World War Two - the aerial war

More than fifteen hundred years ago, the Chinese strategist Sun-tzu wrote: Every battle is won before it is ever fought.” The superiority of one side over the other (he meant) can be determined before the actual conflict: more often than not, superior forces will vanquish inferior. This was never so clearly demonstrated as in the air war of World War II. Both sides made very clear decisions that took them in one direction or another and with the benefit of hindsight it is possible to determine which of those decisions proved advantageous and which proved disastrous.

The outcome of the war, in both the European and the Pacific theatres, was determined by certain decisions and their outcomes in a very real sense, World War II was an air war, and it was in the air that it was won by the Allies and lost by the Axis powers. This is not to diminish the heroism and sacrifice of the soldiers and sailors who also fought, but supremacy on the ground and at sea were determined by supremacy in the air. The ability to bomb targets with minimal resistance, the ability to sink battleships and carriers, the ability to secure beachheads and forward positions; all these were made possible by one air power vanquishing the other, with armaments and instruments that were not available (or even dreamed of) in World War I.

The preparations for the war began several years earlier, and it was apparent from the very beginning that a major portion of the conflict would be fought in the sky. On March 10, 1935, Hermann Goering, Air Minister of the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force, called the military attaches of England and France to his opulent offices in the Air Ministry building in Berlin. He informed them that  Germany no longer considered itself hound by the restrictions placed on its development of military aircraft by the Treaty of Versailles. To underscore his point, he drew aside the tall drapes of his office window and displayed a sky filled with all manner of aircraft, flying over the Ministry just for the benefit of Goering’s visitors.

It was the first of many incidents before and during the war in which the Germans tried to convince their adversaries that their power was greater than it actually was. Had those attaches been competent (or inclined) to look a bit closer at the several hundred planes that flew overhead, they would have noticed that many of them were not military aircraft, but old Junker tri-motors painted with military colours. The ruse (conducted consistently and elaborately) worked both for and against the Germans.

It convinced England and France that the Germans were too powerful to challenge when Hitler annexed Austria, and that (along with reports from Lindbergh, who toured many German factories and had been fooled himself) in turn prompted Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. It also sent the British and the Americans scurrying back to the drawing board and the factories to overcome the head start the Germans seemed to have. The shock of Goering’s display hit particularly hard in England, where the government had sworn by the “ten-year rule”—the idea that England would have a ten-year warning before the next war, and thus plenty of time to develop any weaponry required—and had thus allowed its weapons research program to languish.

Nearly thirteen thousand B-17 Flying Fortresses—the mainstay of the Allied bombing campaign—were built by Boeing. Yet Congress feared that appropriating funds for such a plane would create fear among the public of cross-oceanic bombing. The start of a goodwill flight to  South America  in February 1938 was designed to allay such fears and promote the plane.

Throughout the war, the Allies were convinced that the Germans were developing, and on the verge of unleashing, super weapons—from jet aircraft to intercontinental rockets to the atom bomb. There was plenty of evidence that could not be dismissed: the Germans had actually deployed V-2 rockets from Peenemunde on the Baltic, and they had all the necessary brainpower in many other areas of science. But what the Allies did not know was that the Germans had a time rule of their own: they did not commit any resources to a weapons project that could not be reasonably expected to yield a field weapon within a year. This rule grew partly out of the belief that the war would not last longer than two years, and partly out of a belief that the industrial capacity of Germany could not sustain a development program for that long.

V2 rocket under test

The Nazis were  right about the second premise, but wrong about the first, and they mistakenly scuttled the programs for the jet aircraft and the atom bomb virtually in the bud. Meanwhile the Allies continued to develop aircraft that could overcome the advantages of the earliest German fighters, as well as long-range bombers that were unchallenged and unmatched by the Luftwaffe. This did not happen easily or automatically: the battles that Billy Mitchell fought and lost had to be waged over again and with greater cunning if an independent U.S. air force was to be created.

As for the Germans, they had learned some lessons from Mitchell and ignored others. Mitchell believed strongly in the development of large, fast, high-flying bombers that were beyond the range of ground fire and faster than fighter aircraft. His first attempt at building such a bomber, designed by Walter Barling in 1919, was an expensive experiment that came to known as “Mitchell’s Folly.” Over the next decade, Glenn Martin provided the Navy with a series of bombers, beginning with the MB-1 that Mitchell had used to sink the Ostfriesland and culminating in the MB-10. The MB-10 and similar fine planes produced in England and France were not going to be adequate if the United States ever found it necessary to fight a war in Europe.

Boeing B-17

This set Boeing’s chief designer, Clairmont Egtvegt, to work and resulted in the Boeing B- 17 Flying Fortress, arguably the plane most responsible for the defeat of the Germans. In the face of defeatist talk from Lindbergh (who, in fairness, flew combat missions in the Pacific, paid dearly for his isolationist beliefs, and placed his entire knowledge of the German aircraft industry, distilled of German misdirection, at the disposal of General H.H. “Hap” Arnold, chief of the Army Air Corps), aviation pioneer and Russian exile Alexander de Seversky, who had lost a leg flying for the Czar in World War I and was one of the world’s most gifted aircraft designers, encouraged the development of air power and promoted a program that exploited the many weaknesses he saw in the Luftwaffe.

In the final analysis, the air war was won as much by  what the Luftwaffe failed to do as by what the Allies succeeded in doing. The German approach had its roots in the Red Baron’s Flying Circus of World War I) was to provide air support for ground troops in the actual field of battle. The Junkers JU 87 Stuka dive-bombers that descended on Poland in 1939 and were used so effectively as a component of the Blitzkrieg (“lightning war”) were still operating as independent agents in the air, attacking targets with the same kind of spontaneity of the armour and infantry.

This was exactly what made the strategy so effective. But once the lines were drawn, the Germans had no way of maintaining control of the air or extending destruction beyond the immediate battle line. Goring had taken note of Mitchell’s actions at St. Mihiel, but he was unaware of how coordinated an operation it was and how much of his resources Mitchell had devoted to monitoring and directing the planes. The entire practice of dive-bombing was an American invention that World War I ace Ernst Udet witnessed while on tour in the United States and which he brought back with him to his native Germany. The amiable Udet was not a Nazi (he reportedly had a picture of Hitler in his Berlin apartment that he used for target practice) and was not much of an administrator. When he was appointed technical director of the Luftwaffe after Goring took power as Air Minister, many eyebrows were raised.

Ernst Heinkel, one of Germany’s great airplane builders, had several large bombers on the drawing boards; Udet summarily cancelled the program, telling Heinkel that there would be no need for long-range bombers. Analysis of what transpired more than fifty years ago has raised many questions. Udet returned to the United States, now as a high Nazi official, yet the United States encouraged his pursuit of dive-bombing as a technique and even sold him two planes, the Curtiss F8C “Hell-Diver,” which had been developed by the Navy specifically for dive-bombing. By  temperament, Goring was not a man to relinquish glory or power to anyone, least of all Udet, whom he privately regarded as nothing more than a stunt flier. Yet this is what he did, giving Udet all the credit for the Stuka’s success in the invasions of Poland and Norway.

Herman Goering (left: and Ernst Udet, the famed World War I ace who was placed in charge of Luftwaffe development, confer in 1938.

It is possible that Udet was a pawn of both sides: the Americans, who knew that dive-bombing was effective in the short run but a losing strategy in the long run, and Goering, who needed a scapegoat if the war took any longer than originally planned or if the Allied production capacity buried the German war machine (which is exactly what happened). Udet committed suicide in November 1941, scrawling on the wall, “Reichsmarschall, why have you forsaken me?” Goering had wanted to court-martial Udet posthumously, but instead he presided over a lavish state funeral for the hero of the First World War.

Udet’s successor, Hans Jeschonnek, was even less qualified than Udet; not surprisingly, he too committed suicide when blamed for the failure of the Nazi air war. The irony of ironies is that the judgment of history places a large measure of blame for the fall of the Third Reich at Goering’s doorstep. The vaunted Luftwaffe, which wreaked so much destruction on Europe and was hailed as the chief instrument of Hitler’s conquests, proved in the end to be an inadequate instrument of empire.