How the AAF Uses Air Power

By Brig Gen William W Welsh
Flying veteran of the First World War, the author joined the regular army in 1920. He has been assistant chief of air staff, training, at AAF headquarters since September, last year [1944 —JLM]

Our aviation aims at enemy's industry, air forces, supply, and finally his ground troops.

THE true relationship between air power and land and sea forces is perhaps one of the most poorly comprehended factors in the complex pattern of modern warfare. This lack of popular understanding stems from the relatively brief history of modern concepts of aerial warfare in comparison with the classical theories of land and sea fighting, and also from the fact that the contribution of air power, to a greater degree than that of other branches of the service, must await cessation of hostilities in any given theater before it can be completely evaluated. Or perhaps it might better be said that final analysis of air power's part in winning the war will be fully established only with the coming of final victory and peace.

Such a lack of understanding gives rise, from time to time, to certain specific questions which indicate a need for restatement and clarification of the basic principles underlying the use of air power by the United Nations in their struggle against the Axis. Is it true, as some critics have indicated, that too much emphasis has been placed on air power in US military strategy? Or is the truth at the other extreme — that aviation and aviation alone can win the war and everything else should be subordinated to it? Why hasn't our aerial firepower been concentrated where the fighting is, instead of being divided between the war fronts and the home fronts of the enemy? Was the German plan, employed in the blitzkrieg of 1941 when France was knocked out of the war in a matter of weeks, the more economical in the light of casualties and overall expenditures?

Rather than attempt to answer such questions categorically, let us examine the basic objectives in our struggle against the enemy and see where and how air power enters the picture.

In all warfare there are two zones to be considered, the enemy's front lines and his zone of the interior on which he must depend for arms, ammunition, and supplies. Linking these two zones are lines of communication. Wherever the army goes, it must not outrun its communication system nor must it allow this communication system to be severed or it is defeated before the battle is begun. These facts are, of course, self-evident. The classic land and sea maneuvers by which we seek to strike at the enemy's front, his zone of the interior and his lines of communication are common knowledge: we push the enemy back from his forward position, we seek to outflank him and get to his rear, cutting off his communications system. The third possible objective, to strike at his zone of the interior itself, would, in the days before air power, ordinarily remain a theory only because by the time we had been able to break through his forward lines sufficiently to reach his sources of supply and power the conflict would. already have been finished.

In World War I, the last major struggle in which air power did not play a decisive part, the plan of campaign proceeded along these lines. Both sides, however, were able to move with approximately the same speed and strength and each sought to outflank the other. The result, inevitably, was a stalemate — four years of trench-fighting on the western front — which resolved themselves into a war of attrition. This was ended when the Allies finally succeeded in bludgeoning their way through the weakened Central Powers to final victory.

Now let us examine the opposing forces again drawn up in World War II — this time with all the elements of mechanized warfare. Let us suppose that the enemy is planning an offensive in a certain theater. What do these plans involve?

First, they mean that he must procure a certain quantity of planes, tanks, trucks, artillery, and all the other mechanized weapons which will be necessary. He must procure troops. He must procure fuel, ammunition, food, and repair units— everything that is needed to operate such an enterprise. This first step in planning involves factors in the zone of the interior.

What is the next step the enemy must take in order to carry out a successful offensive? Having procured these troops, arms, and supplies, he must move them forward into the battle area. This obviously involves lines of communication— waterways, railroads, highways, bridges. Having moved them into the battle zone, he must build ammunition dumps, set up supply depots, field service units, and whatever else is necessary to base his troops and keep them functioning during their operations.

The third step is, of course, the actual operation — moving troops into position for the offensive, together with mobile units to service and supply them.

How does air power enter this complicated picture?

Let us go back to the first step of enemy planning involving the zone of the interior. The keystone of this structure of military planning is production. It is at the enemy's production that strategic air power strikes.

Much has been written about the function of strategic air power, especially during the great aerial offensive over Europe in the months which preceded the Normandy invasion. Yet strategic bombardment is one of the most difficult operations to make clear to the general public, chiefly because its mission is a long-time one. Its results cannot be completely evaluated until after the cessation of hostilities, when we are able to obtain final, eyewitness proof of the destruction of vital Nazi industry wrought by strategic bombardment of the Allied Air Forces.

Another difficulty in the way of understanding strategic bombardment is the choice of targets. Sometimes the reasons for their choice are apparent to the layman and sometimes they are not. Allied attacks on the Ploesti oil refineries, for example, were more immediately understood than the great raids on Schweinfurt and other ball-bearing manufacturing centers. Why was ball-bearing production chosen rather than such an obvious base of war material as iron or steel?

It was because an attempt to wipe out all the steel production in Germany would not have been economical in lives or planes, or in terms of results: the Nazis had a great backlog of steel due to their excess production capacity over military needs. Also, there is too great a time lag between a raw product such as steel and the finished planes, tanks and guns. Weak spots in the military economy had to be found — factories where production of a vital piece of war materiel was highly concentrated and which moreover was close to time to the front. The aid of experts throughout the United Nations has been enlisted in choosing targets with these qualifications. Among the most important have proved to be ball-bearing plants, fighter assembly plants and engine assembly plants, in addition, of course, to fuel production and storage centers. Results of the planned strategic air war on such centers became apparent in decreased overall war production and in decreased enemy air power, which in time resulted in greater and greater Allied air superiority and more effective and economical strategic missions. The great objective of the strategic air war — paralysis of the enemy's ability to wage war — had been achieved in a gratifying degree by the advent of D-Day in Europe.

Now let us go back to the enemy's second step toward an offensive: movement of his forces. Here is where tactical air power, as it were, takes the ball from strategic air power.

The mission of tactical air power is threefold:

  1. To establish and maintain local air superiority.
  2. To prevent movement of supplies and troops to the front; in other words, isolation of the battlefield.
  3. To participate in a joint effort with ground forces in the immediate battle area.

The second of these missions is self-explanatory and has been demonstrated again and again in all theaters of war but most clearly, perhaps, in the battle of Europe — the destruction of railroads, rail marshaling yards, supply dumps, bridges, highways, truck convoys, troop concentrations, repair and service units, docks, shipping, and everything that makes an army mobile. An enemy's ability to fight depends on its ability to move and supply itself: Destroy this ability and you have greatly limited the offensive possibilities.

The first mission perhaps requires a little clarification. The attainment of air superiority in a theater as the first objective is necessary because if you have two opposed air forces of equal strength you have the old result of a stalemate. The air force, therefore, is first of all assigned the job of knocking out enemy airdromes, hangars and other installations, planes in the air and planes on the ground. A variety of aerial weapons is employed for this as well as other tactical missions: heavy and medium bombers, fighters or fighter-bombers capable of strafing and even of destroying planes on the ground.

Once air superiority is established it can be maintained with a small number of planes — another reason for making this the first of the three tactical objectives.

The third mission of tactical air power — to participate in joint effort with the ground forces in the immediate battle area — also has been too well illustrated in the various successful invasions of the Allies to require detailed explanation. Planes cover the advancing ground troops, shielding them from counter air attack. They perform reconnaissance in advance of the wave of invasion; they knock out pillboxes and other concentrated centers of defense; destroy supply and other auxiliary units attached to the front lines; and finally, combine with ground forces to carry forward spearhead groups of glider troops and paratroops.

These three priority missions of tactical air power may overlap and vary, just as tactical and strategic air power combine and overlap in some instances, as, for example, in helping to establish air superiority. But this is the basic pattern.

Let us go back to the hypothetical enemy offensive considered earlier in the article. With his anticipated sources cf arms and supplies diminished through strategic attacks, with his lines of communication disrupted, the enemy has two choices: he can either postpone the operation, or carry it through on a more limited scale. Either choice narrows his chances of success. With the next step on the part of the opposing army — neutralization of enemy air power — he loses another prerogative, which is the choice of time at which to strike. With supplies and reinforcements cut off by continuing bombardment and strafing, with arms and vehicles rendered unserviceable and without available repair units, the enemy finds the tide of battle turned against him. The final chapter is the follow-through of tactical air power on the heels of the defeated enemy, once again disrupting communications lines and supply installations until what might have been an orderly retreat is turned into a rout.

To sum up: The air force function against strategic targets prepares for the defeat of the enemy by destroying his means and will to fight. The tactical function makes possible the defeat of the enemy by establishing and maintaining air superiority, isolating the battlefield, and participating in joint effort with ground forces in the immediate battle area.

There is certainly no phase in this war that is more American, more intensely interesting or more assured of accomplishing its objective than the strategic air offensive. The science and conception of picking the vital elements in the industrial, commercial and economic fabric of an enemy on which hostile military strength depends was developed in America, at the Air Corps Tactical School, during the period about seven years before the beginning of the war. At that place, the concept was presented in complete detail to our ground and naval people, and was presented in broad detail to foreign observers. Surely the details of that concept were available to the Luftwaffe. Whatever excuse the Germans may present for having lost this war, the reason that they failed to defeat England at the outset was their rejection of the concept of the strategic air offensive.

The isolation of the battlefield can best be illustrated by a brief discussion of Normandy. If you can go back to Civil War days and think of Jeb Stuart sitting on every road and railroad for hundreds of miles leading up to Rommel's and Von Kluge's army, you can imagine the effect of our tactical air operations on the Germans. The enemy was literally starved and strangled to death by tactical air operations.

In the summertime on the continent of Europe we have very few hours of darkness. During the hours of daylight our fighter-bombers, from the instant we set down in France, destroyed all the highways and railroads leading to Rommel's army. With our tactical operations we destroyed the rail and highway bridges across the River Seine. That meant that, except under cover of night and over hastily-constructed pontoon bridges, the enemy could move nothing across that river barrier. We destroyed pontoon bridges across the River Loire. Rommel saw the Allied armies growing in strength, constantly being supplied. He didn't have an air force to interdict our surface vehicles and we kept him from moving up to the front. He saw a greater and greater disparity as days went on between the force the Allies had and his own. Reinforcements arrived at the front in driblets. He lacked that essential of modern warfare: mobility.

If you go across the world to the other side and view the operations of the Pacific war both in the South and Southwest Pacific, you will see that we first struck at air bases, destroying both aircraft that came up to fight us and those on the ground, until we had achieved a supremacy or achieved odds in our favor so the enemy could no longer offer effective resistance to our subsequent amphibious operations. You will remember Bougainville, the attack on Rabaul and others as preliminary to amphibious operations that followed.

In these operations the Navy played a considerable part, once again illustrating that coordination of air with land or sea forces is the desideratum in modern warfare.

In MacArthur's set-up in the Southwest Pacific we isolated Cape Gloucester by air for two months. Before our Marines landed at Gloucester only small barges could get in to furnish replacements, food or ammunition. The same thing was true all the way up the coast of New Guinea. You have also a remarkable example of the result of air action in isolating a battlefield and keeping the enemy always at a disadvantage on ammunition and supplies at Leyte.

Gaining air superiority by hitting the enemy in the air, on the ground and at his aircraft factories was an imperative prelude to our invasion of Africa. It made possible the safe conduct of the huge convoy of men and supplies to Africa. It also made possible the miracle of the landing and that more welcome miracle— a low casualty list. It sped the Allied move over to the offensive and, by the same token, sped retreat of the Germans from Africa.

Out of the desert campaign in Africa, as a matter of fact, came the present system of tactical air operations and of land-sea-air co-operation which later was to work so effectively in invading France and going forward with the bitter job of bringing the Nazis to their knees.

During the African Desert Campaign, Brig Gen (now Maj Gen) Laurence S Kuter was the American Deputy Commander under British Air Marshal Coningham of the Northwest African Tactical Air Force. This force, composed of both British and American units of fighters and bombers, was therefore the first expression in actual practice of the long months and years of experience gained by the RAF in the only theater in which Allied air units had at that time fought the enemy alongside the ground units in the field.

It was the quintessence of battle experience, the result of many mistakes, many trials and, at last, resounding success. It was something far superior, as results have proved, to anything which the Germans had ever evolved. It was an example on a big scale of the encouraging fact that the Allied commanders were clearly able to utilize the experience gained by hard fighting in this way. It became the pattern of the future, the way in which air participation in co-operation with armies in the field could be employed to beat the enemy and win the war. Changes in the 1-2-3 technique to perfect it were only natural, but the basic conception of a tactical air force in the actual battle area remains the same.

The Army struck from the ground, the tactical air force struck from the air. Harmony was the watchword. In the battle of Mareth, for instance, the first move was to blitz enemy airdromes out of the fight and in the crises of the battle in front of El Hamma, Hurricane tank busters led the enemy to break and retreat. At Wadi Akarit, air units in the north and center were concentrated on the German air establishment and once more the Western Desert Air Force was free to work at a maximum intensity on the German forces in the Wadi Akarit position. Again the enemy retreated, this time sooner than was expected.

The same tactics — and the same results — applied on a larger scale when D-Day came on the European front. The invasion, from the point of view of air power, did not begin on D-Day. It began more than two years before, when 12 Fortresses of the Eighth Air Force bombed rail yards in Rouen as the initial step toward invasion. The great pattern of strategic bombardment was under way. When the actual time of invasion came, the Luftwaffe was so effectively battered, as a result, that it did not figure in the battle of the beachheads. Its gasoline and oil supplies had been cut off by strategic attacks on German refineries. Its flyable planes were outnumbered and its factories for turning out replacements were sorely crippled. Even its supply of flying manpower had been crippled by this same pattern of strategic bombardment, for cutting off supplies of fuel and aircraft had resulted in the serious disruption of the Luftwaffe's flying training program.

The final results of this two-fold air plan were apparent when the fighting began, not only in depleted enemy airpower but in lack of opposition on land. Both were directly traceable to air blows at the enemy's heartland carried out by strategic forces, supplemented and complemented by tactical airpower's methodically-planned operations in the period preceding D-Day, which helping establish air superiority, disrupted communications, isolated the battle area, and finally moved in with the attacking ground forces to cover their advance.

How air power worked as a team with ground power is graphically illustrated by the lack of tank opposition on D-Day, which turned out to be particularly weak. Why? Because tank factories in Germany had been repeatedly bombed out of the battle of production as a part of the overall strategic plan, while tanks coming to the front had been subjected to blistering attacks from the air by tactical forces, and tank supplies failed to move with the proper rapidity behind German lines because of the aerial destruction of communications systems. This situation applied to all departments in the ground operations. German artillerymen were without the necessary shells. Infantry went hungry and suffered from a progressively acute ammunition shortage. These supplies, comparatively easy to eliminate behind the lines by bombing, would have been liquidated only after costly casualties if they had reached the fighting Nazis on the front.

In modern warfare the axiom that the battle is the payoff still holds true, and one had only to view the battlefront from the air during the battle of the beachheads and of France to see the payoff on the logic of the AAF. "Without air preparation, the invasion of Europe would have been impossible," said General Eisenhower. As contrasted with the hub-to-hub activity of supply trucks behind the Allied lines, Nazi transport was at a standstill except after dark. German marshaling yards, bridges, roads and communications generally were in a chaotic condition.

US, British and Canadian transports, carrying reserves and supplies, filled the English channel from shore to shore and moved up front at will, comparatively unmolested. So effective was the one-two-three priority of our air cover that it took longer for German reserves to move from Holland to the front than it would have taken ours to move from Hoboken to Le Havre. Indeed, 20 days were required to bring German reserves from Holland and the last half of the trip was made afoot. When these troops met ours they were worn out from walking, their supply lines and communications were in wretched condition, their morale was near collapse.

The logistics of the winter front in Germany were equally advantageous to our personnel. The now-famous "Red Ball Express" was organized to roll a steady stream of supplies and replacements to our armies even before the front was established. Transport and communications behind the German lines were subjected to the same pasting their equipment got in France before they were forced to retreat. The situation in Germany differed from the situation behind the Nazi lines in Normandy only in that, when the German front was established, we were able to go to work on the heart of the Fatherland.

It is equally pertinent to look at the other side of the coin. We would not have been able to build harbors and roads and establish communications across wartorn France with the speed we did if effective German air opposition had developed. But it could not develop because the first priority of the air had been put first — the Luftwaffe had been knocked from the air. It was therefore comparatively easy to take care of Priorities 2 and 3 — keeping as many of the Nazis as possible from the battlefront, cooperating with the ground forces in driving the others back, doing the job with the least possible casualties.

On the battlefield proper, another fact is painfully evident. German casualties have reached an appalling total of more than 6,000,000. Ruthless generalship has marked their operations. The same generalship by any one of our leaders would result in his immediate removal from command. We of the democracies neither discount the value of human life nor feel that such a policy wins wars. With the coverage and expert coordination on the part of all services, our losses have been kept at an absolute minimum. The first month of our invasion of France resulted in casualties fewer in number than those in the first bloody day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

And what of the Pacific? Yet again, the facts speak for themselves. We have gone forward with an accelerating speed as the cooperation of the land-sea-air forces has been perfected and the air priority system applied. Six months were required to take Buna. At the speed that we were moving on the ground it would have taken years to liberate New Guinea. Then the Fifth Air Force went to work on Jap communications, first by establishing air superiority, as was done in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea where, not incidentally, we knocked out one Jap division and all its equipment with an AAF loss of only 12 men.

The one-two-three has proceeded northward at an accelerated pace. A Jap who has dug himself into a foxhole often takes days to pry loose; a Jap caught with thousands of his fellows in a transport is like a duck on a rock. The logic of this — in attack, advance, minimal casualties and ultimate victory — has been as unchallenged in the Pacific as has the fact that our advances have been remorselessly steady.

When victory comes, we of the Air Forces will be the first to hail it as a cooperative effort involving our land-sea-air forces, each of which, aided by air coverage, goes into battle with more and better equipment, less danger of casua1ties, and more assurance of victory than any other fighting force in the world.

This article was originally published in the April, 1945, issue of Flying magazine, vol 36, no 4, pp 21-23, 91-92, 94.
The PDF of this article includes photos of B-24s over Borneo, bomb strikes on Japanese targets, and B-26s over Italy, along with a thumbnail portrait of General Welsh.
Photos credited to AAF, Boeing, North American.