The Air Offensive

by Cy Caldwell

Joint British and American air action against Germany's war production facilities offers most expedient method of getting our striking power into position to effect greatest damages.

The course of a war resembles that of a river, whose waters seek naturally the paths of least resistance, flowing around fixed obstructions, narrowing between steep banks or spreading unhampered over wide areas where little opposes the flow.

Thus the flood of the German war effort that overwhelmed France swirled past the strong dike of the Maginot Line and was compressed into the narrow channel of Holland, Belgium and northern France, bounded on the south by the Maginot Line and on the north by the sea. This confinement into relatively narrow limits of the terrific striking power of the German land and air armies resulted in a torrent that the military force opposed to it could not withstand. Thus resistance was swept aside, as a river in flood drives everything before it; and the German onrush stopped only when it reached the sea.

German air power went over this narrow sea barrier, but was shattered and diverted in the Fall of 1940, by the rock-like resistance of the much smaller Royal Air Force, allied with the ability of the English people to withstand continual air bombardment. The projected German sea invasion depended primarily for its success on the ability of the German air force to smash British air interference; and secondarily on that air force's ability to nullify the defense of the British Home Fleet. But the German air force failed in the first of these endeavors and never even tried the second. Thus, in 1940, the torrent of German military force spent itself and was turned back and diverted, as the course of a river may be diverted by dikes.

Like the river, however, a nation's military forces once in the motion of war and denied passage at one place will seek an easier path elsewhere; for the torrent must, by its nature, go on until it has spent itself and is engulfed at last in the vast sea of time and events — as every great military force in history finally has ended whether it results in victory or in defeat for the nation that produced it.

Hence the German torrent turned eastward last summer. But there, opposed by the strong dikes of Russian resistance, it spread out in a great flood, inundating much of the invaded country, but finally losing all forward motion, and even surging back on itself. Russian resistance may more properly be compared to a dike than to a river, for it is a holding, a resisting force. And it cannot become a moving torrent of force until it has the strength, in its turn, to sweep everything before it.

Of course, I don't mean to imply that all military matters can be reduced to the analogy of rivers and dikes. But it serves to clarify our thinking about the war as a whole (which many people fail to comprehend because daily events divert our attention from the big picture of the war). The plain truth is that Germany and Japan brought into being military forces that could sweep everything before them for an undetermined distance. They have effected this sweep because their opponents, harboring a more easy-going political philosophy, failed to take the military measures necessary to stop them. They failed to bring into being the military forces without whose support no political philosophy can endure, be it democratic or dictatorial. The Russians alone built a military force limited only by their capacity to produce it. England, France, the smaller countries of Europe and the United States did not build military forces that had any sizable relation to their national necessities, as those necessities have been disclosed by events. If they had done so, the Germans would not have marched over most of Europe; and the Japanese would not now be in Burma, with every indication that they will move on into India. I assert that the military failures of Britain, France and the United States — to name only the three great rich nations that should have been able to hold down Germany and Japan — have been due to political ineptitude and downright stupidity that goes back for years. Russia and China did the best they could with their more limited resources, and cannot therefore be charged with political stupidity.

Now we are building the forces that we should have been building many years ago, especially air forces. We are nowhere near the peak of our production in airplanes, tanks, merchant ships, warships, guns and the varied equipment of war. Germany and Japan — we need scarcely consider Italy, which is merely another German-occupied country — have probably reached a flattening out of their war production curve. Like our own production, it still undoubtedly is going up. But how high is up? And how long can it continue going up? On the production front it would appear that the United Nations have the advantage. But the production front does no fighting; it produces the utensils of war that must be moved to where the war is going on. So far as we are concerned, those various fronts are thousands of miles away. Hence when we think of a torrent of American war power, in men and in machines, we must remind ourselves that this flow must pass through the narrow bottleneck of ships. Thus the current of our war effort is restricted by the natural barrier of the oceans, as was the German war effort by the barrier of the English Channel and the RAF in 1940, and by the great Russian army and air force in 1941.

A further limiting factor is the necessity to keep the English fed and supplied with the materials of war; and when we consider Africa as a base of operations, the same condition applies there. Furthermore, we must to the best of our ability keep Russia supplied. And since we lost the opening campaign in the western Pacific, we now must bolster the Australians in Australia and the British in India. All of this must be accomplished with ships (for only long-range aircraft may be flown) and it must be accomplished against determined interference by enemy sea, undersea and air forces. In short, we must fight our way to the battlefronts, losing much tonnage of ships in the process and at a greater rate than the present rate of replacement.

Ship tonnage cannot be produced quickly. It is what it is, minus Axis sinkings, plus new building. On ships we can send only so much, whether it is supplies, infantry, tanks, artillery, airplanes or whatnot. Therefore our military commanders must decide what are the most useful war weapons, supplies, and men to send overseas on this limited ship tonnage? I believe that the war has answered that question. The most useful weapons appear to be airplanes and tanks, for without a preponderance of these an army is helpless.

The wisest military commander is the one who honestly weighs the chances against his success, who recognizes his own limitations and who then does his utmost to strike what blows he can contrive against the weakest points in the enemy's armor.

And what are the weakest points in the German military machine? It would seem that they are the German home front and the war production front in Germany and in occupied countries, Those are fronts against which an American air offensive can be directed with the smallest tonnage of available shipping. Thus a joint British and American air offensive from England against Germany itself would appear to offer the most expedient method of getting our hitting power into a position where it would effect the most destruction in the shortest possible space of time. As General Douhet pointed out: "The air offensive is developed against targets not only of the least material resistance, but also of the least moral resistance. Though a regiment in a broken down trench with two-thirds of its effectives lost can still resist, a group of workmen is put completely out of action by the destruction of its machines."

This is not to say that air power alone can defeat Germany, any more than it alone can defeat Japan. But it is an entering wedge whose disruptive effects cannot be estimated in advance. The main point in its advantage is that it can be driven at once; that it can serve as the vanguard of the attacks that must be made on land; that it immediately attacks the morale of the German nation. From our American viewpoint, an American air offensive would remove us from the galling position of being everywhere on the defensive, of trying to get our forces into positions from which they will, in time, stage offensives. This may well be. the critical year of the war, when a blow struck now will be worth two struck 12 months hence.

The British air offensive already has started on a large scale; before the summer is out its effectiveness can be doubled (or more than doubled) by American cooperation. What will be the effect upon German war production and upon German civilian morale if the destructive raids on Lubeck, Rostock and Kiel are repeated on several hundred German industrial and transportation centers? What will be the effect upon the conquered peoples of occupied countries of such raids as those on the Gnome-Rhone and Renault factories and the Goodrich rubber plant in France; and the Skoda works in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia? The fact that a huge American air offensive is in progress will be as heartening to the peoples of occupied countries as it will be disheartening to the Germans, who never have forgotten that American entry into the war in 1917, marked the turning point in their fortunes.

This war, be it remembered, is being fought on the psychological front as well as on military fronts. German civilians have been severely jarred in their optimism by the reverses in Russia last winter; and their hopes certainly have not been raised by Hitler's recent warning that the war must go through another winter. They have perhaps been lulled to fancied security by the thought that the United States is a long distance away and that we are preoccupied with Japan. They will be jarred out of any remaining complacency when thousands of tons of bombs are being dropped every week by hundreds of American bombers flown by American crews. And that last, I submit, will do more to undermine German morale than would the same weight of bombs dropped by British air crews. Too long have we fooled ourselves — and made ourselves laughable in enemy minds — by such phrases as "the arsenal of democracy." The idea that we can produce airplanes only for Britishers to fly in our defense must be forgotten. No nation ever became great or remained great by producing weapons for other peoples to use in its defense. Americans must do their own fighting, as they are anxious to do — and they must do it over Germany as they have been doing it, against great odds, in the western Pacific. We need more than "token" air forces in England.

What is the immediate military advantage of a joint British-American air offensive over Germany and all of occupied Europe? First and most important, it must divert a large part of German fighter and bomber strength from the Russian front and curtail the aid that may be sent to German forces in Libya. This diversion is inevitable, for the German people will demand, and German military necessity will demand, that strong air forces be held at home to battle the air invaders and to carry out reprisal raids. It is, in effect, a second war front: a western air front in addition to the eastern front on land and in the air. The two-front war is what Hitler always said that he would avoid. But now it is clear that he has not been able to avoid it. As the air offensive gains in power, more and more of the German air force must be diverted from the eastern front; and less may be sent to the African front, or used in the expected German drive on the Caucasus or on Mesopotamia or Persia — or on all three.

The increase in weight of bombs dropped by the RAF has not been matched by a corresponding increase in the Luftwaffe. In fact, German bombing of England practically ceased last winter, except for occasional light raids. On four raids over the Reich in April, the RAF dropped 250 tons of bombs each night. They dropped 350 tons on Lubeck; on Rostock they dropped 800 tons. The largest amount ever dropped by the Germans was 500 tons on Coventry. In the six night raids in April, over Bath, Exeter, Norwich and York, the Germans made 150 individual aircraft sorties and dropped in all 225 tons of bombs. But during the same six nights the British dropped 1,300 tons on Germany. The Germans lost one bomber for every 15 tons of bombs dropped, while the RAF, although making much longer raids, lost one bomber for 30 tons dropped.

It appears that the Germans have developed no new types of heavy bombers since 1941, although all now carry heavier loads (the Junkers Ju-88 now carries half a ton more). But the RAF with four new types of heavy bombers, the Stirlings, Halifaxes, Manchesters and Lancasters, carry from two to two-and-a-half times the bomb load of the German planes. The Halifax carries 5½ tons.

At the beginning of the war the advantage in bombing appeared to be with the Germans, not only because they operated against a more concentrated target and from shorter distances, but also because they had a far greater number of bombers than the RAF. Now, because of the diversion of so much of their air strength to the Russian front, the numerical advantage lies with the RAF. Furthermore, the relatively small area of Britain allows for concentrated fighter and anti-aircraft defense. The wide areas of Germany and occupied Europe gives the RAF many widely dispersed targets and presents the Germans with a tremendously difficult defense problem. The British thus may make raids dispersed over wide areas that cannot be adequately defended everywhere, if they can be adequately defended anywhere. The Germans must make raids on a concentrated area against concentrated defense. And in doing this they suffer a larger percentage of losses than the RAF in relation to weight of bombs dropped.

Bombing is by no means a certain science; and bombing styles change with the seasons. For instance, how much good the 110 raids on the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. did the British — and how much harm it did the two warships — is not known. But after the 110th raid the warships sailed triumphantly away, which seems comment enough in itself. It was an experiment, noble in purpose, but appears to have been just about as successful as our own recent experiment with prohibition.

The British speak with pride of their raid on Augsburg as one of the supreme achievements of the war. Twelve Lancasters flew in full daylight, wing tip to wing tip and 30 feet above the ground, all the way from the French coast to within 80 miles of the Swiss border, where Augsburg and its factories are situated. While they were still hundreds of miles from their objective, four Lancasters were shot down. But the remainder kept straight on and dropped their bombs, after which three more were shot down. Of the 12 only five returned to England. The British assert that the Lancasters had challenged the whole German air force, had inflicted heavy damage and had asserted the supremacy of British morale over German morale. However, the British only have to use their heavy bombers in that way for two raids, experience the same extremely high rate of loss, and they won't have any heavy bombers left!

The Germans are said to have made some 2,200 bombing raids on Malta — after all of which Malta is still there and so are the British, who dive into rock shelters until the bombs have ceased falling. However, Malta's effectiveness as an air and naval base probably has been greatly diminished, so to that extent the bombing may have been worth while. As German air strength lessens in relation to growing British and American strength, as it undoubtedly must, the German and Italian air losses over Malta may turn out to be as proportionally wearing as the German army losses in attacks on Verdun in the last war. Malta may be knocked out, but the cost of it may be more than the base is worth.

There has been a great deal of hypocritical talk about bombing, especially about the bombing of "military objectives" such as docks, factories, warehouses and railroad yards. Nearly all of these are surrounded by residential areas for working people; bombs cannot be guaranteed to hit only factories. The gentleman who runs the lathe would seem to be as legitimate a target as the machine itself, for he's working in the war, too.

As time goes on I believe we'll have more and heavier bombardment of entire city areas, irrespective of what they contain. There are indications of that already. It may be more effective militarily to knock out a factory than to raze a small city. But national morale will suffer a more rapid deterioration if people know that they are safe nowhere. Bombing in sufficient force can destroy the will-to-war of a nation. General Douhet said that many years ago — and time and British and American air crews may prove that he was right. If they do, let the Germans recall that they started it first — on London, Warsaw, Rotterdam, Coventry, Plymouth, Belgrade, York and Bath.

This article was originally published in the July, 1942, issue of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 31, no 1, pp 47, 90, 92.
Cy Caldwell was a frequent opinion contributor to Flying.