The Misuse of Air Power

by Brig Gen Henry J Reilly, ORC

A distinguished military analyst charges that, even in battle, we disperse our air power on widespread targets instead of concentrating it in support of ground troops.

Is the great power of aviation being used to its fullest extent today to bring about the unconditional surrender of our enemies which President Roosevelt has demanded?

The answer is NO!

This is shown clearly by the course of the war — particularly the military events of the past year.

During that year our aviation has reached a strength probably greater than that of the air forces of any other country. If that aviation had been used to its maximum power from the military viewpoint of concentration on vital areas one at a time instead of being dispersed through numerous attacks at the same time, more than a year after we landed in Africa:

As a consequence, the recent Moscow conference would have been able to make plans for an immediate final attack on Germany in the way that Marshal Foch, General Pershing, Marshal Petain and Marshal Haig made their plans in the late summer of 1918 for the final attack which began September 25 and 26 of that year and led to the armistice on November 11.

All these are consequences of not making the proper use of air power to speed the advance against our enemies. While boasting that "time" is on our side and against our enemies, we have allowed them sufficient time to prepare themselves against decisive blows still many months in the future.

It is essential, unless war be dragged out at tremendous cost in lives and treasure, that the maximum be made of our military forces — including aviation — to bring victory as quickly as possible.

The issue as to how our air force is to be used is simple and clear: Do we continue to follow the theories of Douhet or do we adopt the theories of Napoleon and other great military leaders?

Douhet held, in essence, that a country could be so smashed up by the wonderful power of aviation that it could not wage war.

Napoleon and every other military leader in the past one by defeating the enemy's armed forces in battle, for with their defeat everything else fails.

The followers of Douhet claim that aviation is something entirely new; that Napoleon and his followers knew nothing about it and their principles of warfare cannot apply. They ignore the fact that aviation is only a new method of carrying weapons, the principles of which are not new. Aviation is handled by the same kind of human beings that fought wars when only the ground and the surface of the sea could be used as battlefields.

One of the claims of Douhet and his disciples has always been that much time could be saved by carrying out their theories of the use of air power.

The followers of Napoleon say:

"In aviation we have a wonderful new military force. By adding its powers to the military powers of ground and sea forces we can bring a much greater armament to bear on the armed forces of our enemies. Thus, through aviation, we can insure their decisive defeat much more quickly than was formerly true."

The Douhetites do not answer this argument. They avoid meeting it by changing the subject and claiming that the followers of Napoleon are trying to make aviation subordinate to ground and sea forces and thus prevent its being used to its maximum military capacity. Ground troops "do not understand" aviation, they say, and cannot use it as it should be used.

It is time to meet this argument now because the war is nearing a critical stage where following Douhet can conceivably bring us to military disaster.

Douhet predicted the present war. He also predicted that German aviation would knock France out in two days. Actually, with overwhelming strength on ground and in the air, it took Germany 40-odd days to put France out.

And Germany accomplished this, not, as was so widely proclaimed by our amateur strategists, with 200,000 German athletes manning tanks and planes, but with a total of more than 200 divisions, only nine of which were panzer armored divisions, improperly called tank divisions. A few more of the 200 were motorized divisions in which the infantry rode in trucks. The rest were divisions in which the infantry marched on foot carrying its own packs and rifles. Except for the antitank and antiaircraft guns the artillery was horse-drawn.

German aviation did not follow Douhet's theory in the Battle of France. Its primary function was to support the troops in all ground fighting and help them forward. In the preliminary stages the German planes bombed lines of communications and — above all — the airfields, not only to destroy the air facilities but the planes caught on the ground. During the battles they helped the artillery by bombing all the artillery targets. They helped infantry and tanks by heavy bombing of all enemy infantry, tanks and machine guns, and by dive-bombing specific military targets. They never limited themselves to bombing the rear areas back of the battlefields, and during the actual battles they came to the direct support of the troops. The author has voluminous data gathered in France proving this to be their method.

Today there is no evidence that the Germans are changing their plan of air-ground forces operating together under one command. Their failure to follow Douhet has led to the general belief among the Allies (how often have you heard that statement?) that "the Germans do not understand air power."

All this statement really means is that the Douhetites disagree with the Germans' use of aviation. If so, they must also disagree with the Russians because the Russians are using aviation much like the Germans — concentrating it in direct support of their ground forces.

The German victories were obtained by using all their armed forces on the ground and in the air concentrated in a combined attack upon the ground and air forces of their enemy.

Throughout military history the greatest problem military leaders have had to meet has been the rapid concentration of overwhelming military force on an enemy is the surest and quickest way to defeat him decisively.

It has always been true, first, in strategic movements, to get the greatest military force into battle; and second, of tactics in battle to bring about an overwhelming blow on some part of the enemy's forces.

Before the invention of firearms, the answer to both the strategical and tactical concentration of force was manpower. With the development of firearms, the day began when tactical flexibility — that is, flexibility in battle — did not depend upon manpower alone but on firepower.

However, the short range of infantry and artillery fire prevented flexibility of fire except by the movement of men. Napoleon kept an artillery reserve because he could only bring a concentrated artillery fire upon the weakest spot in the enemy's line by galloping up masses of guns to fire on this spot once he had determined it.

With the increase in range of firearms, the day had arrived in the war of 1914-1918 when concentration of fire on the enemy could be had simply by aiming machine guns and artillery on the vital spots without moving the guns.

The terrific concentration possible with modern artillery was demonstrated in the battle south of Soissons, in July, 1918. The First Division was finally stopped for several days. General Sommerall, instead of being content with his gains, concentrated virtually all the artillery of his divisions in front of one infantry brigade, leaving the other infantry brigade without artillery support. Then, having advanced the first infantry brigade because of this overwhelming artillery support, he left it without any artillery fire and put all his artillery fire in front of the other brigade, enabling it also to advance. In the Argonne he applied the same principle, advancing not brigades but each of his four infantry regiments, one at a time.

The present really terrible concentrations of artillery turned onto any part of the battlefield, and from part to part like a hose being switched about in a garden, is a development of this idea, the technical details of which were worked out at the Army Field Artillery School at Fort Sill. Many German prisoners have been known to comment upon the power of this terrific artillery concentration to make them willing to quit.

The guns which produce this concentration, however, must be within a relatively few miles of the target.

And here lies the advantage of aviation. Aviation has a flexibility which far exceeds that of artillery. Where the guns of the artillery must be within a few miles of each other and of the target, planes can be based on airfields hundreds of miles from each other and from the target. This flexibility is the greatest military attribute of aviation.

Artillery, because of its flexibility of fire, made firepower and not the movement of men alone a decisive factor in tactics.

Aviation, through its flexibility, has made the concentration of fire in a short period of fire in a short period of time both a tactical and a strategical factor of the highest importance.

The difference at the present time between artillery and aviation is that the artillery is taking the maximum advantage of its flexibility to damage the enemy while aviation is not.

Our own Army regulations state:

"The inherent flexibility of air power is its greatest asset. This flexibility makes it possible to employ the whole weight of the available air power against selected areas in turn. Such concentrated use of the air striking force is a battle-winning factor of the first importance."

The tragedy is that we are not using aviation in the way our own regulations provide. It is not being concentrated in battle to support our ground troops and advance them against the enemy. Rather, strategically it is being dissipated and dispersed on scores of separate targets. Tactically too much strength is scattered over the rear of battlefields instead of all its force being concentrated on the enemy's infantry, tanks and artillery.

The infantry and tank soldiers advancing on a strong enemy position and the artillery supporting them are not interested in whether their enemy's supply of ammunition and food for tomorrow is being blown up by aviation attacks on the rear. They want their chances of staying alive and unwounded increased by aviation joining the artillery in blowing up the enemy's infantry, tanks, and artillery which are shooting at them.

Returning veterans of Tunisia, Sicily and Italy emphasize this.

Each day's newspapers contain accounts of air attacks on German and French ports, factories, and communications from bases in the United Kingdom. They also contain accounts of air attacks in the rear ares of the German ground forces opposing our advance in Italy. They also contain accounts of air attacks upon Austrian and Balkan objectives by planes based in Italy.

The map accompanying this article shows:

  1. That our air forces in Europe and the Mediterranean theater of war are not concentrating on any one enemy area within this theater but are dispersing their efforts over a number.
  2. That a considerable proportion of the territory occupied by Germany is still out of range of these air forces.
  3. That all the German air forces are capable of quickly concentrating their firepower on any part of the front of Fortress Europe which the German high command may desire.

Our our forces are unable to reach all parts of German-held territory because our ground forces with some help from our air forces have not yet driven the Germans out of Italy and thus given us the air bases to reach it.

When we landed successfully in North Africa it was a tremendous logistical problem to prepare for the invasion of Sicily and then Italy. Such an enormous undertaking inevitably consumed time. But on the other hand we have now had more than a year to prepare.

Why, in the course of a year, have we not yet put Italy out and obtained air bases in the Valley of the Po River? The answer is that we failed to take the fullest possible advantage of aviation flexibility to support our troops in combat areas. Anyone who has been under fire with and without direct aerial support (the author has experienced both) has only one desire. He wants aviation support, and he wants it operating not only on the enemy's aviation but also on the enemy's infantry, artillery and tanks.

There are two ways in which the time we have taken from the landing in Sicily to reaching our present positions in Italy could have been greatly diminished.

The first was by a strategical concentration of all American forces able to reach the enemy immediately in front of our invading troops instead, as was actually the case, of only part of those forces being used while others attack targets within Germany. That a great number of planes could have been so concentrated is proven by the fact that during this same period there were several shuttle attacks, starting in England and flying to North Africa, refueling and taking on ammunition there and flying back to England. [See "Shuttle Bombing,"[ PDF, 5.7 MiB ] , [ HTML ] , Flying, January, 1944. —Ed.]

The second was to have all available aviation during the period of attacks by our ground troops concentrate their firepower upon the enemy's infantry, artillery and tanks, leaving the rear areas for attack between battles and the preliminary preparation for battle.

Neither was done.

There can be no doubt of the value of long-range bombardment of enemy industry, communications and ports. There is no reason why industry should not be attacked when there is no fighting going on but, when ground troops are fighting, all available planes should be concentrated in the battle area.

Nor can there be any doubt of the value of aerial attacks on the enemy's rear, upsetting his communications, blowing up his supply and ammunition dumps, his air fields, and in making his troop movements slow and hazardous.

But it should always be remembered that the ability of the air to do these things is limited by the ground made available to it for airfields gotten by the ground forces defeating the enemy's ground forces in battle.

Once landed in Italy we had our choice of a quick advance up the peninsula or a slow one to permit the establishment in southern Italy of air bases for long range bombers to attack Austria and the Balkans. The first would have required a heavy concentration of aviation fire on the German ground troops, first to drive them out of their defensive positions and secondly to keep them on the run by not allowing them to settle down in new ones.

Much more air power could have been concentrated for our attacks in the Mediterranean theater. Instead, air facilities which should have been used for tactical support were still being used for strategic bombing of Naples and other cities while our battles raged.

Many of the American long-range bombers based in England could have been used for tactical support. The advantage of the long-range bomber is that it can fly from an airfield located in the country from which the attack starts. For instance, in an invasion of the Continent cross the North Sea and the English Channel, the long-range bombers supporting the attack can fly from airfields long in existence in Britain. The same is true of long-range bombers based in Africa. Where the fighting is not within range of land-based fighter planes but within range of the sea coast, carrier-based fighters can be used.

In operating across water where sea transport plays a very important part, as was the case in the Sicilian campaign and is now the case in the Italian campaign, and will be the case in any Balkan campaign or the establishment of a second front in Western Europe, there is another very important point.

It is that you cannot load more tonnage in the ships available than they have been designed to carry. Therefore, it is very important to apportion that tonnage so that when combat is going on with the enemy at the end of the voyage there will be available the maximum combat power to bring against him in battle.

The establishment of air bases is not only a question of the materiel needed for maintaining planes but also the considerable number of men on the ground to keep an air base going. Furthermore, all these men have to be fed, clothed, administered and disciplined, and the medical corps personnel provided.

Therefore, if the aviation support does not have to be transported by ship but can fly in from bases maintained on the other side of the water, the same amount of tonnage can transport and maintain a far greater number of infantry, artillery and tanks.

All the battlefields in Sicily and those up to date in Italy are within reach of air bases in North Africa.

However, to reach German factories in the neighborhood of Vienna and other points in the Valley of the Danube it is necessary to have bases established in Italy, and such bases necessitate the use of tonnage which otherwise could be used to increase the proportion of our artillery, infantry and tanks fighting the Germans.

Each day's newspapers contain accounts of air attacks on German and French ports, factories and communications from bases in the United Kingdom. They also contain accounts of air attacks in the rear areas of the German ground forces opposing our advance in Italy. They are beginning now to contain accounts of air attacks upon Austrian and Balkan objectives carried out by planes based in Italy.

In consequence of choosing long-range strategic bombing we are scattering bombs over Austria and the Balkans while in Italy we have not yet captured Rome!

Had we chosen to use the flexibility of air power to concentrate it in direct support of our ground troops, our aviation today would have bases in the Po valley from which to bomb Germany strategically while we are preparing the general assault on Fortress Europe.

Army regulations state:

"Land power (the American terminology has always been 'ground troops' while the British have referred to 'land power') and air power are co-equal and interdependent forces. Neither is an auxiliary of the other."

The fact is, however, that the manner in which air power has been used has reduced ground troops to an auxiliary position. This not only prolongs the war but is also to the detriment of the fullest use of air power. Otherwise our aviation would be in a vastly stronger position by reason of the land bases we would have won for it.

This is the fifth year since the Spanish War. The last part of that war clearly demonstrated the importance of tactical support from the air. One of the reasons the Loyalists lost was because their ground troops did not get such direct support while the Nationalists always got such support.

Our own Army regulations show clearly that adequate air support to the ground troops is not to come even from the tactical air forces. They state:

"First priority of missions of the tactical air force is to gain the necessary degree of air superiority.

"Second priority, to prevent the movement of hostile troops and supplies into the theater of operations or within the theater.

"Third priority, to participate in a combined effort of the air and ground forces in the battle area to gain objectives on the immediate front of the ground forces."

That is exactly the trouble. Granted, the first priority — obtain air superiority — is correct if it can be obtained, it is only acceptable up to the time real fighting begins. When that happens, support of ground troops in battle areas, now given third priority, should be given first.

Failure to have sufficient ground forces at the front, as is true in Italy today, has been the cause of every United Nations defeat since the war began.

Contrasting the situation in 1917, when we entered the war, with that of today, shows this:

In 1917, when the United States entered the war the Allies had Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria shut up in a relatively small part of Europe by comparison with the enormous proportion of that continent held by the Germans today. On the eastern side, while Russia had been pushed back east it was not as far east as the line on which the Russians and Germans are fighting today. Elsewhere, Germany and her allies were hardly out of their own territory. The Scandinavian countries, Denmark and Holland were all neutral and unoccupied by the Germans. While most of Belgium was occupied, only part of north and northeastern France were in German hands. Italy held roughly the crest of the Alps. In the Balkans the Allies held the line across southern Albania and northern Greece, stretching from the Adriatic to the Aegean Sea.

Had aviation existed on the scale of today we could easily have bombed all of the interior of German and her allies.

When the war started in 1939, Belgium, Britain and France held a better position on the Western Front than the Allies held in 1917 and 1918. Holland, in a state of armed neutrality, furnished a splendid opportunity to flank the German positions once an attack was launched.

Later, when there was every indication that Germany intended to invade and occupy Norway, the opportunity existed to occupy it first.

Had we taken advantage of this, the British and French aviation would have had airfields from Norway in the north through Holland, Belgium and northern France to the Swiss frontier.

Why did we fail to take advantage of this splendid opportunity?

The answer is simple. In none of these places did the United Nations have enough ground troops to keep the Germans out and give the French and British aviation a chance to operate. It is true that the Germans had a vastly superior air power, but that is not the reason. There are two reasons: First, in all these countries, the Germans had a vastly superior number of ground troops when they invaded on the ground.

The second reason is that they used their aviation not to bomb long distances in the rear, in accordance with Douhet's theory, but strategically to prepare the attack for the ground troops and tactically to give direct support to the German ground troops by attacking the enemy's infantry, tanks and artillery on the battlefield.

When Yugoslavia came in and Greece, which had been fighting the Italians for some time, needed help against the Germans advancing through Yugoslavia, why did the British sent across from Egypt fail to hold the old 1917 line in front of Saloniki, which they had reached before the Germans attacked them?

The answer is the same as in Norway, Holland, Belgium and France — insufficient ground troops to meet the German attack of ground troops constantly supported in combat by the German aviation.

The German aviation, with previously prepared airfields, was able to concentrate against the British. British aviation, lacking airfields in Greece, was at a serious disadvantage.

Had the British sent help to the Greeks immediately they entered the war, they could have established themselves firmly in the old line through southern Albania and across northern Greece, while their aviation would have had plenty of time to establish themselves in Greece.

Why wasn't this done?

It was not done for the simple reason that the British lacked sufficient ground troops both to carry on the campaign in Libya and bring help to the Greeks. The help they finally sent to Greece so weakened the British garrison in Libya that it was lost to the Axis.

The reason the British have just been shoved out of the Aegean islands they captured at the time Italy surrendered is exactly the same — insufficient ground troops to carry on a campaign in Italy and at the same time make a real offensive in the Aegean islands. Their aviation alone, without a sufficient force of ground troops, could not do it.

The result is that because of a lack of sufficient ground troops, our aviation today, instead of being where it could have been had we held the positions occupied in 1939, can only reach Europe by flying across the North Sea and the English Channel from Britain, across the eastern Mediterranean from the Near East and Africa, or from the relatively small part of Italy we hold.

From the beginning of the war to date, except in the case of the combats on the Russian front, the United Nations, when not completely defeated, have only gained relatively small victories after considerable lapses of time.

Poland, Norway, Holland, France, Yugoslavia, and Greece, including Crete, were all decisive defeats due to these things: overwhelming German strength on the ground, in artillery, infantry and tanks, overwhelming German strength in the air, and the use of both the ground and the air as a combined whole under a unified command to strike a blow at the enemy's armed forces.

From 1939, until a victory at Alamein something under a year ago, the campaign in North Africa consisted of relatively small British and Axis forces driving each other back and forth. It was only when the British planned the tactics for the Alamein attack that a decisive victory was had.

For this battle the hitherto-prevalent ideas of the plane-tank team, with the infantry and artillery playing a minor role, were abandoned.

Aviation played its part as a strategical and tactical air force tied in to the main attack which began with a heavy artillery barrage and was primarily an infantry assault supported by tanks. Then, when a hole had been broken in the enemy's line, the British armored forces attacked.

This excellent example of the combined use of all arms on the ground with the air above for the purpose of destroying the enemy's armed forces was decisive.

From then on the Axis had really lost North Africa. What followed was merely the pursuit of a beaten force which was insufficiently reinforced and supplied and finally was cornered with its back to the sea and forced to surrender.

There can be no doubt that after the Alamein defeat the strategical use of the air force to cut off its supply and reinforcement from Italy played an important part in the surrender of the Axis remnants.

While all the facts are not yet available for publication, and while our air force has to overcome tremendous logistical difficulties in setting itself up in North Africa, there is a question yet to be answered.

It is: Had the maximum air force available been used tactically to hasten the advance of the troops in Tunis, could not the Axis forces there have been destroyed before the retreating remnants of Rommel's troops could have reached the Mareth line in southern Tunisia? From the time we landed in North Africa early in November of 1942, it was four months before four months before Rommel's retreating remnants reached the Mareth Line in southern Tunisia.

The failure to take advantage of the flexibility of aviation to produce the maximum fire against the most vital obstacles to the advance of ground troops has and still is dragging out the war.

In the beginning, the loss of time which has resulted could be blamed on the failure of France, Britain and the United States to be prepared for war.

However, at present, with the tremendous air forces available, the failure to move more quickly cannot be blamed on lack of preparedness.

This failure to move more quickly has given the enemy to retreat in Russia, to restore his position in the Balkans so greatly weakened by the Italian surrender, and to prepare a number of strong defensive positions in Italy.

Leaving side the question of whether, in the final stages, the Germans and Italians could have been eliminated from North Africa more quickly, the following should be noted:

  1. It took 38 days to conquer Sicily.
  2. Most of the German troops with their materiel had time to retreat successfully across Messina Strait to fight us again in Italy.
  3. It took 20-odd days to go the 20-odd miles from Salerno to Naples, thus giving the Germans ample time to badly damage or destroy port and other installations.
  4. The German troops facing the British Eighth Army were not cut off by our Salerno landing but instead were given time to retreat successfully to the north.
  5. Two months after entering Naples we were only 50 miles north of the city.

There is no question involved in all this of the gallantry and courage of the personnel in both the aviation and ground forces. The records show that they did the duty assigned them and displayed courage, endurance and determination, in numerous cases far above that called for in line of duty.

The question being discussed here is not a question of ground troops versus air troops. It is purely one of different theories of strategy and tactics. Neither in Africa nor in Sicily have we had to meet any such combined air and ground attacks as have been habitual on the Russian front for two years. Neither have we so far had to meet such attacks in Italy.

It is very dangerous for us to decide that the air policy which has obtained in Africa, Sicily and Italy will be adequate to meet such attacks as we must inevitably face.

At present we have 11 divisions facing nine German divisions on the fighting line in Italy. We have plenty of divisions on the fighting line in North Africa available for reinforcement, but they have to come across by sea. The Germans have at least 15 more divisions in North Italy. German air forces superior to the ones we have in Italy and North Africa are within easy reach to support the German divisions in Italy.

Suppose, when we have advanced to where the Germans really want to fight, they use their 24 or 25 divisions now in Italy, supported by their own air forces within easy reach in Europe, which are far superior to those we have available for the Italian campaign. What will our forces have to face?

Youngest infantry brigade commander in the AEF, ex-editor of the Army and Navy Journal, General Reilly supported Billy Mitchell on many points, disagreed with him on others. The general does not oppose strategic bombing but believes decision can only be brought about by tactical use of air in support of ground troops against enemy armies. While Flying believes that strategic bombing can be decisive as the principal phase of operation, it nevertheless feels that General Reilly's views should be heard respectfully.
The Editor.
This article was originally published in the February, 1944, issue of Flying magazine, vol 34, n0 2, pp 21-23, 56, 94, 158-159.
The PDF of this article includes the map above, a portrait of Gen Reilly, and photos of formations of B-17s over Bologna and headed for Bremen.
Photos credited to AAF, Acme; map by Hal Morris.