2. The advent of air power

Among the pioneers of air power, those who designed or flew airplanes or thought about their strategic utility in war, there was less pretending. The experience of the First World War produced true believers in air power to change the nature of combat forever. Through the 1920s and most of the 1930s, the new air-power theorists reckoned without the possibility of an atomic bomb, whatever their understanding of Wells’s prediction. They nevertheless had faith that attacking from the air would prove pivotal in future wars, for they could not imagine a way to prevent bombardment from the sky. ‘The bomber will always get through,’ wrote British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin in 1932. ‘The only defence is offence, which means you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves.’ Baldwin thus assumed that the targets of bombers were not enemy armies or enemy factories but enemy towns and cities, where old men, women, and children lived. The use of air power indicated, for Baldwin anyway, not just a new weapon of war and a new way to deliver it, but an ominous definition of who was and was not a combatant.19

It is a bit difficult to say when air bombardment began, particularly attacks on noncombatants. On 1 November 1911, an Italian pilot named Giulio Gavotti, whose unit was fighting Turks in Libya, overflew the enemy camp and tossed four grenades on its residents. (‘No Turks were injured,’ reports Gerard DeGroot, ‘but they were mighty angry.’) Soon after the First World War began, a German dirigible, designed by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, bombed Antwerp, killing six. The British Royal Naval Air Service promptly retaliated, sending four aircraft from Belgium to bomb Zeppelin sheds in Dusseldorf and Cologne; only one plane reached its target and unloaded its bombs. Sporadic bombing missions by both sides followed, usually aimed at enemy armies or supply depots. But not always: in January 1915, Zeppelins bombed the east coast of England, causing twenty casualties, mostly civilian. These attacks persisted, and, while they were not generally effective, they understandably terrified citizens who might become their targets.20

Matters changed in the late spring of 1917. Concerned about the vulnerability of the Zeppelin, the German High Command had ordered production of thirty Gotha bombers. With offset double wings, a range of just over 500 miles, a top speed of 87.5 miles per hour, and an ability to carry a payload of 1,100 pounds (the weight of the Germans’ single heaviest bomb), the Gothas looked like flying breadboxes. But they quickly proved more lethal than their dirigible predecessors. The Gothas first attacked Folkestone, an English coastal town through which thousands of British soldiers passed on their way to France. The raid killed or wounded 300, just over a third of whom were soldiers. Three weeks later, by the light of day, fourteen Gothas appeared over London. Their bombs caused roughly 600 casualties, only a handful of whom were military men, and 46 of whom were children in a nursery school. The Germans considered the London attacks a success, and so they continued. An American serviceman witnessed the impact of one of the raids from a stairway landing in a subway station:

The air was as foul as the Black Hole of Calcutta and those people certainly were scared. We cheered the girls up and drank the whiskey and felt better... I hadn’t realized before how successful the raids are. It doesn’t matter whether they hit any thing of note as long as they put the wind up the civilian population so thoroughly. Those people wanted peace and they wanted it quickly.21

With civilian morale thus shaken, the British War Cabinet, headed by Prime Minister David Lloyd George, summoned from the battlefield in France Hugh Trenchard, commander of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). Speaking before the Cabinet a week after the Gothas had bombed London, Trenchard urged a forward strategy: capture the coast of Belgium, thereby lengthening the distance German planes would have to fly to reach England, interposing Allied-held territory between German bases and their bombers’ English targets, and providing the RFC with airfields closer to German industrial centers. Meanwhile, the RFC and the French air corps should do all they could to strike German air bases behind the front. This would help Allied soldiers fighting in the trenches— Trenchard’s first concern—and might also destroy airplanes that could be used to attack London. Flying protective patrols over the English Channel would not, Trenchard thought, do much good, since the number of planes and crews available for such patrols was far fewer than needed to find and stop the Gothas. Lloyd George wanted to bomb the industrial city of Mannheim. Trenchard thought this impossible under current circumstances, though he had no moral objection to attacking such targets. As for raids against undefended cities that were not manufacturing centers, Trenchard declared these ‘repugnant’, but thought they might ultimately be necessary should other means of reprisal fail. If the government decided to bomb German towns, it must anticipate that the Germans would respond in kind, and, ‘unless we are determined and prepared to go one better than the Germans, whatever they may do and whether their reply is in the air or against our prisoners or otherwise, it will be infinitely better not to attempt reprisals at all’. Here was common sense. Here also was an invitation to unlimited escalation and total war against civilian populations. If the government chose to open the door to attacks on German towns, it must not hesitate but rush through with its guns blazing.22

The Gothas struck London again just three weeks later, once more by the light of day. Members of the British Air Board watched, shocked, from the balconies of the Hotel Cecil as the bombers unleashed their terror. The capital succumbed once more to an apoplexy of fear, anger, and recrimination. Channel air patrols increased, despite Trenchard’s doubts, the Cabinet ordered more war planes, and Lloyd George renewed his demand for the bombing of Mannheim (it went unmet). Trenchard was dismayed that the Germans had again bombed London, but he continued to believe that air support of the army was the most efficient use of limited resources. Lloyd George appointed the South African statesman and War Cabinet member Jan Smuts to investigate the problem. Very quickly Smuts produced two reports, the first an unhappy account of London’s air defenses, the second, more significant, a call for the development of a separate Air Ministry. Smuts implied here that air power might have a future distinct from that of the army and navy that it had heretofore served. ‘Air power’, he wrote, ‘can be used as an independent means of war operations ...As far as can at present be foreseen there is absolutely no limit to the scale of its future independent war use. And the day may not be far off when aerial operations with their devastation of enemy lands and destruction of industrial and populous centers on a vast scale may become the principal operations of war, to which older forms of military operations may become secondary and subordinate.’ By such advocacy, and prophecy, would Smuts earn his title as father of the Royal Air Force.23

Smuts had other careers in front of him; he established his paternity of the Air Force and moved on. It was Hugh Trenchard who became Britain’s pre-eminent air strategist in the years between the wars. Trenchard, nicknamed ‘Boom’ for the volume and authority of his voice, began his military career during the Boer War. In the Transvaal in October 1900, he was ambushed and shot through the left side of his chest. The bullet creased his lung and then his spine, leaving him susceptible to respiratory problems and temporarily unable to walk without crutches. (He recovered his ability to walk unaided, incredibly, following a toboggan accident in Switzerland early the following year.) Drawn to the air, he learned to fly in 1912. When the war began two years later, Trenchard was assigned to build squadrons of flyers for the RFC at Farnborough, Hampshire. By mid-November 1914 he had been summoned to France to take charge of an operational air wing, one of three, of the Army Corps. Following the first German gas attack at Ypres in April 1915, Trenchard sent his planes over German trenches to do reconnaissance for the forthcoming counterattack. His superiors were pleased with his daring and innovativeness. That August he was named Commander of the RFC.24

Unconvinced that Britain could defend its cities and towns against German air assaults, additionally constrained by the limited range of his airplanes based in England and France, Trenchard nevertheless endorsed ‘forward action’ against German airfields and storage facilities wherever these could be reached. ‘The aeroplane is not a defence against the aeroplane,’ he wrote in a widely circulated memo in September 1916. ‘But the opinion of those most competent to judge is that the aeroplane, as a weapon of attack, cannot be too highly estimated.’ In the wake of the Gotha attacks on London the following year, Trenchard unleashed two flights of de Havilland bombers against the Burbach iron foundry, outside Saarbrucken. Unmolested by German opposition, the de Havillands hit several buildings and railway lines, encouraging Trenchard to repeat the performance several more times that fall, and then with renewed intensity once the weather had improved in the spring and summer of 1918. William Weir of the Air Board wrote to Trenchard that September: ‘I would very much like if you could start up a really big fire in one of the German towns.’ Nor would Weir ‘mind a few accidents due to inaccuracy’, since ‘the German is susceptible to bloodiness’. ‘I do not think you need be anxious about our degree of accuracy when bombing stations in the middle of towns,’ replied Trenchard. ‘The accuracy is not great at present, and all the pilots drop their eggs well into the middle of the town generally.’ Under British bombs, a German civilian wrote, ‘one feels as if one were no longer a human being. One air-raid after another. In my opinion, this is no longer war, but murder.’25

Murder it may have been, but the air war had developed a relentless logic by the time of the Armistice in November. As they had done when the Germans used gas, the British had claimed to be outraged when the Zeppelins and Gothas rained bombs on English cities. Then they had then done their utmost, as before, to retaliate in kind. The justification for bombing was similar, too. Someone else, someone more barbaric, had done it first. There was no choice but to attack the enemy’s cities, since technology did not permit of any defense against bombers. (Trenchard likened it to trying to stop submarines from penetrating a naval blockade.) The soldiers on the ground deserved the protection that air strikes could provide. And, of course, the hardiest justification of all: holding civilians hostage in war would inevitably increase the pressure on their government to sue for peace. Bombing cities, like using gas, would end wars more quickly and thus save lives. It was humane to bomb noncombatants.

The ‘Trenchard Doctrine’ was the name given to the policy of using bombers as offensive weapons following the First World War. But Trenchard was not its only advocate, nor its most emphatic; ‘if I had the casting vote,’ he said ruefully in 1925, ‘I would say, “Abolish the air.” ’ Others, outside and inside Britain, embraced air power. The Italian air commander Giulio Douhet published, in 1921, The Command of the Air, in which he claimed that air superiority was the only way to win the wars of the future. Targeting ordinary citizens was essential: ‘Mercifully,’ Douhet wrote, ‘the decision will be quick in this kind of war, since the decisive blows will be directed at civilians . . . These future wars may yet prove to be more humane than wars in the past in spite of all, because they may in the long run shed less blood.’ The American Billy Mitchell met Trenchard in France during the war, and oversaw an attack by Allied planes against German forces in the Saint-Mihiel salient. He later met Douhet. In a July 1921 demonstration, Mitchell and his fliers famously sank off the coast of Virginia several captured German ships in an effort to show the superiority of air over sea power. (‘He’s a man after my own heart,’ Trenchard said of Mitchell. ‘If only he can break his habit of trying to convert opponents by killing them, he’ll go far.’) The British military theorists J. F. C. Fuller and Basil Liddell Hart concurred with the air-power advocates that bombing cities made sense. Fuller did the math, concluding that killing a few thousand civilians would save the lives of millions of soldiers and ‘incident[al]ly several thousands of women and children’.26

Trenchard’s commitment to air power was partly utilitarian: during the relative peace of the 1920s and 1930s, he sought to justify the maintenance of an independent and reasonably well-funded British air force. In this effort he found an ally in Winston Churchill, who was Secretary of War in 1919 when he reminded the Commons that ‘we have all those dependencies and possessions in our hands which existed before the war... The first duty of the Royal Air Force is to garrison the British Empire.’ Trenchard and others would refer to this function as ‘air control’ or ‘air policing’ of those the RAF War Manual of 1928 called ‘semi-civilised enemies’. An opportunity to marry Trenchard’s faith in air policy to Churchill’s concern for the Empire arrived in 1919. At intervals since the beginning of the century, the British in their colony of Somaliland had attempted to subdue Mohammed bin Abdullah Hassan, a radical Muslim who had organized an army in the jagged hills of the Somali interior. The British regarded Abdullah Hassan as a fanatic and dubbed him the ‘Mad Mullah’, a sobriquet so pithy that few in Britain ever remembered his real name. Put on lean rations by the tight colonial budget, the perceived remoteness of East Africa, and military demands of world war, the British constabulary in Somaliland could not control the Mullah and his followers, who at leisure sortied out of their hilltop fortresses to plunder lowland villages.

In May 1919, the Colonial Secretary, Lord Milner, summoned Trenchard to ask his advice about the Somali situation. ‘Why not leave the whole thing to us?’ Trenchard asked. ‘This is exactly the type of operation which the RAF can tackle on its own.’ Milner was not so sure, and others remonstrated too, but, after six months of lobbying and no more success by British land forces in capturing Abdullah Hassan, the government gave its consent.

A bomber squadron of a dozen planes arrived in Somaliland from Cairo in January 1920 and immediately went into battle. The planes bombed and strafed Abdullah Hassan’s headquarters and his fort at Jidali. His army broke up under fire; a locally recruited Camel Corps occupied the enemy’s strongholds. Abdullah Hassan was tracked to Abyssinia and killed soon after.27

Air control had proved itself effective, and the brief Somaliland campaign was, as the new Colonial Secretary Leopold Amery boasted, ‘the cheapest war in history’. There were other ‘semi-civilised enemies’ evidently deserving similar treatment. The RAF flew six squadrons of planes to northwest India, where they could be used to pacify obstreperous villages. The planes would dump leaflets on an offending village, warning its inhabitants to leave, for their homes were about to be bombed. The home of a suspected law breaker would be particularly targeted. After the attack would come an ‘air blockade’, in which the village and its outskirts would be selectively bombed to keep its residents away, until they agreed to abide by the law. The Emir of Afghanistan was reportedly deterred from attacking India when a 20-pound bomb was dropped on his palace grounds. Similar attacks were administered to rebellious Iraqis in 1921 and 1922. ‘The tribesmen and their families were put to confusion, many of whom ran into the lake, making good targets for the machine-guns,’ noted the operational report of an attack on Naseriyah—which occasioned an alarmed minute from Churchill, who worried the report would be published. In 1923 Trenchard’s airmen stopped a column of Turks intent on invading Iraq (or ‘Mespot’, as the British called it), and Trenchard’s bombers helped put down an incipient rebellion against the compliant King Abdullah of Transjordan.28

The executor of the bombing campaigns in India, Afghanistan, and Iraq was Arthur Harris, an air-power enthusiast in the mold of Trenchard, Douhet, and Mitchell. ‘Bomber’ Harris, he was called, as well as ‘The Chief Bomber’ (by Churchill), ‘Butch’ (by his crews), and ‘Butcher’ (by his critics). His father served in the Public Works Department in India, for which he designed buildings. Arthur spent much of his youth away from his parents in England, where he lived in ‘baby farms’ provided for the children of the Empire’s servants. At the age of 17, and like his future patron Trenchard, Harris went to southern Africa, in his case Rhodesia. He built houses, grew tobacco, and, when the First World War broke out, joined the 1st Rhodesian Regiment to fight the Germans in Southwest Africa. The campaign victorious, Harris left the regiment for England in August 1915. He was marched out: he wanted, he wrote, ‘to find some way of going to war in a sitting posture’. He did not trust horses. He joined the Royal Flying Corps.29

Harris was a pioneer of night flying. He served in the air defense of London, and also spent time in France, ‘bagging an occasional German fighter with our rear guns and photographing enemy trenches’. When the war ended he ‘more or less drifted into the RAF as a regular’ and was given command of a squadron. Demobilization loomed, and Harris despaired for the future of the air force. At that juncture, Churchill and Trenchard put forward their vision of air control. Harris was sent to India in 1921, there to take charge of mastering obstreperous villagers and dissuading the Emir of Afghanistan from invading the Northwest Frontier. He was transferred to Mespot in 1922, where he commanded the 45th Squadron of bombers. Harris put men and machines to frequent use, bombing Turks and tribals by day and night. ‘You could just imagine’, he wrote, ‘what they would think if they heard us over them in the darkness—you know, ‘ “By Allah they can ruddy well see us in the dark too.” ’ The success of the night raids, undertaken with what Harris called ‘baby incendiaries’, was of great interest to his superiors.30

The possibility that such attacks were unethical tugged only slightly at Harris, for he shared the views of Trenchard and the others that aerial bombing saved lives by ending wars more quickly. Bombing civilians was not illegal. Hague IV, ratified on 18 October 1907, had prohibited ‘the attack or bombardment of towns, villages, or buildings which are not defended’, but it pertained only to war on land. Hague IX, ratified at the same time, governed naval bombardment. In late 1922, while Harris was planning bombing runs in Mespot, the United States proposed, once more at The Hague, a convention governing aerial bombardment. It would have prohibited attacks from the sky ‘for the purpose of terrorizing the civilian population’, and declared such bombardment ‘legitimate only when directed at a military objective, that is to say, an object of which the destruction or injury would constitute a distinct military advantage to the belligerent’. Planes could not attack cities, towns, or villages unless these were in ‘the immediate neighborhood’ of land forces. The American proposal was rejected.31

Home from his adventures in Asia, Harris stayed in military harness but chafed at what he considered regressive thinking by officials. In 1919 the Lloyd George Cabinet had established the ‘Ten Year Rule’, which averred that Great Britain would not be forced to fight a major war for a decade. The rule was frequently reinvoked, including by Winston Churchill in 1928, and as such hobbled efforts to prepare the nation for later conflict and brought the military branches to squabbling with each other over scarce resources. Harris regarded the government’s attitude toward future war as tantamount to whistling past the graveyard. Meanwhile, he served as a senior staff officer in Egypt, and commanded a bomber group in Yorkshire. In 1938 he embarked on a plane-purchasing mission to the United States. He bought a number of aircraft from a small company called Lockheed, professing himself delighted with the planes and with American efficiency and ingenuity, but he voiced disappointment with the current state of the US air forces. A long-awaited trip to Palestine followed; Harris was eager to resume air policing, and he did so during the Arab Revolt in 1936-9. Harris was back in England on holiday on 1 September 1:939, when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced that Germany had invaded Poland. The British declared war on Germany two days later.32

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