seas made any other form of direct attack on England impossible. Once the raids began, they developed their own logic, and eventually heavy bombers were developed to supplant the zeppelins, carrying heavier bomb loads in a smaller and less vulnerable frame. For their part, the British developed heavy bombers of their own, and made attacks on Germany a priority. Indeed, the Royal Air Force had been created as a unique arm of service in 1918 to effect this.
Oddly, the clearest voice in support of this practice came from neither of those two nations, but from Italy. Giulio Douhet had served as a staff officer in the Italian Army, and he witnessed the futility of the Italian offensives along the river Isonzo. Concluding, as so many officers from World War One did, that advances in defensive technology had made the job of the attacker virtually impossible, Douhet saw in the airplane a way to cut through the impasse. Even before the war, Douhet had been an enthusiast for new technologies and even indulged in metaphysical speculations on how technology might alter the human spirit. Douhet saw strategic bombing as not merely a new tool for the waging of war, but the source of a profound change in the nature of war itself.
Douhet had urged his superiors to develop heavy bombers for the Italian army during the war, without any effect. After the war’s end, he took his theories to the public in the form of a book, “The Command of the Air,” in 1921. In it, he argued that the immediate use of an overwhelming fleet of bombers to shatter an enemy’s industrial base and will to fight would remove the need for ground combat of any sort. Moreover, he presented his case in scientific and economic terms that doubtless endeared his argument to many policymakers.
This is a point that deserves some emphasis. Douhet calculated that forty heavy bombers carrying two tons of bombs each would have delivered enough firepower to flatten a city like Treviso. Even greater devastation would be possible as increases in technology enabled bombers to carry still heavier loads. The economic arguments could seem equally compelling. He argued that three bombers could match the destructive power of a battleship’s salvo at a tiny fraction of the cost.
To be sure, there are some flaws in the argument. A battleship can reasonably be expected to fire more than one salvo, so the cost of a battleship should not really be compared with the cost of three bombers. In fairness, no nation actually suspended its naval program when adopting heavy bombers. Rather, Douhet demonstrated the scientific and economic rationale for a strategic bombing program that proved compelling for many planners. This is important, because the human consequences were considered monstrous even in the immediate wake of World War I.
Douhet’s argument called for the dispatch of bombers to strike the major cities of the enemy as soon as the war begins. This would destroy the industrial core of the nation under attack, but it would also result in the deaths of many civilians, and the complete disruption of life for the survivors. Douhet did not see this as an unfortunate side-effect: it was part of his primary intention. Nothing makes this clearer than his suggestion that some of the bombs contain poison gas instead of high explosives or incendiaries. Douhet thought that the more destructive the initial bombing campaign was, the more quickly and humanely the war would end in the long run.
Douhet died in 1930, but his work had many admirers in governments throughout Europe, and in America. Indeed, it was in Britain and America where his work was most fully emulated. Both governments found the idea of targeting civilians, per se, abhorrent, and took some measures to mitigate the human toll; of course, the prospect of using poison gas was disregarded. There were several reasons, however, why strategic bombing enjoyed great appeal in these countries. The first is their geographical isolation, separating them from their enemies by seas or oceans. Strategic bombing is a way to strike at an enemy sooner. It also mitigates the risk to one’s own armed forces. If the assumptions about strategic bombing proved correct, it would hasten the end of the war. And finally, there is the fact that neither Britain nor America had designs on the exploitation of occupied land. Flattening an enemy’s factories was fine, insofar as neither nation had any desire to claim those factories for themselves.
France and Germany did not commit to such a program. Both expected to be heavily involved in a land war, if and when war came, and so both structured their air programs to support land action. This did not change in Germany when Hitler took power; indeed, Hitler redoubled the tactical (as opposed to strategic) emphasis in the Luftwaffe. To be sure, there were German planners who were swayed by Douhet’s arguments, and their responses to his work manifested themselves in events from Guernica to the London Blitz to the Siege of Leningrad, but in the big picture, the Luftwaffe was neither structured nor equipped for a serious and sustained strategic bombing program. Indeed, the absence of a true heavy bomber is conspicuous.
In Hitler’s case, the conquest of foreign lands is clearly a major consideration. In the end, it would be the Army that seized new lands, and so the Luftwaffe would need to assist the Army in this task. Furthermore, Hitler would be interested in seeing enemy factories claimed for German use, rather than being reduced to rubble.
The Soviets are a curious case. They took an early interest in the concept, and then abandoned it, preferring instead to focus on tactical aircraft, much as the Germans did. Early Soviet interest is doubtless based on the scientific veneer that strategic bombing advocates offered. As for the decision to abandon the program, some suggest that Stalin’s purges inadvertently killed the program. Considering Soviet behavior during and after the war, it might seem equally likely that Stalin adopted reasoning much like Hitler’s. Certainly, the war provided the Soviets with the opportunity to expand their reach into other countries, and more to the point, captured German factories were literally dismantled and reassembled inside the Soviet Union.
In the event, only the British and Americans carried on a true strategic bombing campaign, while the Germans undertook some attacks that were clearly influenced by the theories of Douhet. None had the full effect that was expected. The civilians of Britain and Germany alike proved much more resilient than Douhet and his admirers assumed, although it should be observed that no one actually pressed these attacks with the full level of ruthlessness that Douhet had suggested.
Nor was the economic effect of damage to industrial centers as great a disruption as planners had hoped. There were many reasons for this. The first is that bomber groups were not effectively impervious to enemy countermeasures, as Douhet had assumed. (It should be noted that it was not Douhet, but rather British prime minister Stanley Baldwin who said “The bomber will always get through.”) Fighter craft and anti-aircraft technology had advanced substantially, while radar gave the British a distinct advantage during the Battle of Britain. Not all bombers reached their targets, and when they did, they had much less effect than the planners had anticipated. Douhet’s scientific calculations had assumed an even distribution of explosives over a target, and no real bombing raid ever came close to such a distribution.
Even today, the full effect of the strategic bombing campaigns of World War II remains open to dispute. It is clear that Douhet promised more than they were ever able to deliver. At the same time, however, it seems that no one theorist had more of an effect than Douhet on the creation of those campaigns.
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