Air Power and the Second Front

by Cy Caldwell

Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, chief of the RAF Bomber Command, told the German people by radio that RAF and American bombers would bomb their land to bits, city by city. "You have no chance," he told them in German. "Soon we will be coming over every night, every day — rain, flood, or snow — we and the Americans."

Could he back up his words? And how soon was "soon" ? Harris' broadcast was assailed in the House of Lords, where it was described as silly nonsense, an imitation of the Goebbels technique, so bombastic that Mussolini might have made it. How the Germans reacted has not been reported. But that Air Marshal Harris is well on the way to making good his threat must be apparent to the German people if not to the House of Lords.

The 1,130-plane raid on Cologne last May has been followed by other heavy raids on Dusseldorf, Hamburg, Saarbrucken, Bremen and scores of other targets. About 700 bombers blasted Dusseldorf, hundreds struck at other cities. And in all of these raids the proportion of four-engined bombers to lighter bombers is growing, and hence the weight of bombs dropped per plane. A total of 3,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Cologne, six times the tonnage dropped on London in a day and a night during the attacks in 1940; 10 times the amount that the Germans dumped on Coventry. Week by week and month by month the tonnage must increase. With the rising American production it is not too optimistic to believe that the raids of 1943 will make those of this summer look like a mere prelude.

Such considerations lead many advocates of air power to the conclusion that bombing alone could smash the will-to-war of the German people, could destroy the physical ability of the Reich to build airplanes, tanks, guns, and other equipment, and provide the synthetic oil without which the German war machine must grind to a stop.

That is an idea that invites acceptance by the peoples of the peace-loving and war-hating democracies: the idea of a war relatively inexpensive in loss of life. The war, they say, will be won by the sacrifice of a few thousands, or perhaps a few tens of thousands of brave and highly trained young men. This is the age of the specialist, especially of the air specialist; and expert pilots, bombardiers and gunners will win the victory without the necessity of millions of soldiers facing death on the ground. Simply defend on the ground; wage the offensive in the air. Victory must result. So declares the air enthusiast.

However, while this could be — granted, of course, that we gain and hold air supremacy, or practical mastery of the air over Germany — the cold hard fact is that during the course of this war no victory on land, and no gain of territory anywhere on the face of the globe has been won by air power alone. No exceptions to this rule are Norway and Crete, where air power exerted the greatest effect and undoubtedly was the vital decisive factor. Both were air invasions; Crete wholly so, Norway partly so. But at the climax troops were landed to take possession and occupy. Some of these troops were parachutists and air-infantry, a part of the air force and not of the army. Yet while they were in the air they were merely passengers; the moment they landed or were landed from the transports or gliders they functioned as infantry. Hence while Crete and Norway are often thought of as being captured by air forces, actually they were captured by air and land forces working as a team.

The point to note here is that Germany, at the beginning of the war the most air-minded nation in the world, never contemplated the use of air power alone to win the victory. In the Battle of Britain in 1940, the Nazis were held to the use of air power, only; and they failed utterly to annihilate the numerically weaker RAF and then, as nearly everyone believed at the time, abandoned the invasion plan because of that defeat by the RAF. In view of later events, however, the attack on Russia, is it not more reasonable to assume that it was not only the small RAF that stopped the invasion, but also the very considerable threat of a huge Russian Army mobilized on Germany's borders, ready to spring to the attack when the Germans were committed to an all-out air, sea and land attack on England? It is the considered opinion of many military experts that Britain was saved in 1940, more by the threatening existence of the Red Army than by the heroic defense of the RAF. (Of course, that statement will sound treasonable to the air power extremists!)

The gains of the Japanese on land were made, in every instance, by the judicious use of air, land and sea power. And they always had enough of everything to accomplish the job until the Coral Sea and Midway battles knocked them back on their heels and sent them reeling groggily homeward. But those were sea-air battles, and have no bearing on a discussion of bombing Germany, and winning a victory by that method.

In the struggle between Germany and Russia both depended primarily upon armies, with air power used in support. It is inconceivable that the Red air force alone could have prevented the German army from capturing Moscow, or that the German air force alone could have stopped the Red army from marching to Berlin. It was the combination of army opposing army, air force opposing air force, that made for a balance between the contending nations, even though the weight last year, as again now, has been on the side of the Germans. And it is, I think, highly significant of the light in which Germany and Russia view air power to note that in the present campaign neither side has gone in for what the British call "strategic" bombing — by which is meant the planned destruction of vital objectives far behind the lines. On the contrary, both the Germans and the Russians have used their air power almost solely in army support during this critical summer campaign. And why? Because they know, by the bitter experience of war, and not by theory, that armies take and occupy territory, and pass on from that to occupy further territory, denying it to the former holder.

In considering the second front in Europe, it is well to remember that man is a terrestrial animal. He lives and has his being upon land. He is neither a fish nor a bird; and while he may tarry briefly on the sea, and much less briefly in the air, he must return to the land. In neither the ocean nor in the air can he support life indefinitely. If he is to survive at all he must have land; and the way to get land, in this air age as in past ages, still is to plant his feet upon that land, dig in and hold on, no matter who wants to push him off.

That, in short, is what the Germans have done in Europe, what the Japs have done in Asia and the islands. It's all very old stuff, countless centuries old, and the only new thing about it now is that some of the warriors have taken briefly to the air, to assist their fellows on the ground. But it was the man on the ground who occupied the land.

Of course, there could be such a condition as total destruction of an enemy nation from the air, after which the pilots and gunners themselves might land, survey the ruins and accept the surrender of the few remaining inhabitants. But who believes that such a fate could befall a powerful nation of 80 millions of people, with not only an army but a strong air force of their own? If the Russians are defeated, or driven back from their oil supplies, with a third or a half of their manufacturing facilities lost, is there any reasonable doubt that the German army, and air force, can return to western Europe in great numbers? In that event, will the present British and American air supremacy, or preponderance, rather, then prevail? It may, or it may not. American production undoubtedly will outstrip not only German, but all of conquered Europe's production. But to operate it over Germany, oil and gasoline and bombs and millions of tons of supplies must be ferried over the Atlantic to England. And can they be so ferried in the face of possibly increased submarine interference? In short, can little England with our help endure and knock out the Germans and their war potential in all of Europe? Or will German airmen eventually knock out this small island, now serving chiefly as an aerodrome from which to attack the Germans by air? It is well to remember that we have no patent on air power, though we may produce more of it than our enemies. The worst problem may be to keep it flying.

That is why, it seems to me, a second front now, at whatever the risk, at whatever the cost, is worth trying.

This article was originally published in the November, 1942, issue of Flying magazine, vol 31, no 5, pp 32, 141.
The PDF of this article includes a thumbnail portrait of Mr Caldwell.