Fifty-five years ago when I reported for basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, I was sure that somehow I was soon going to be spending some serious time in Southeast Asia. Instead—because of some personnel department wizardry–all my non-training assignments over the next six years, as both an enlisted man and officer, were in units stateside and part of, or in support of, something called the Strategic Air Command, which is still around today with a slightly different name. They are in charge of all those bombers, tankers, and ICBMs you taxpayers have supported since the start of the Cold War. Now, why am I bringing this up? Well, when you're in the service you get a lot of pep talks about The Mission. Sometimes the higher-ups give you rah-rah pep talks and sometimes you get to see professionally produced propaganda films that reinforce the message. Believe me, it gets in your head and sticks there. So, I've got all this material I've been carrying around about strategic bombing, the nuclear triad, and deterrence since I processed out in 1972. For this issue of the Trip-Wire I decided for other reasons to look at the writings of the aviation theorists, who tried to make sense of the new field of air warfare and how it was conducted in the World War, and see if their thinking still makes sense. I'll let you judge that yourself, but in putting this issue together, I've been surprised at how much the thinking of the big three—Giulio Douhet, Billy Mitchell, and Hugh Trenchard—overlaps, and how similar it sounds to the "doctrine" I heard in the U.S. Air Force 50 years ago and 50 years after the three made their original pronouncements. I guess that means they were influential. MH
Reflecting on the Air Experience
By Tammi Biddle
First World War Air Action As Popularly Remembered
For centuries before the Wright brothers’ first flight in 1903, humans had tried to imagine all of the future roles that airplanes might play—as both military and non-military instruments. During World War I, aircraft underwent revolutionary, telescoped changes driven by the intensely competitive demands of the war. In 1914, warplanes were primitive machines held together by wire and twine; by 1918, large, sophisticated four-engine bombers had been developed and used. These new instruments had major institutional and organizational ramifications for all modern military services—and the institutional transformation this entailed was far from painless.
Prewar expectations tended to influence the interpretation of wartime experience. Since the interpretation of data and evidence is heavily conditioned by what people expect to see, observations are colored by social, cultural, and political influences. Prior to the outbreak of World War I, civilian writers typically held higher expectations for air warfare than military planners did. The latter were generally conservative, expecting an airplane’s main or sole contribution to be reconnaissance. However, a minority—officers who came to hold formative roles in the development of air power and thus came to hold an institutional stake in the future of air warfare—emerged from the war with strong convictions and bold claims about the revolutionary impact of the airplane in war.
[After the Great War], those
making bold claims for airpower, [especially Italy's Giulio Douhet, America's Billy Mitchell, and Great Britain's Hugh Trenchard] gained degrees of
legitimacy for a variety of reasons. The war had indicated that technological advancement could take place
in a highly telescoped way. Many observers thus
concluded that the technological development of air
power would be fast and relentless—and offensive
capabilities would outstrip defensive ones. Moreover,
many assumed that some of the most daunting weapons of the war, including chemicals and gas, would be
teamed with airpower.
Air advocates argued that all modern states would
have to embrace airplanes as essential tools of war
and deterrence, insisting that those who failed to do
so would put themselves at an enormous disadvantage in the ongoing competition among nations. Air
power—long-range bombing especially—would
restore offensive operations to the battlefield, and
would offer the prospect of directly undermining the
enemy’s all-important “will to fight” by strikes on his
homeland. One would be able to leap over the army
and navy and go right to both resources and popular
will. It is interesting to note here that offensive operations had not in fact disappeared from the battlefield.
By 1917, armies had begun to work out the basics of
modern combined arms, restoring the offensive on
land. This was manifest in the German offensive of
March 1918, and in the subsequent ground offensives led by the Americans in 1918. However, many
writers, traumatized by the trench stalemate of 1914-
1917, assumed that the offensive on land was largely
dead. Another common misapprehension of interwar theorists was that the German Army and Navy had
not been defeated; instead, its population had lost the
war due to war-weariness and defeatism.
Sources: Airpower and Warfare: A Century of Theory and History, Tami Davis Biddle, U.S. Army War College Press
By Robert S. Dudney
Giulio Douhet (1869-1930)
In 1911, Italy went to war with the
fading Ottoman Empire. Rome’s
target was Libya, a Turkish province. It was a forgettable war but
for this fact: the Italian Army brought
its fledgling force of nine aircraft, which
flew history’s first reconnaissance and
For military airpower, it was the
Genesis 1:1 moment. This long-ago war also had a historic
indirect effect: it helped to launch a new
career for an obscure Italian officer,
Maj. Giulio Douhet. In a 1910 essay, he had predicted, “The
skies are about to become a battlefield
as important as the land or the sea. ...
Only by gaining the command of the
air shall we be able to derive the fullest
benefit” of combat in this realm. Douhet, long an
artilleryman, had just gone on aviation
duty. The Libyan war convinced the
Army to form a true aviation unit, and
Douhet got the command.
Army officers were
irritated by his untraditional ideas. They
were outraged when,
in early 1914, he dispensed with budgeting
formalities and ordered
a three-engine bomber
from his friend and fellow airpower enthusiast,
industrialist Giovanni “Gianni” Caproni.
For that, the Army exiled Douhet to
an infantry division at Edolo, near the
He was there in July 1914, serving
as division chief of staff and pondering
airpower, when the Great War erupted
in Europe. Now a colonel, Douhet badgered
the Army with ideas about national
preparedness. Italy should build an air
force potent enough “to gain command
of the air,” he declared in a December
1914 essay, so as to render the enemy
“harmless.” He advocated production
of 500 bombers capable of dropping
125 tons of ordnance per day on “the
most vital, most vulnerable, and least
protected points” of Austrian or German soil.
In 1915, Italy finally entered the
war. Douhet was shocked by the
Army’s poor condition and leadership.
He wrote scathing letters, advocating the
use of airpower. He was arrested in
September 1916 and court-martialed
for spreading false news and agitation.
Military judges sentenced him to a
year in prison.
Then, in October 1917, came Italy’s
disastrous battle at Caporetto, with
some 300,000 casualties. It more than
vindicated Douhet’s acid remarks about
the Army. As a result, he was released
from jail and returned to duty as director of aviation at the General Air
Commissariat. Things did not go well, and in June
1918 he left military service. The Army
overturned Douhet’s conviction and promoted him to brigadier, yet he declined
to return and focused on his writing
It is clear Douhet was profoundly
affected by the carnage of World War
I, appalled at the murderous result of
years of stagnant trench warfare. More
deeply, he saw what happened when a
force using outdated tactics and illogical
plans went up against modern weapons.
In 1921, Douhet completed The Command of the Air, his principal treatise
on the concept of strategic airpower.
While in time it would become hugely
influential, initial response was muted. Things were different in 1926 when
he published a revised and more strident
version. The book drew harsh attacks,
especially from army and navy partisans.
Small wonder, as it openly claimed their
forces to be obsolete.
Douhet devoted his final four years
to intellectual combat with such foes. In
this, as one historian put it, he proved to
be “tireless, blunt, impatient, and very
self-confident.” [But] what, exactly, did Douhet preach?
Wars are no longer fought between
armies, but between whole peoples,
he believed, and future wars would be
total and unrestrained, with civilians as
Wars are won by destroying “the
enemy’s will to resist”—and only this
produces “decisive victory.” Defeat of
enemy forces is a poor indirect route. It is
far better to strike directly at “vital centers” of power inside an enemy nation.
World War I was a turning point,
showing armies and navies can no longer
end wars; the power of the defense—poison gas, machine guns—makes offensive
The airplane, though, is revolutionary, “the offensive weapon par excellence,” able to bypass surface defenses and carry out massive attacks on cities,
destroying the enemy’s will to resist.
For national defense, command of
the air is necessary and sufficient. The
army’s job is to mop up after air attacks.
The navy is of even less use.
The centerpiece of Douhet’s theory
was what he saw as the airplane’s potential to devastate an enemy’s industrial heartland in relatively short order.
However, he believed that an air force’s
first task was to achieve command of
the air, similar to today’s concept of
1918 Artist's Concept of Mass Air Assault
It was a truly apocalyptic vision.
Squeamish politicians and civilians were
invited by Douhet to “avert their eyes.”
He saw little use for “auxiliary aviation” (that is, fighters). In later years, he
even maintained these forms of aviation
were “worthless, superfluous, harmful,”
as they were defensive. “Viewed in its
true light, aerial warfare admits of no
defense, only offense,” he said.
The 1920s and 1930s were years of
relative peace, so Douhet’s theories did
not face the test of war for two decades.
The true extent of his influence on actual
military doctrine remains a subject of
controversy. . . It appears, in the United States,
Douhet’s work served to reinforce the
views of Air Corps officers who had
already come to the same conclusions
by other routes.
Douhet’s convictions, as Gen. Henry
H. “Hap” Arnold reported in his book,
Global Mission, provided ideological
ballast to U.S. Army Air Forces doctrine.
“As regards strategic bombardment,
the doctrines were still Douhet’s ideas
modified by our own thinking in regard
to pure defense,” said Arnold.
Source: Air Force Magazine, April 2011
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British Handley-Page Bomber
No aces here. These features take a top-down look at aviation as it affected the war and later planning for the next war.
He was neither seen nor heard as he fell, his body and his machine were never found. Where has he gone? By what wings did he manage to glide into immortality? Nobody knows; nothing is known. He ascended and never came back, that is all. Perhaps our descendants will say: "He flew so high that he could not come down again.
L'Illustration, 6 October 1917
By 1932: A Growing Fear for the Future
Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin
One of the most important consciousness-raising attempts by
politicians about the terrible realities of air warfare came in the
speech by the Conservative leader Sir Stanley Baldwin to the
House of Commons in 1932. Baldwin pointed out that no town was safe: "The question is: whose morale will be shattered quickest by that preliminary
bombing?" Baldwin was content to ram home his point that rapidly evolving aircraft technology was a threat in and of itself: "I think it is well also for the man in the street to realize that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed, whatever people may tell him. The bomber will always get through."
Source: The Blitz Companion
Early Fear of Aerial Bombardment
The Threat of Airpower Imagined
Strategic bombing of cities and civilians by aerial means was not a new concept in 1914. Beginning with the Montgolfièr experiments with manned flight in 1783, the possibility of using balloons and eventually heavier-than-air machines for military use was envisioned. Initially used as
observation posts and artillery spotters, the idea of using airships and aircraft offensively soon
found enthusiasts. It was not until the advent of the internal combustion engine, however, that
the potential of aerial bombardment from a controlled platform became realistic. In an 1893
letter to the chief of staff of the German Army, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, developer of the
rigid airship that would bear his name and theorist on strategic bombing, wrote that his machine
could perform not only observation and transport roles, but also “bombard enemy fortifications
and troop formations with projectiles.”
In popular literature and science fiction, the inevitability of airships cruising over cities and
dominating future warfare was a popular topic by the late nineteenth century. Jules Verne, no
stranger to prescient fiction, wrote in his 1887 story "Clipper in the Clouds" about an aerial battle
between two airships loosely resembling the German dirigibles of the First World War. However,
it was H.G. Wells who envisioned the strategic bombing of population centers in the future. In
his 1908 novel The War in the Air, Wells described a scene in which a fleet of German airships
bombed New York City, eerily predicting the fear and terror felt by the public in London and
Paris during the Great War. As the historian Lee Kennett argued, so profound and persuasive at
capturing public attention was this type of futuristic literature around the turn of the century,
that by the time reliable airships and aircraft finally appeared en mass, “extravagant and impossible things would sometimes be expected of them.” During the war, dirigibles and aircraft were
seen as an extension of scientific advancement akin to other innovations such as submarines,
machine guns, tanks, and poison gas.
So profound were the concerns over the possibility of airborne bombardment, even before
the technology to accomplish such a task was near ready, politicians throughout Europe and the
United States attempted to regulate aerial warfare. The 1899 Hague Convention, proposed by
Russian Tsar Nicholas II in an attempt to regulate armaments and warfare, passed a resolution
“agree[ing] to prohibit, for a term of five years, the launching of projectiles and explosives from
balloons, or by other new methods of similar nature.”
Although tactical aerial bombing in support of combat operations was employed as far back
as 1911 when Italian airplanes dropped the first bombs in combat on Turkish forces in Libya,
1914 saw the first strategic use of bomber aircraft to “strike at the very foundation of the enemy’s
war effort-the production of war material, the economy as a whole, [and] the morale of a civilian
population.” A few days after the beginning of the First World War, German pilots dropped a few
small bombs on Paris in August 1914. In October of that year, the British achieved the first substantial strategic success when one airplane destroyed a zeppelin airship in its shed at Dusseldorf,
Germany. By December 1914 the Germans were dropping bombs directly on England.
Christopher Warren Air & Space Power,
Issue #3, 2018
By David R. Mets
William "Billy" Mitchell (1879-1936)
Born in France in 1879, the son of a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, Bill Mitchell's grandfather, Alexander, was one of the richest men in the state. He grew up in Milwaukee and began college in Washington, DC. Upon the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, he left school at age 18 to enlist in the U.S. Army as a private. He quickly rose through the ranks of the Signal Corps, serving in the Philippines, Cuba, and Alaska. As a communication specialist he served with the military relief mission for the San Francisco earthquake and fire and, most notably, he directed the linking of Alaska to the mainland United States via telegraph. Mitchell became the youngest captain in the Army, and was appointed to the General Staff in 1912. On the verge of World War I, he recognized the importance of aviation. In 1916, he learned to fly at his own expense. In Europe, Mitchell was promoted to colonel and, later, brigadier general. During America's St. Mihiel offensive he commanded more than 1,500 British, French, and American aircraft in the war—the largest "air force" yet assembled. After the war, he was appointed deputy director of the Air Service and began advocating increased investment in air power, believing that this would prove vital in future wars.
He returned home after the war to become assistant
chief of the Air Service, first for Gen Charles Menoher and
later for Gen Mason Patrick. He led an Air Service provisional
brigade in the bombing tests against various naval vessels and
sank an ex-German battleship with a 2000-pound
bomb—at anchor, close to shore, and unprotected with
antiaircraft artillery. The isolationist mood of the 1920s made it
impolitic to suggest that the United States would ever again be
involved in overseas wars. A seaborne attack against the
continental United States was not much of a possibility then, but
that was the only threat that could be publicly addressed by
either the Air Service or the Navy. Thus, Mitchell’s strategic
bombing ideas were discussed much less openly, and the utility of
airpower in coastal defense became the major issue.
Mitchell was a showboater, one who was not at all averse to
going outside channels. He used public relations extensively
to try to advance his cause and published frequently in
national media while on active duty. Mitchell wrote several
books, some of which were published before he resigned. He
used a sensationalist approach, which the Navy and soldiers
oftentimes considered as firing from the hip. He frequently
used immoderate language and seldom paused to qualify it. He
was a social lion and behaved rather like a feudal baron as he
traveled about his Air Service domains. Here are some of the main points he focused on in his various writings and pronouncements.
Aviation is revolutionary and airpower is inherently offensive; the bomber will always get through.
Air superiority is
a prerequisite for other military operations. Enemy armies and navies are not
ultimate objectives; the final goal always is to change
the will of the enemy, and through airpower, this finally could
be done without defeating his surface forces.
Airmen are a special and elite breed of people, and they
alone can understand the proper employment of airpower.
Airpower, organized into a separate, equal (to Army and Navy),
and autonomous air force under a unified department of
defense, could serve as the most effective and economical means
of defending the continental United States.
If the matter ever
came to fighting an overseas enemy, airpower could decisively
attack the enemy’s vital centers without first defeating his
armies and navies. Attacks on such vital targets would render
war so decisive and quick that the total suffering would be less
than otherwise. . . therefore, such [strategic] bombing would be
more humane than conventional trench warfare.
Future wars will be total; the ascendancy of the ground
defensive will persist; everybody is a combatant and civilian morale is fragile.
Mitchell, however, almost always stood squarely opposed to targeting civilians directly and generally advocated breaking their morale
through the destruction of other vital centers like industry, infrastructure, or even agriculture.
He deliberately provoked a court martial in 1925 with his controversial remarks to the press on 5 September, blasting two recent military disasters: a bungled flight during which three Navy seaplanes failed to make it from the West Coast to Hawaii, and the crash of the Navy airship USS Shenandoah while flying over the Midwest on an ill-advised public relations tour. "These incidents are the direct result of the incompetency, criminal negligence, and almost treasonable administration of the national defense by the Navy and War Departments," Mitchell stated. “The bodies of my former companions in the air molder under the soil in America, and Asia, Europe and Africa, many, yes a great many, sent there directly by official stupidity." He was convicted of
insubordination, and left the Army early in 1926. He lived on his
farm in Virginia for the rest of his life, became involved in the
presidential campaign of 1932, and was disappointed that
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not choose him as
assistant secretary of war for air. Mitchell died in February 1936.
Source: The Air Campaign: John Warden and the Classical Airpower Theorists, Air University Press, 1999; Roads to the Great War, 29 July 2016
By David R. Mets
Hugh Trenchard (1873-1956)
Hugh Trenchard, 1st Viscount Trenchard G.C.B., O.M., G.C.V.O., D.S.O., was born on 3 February 1873 in Taunton, Somerset, a son of Henry and his wife Georgina (Skene). He joined the army and was wounded in the South African War. In 1912 he learned to fly and at the outbreak of war in 1914 he was placed at the head of the emergent Royal Flying Corps, at that time just a branch of the army. He was appointed in 1918 Chief of the Air Staff of the newly formed Royal Air Force and was knighted in that year. In 1919 he was promoted to the newly created rank of Air Marshal.
At first, he opposed the creation of an independent air force
and the idea of strategic bombing. He was stout in his
commitment to the preferability of offensive operations for air
forces—and suffered substantial losses because of it. Trenchard
nonetheless wound up in command of the Independent Air
Force (IAF) in France in 1918. It was created in reaction to the
German bombing of London and was charged to undertake
retaliatory bombing of targets in Germany. The war ended before Trenchard’s force could conduct much strategic bombing; therefore, most of its effort was in
support of the armies. When Trenchard returned to the United
Kingdom, he was appointed chief of the air staff of the Royal
Air Force (RAF). He soon became an advocate of strategic
bombing and of colonial control through the use of airpower
instead of ground power.
For him, air superiority was a prerequisite for all other
operations. Having been disappointed with airfield attack in
World War I, Trenchard believed that at least part of the
struggle would take place with an air battle. He asserted most
strongly throughout his career that engagements over land or
sea would commence with a clash of air forces for control of
the air. Also, these forces would strongly tend to be
determinants of the final outcome because the future course
of events depended heavily on the outcome of the first
collision. Both Trenchard and Douhet aimed at the collapse of civilian
morale, but Trenchard wanted to achieve it indirectly through
destruction of infrastructure targets and the like, while
Douhet wanted to attack the people directly. Trenchard no
doubt favored independent operations but made a greater
allowance than Douhet did for cooperation with other services
in operations against the enemy’s fielded forces.
On the surface Trenchard’s assumptions seem to have
much in common with the following assertions of Douhet [and Mitchell]:
Air superiority is a prerequisite for all other military operations.
The offensive is the stronger form of air war.
Civilian morale is fragile, but the British [morale] is tougher than
the German, and the moral effect of bombing is much more
devastating than the physical effect.
The bomber will always get through; it does not need escort.
Night navigation, target acquisition, and bombing accuracy are
Victory could be achieved by
bombing enemy vital centers and thus breaking his will.
Trenchard on an Inspection Tour with Queen Mary
While World War I was still being fought, he was firm in his
commitment to ground support and allowed only that “excess”
aircraft could be dedicated to independent operations.
After the war, though, Trenchard increasingly argued that
the role of the British army and navy was secondary and the
role of the RAF and strategic attack was primary. First, by
1921 he was asserting that the RAF should be seen now as
the primary instrument of defense for the British Isles and
declaring that such a role would best be accomplished
through an air offensive. Second, he wanted to reduce the
functions of the two older services in such matters as colonial
control (as noted), and coastal defense of the home islands.
Third, he sought to reduce the many overseas bases and to
turn their functions increasingly over to the RAF. The air arm,
Trenchard insisted, could accomplish these functions more
economically and effectively than the army and navy. In
Trenchard’s day, the defense of the British bastion at
Singapore was a central part of the debate. After World War I, Trenchard gave a very high priority to bomber units, and he found only a modicum of opposition to
his ideas from either inside the RAF or outside. However, he
always saw a role for fighters. Early in his tenure, plans were
made for a substantial metropolitan air force known as the Air
Defence of Great Britain. However, the threat seemed to
diminish in the mid-1920s.
Trenchard’s influence on the country’s military service was
enormous. He laid down the RAF's initial institutions and doctrine. His
ten-year tenure came during a period of theoretical flux and was
said to have had an enormous impact on most of his officers.
Source: The Air Campaign: John Warden and the Classical Airpower Theorists, Air University Press, 1999; Roads to the Great War, 29 July 2016
100 Years Ago:
America's Unknown Soldier, Part I: The Selection
In December 1920, New York Congressman and World War I veteran Hamilton Fish Jr. proposed legislation that provided for the interment of one unknown American soldier at a special tomb to be built in Arlington National Cemetery. The purpose of the legislation was “to bring home the body of an unknown American warrior who in himself represents no section, creed, or race in the late war and who typifies, moreover, the soul of America and the supreme sacrifice of her heroic dead.”
On 24 October 1921, in a ceremony in the French city of Châlons-en-Champagne, the unidentified soldier to be interred in the United States Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery was selected from four possible persons. Sgt. Edward F. Younger of Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 50th Infantry, American Forces in Germany, was chosen to select the Unknown Soldier. Sgt. Younger selected the Unknown by placing a spray of white roses on one of the caskets.
Next Month: Part II, Interment, 11 November 1921
Sources: Arlington National Cemetery; Steve Miller Archives
Daily "Taps" at the National
World War I Memorial
A Recent Event
"Taps" is currently sounded each day at 5 p.m. at the New National World War I Memorial in Washington, DC, to honor the memory of 4.7 million Americans who did their "bit" for their country. They finished a fight they did not start, in a land they had never visited, for peace and liberty for people they did not know. The daily event honors those Doughboys.
The daily sounding of "Taps" began Memorial Day 2021 and is funded to continue through Spring 2022. The call will be sounded at the foot of the flagpole at the Memorial. General John J. Pershing's personal bugle is used for the ceremony. The daily sounding is performed with the cooperation of the WWI Commission, the Doughboy Foundation, the America Battlefield Monuments Commission, the National Park Service, and Taps for Veterans.
Michael DeLaune, One of the Team of Buglers
The Doughboy Foundation is asking for your support to help fund this daily sounding of "Taps" so we can continue it year-round to honor them. Sponsorship for a single event is $250, during which Taps will be played in the name of the person or organization you designate. More information here:
Sources: The Doughboy Foundation; Taps for Veterans
A World War One Documentary
Released in 1943, Walt Disney's imaginative presentation of the airpower theories of Russian émigré Alexander de Seversky (not to be confused with Igor Sikorsky) and their roots in the Great War is arguably one of the most influential films ever produced. Both Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill noted that it influenced their thinking about strategic bombing during the Second World War. Further, the Russian World War I ace's work ultimately provided the rationale for the creation of America's Strategic Air Command in the early days of the Cold War.
Seversky's Victory Through Air Power, and Disney's award-winning documentary with the same title, however, were far from universally popular. Seversky extended Billy Mitchell's vision of airpower to argue that even if bombing could not achieve a quick victory, it could obtain total victory through unconditional surrender. He also openly criticized military leaders for slowing development of very-long-range bomber aircraft in order to promote more conventional weapons such as aircraft carriers and fighter airplanes. Army Air Force and Navy leaders and public relations officers campaigned to discredit de Seversky, his book, and the film. They were largely unsuccessful. By war's end, de Seversky had stimulated popular awareness and driven the national debate on strategic airpower further than any previous writer.