Air University Review, March-April 1980

British and German
Air Doctrine Between the Wars

Dr. Williamson Murray

In the history of the development of air power, the decade of the 1930s was one of the most important--perhaps the most important. The doctrines, tactics, and the technological revolution all presaged what was to come in the Second World War. Yet this decade has not received the attention it deserves. Historians have either approached it without the technical or military background to discuss the issues in depth, or they have examined the history of the period from a narrow, doctrinal point of view.1 Comparing and contrasting the development of air power in Britain and Germany in the 1930s in terms of contemporary capabilities and national strategy should help draw the subject into focus and give one insight into the real potential of air power in the late '30s and a better understanding of its development during World War II.

First, though, one must define air power, Unfortunately for the development of a coherent theory of air warfare both in this country and in Great Britain, there has been a tendency to define air power within narrow, circumscribed limits. From the dawn of aviation, air power advocates have all too often tied air power directly to the concept of strategic bombing to the exclusion of all its other possible roles. In reality, of course, air forces have had to perform a number of diverse and important tasks other than strategic bombing. In fact, the real contribution of air power to final victory in the Second World War lay in the very diversity of its capability rather than in one particular mode of operation.2

The fact that Italian thinker Giulio Douhet is still regarded as one of the chief prophets of air power is a revealing comment on the basic confusion between theory and reality in air doctrine. Disregarding the interservice aspects of Douhet's doctrine--his arguments that air power would make the armies and navies of the world obsolete--one cannot help noting that Douhet's arguments attack all the major missions of the present day air force except strategic bombing. Douhet excluded the possibility of air defense, denied fighter aircraft a place in future air forces, argued that close air support and interdiction of the battlefront would be a waste of air resources, and claimed that the only role of an air force would be as a strategic bombing force. In terms of technical knowledge, Douhet argued that the more heavily armed bomber would always be superior to the fighter. Finally, Douhet had no conception that air war would require immense expenditures in terms of resources, men, and materiel and that only highly industrialized nations with a broad industrial base would be able to fight the air war of the future.3 Douhet's views were echoed by the many other enthusiasts of air power in Europe between the wars.

The reality of air power in the Second World War was quite different. In the final analysis, it was to resemble the strategy of the First World War, except that attrition came in terms of aircraft and highly trained aircrews instead of mud-stained infantry-men. Month after month, year after year, the crews climbed into their aircraft to fly over a darkened continent. Those in charge of the air battle could only measure success in terms of drops in percentage points of bomber losses rather than in terms of yards gained. As one commentator has pointed out:

Despite the visions of its protagonists of prewar days, the air war during the Second World War . . . was attrition war. It did not supplant the operations of conventional forces; it complemented them. Victory went to the air forces with the greatest depth, the greatest balance, the greatest flexibility in employment. The result was an air strategy completely unforeseen by air commanders.4

This is not to argue that strategic bombing did not playa major role in the eventual Allied victory in World War II. Its success, however, was very different from that envisioned by its advocates. The bombing offensive was simply incapable of preventing German industry from raising its production totals month by month--even in terms of fighter aircraft production. Yet the fact that German industry managed to produce an all-time high of 5000 fighters in September 1944 was an irrelevant footnote because by that time Allied air forces had won air superiority over Germany. They had done so not by strategic bombing but because the strategic bombing force had lured the Luftwaffe into the skies in February and March of 1944, where long-range Allied fighters had shattered its power.5 In a wider sense Allied air power had played one of the major roles in the victory over Germany. It destroyed the Luftwaffe, established air superiority over the battlefields of 1943-45, forced the Germans to divert a significant percentage of their military production to air defense ,6 and aided combined operations capabilities by paratrooper drops and resupply missions, all of which enabled the Western powers to fight their way back onto the European continent. In those terms the contribution of air power was immense, but it was a contribution in which strategic bombing was one of several factors rather than the decisive factor as so many of its advocates were to claim after the Second World War.

It is in the perspective of these comments that one must examine the development of air doctrine and air power in Britian and Germany between the wars. One must also note that very different strategic needs led to dissimilar air strategies and divergent concepts of air power. The British, living on an island and possessing the largest navy in Europe, could afford to think in terms of strategic bombing. First, it appeared that only through the air could an enemy strike at Great Britain, and thus throughout the interwar period the British would worry excessively about the threat of an enemy bombing offensive against the British Isles. Moreover, they could think in terms of a strategic bombing campaign against an enemy's homeland, while they ignored the land battlefield, because it would riot be British territory that would be lost in the battles on the continent.7

German strategic problems, however, were the exact opposite. Germany was not an island power; she was a continental power. In any conceivable conflict that would involve the military forces of the German Reich, Germany would face the probability of land operations from the outset of hostilities. Thus, it would do Germany’s strategic position little good if, at the same time that the Luftwaffe had attacked London, Paris, and Warsaw, Germany’s enemies had defeated the German army in the border areas, and Germany had lost Silesia, East Prussia, and the Rhineland. Because fundamentally hostile powers surrounded German territory, the Germans had to think primarily ill terms of continental land warfare. Moreover, throughout the early period of rearmament (1933-37), the Nazi regime and its military advisers had to reckon on the possibility that Germany might face a preventive attack by her neighbors before the German army was prepared. Tactical air power offered an excellent means to redress the imbalance of forces.

The Royal Air Force (RAF) owed its existence to the First World War and political pressures created by the German bombing raids on London. After the war, as Britain reduced military expenditures, the new service felt threatened by its sister services. With relatively few aircraft, RAF commanders feared that the loss of aircraft or crews to the navy (for aircraft carriers) or army (for close support missions) would destroy the RAF's existence as an independent organization.8 The response of the Chief of Staff, Lord Hugh Trenchard, to this perceived political threat was to create a doctrine of air power as an independent, that is, strategic weapon. Trenchard argued that air power alone could defend Great Britain and that its massive striking power could destroy Britain's enemies on the outbreak of war. Trenchard's theories evolved independently of Douhet's. Unfortunately, this doctrine and definition of air power as exclusively strategic bombing distorted the RAF's whole development and would have serious repercussions for Britain's prosecution of the Second World War.9

By the end of the 1920s, Trenchard and his strategists in the Air Ministry had created a doctrine of air power that excluded almost every possible role for the aircraft except strategic bombing. Typical of the Trenchard approach is a 1936 book, Airpower and Armies, by Sir John Slessor, a leading air force planner in the 1930s and later Chief of Coastal Command during the Second World War. In this work Slessor set forth his views on the future of war. He argued that it would be all air combat and that air superiority could only be gained and maintained by a "resolute bombing offensive" against enemy centers. Such a strategy would force the enemy to use his air strength in a passive, defensive role and divert strength away from the primary task of strategic bombing, which alone could be decisive. Air operations would fall heaviest on the poorer and more unreliable segments of the population and would force the enemy to divert still more strength. Offensive operations on land would no longer occur, and armies would serve as frontier guards while bombers flew overhead. Slessor concluded that:

it is difficult to resist at least the conclusion that air bombardment on anything approaching an intensive scale, if it can be maintained even at irregular intervals for any length of time, can today restrict the output from war industry to a degree which would make it quite impossible to meet the immense requirements of an army on the 1918 model, in weapons, ammunition, and warlike stores of almost every kind.10

These comments are especially important when one considers that as Chief of Plans in the Air Ministry and as a member of the Joint Planning Committee of the Chiefs of Staff Slessor held a key position within the air force and British defense establishment.

What is particularly surprising considering the fact that in its own terms strategic bombing was the raison d'etre for the Royal Air Force, almost nothing was done to prepare for this task. Prewar doctrine called for trained aircrews to precede the bomber force and mark the targets for the following aircraft. In the late 1920s, when asked how trained aircrews would find their targets, Sir Arthur W. Tedder, future Air Chief Marshal of the RAF, replied, "You tell me!"11 The RAF was not to attempt to solve this problem until 1941, when analysis of mission photography revealed that half of the bombs dropped on Germany were landing in the countryside.12

In the late 1930s there was no clear conception of what was possible with the weapons of the time and with the weapons being developed. Admittedly, there was considerable difficulty in estimating capabilities with so little experience on which to draw. In 1938 the Joint Planning Committee conceded:

In considering air attack we are faced with the difficulty that we lack the guidance of past experience in almost all the factors which affect it, and consequently the detailed methods of application and their effects are almost a matter for conjecture. We do not know the degree of intensity at which a German air offensive could be sustained in the face of heavy casualties. We do not know the extent to which the civilian population will stand up to continued heavy losses of life and property.13

Slessor was to admit after the war that the Air Staffs belief in the bomber before the war had been "a matter of faith."14 Supposedly, the cause of this state of affairs lay in the overcentralization of tactical planning within an Air Ministry that was not in daily contact with contemporary technical developments and aircraft capabilities.15 Yet, when Bomber Command achieved control of planning its mission, it would prove no more realistic in working out its plans until wartime evidence had proved how unrealistic had been all expectations and estimates.

It is clear that the experts felt that there would be little difficulty in finding and hitting targets. An estimate of the Committee of Imperial Defense claimed in 1936 that aircraft with automatic bombsights had an 11 percent chance of achieving hits on a battleship from 10,000 feet. The report did not mention ship movement or the problem of having to dodge antiaircraft fire and fighters.16 A writer in the Journal of the Royal United Services Institute claimed that in clear weather and from heights of 20,000 feet, 50 percent of bombs dropped would fall within a dockyard area such as Malta or Gibraltar. "Against a fleet at sea five to ten percent of hits could be obtained by day."17

Such optimism was inexcusable because evidence was already available on the problem of locating and then damaging proposed targets. In May 1938, the Assistant Chief of Air Staff admitted that:

it remains true, however, that in the home defense exercise last year, bombing accuracy was very poor indeed. Investigation into this matter indicates that this was probably due very largely to failure to identify targets rather than to fatigue.18

Moreover, in 1937 the Royal Air Force conducted a major test of bombing techniques. It distributed 30 obsolete aircraft in a circle with a 1000-yard diameter, and for one week Bomber Command bombed the stationary aircraft from high and low level. At the completion of the test, the bombing had destroyed only 2 aircraft, damaged 11 beyond repair, left 6 damaged but repairable, and missed 11 entirely.19

The emphasis on strategic bombing as the doctrine of the Royal Air Force was to have a pernicious effect on the development of the other aspects of air power. Even in air defense, which would win the Battle of Britain and save England in the summer of 1940, the Air Staffs record was less than sterling. Throughout the 1930s the Air Staff showed little interest in air defense, and papers setting forth the RAF's position consistently argued that air defense was a waste of money and had little prospect of blunting an enemy bombing offensive. Discussing a 1937 Air Staff study, Admiral Lord Chatfield, chief of naval staff, cast considerable doubt on the Air Staffs pessimistic estimates on air defense. Referring to the enormous sums being spent on defense measures, Chatfield commented that it was illogical to state that Germany's attacking capability would increase 600 percent in 1937. The First Sea Lord was even more doubtful on the report's claim that a German air offensive in 1939 would do ten times more damage than an attack in 1937. Significantly, it was Chatfield who emphasized the possibility of an effective air defense. The Air Staff, at least in this memorandum, believed that air defense was impossible.20

Ironically, it was the Chamberlain government, which for the most part had such an abysmal record in defense matters, and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in particular who forced an unwilling Air Ministry to invest substantial resources in air defense. On 1 October 1938 Sir Warren Fisher of the Treasury reflected bitterly on the Course of the rearmament program from 1935:

When I insisted on the insertion in the report of passages such as these [on the need to build up Britain's air defense system] the representative of the Air Staff acquiesced with a shrug of his shoulders. The Air Staff proposals were, of course, again quite insufficient . . . and their lack of imagination and foresight has been fully equalled by their incompetence in all practical matters, including strategic policy.21

Fisher's warning on the Air Staffs incapacity to see beyond its dogmatic position is more than backed up by the technical attitudes and positions taken by the staff throughout the 1930s. Despite the victory of the Supermarine S. 6 (precursor of the Spitfire) in the 1931 Schneider Trophy races, the Air Staff rushed the Harrow, Fury, and Hart into production in 1935 as a sop to the politicians.22 In 1936 Slessor argued in his book that the Royal Air Force needed only a few single-seat fighters.23 The issue of the singleseat versus the two-seater fighter was one on which the Air Staff nearly made the disastrous choice of settling on the two-seater as the fighter of the future.24 An Air Staff memorandum of June 1938 sets out the unreality of its position and its lack of understanding of the conditions of air war:

The speed of modem bombers is so great that it is only worth while to attack them under conditions which allows no relative motion between the fighter and its target. The fixed-gun fighter with guns firing ahead can only realize these conditions by attacking the bomber from dead astern. The duties of a fighter engaged in "air superiority" fighting will be the destruction of opposing fighters . . .For these purposes it requires an armament that can be used defensively as well as offensively in order to enable it to penetrate into enemy territory and withdraw at will. The fixed gun fighter cannot do this.25

Only the spirited objections of Air Vice Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Commander in Chief of Fighter Command, kept the emphasis of British fighter production on Spitfires and Hurricanes and not on the two-seated Defiants.26 As late as May 1940, the Air Staff would make an effort to shut down the production lines of Spitfires and Hurricanes.27

Unfortunately, the record of the Air Staff on the other aspects of air power was just as dismal, but it was not mitigated by the interference of the Chamberlain government. The Royal Air Force absolutely rejected close air support for the army as one of its missions. After a 1939 combined air force-army exercise, General Sir Archibald Wavell commented that the RAF had given no thought to support for ground operations, and as a result its pilots were incapable of performing that mission.28 In a 1937 Chiefs of Staff meeting, the Army minister, Leslie Hore-Belisha suggested that the Spanish Civil War had indicated the value of close air support, only to be contradicted by the Chief of Air Staff, who commented that this was a gross misuse of air power. Air Ministry reports, he added, indicated that the Italians were so impressed with the results of low flying support missions that they had diverted 50 percent of their aircraft to that mission. He hoped that these reports were true, but doubted whether the Italians would be so stupid.29 In November 1939, Air Staff doctrine on close air support ran along the following lines:

Briefly the Air Staff view-which is based on a close study of the subject over many years--is as follows: the true function of bomber aircraft in support of an army is to isolate the battlefield from reinforcement and supply, to block or delay the movement of reserves, and generally to create disorganization and confusion behind the enemy front. . . .But neither in attack nor in defense should bombers be used on the battlefield itself, save in exceptional circumstances. . . All experience of war proves that such action is not only very costly in casualties, but is normally uneconomical and ineffective compared with the results of the correct employment of aircraft on the lines described above .30

This is indeed an astonishing document when one considers that the Polish campaign had just ended. In France in 1940, requests by the First Armored Division for close air support met with objections that such suggestions were impracticable and unnecessary.31 Moreover, in July 1938, the Chiefs of Staff dismissed the employment of parachute troops with the argument that the use of aircraft to drop paratroopers would divert them from more useful employment as bombers.32

In 1936, Group Captain Arthur Harris, the future commander of Bomber Command, claimed that reconnaissance of enemy bases was the only way to locate his naval forces and that use of aircraft over the ocean would be a waste of effort. In addition, Harris told the Joint Planning Committee that the Air Staff reserved the right to withdraw aircraft from subsidiary missions (i.e., reconnaissance) for use in the primary mission of strategic bombing.33 Not until late 1937 did the Chief of Air Staff concede most unwillingly that aircraft allocated for trade protection would remain in that capacity, and that only after consultation with the Chiefs of Staff and War Cabinet would they be transferred temporarily to other functions.34

On the technical side Lord Tedder discovered opposition to the construction of a major aircraft engine factory, not from the Treasury but from a senior Air Ministry official. The Air Ministry opposed the proposed construction because construction would take two years, and supposedly in 1937 the Royal Air Force could not afford to waste money on projects that would not return immediate benefits.35

In summation, the dogmatism of the Air Staff hindered the development of a broadly based conception of air power in Great Britain. At the outbreak of war, Britain possessed a strategic bombing force that was incapable of carrying out daylight operations in the face of German opposition and could not find its targets at night. For air defense, Britain possessed a small but capable force, but the existence of that force36 and of the radar network that supported it was due primarily to the efforts of the Chamberlain government and not to the Royal Air Force: In all the other aspects of air power--close air support, interdiction, airlanding operations, long-range reconnaissance, and maritime operations--the Royal Air Force had done almost nothing to anticipate the requirements of the coming war.

THE early development of the Luftwaffe significantly differed from that of the Royal Air Force. The Treaty of Versailles forbade Germany from using aircraft as a weapon of war. During the period of disarmament, the army assumed the responsibility for preparing a future German air force. When the Nazis came to power, Goring immediately set about to create an independent air force, which Hitler was to proclaim in 1935. At inception, the Luftwaffe received an infusion of not only World War I flyers but a number of army general staff officers as well. The result was that army-air force relations were quite good, especially at lower echelons. Goring's political position in the Nazi hierarchy gave the new service an unassailable position. It certainly had no reason to feel threatened by the German navy in view of that service's diminutive size. Thus, the Germany Air Staff did not feel the need to create a doctrine that justified its existence by excluding major roles for the other services. Moreover, the army background of many senior officers made the Luftwaffe receptive to army requirements.

Since the Second World War, American and British advocates of strategic bombing have criticized the Luftwaffe as being "in effect the handmaiden of the German army" and for being unprepared to launch a strategic bombing offensive.37 This view is grossly unfair to the Luftwaffe and misses the significance of German doctrine and preparation for the air war. In 1936 the German Air Ministry issued a doctrinal statement, entitled Die Luftkriegführung, which based German doctrine on a realistic appraisal of the aircraft possessed by the Luftwaffe. This exposition of German doctrine underlined four major missions for air power: air superiority, strategic operations, battlefield interdiction, and close air support. It stressed that the Luftwaffe would be part of a team rather than a service with a wholly independent mission and that the final decision in any war would come only through the combined efforts of the three services. Finally, the statement expressed doubt as to whether strategic bombing by itself could achieve a decisive result such as destroying an enemy's industrial capacity or terrorizing his civilian population.38

Thus, the Germans approached the question of strategic bombing from a more skeptical point of view than did the British. A partial explanation lies in the German experience in Spain. Terror bombing had produced, for the most part, a counterproductive effect. Captain Heye of the Seekriegsleitung made the following report based on conversations with Luftwaffe officers serving in Spain.

Disregarding the great military success accompanying use of the Luftwaffe for the immediate support of army operations, one gets the impression that our attacks on objects of little military importance, through which in most cases many women and children. . . . were hit, are not a suitable means to break the resistance of the opponent. They seem far more suited to strengthening the resistance. . . . Doubtless the memory of the air attack on Guernica by the [Condor] Legion still today produces an after effect in the population and permits no friendly feelings for Germany in the population of the Basques, who earlier were thoroughly friendly to Germany and in no manner communistic.39

In addition, German air experts were willing to credit defensive measures against air attack, whether active or passive, with a greater ability to reduce casualties than did their counterparts in Great Britain. A British delegation to Germany reported the comment of a German civil defense official in the following terms:

there was a tendency to exaggerate the number of casualties that would result from a modern air raid. He said hostile aircraft had a long distance to come and a long distance to get home again. The air casualties would be very considerable. Great reliance was being placed on the German air force and on their active defense measures.40

Moreover, the Germans do not seem to have underestimated the difficulties involved in carrying out strategic bombing over long distances. The future Field Marshal Albert Kesselring warned in March 1939 that, even given the technical competence of crews and aircraft, it was doubtful whether the average German bomber could hit its target with any degree of accuracy in bad weather .41

Yet, it should be noted that the Germans never deliberately abandoned the effort to achieve a strategic bombing capability.42 Rather, technical problems hindered the creation of a strategic bomber force. In 1936 the German Air Ministry canceled the development of the four-engined Dornier Do 19 and Junkers Ju 89 prototypes because suitable engines were not available to provide adequate speed.43 However, the development of the Heinkel He 177 continued in the belief that that aircraft was the best bet to provide the Luftwaffe with a long-range strategic bomber. It was not, and the Germans never managed to surmount the technical problems inherent in its conception and design.

There is one other major factor that one must consider in German strategy and that is the weak economic base on which the German strategic situation rested. Given the financial and economic constraints on German rearmament, could the Germans have afforded the cost of building up a strategic bombing force had a four-engined bomber been available? The answer is probably no.44 Moreover, given the fact that in wartime a blockaded Germany would be short of every critical raw material except coal, could the Germans think in terms of launching a strategic bombing offensive at the same time that they were carrying out operations on land? In terms of German strategy before the conquest of France in 1940, the answer was clearly no. A German staff study on the possibility of an air offensive against Great Britain, written in the fall of 1939, warned that a bombing offensive against the British Isles would open up western Germany to air attacks that would seriously hinder army preparations for the Western offensive. Moreover, the use of fuel and munitions for an air offensive would severely restrict the supplies available for ground operations.45

Throughout the immediate prewar period as well as the first years of the war, Luftwaffe planning aimed to destroy enemy air forces at the outset of hostilities by well-planned strikes against his air bases and forward operating areas and by contesting the air space over the zone of operations. Only after eliminating enemy air power would the Luftwaffe turn to the support of army operations. Both these missions would take priority over raids against "factories and enemy rear areas."46

It would be in the other aspects of air power--close air support, interdiction, and reconnaissance--that the Luftwaffe would prepare in the years before the Second World War. Considering the capabilities of the aircraft at that time as well as the primitive nature of navigational systems, this would be a wise strategy.47 The experiences gained in Spain directly contributed to the German development. Fighter tactics, the tactical employment of close air support, and interdiction of enemy rear areas all significantly advanced. Interestingly enough, the Luftwaffe proved flexible enough to experiment with the use of 88-mm antiaircraft guns against tanks. However, one must note that German operations in Spain always remained at a rather low level of commitment.

German strategy tied Luftwaffe operations closely to the army. Throughout the late 1930s Luftwaffe operational planning emphasized the protection of German air space as a major mission, so that army mobilization could proceed unhindered. Early planning concentrated on operations over a static battlefield or in support of nonmotorized infantry formations, but by the late 1930s Luftwaffe commanders were working closely with the new panzer and motorized infantry divisions, a combination that would prove devastating. Because of the shortage of heavy artillery,48 German army commanders proved almost too enthusiastic on the subject of close air support. A report on the Wehrmacht maneuver of 1937 pointed out that targets in support of army operations would have to be selected carefully in order to maximize effect. The Luftwaffe would only be successful when it directed its attacks against massed and rear area targets that could critically affect the flow of operations. Unfortunately, the report pointed out, army commanders were in the distressing habit of calling for close air support on any target, no matter how insignificant or what the conditions.49

By 1939 the Luftwaffe had evolved aircraft and doctrines that could provide substantial aid to battlefield operations. The Stuka would prove an admirable aircraft for the immediate support of German panzer units, while aircraft like the Heinkel He III and the Junkers Ju 88 were excellent aircraft for interdiction missions. The Bf 109 was the equal of the Spitfire and superior to every other fighter in Europe, and German fighter tactics would prove to be the most effective in the first aerial clashes of the war. Nothing contrasts more clearly the rea1ism of German doctrine with that of their British opponents than the operations along the Meuse River in the first days of the French campaign. On 13 May 1940 German troops crossed the Meuse largely through the intervention of Luftwaffe close air support. On 14 May, with only one thin pontoon bridge across the Meuse to support the bridgehead, the Royal Air Force intervened in the battle in an effort to destroy the bridge. The result was not only a complete failure but led to the slaughter of the Fairey Battle 1ight bombers committed to the mission.50

One must also mention one other important development that enabled the Luftwaffe to contribute to the early victories. Unlike the RAF, the German air force was willing to invest significant resources into an airlanding capability. While the Germans had barely enough paratroopers for a brigade at the beginning of the war, these troops played a role all out of proportion to their numerical strength in Norway, Hol1and, and particularly in the assault on Fort Eben Emael in Belgium.51

The eventual failure of the Luftwaffe in the Second World War reflected not so much the failure of German doctrine but ironically German organization. The defeat in the Battle of Britain as well as in Russia resu1ted to a large extent from the failure of the Luftwaffe's support services to meet adequately the extensive demands of operational commitments. This was to a large extent due to Hitler's and Goring's fascination with numbers. Theoretically, the Germans based their concept of air power on the belief that a flying unit was not combat-ready unless it possessed modern, reliable aircraft backed up by a first-class maintenance organization and a supply system that guaranteed adequate numbers of replacement aircraft and reserves of spare parts.52 This the Luftwaffe was never able to do because Goring refused to follow recommendations that the German aircraft industry devote 20 to 30 percent of production to the establishment of adequate inventories of spare parts.53 Instead, the Germans assigned production almost exclusive1y to first-line strength. As a result, throughout the war years the Luftwaffe was chronically short of spare parts, had constantly to resort to cannibalization, and ran low operationally ready rates.

By the late 1930s the production of numerous models by the German aircraft industry had led to many maintenance, training, and supply problems. In December 1938, General Erhard Milch, State Secretary for Aviation, pushed through a major reorganization of the production system so that industry could concentrate on a few superior aircraft.54 The result, unfortunately for the Luftwaffe, was that concentration in the first years of the war on production figures prevented experimentation on new aircraft design. The Germans never made up the lost time and fought the great air battles of 1943-44 with basically the same equipment they had used against Poland.

THERE is a certain irony in contrasting the development of military forces in Great Britain and Germany between the wars and particularly in the 1930s. In terms of intellectual fermentation and a discussion of the future paths of war, Britain led the rest of the world. J. F. C. Fuller and B. H. Liddell Hart laid the theoretical basis for modern mechanized warfare in their writings. At the same time writers like L. E. O. Charlton publicized the "modern" theory of air power.

 It is well to insist on this exclusive point of view at once. Air power is bombing capacity and nothing else; all the other various employments of aircraft, as auxiliary to an army or a navy, or as units in the scheme of home defense, being unrelated to this one main fact. An assessment of the air strength of a country should be based exclusively on the weight-carrying capacity, the speed, the range, and on the number of its bomber squadrons.55

Tragically, in the 1930s the British military establishment would reject the theories of Fuller and Liddell Hart on the future of land war and quite literally ban their advocates from the army.56 On the other hand, the German army high command, while somewhat skeptical of the claims of armored officers, was willing to devote substantial resources to the creation of a panzer force. On the question of air power, however, the Royal Air Force would wholeheartedly embrace the new "revolutionary" idea that air power was strategic bombing and as such had changed the rules of the game. The Germans did not, and their conservative, broad conception of air power would prove devastating when combined with armored, mechanized warfare. The British official history of the strategic bombing offensive puts the problem of air war succinctly:

Air superiority is not simply a question of being able to use an air force. It is a question of being able to use it effectively. From the point of view of the bombers, for example, it is not simply a question of getting through. It is a question of getting through and doing effective damage.57

In that sense the German air force of 1939 could render important service because it could do "effective damage." The Royal Air Force could not. Moreover, not until the Allied air forces could match the Luftwaffe's diversity of capability could the Western powers maximize the real, as opposed to the theoretical, potential of air power.

Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio


1. See particularly the article by D. C. Watt. "The Air Force View of History," Quarterly Review, October 1962.

2. See particularly William Emerson, "Operation Pointblank," Harmon Memorial Lectures, No.4 (Colorado Springs, 1962) and Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive against Germany, I, Preparation (London, 1961).

3. General Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air (London, 1943), pp.16-17, 44, 55, 218, 239.

4. Emerson, p. 41. See also Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive against Germany, II, Endeavour (London 1961), pp. 138-39.

5. Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, The Strategic Bombing Offensive against Germany, III, Victory (London, 1961), pp. 131-32. Emerson, pp. 36-39.

6. Those many critics of the morality of the strategic bombing campaign never address the problem of what the military effect would have been had the Germans been able to divert the resources expended in their air defense measures into tank production.

7. In fact, the British did not admit the necessity of committing ground forces to the defense of the continent until February 1939 Public Records Office (PRO) CAB 23/97, Cab 8 (39), Meeting of the Cabinet, 22.2.39., p. 306.

8. Watt, p. 430.

9. Stephen Roskill, among others, has criticized the refusal of the RAF air staff to use its long-range bombers to support and protect Britain’s trade routes, thus needlessly prolonging the battle of the Atlantic and the Allied convoy losses. See Stephen Roskill, The War at Sea, II (London, 1956), pp. 86-90.

10. Sir John Slessor, Airpower and Armies (London, 1936), pp. 15, 65, 68, 80, 214-15.

11. Guy Hartcup, The Challenge of War (London, 1967), p. 126.

12. See particularly the report of Mr. Butt to the RAF Bomber Command, "Examination of Night Photographs, 15 August 1941," in Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, The Strategic Bombing Offensive against Germany, IV, Appendices (London, 1961), p. 205.

13. PRO CAB 53/40, cas 747 (JP), 15.7.38., CID, COS Sub Com., "Appreciation of the Situation in the Event of War against Germany in April 1939," p. 47.

14. Sir John Slessor, The Central Blue (New York, 1957), pp. 203-4.

15. Ibid., p. 205.

16. PRO CAB 4/24 1258B, 30.6.36., CID, "The Vulnerability of Capital. Ships to Air Attacks," p. 449.

17. Wing Commander R. A. Cochrane, "Gold Medal Essay (Air), 1935 ," Journal of the Royal United Services Institute, May 1936.

18. PRO AIR 2/2598, Air Ministry File, # S41137 (1938).

19. Basil Collier, The Leader of the Few (London, 1957), p. 170.

20. PRO CAB 53/7, COS/198th Mtg. 18.2.37., CID, COS Sub Com. Minutes, p. 31.

21. PRO CAB 21/902, Letter from Sir Warren Fisher to Neville Chamberlain, 1.10.38., p. 4.

22. Watt, p. 435.

23. Slessor, p. 51.

24. The Luftwaffe faced the basic same choice, between a two-seater (the Me 110) and a single-seater (the Me 109). It did, however, opt proportionately for considerably more Me 110s than the RAF opted for Boulton Paul Defiants.

25. PRO AIR 2/2964,17.6.38., Air Staff Note on the Employment of two-seater and single-seater fighters in a Home Defence War; see also AIR 2/2964,20.6.38., Minutes by DD Ops (Home).

26. PRO AIR 2/2964, Headquarters Fighter Command, RAF Stanmore, Middlesex, 25.6.38.

27. The suspicion exists that Dowding was removed from Fighter Command shortly after the Battle of Britain and never given another command because his success was a direct contradiction to prewar doctrine.

28. John Connell, Wavell, Scholar and Soldier (New York, 1964), p. 204.

29. PRO CAB 53/8, COS/219th Mtg., 19.10.37., CID, COS Sub Com. Minutes, p. 149. 30. PRO CAB 21/903, 18.11.39., "Bomber Support for the Army," memorandum by the air staff; see also the letter from Admiral Lord Chatfield to Prime Minister Chamberlain, 15.11.39 on the air force arguments against the provision of special units for the close support of the army.

31. Major General Evans, "The First Armored Division in France," Army Quarterly, May 1943, pp. 57-58.

32. PRO CAB 53/40, COS 747 (JP), 15.7.38., CID, COS Sub Com, "Appreciation of the Situation in the Event of War against Germany in April 1939 ," Joint Planning Committee Appreciation.

33. PRO CAB 55/2, JP/127th Mtg., 3.12.38., CID, Joint Planning Committee of the COS Committee, p 5; see also the argument between Admiral Lord Chatfield and Ellington on the provision of aircraft to protect trade routes: CAB 53/6, COS/190th Mtg., 21.12.36, CID, cas Sub Com. Minutes, pp. 240-43. 34. PRO CAB 53/8, COS/221st Mtg., 4.11.37., CID cas Sub Com. Minutes, p. 12.

35. Lord Arthur Tedder, With Prejudice (London, 1966), p. 13.

36. Even the construction of all-weather runways, an absolute requirement for air defense (as well as the eventual bomber offensive) met opposition from the Air Ministry because they would be difficult to camouflage. Collier, pp. 162-63.

37. For this view see particularly Dennis Richards, The Royal Air Force, 1939-1945 (London, 1953), p. 29; Asher Lee, The German Air Force (New York, 1946), pp. 16-17; and surprisingly, Webster and Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive against Germany, I, Preparation, p. 125.

38. Paul D. Deichmann, German Air Force Operations in Support of the Army (New York, 1968), pp. 9-13.

39. OKM, B.Nr., 1. Abt. Ski. la 961/38 g. Kdos., Berlin, 14.7.38., Geheime Kommandosache, National Archives and Records Service (NARS), T .1022/2957/PG 48902.

40. PRO CAB 63/14, I.0. (5)1.,19.7.37., Air Raid Precautions Department Intelligence Section, Visit to Berlin of Maj. F. L. Fraser, "Interview with Ministerialrat Grosskreuz."

41. Bundesarchiv/Mitilärarchiv (BA/MA) RL 2 II/101, Zusammenhänge zwischen Meteorologie und Taktik, Vortrag: General der Flieger Kesselring, Chef der Luftflotte 1., 1.3.39., p. 5.

42. Yet historians of air power even today are still arguing that the Luftwaffe deliberately abandoned strategic bombing after the death of General Walthar Wever in an airplane crash. See Herbert M. Mason, Jr., The Rise of the Luftwaffe (New York, 1973), p. 215.

43. Karl Heinz Volker, Die deutsche Luftwaffe, 1933-1939 (Stuttgart, 1967), pp. 132-33; and H. Schliephake, The Birth of the Luftwaffe (Chicago, 1971), pp. 38-39.

44. The British faced this problem of the cost of building up a strategic bombing fleet of four-engined bombers in 1938-39 and decided that the cost was prohibitive. For a discussion of the financial and resource constraints on German rearmament see Williamson Murray, "The Change in the European Balance of Power, 19381939," Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, 1975, Chapter 5, "The German Economy."

45. BA/MA, RL 2 II 24, Chef 1, Abt., 22.11.39.

46. BA/MA, RL 7/55, Lw. Gruppenkommando 3., 23 Mai 1938, "Bericht über die Reise für obere Dienstellen, " p. 9.

47. Robert J. Young in his article, "The Strategic Dream: French Air Doctrine in the Interwar Period, 1919-1939," Joumal of Contemporary History, October 1974, suggests that the aspirations of the French air staff to create a strategic bombing force were entirely correct. He does not understand that these aspirations were just as unrealistic and just as incorrect as the views of an army general staff that could not understand that close air support might be of some use to ground operations.

48. On the shortage of artillery see Erich von Manstein, Aus einem Soldatenleben (Bonn, 1958), p. 334; and Walter Bernhardt, Die deutsche Aufrüstung (Frankfurt, 1969), pp. 96-97.

49. BA/MA, RL 2 II/157, Bericht, "Wehrmachtmanöver (Luftwaffe),"1937, Band 4, Erfrahrungen, p. 7.

50. See particularly Alistair Home, To Lose a Battle, France 1940 (Boston, 1969), pp. 290-94.

51. See particularly Telford Taylor, The March of Conquest (New York, 1958), pp. 210-14.

52. Milch Collection, Imperial War Museum, Reel 55, Vol. 57, Der Chef des Nachschubsamts, Nr. 3365/38, g. Kdos., Berlin, 3.11.38., Anlage L. E. 2. Nr. 15.222/38 g. Kdos, Berlin, Okt 1938, "Erfahrungsbericht über die Spannungszeit 1938," p. 3270.

53. Suchenwirth, The Development of the German Air Force, 1919-1939, p.148.

54. Milch Collection, Imperial War Museum, Reel 64, Vol. 65, p. 7400: 13.12.38., "Vortragsunterlagen für den Vortrag vor dem Herrn Generalfeldmarschall," p. 7419.

55. L. E. O. Charlton, The Menace of the Clouds (London, 1937), p.28.

56. J. F. C. Fuller was promoted to major general in the early 1930s and never received an active command. Percy Hobart was removed as the commander of the armored division in Egypt (that he had trained so well) at the beginning of the war. The summer of 1940 found him in the Home Guard while his contemporaries in the German army had managed to revolutionize land warfare in the campaign that spring. There were many other examples.

57. Webster and Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive against German, I, Preparation, p. 21.


Williamson Murray (B.A., M.A., PhD., Yale University) is Professor of European Military History, Ohio State University. he is former Air Force maintenance officer, having served in the USAF from 1964-69. Dr. Murray has written for National Review and several short articles for publication.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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