Working Backwards from Berlin to the Bocage: Coalescing Airpower Application in the European Theater of Operations in 1944

Long-range missions striking Berlin in the spring of 1944 provided just as much support to Operation Overlord as fighters flying over the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944. This claim establishes the foundation for a more holistic, unifying narrative for airpower’s application in Europe. This approach also avoids the tendency to bifurcate airpower application into tactical and strategic airpower.[1] Flipping the traditional geographic narrative from Berlin to the bocage and back to Berlin again also highlights how long-range bombers and fighters seeking to achieve air superiority over Berlin enabled Allied troops to fight through the bocage, those much-reviled hedgerows of Normandy that favored German defenders. Throughout the rest of the war, short, medium, and long-range aircraft engaged in a single massive and mutually-reinforcing campaign rather than separate tactical and strategic campaigns.

Tactical airpower generally refers to airpower in direct support of what is occurring on the battlefield. The role of close air support epitomizes what often springs to mind when students of history think about tactical airpower. In this role, tactical airpower provides immediate support for troops on the ground through close communication and coordination.[2] It would be remiss, however, to stop there.

…the concept of interdiction better explains how airmen applied airpower even if they preferred to theorize along the lines of strategic bombardment.

Tactical airpower encompasses a greater range of roles, from air superiority to interdiction, which is the employment of military force to isolate the battlefield by preventing troops and supplies from reaching the battlefield. Indeed, as will be shown, the concept of interdiction better explains how airmen applied airpower even if they preferred to theorize along the lines of strategic bombardment.

Strategic bombardment highlights the ability of airpower to bypass the enemy’s army and directly target centers of gravity in an opponent’s heartland. For the Army Air Forces in World War II, some important strategic targets included electricity, oil, and aircraft factories.[3] Instructors at the Air Corps Tactical School had theorized during the interwar period that striking these targets could end wars quickly, because electricity and oil, in particular, functioned as the glue that held a modern society together.[4] It affected not only the military but factories, civilians, and even key decision makers. As such, it provided an effective and efficient way to wage war.

But, for the most part, the Army Air Force did not unleash its airpower as it had theorized prior to the war.[5] General Dwight D. Eisenhower and other key leaders ensured that the application of airpower fit U.S. national strategy as well as the needs of partner nations including Great Britain and the Soviet Union. Each nation viewed airpower as important, but no nation prioritized a strategic bombardment campaign as the best way to defeat Germany. Airmen attending the Casablanca Conference, for example, used their time to hash out important decisions about how the U.S. and Great Britain could partner in waging the Combined Bomber Offensive. But strategic bombardment as a whole did not dominate the overall agenda.[6]

Shifting from viewing the application of airpower as primarily constituting strategic bombardment to interdiction requires some subtle adjustments. Before and after the Normandy landings, for example, Eisenhower did let U.S. strategic bombers go after oil refineries. He did so less because he bought into theories of strategic bombardment and more because he wanted to stop the German military from getting the fuel it needed to sustain equipment on the modern battlefield, which thus constitutes interdiction rather than traditional strategic bombardment thinking.

Yet theories of strategic bombardment continue to shape airpower thinking more than the actual application. Last year’s airpower syllabus from Air Command and Staff College, for example, stated the Combined Bomber Offensive “was designed to break the will of Nazi Germany through targeting civilian society and industry.”[7] Indeed, the Air Corps Tactical School maintained that vision, but the American application of airpower focused foremost on counterforce targets, which can be better understood as interdiction.[8] This transition from theory to application can be seen by examining the differences in emphasis between Air War Plans Division (AWPD)-1, which represented the Air Corps Tactical School’s vision of future warfare focused on societies as a whole, and AWPD-42, which stressed the need to destroy the Luftwaffe.[9] The Combined Bomber Offensive—the British and American long-range bombing campaign against Germany—continues to be characterized first and foremost as a strategic bombardment campaign when it was not, at least as waged by the United States until the last months of the war.[10]

Moreover, authors tend to amplify divisions between tactical airpower used in Normandy, for example, with strategic airpower against Germany by writing books about the former or the latter, but not both. For the Combined Bomber Offensive, for example, one reads Tami Davis Biddle or Richard Overy. By contrast, one reads different books for aspects of the more combined air-ground war, such as Thomas Hughes’ Overlord: General Pete Quesada and the Triumph of Tactical Air Power in World War II.[11] These decisions often result from practicality, as it is difficult enough to write about one major aspect of the air war. But this tendency to organize airpower into tactical and strategic buckets receives amplification from professional military education, where classes cover either tactical or strategic airpower for the same pragmatic reasons that shape airpower writing.[12]

As a result, airpower application in the European theater in 1944 generally can be plotted on a map as shown below. In the typical narrative, tactical and strategic airpower converge in Berlin to defeat Germany in May of 1945. Except for occasional outliers—such as long-range bombers at times providing ineffective close air support in the Normandy campaign—this model envisions airpower being used simultaneously to fight the German Army with tactical airpower in Normandy and the German nation more directly with strategic airpower.

Technically, and importantly, the strategic airpower bubble also includes an air superiority campaign. But the traditional model muddies the waters between the waging of a strategic bombardment campaign and an air superiority campaign. It is still not entirely clear if the Air Corps Tactical School gave enough attention to the importance of a traditional air superiority prior to the war or if it tended to overstress flawed ideas about the bomber’s ability to penetrate defenses without escort.

Army Air Forces leaders’ actions during the war contribute to this opaqueness because they resisted the direction of U.S. strategy in Operation Overlord. General Carl Spaatz, head of the U.S. Strategic Air Forces in Europe, for example, issued a press release to his airmen two months before Normandy that highlighted current air operations as the “preliminary step toward unleashing the full bomb lift of both air forces against the Reich” rather than as vital efforts to achieve air superiority prior for Overlord. He explained in private meetings to other Army Air Forces officers that the primary purpose of Overlord was to “seize and hold advanced air bases.” Thus he argued the invasion need not proceed because his bombers already could hit any required target in Germany.[13] Spaatz wanted to wage a strategic bombardment campaign. He loudly decried the necessity of air superiority to enable the Normandy landings. Rather, he wanted to achieve air superiority so his bombers could get on with the business of destroying Germany itself.[14] Army officers, however, dictated a different course of action. 

By contrast, if one rejects the way the Army Air Forces wanted to view airpower and instead seeks to conceptualize it based on the actual effects it had in 1944, one arrives at a different model. Much of what gets labeled as strategic bombardment, at least before September 1944 and the shift toward a purer strategic air campaign, was really interdiction. This model places the bulk of the effect the Army Air Forces and the Royal Air Force had on the battlefield itself, thereby rejecting the two institutions’ self-serving theories of strategic bombardment for one that places more stress on interdiction.

The model below posits a continuum of airpower applied across an entire theater from Berlin to the bocage and then back to Berlin. Normally, one tends to think of operations in Normandy’s bocage before Berlin. Here, though, these places have been reversed purposefully. The air superiority campaign over Berlin made the bocage possible because the German Air Force had begun conserving itself after the success the Army Air Forces had in Operation Argument in February of 1944 and its continuing air superiority campaign. Striking Berlin and other key targets with long-range bombers beginning in March of 1944, then, forced the German Air Force into the air to defend its nation.[15]

As a result, the Army Air Forces made tremendous contributions to the war against Germany in 1944, but its missions to Berlin had more immediate tactical than strategic intent and effect. They fulfilled tactical intent because senior leaders understood they provoked the German Air Force into the air. And they had tactical effect for the same reason: they provided critical air superiority over the beachheads even if they did not occur on the same day. Time or the immediacy of the effect, in other words, does not set the condition for evaluating the extent to which direct battlefield support is being provided. The Army Air Forces’ long-range bombers focused primarily on air superiority until the summer of 1944, and this support was just as essential to the soldiers and sailors on the ground as those flying missions over Normandy on June 6. During this timeframe, bombers flew to Berlin in cloudy weather, because their intended effect was not the destruction of industrial targets but attriting the Luftwaffe in the air. Thus they had to choose targets that the Luftwaffe was committed to defending.[16]

In addition, the U.S. began its air campaign against Germany by going after aircraft factories and related targets with long-range bombers, and it played an important interdiction role by preventing aircraft from being built. It could be argued that what some have called strategic interdiction—or interdiction where equipment is built—can be more efficient and even more effective than interdiction that occurs elsewhere, such as just short of the battlefield.[17] But it is challenging to establish the varying strategic effect of one airplane targeting an aircraft factory in Berlin—If it does manage to strike the exact target, for example, how much long-term damage is caused?—and one airplane strafing an airfield in France. In short, long-range bombers did not inherently engage in strategic missions; they just had the capability of further reach.

Medium-range bombers functioned in a similar role, albeit in a different geographical area with a smaller bomb load. Although they did not strike the exact targets, as they could not reach essential oil targets, their other responsibilities overlapped significantly with long-range bombers. They provided air superiority by targeting airfields closer to Normandy, for example. They also played a key role in interdiction by striking transportation targets. Thus, they ultimately had the same kind of effect on the unfolding Normandy campaign. Again, the ultimate effect medium-range bombers had as opposed to long-range bombers is impossible to establish.

Focusing on a range of tactical air support from air superiority to interdiction to close air support across a vast theater stretching from Berlin to Normandy reveals a more logical pattern of mutually-supporting airpower application.[18] Both the medium- and long-range fighters enabled the actions of the fighter-bombers closer to the battlefield, thereby helping the combined arms campaign in Normandy while also stretching the battlefield, as forces on the ground continued to push into Germany throughout the rest of 1944.

From September until May of 1945, the strategic calculus shifted as the Allies continued to progress toward Germany, and thus the Army Air Forces finally got its wish to unleash more of its theoretical vision of strategic airpower upon Germany while the combined arms drive on the ground continued. But this drive to Berlin had been underwritten by the previous drive from Berlin to the bocage that had done much to secure air superiority vis-à-vis aircraft, even if it never fully resolved the question of anti-aircraft guns. This unified and shared effort resulted, in this phase, in more of an even division of labor between desired effects on the German army and those on German society, as depicted below.

Proponents of strategic airpower argued endlessly with those who trusted in other ways to win. Yet, the resulting application demonstrated a far more complex and unified approach to airpower than envisioned by the inter-war airmen theorizing at the Air Corps Tactical School, who resolutely set out to determine how to bring Germany to its knees. When it came time to use airpower, higher powers such as General Eisenhower dictated airpower be used primarily as part of a counterforce campaign, not a strategic bombardment one. 

From Berlin to the bocage and then again back to Berlin, airpower contributed greatly to Allied efforts against Germany. In today’s multi-domain parlance, airpower created multiple dilemmas for Germany over an enormous theater stretching from Normandy all the way to Berlin, resulting in a more sophisticated understanding of airpower than can be obtained by placing airpower into two different camps of close air support in Normandy and a strategic bombardment campaign in Germany. Berlin and the bocage may have been almost a thousand miles apart, but it is useful to think about them being much closer when it comes to airpower.

Heather Venable is an assistant professor of military and security studies at the U.S. Air Command and Staff College and teaches in the Department of Airpower. She has written a forthcoming book entitled How the Few Became the Proud: Crafting the Marine Corps Mystique, 1874-1918. The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: "Fire Over Ploesti" painted by Roy Grinnell (Air Force Art Program)


[1] For the limitations of this division, see Colin Gray, Airpower for Strategic Effect (Maxwell Air Force Base: Air University Press, 2012), 272 and 282-283.

[2] Today, U.S. military doctrine defines close air support as “air action by fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft against hostile targets that are in close proximity to friendly forces and require detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of those forces.” Joint Publication 3-09.3, “Close Air Support,” 25 November 2014, accessed at

[3] Heather Venable, “The Strategic Triangle: The Air Corps Tactical School and Its Vision of Future Warfare,” From Balloons to Drones, July 24, 2019,

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Richard Overy, The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War over Europe, 1940-1945 (New York: Penguin, 2014) , 108.

[7] Syllabus, “Airpower I: Capabilities and Limitations in the Command of Airpower,” 10 Oct 2018, previous available online at

[8] Heather Venable, “Much Ado about Strategic Bombardment: The Army Air Forces in the European Theater of Operations, 1942-1945,” Strategy Bridge, 6 May 2019, online at

[9] Heather Venable, “The Strategic Triangle: The Air Corps Tactical School and Its Vision of Future Warfare,” From Balloons to Drones, 24 July 2019,

[10] For a challenge to this perspective, see, for example, Heather Venable, “Much Ado about Strategic Bombardment?: The Army Air Forces in the European Theater of Operations, 1945-1945” The Strategy Bridge,

[11] The airpower course used these sources in last year’s course. Syllabus, “Airpower I,” 10 Oct 2018.

[12] The pragmatic break-down of classes reinforces the “tactical” and “strategic” divide. Students discussed the “The Air-Ground Team in North Africa and Europe” and “The Combined Bomber Offensive and the Efficacy of Strategic Attack” on the next day. Syllabus, “Airpower I: Capabilities and Limitations in the Command of Airpower,” 10 Oct 2018, previous available online at

[13] Notes Taken During a Conference between Gen. Spaatz and Gen. Vandenberg, 10 April 1944, Carl Spaatz Papers, Box 15, Library of Congress.

[14] Lt Gen Carl Spaatz, Progress in the Air War, 20 April 1944, Carl Spaatz Papers, Box 14, Library of Congress.

[15] Stephen Darlow, D-Day Bombers: The Veteran’s Story (London: Bounty Books, 2007), 55.

[16] Stephen L. McFarland and Wesley Phillips Newton, “The American Strategic Air Offensive against Germany in World War II,” in R. Cargill Hall, ed., Case Studies in Strategic Bombardment (Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1998), 218.

[17] See Robert Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press) for the argument that important differences exist between tactical, operational, and strategic interdiction. For one of the few airmen to theorize about interdiction, see John Slessor, Air Power and Armies (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2009; reprint, 1936).

[18] Although the author does not sketch out this model, his thematic work inspired these chapters: Ian Gooderson, Air Power at the Battlefront: Allied Close Air Support in Europe, 1943-45 (London: Frank Cass, 1998).