Published: 4 September 03
Air & Space Power Journal - Fall 2003

Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914–1945 by Tami Davis Biddle. Princeton University Press (http://www.pupress., 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08540-5237, 2002, 408 pages, $45.00 (hardcover).

Tami Biddle has written an important and innovative intellectual history of American and British strategic bombing in the age of total war that should appeal to both academic historians and military professionals. The author discusses how strategies of airpower originate, develop, and are later executed, as well as why gaps occur between the genesis of an idea/strategy and the actual reality of implementing it. She also wrestles with the problem of why militaries fail to adapt to new and differing realities.

The book’s central idea entails comparing the development of ideas in the United States and Great Britain regarding long-range bombing, raising such key questions as why the British and Americans were interested in strategic bombing in the first place. Biddle also considers why American and British expectations were at odds with reality and how perceptions and interpretations shaped plans, policies, and campaigns. In many ways, her book is about the assumptions of airpower. In illuminating these various questions, she casts a wide intellectual net, using unique and original approaches such as cognitive psychology and the role of popular culture.

Early on, Biddle emphasizes the importance of World War I and its long-lasting influence upon both the interwar period (1919–39) and World War II. In many ways, her discussion of the Great War highlights the role of personalities- Sir Hugh “Boom” Trenchard, for example, was one figure who dominated the scene. She takes a more critical view of Trenchard than have previous authors, thus providing an important corrective to early hagiographical works on him. Trenchard was investigated by the Army for his overtaxing pilot training and very high casualty rate. In fact, one could argue that Trenchard fought a war of attrition in the air. According to Biddle, he commanded more by instinct than by systematic analysis and ignored recommendations regarding targeting. By analyzing British bomb damage assessment (BDA) at the end of the war, she demonstrates that Trenchard heavily influenced BDA to justify his conduct of the war. This report and Trenchard himself, both of which provoked discussion about the moral effects of heavy bombing, shaped the development and force structure of the Royal Air Force (RAF), which organized itself around strategic bombing during the interwar years. Furthermore, Trenchard’s overemphasis on the moral effects of strategic bombing leads Biddle to blame him for Britain’s appeasement of Nazi Germany in the late 1930s.

In an interesting discussion of professional military education (PME) in the RAF, Biddle argues that the service developed dogmatic doctrine in the interwar years partially because the RAF staff college’s curriculum and teaching were lackluster and highly conventional. Faculty and staff seemed to consider it more important that students feel good about themselves and be air-offensive-minded rather than think out of the box or perform well in class. Thus, the school emphasized riding and sports to the detriment of analytical study. Consequently, the RAF rearmed itself in the 1930s without understanding the strategic vision of the Luftwaffe; it also ignored the lessons of the wars that took place during this period in China and Spain. Indeed, the RAF’s disinclination to alter its policies in light of a changing international environment could prove to be a cautionary tale for current American PME.

In the third chapter, Biddle demonstrates that the dependent status of the Army Air Forces (AAF) did not hamper its intellectual development. However, she fails to discuss either the popular cultural context of the development of US airpower or the relationship between the development of theory and technology. Biddle does illustrate here that the American debate over strategic bombing was not a high-profile political issue and shows that some American analysis done at the end of the Great War was either lost or forgotten during the interwar years. She also addresses some problems, such as an overemphasis on strategic bombing and horseback riding, that existed at the Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS) at Maxwell Field, Alabama, in the 1930s. Nevertheless, she portrays ACTS as a much more intellectually vibrant staff college than its British counterpart. Like the British, however, the Americans failed to draw any lessons from interwar conflicts, and, like the previous chapter, this one tries to explain why the Americans and British continued to believe for so long that bombers did not need escorts.

Biddle’s discussion of World War II reveals the timidity of RAF Bomber Command and its lack of technological ability to engage in strategic bombing- a situation quite contrary to Trenchard’s earlier vision of airpower. Emerging here is another key personality- Arthur “Bomber” Harris, a product of Trenchard’s RAF who believed that Bomber Command could win the war entirely on its own. Not very “joint” and narrower in his approach than Arthur Tedder (another RAF leader), Harris had a difficult time working with the Americans and his own navy. According to Biddle, Harris said Bomber Command’s job was to destroy cities and kill workers and that it should not hide behind the excuse of collateral damage, a statement that made Winston Churchill very nervous about bad publicity. Although the British public supported the destruction of German cities, Harris stands as a villain in Biddle’s work.

Dr. Biddle has some interesting and controversial things to say about the AAF in World War II. For example, she shows that in the winter of 1943–44, the Combined Bomber Offensive almost failed. The use of long-range fighter escorts saved not only the AAF, but also the RAF. Before the outbreak of the war, ACTS had developed high-altitude daylight precision bombing (HADPB), which Harris rejected in favor of area bombing. The United States continued to follow this strategy despite the absence of a viable precision technology because it believed in this theory of air war. Biddle argues that concerns about a just war or morality did not motivate HAPDB. In fact, one of her most controversial arguments is that the United States was interested in area bombing long before the air campaign over Japan commenced in the winter of 1945 and that the firebombing of that country was premeditated, having its origins in 1943. Further, Biddle declares that the adoption of area bombing in Europe and, later, Japan upended ACTS theory. Domestic US popular culture emotionally prepared the American public for the firebombing of Japan, after which the postwar US Strategic Bombing Survey continued to argue for precision over area bombing.

Only a few quibbles come to mind regarding this otherwise excellent, thought-provoking book. For instance, Biddle is uneven in her discussion of technology, and key visual aids such as maps would have been helpful. Also, the discussion of the historiography of strategic bombing should have occurred in the introduction rather than at the end of the work, where the author briefly examines the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam- both of which sections are relatively weak and underdeveloped.

Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare- which will stimulate thinking about airpower and would be appropriate for inclusion in courses in PME- is a cautionary tale for the Air Force because it demonstrates that ideas and history really do matter. Biddle shows that understanding the history of strategic bombing is an intellectual process. Many of the key problems studied by theorists and practitioners of strategic bombing in the age of total war, such as the relationship between bombing and enemy capitulation, still haunt airpower theorists in the twenty-first century. In fact, in her sweeping and controversial conclusion, Biddle argues that ideas about strategic bombing have changed little since the age of technology despite dramatic technological improvements. Whether or not one agrees with the author, her book clearly and coherently illustrates that the study of the history of strategic bombing remains crucial to the development of airpower in this age of the transformation of military power.

Dr. William Dean
Air Command and Staff College
Maxwell AFB, Alabama


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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