Much Ado About Strategic Bombardment? The Army Air Forces in the European Theater of Operations, 1942-1945

Strategic bombardment looms large in the history of the U.S. Air Force, mostly because air power theorists, like those of the other domains, fell victim to the enduring allure of quick, decisive victories. In envisioning how to win future wars, Billy Mitchell wanted to strike a city’s vital centers, resulting in a society’s “paralysis.” The Air Corps Tactical School, by contrast, focused more on the “collapse” of the enemy’s economy. Like Mitchell, the Air Corps Tactical School hoped to end a war quickly but by a different means: identifying a bottleneck that could bring the economy to a grinding halt. These examples of strategic bombardment are well known to readers of works like Tami Davis Biddle’s Rhetoric and Reality, which argues, among other things, the U.S. Army Air Forces waged a rhetorical war of high-altitude daylight precision bombardment. In reality, though, she argues it ended up fighting a campaign characterized by imprecise area bombing that did not differ greatly from the more purposeful British decimation of German cities.

Another well-researched work, Richard Overy’s The Bombers and the Bombed, draws more distinctions between U.S. and British strategic bombardment to suggest U.S. precision bombing, limited to about 25% of its efforts, had the greatest effect on World War II through the destruction of the German Air Force, oil, and transportation, but these effects largely resulted from attrition due to the sheer scale of its efforts. Also, the Army Air Forces waged its war more effectively because it concerned itself with air superiority, unlike the British, who transitioned toward a strategy of area bombing due to high losses initially. The current scholarly consensus perhaps could be summarized as follows: U.S. strategic bombardment made a reasonably important, albeit inefficient contribution to the war’s outcome. As such, it fell short of what airpower zealots had envisioned. This article does not seek to challenge this view; rather, it seeks to examine tensions and potential problems in the conceptualization of strategic bombardment.

Rather than viewing the Combined Bomber Offensive in the way that the Air Corps Tactical School or Billy Mitchell did, it is more useful to consider how heavy bombers indirectly provided critical support to the overall theater effort. Heavy bombers may have spent more time attempting to strike tactical targets than strategic ones. As such, the Army Air Forces devoted a far smaller percentage of its resources to waging a true strategic bombardment campaign than is commonly thought.

This debate is not just an academic one for several reasons. First, the Air Force’s flirtation with strategic attack, beginning anew in the 1990s after Operation Desert Storm, had consequences because it alienated joint partners when some airmen claimed the Air Force won the war largely by itself. This narrative persists even though the Air Force’s own survey highlighted the “remarkable outcome” of attacks against counterland targets in the Kuwaiti Theater of Operations. Second, general understanding of the European Theater of Operations tends to be compartmentalized into a bucket of tactical airpower, associated with close air support and interdiction, and a bucket of strategic airpower, represented by the Combined Bomber Offensive. Yet heavy bombers supported the ground effort in multiple ways, and the Combined Bomber Offensive was as much about destroying German airpower—a tactical mission—as it was about the allure of strategic attack. The more one introduces artificial seams into historical understandings of airpower, the more one takes away from its vaunted fungibility and flexibility. This is not due to significant or lingering dogmatism or zealotry on the part of airmen; rather, it results from the tendency of airpower historians to focus on two specific airpower roles on different ends of the spectrum: close air support and strategic bombardment. More must be done to view airpower from a seamless theater perspective across the range of all its roles.

For this discussion, tactical airpower will be defined as seeking effects to undermine the enemy's fielded forces. Tactical airpower thus includes roles such as air superiority, interdiction, and close air support, among others. This approach stresses how the application of airpower impedes the enemy’s ability to wage war rather than where the destruction occurs, a delineation airmen began in World War I. The Army Air Force intended to have an outsized effect on the war by efficiently destroying material at the source. But, as has already been shown with reference to Overy, it could not employ force efficiently enough to accomplish this strategic aim according to its pre-war vision.

Strategic airpower is understood, by contrast, as affecting a nation and its population writ large, not just its fielded forces. Or, as the Air Force today defines it, it is “focused on the adversary’s overall system.” The British naval blockade of World War I, for example, can be understood as mostly strategic in that it sought to impose such high costs on German society that it could break the nation’s will to continue fighting. A more tactical blockade, by contrast, would have as its intended effect the interdiction of supplies or products that the military sought to use on the battlefield. In some ways, this approach seeks to add some nuance to Colin Gray’s helpful ideas about airpower. Gray compellingly insists that all applications of airpower are “tactical in the doing.” As such, a bomber is not strategic in and of itself by virtue of its platform. Yet Gray’s suggestion that each and every action in war has some kind of strategic effect—while theoretically true—leaves something to be desired for practitioners.

Similarly, the underpinnings of how strategic airpower can compel the enemy have often been imprecise in seeking vaguely to “make a maximum contribution” to an enemy’s defeat. For many airmen, strategic airpower has been viewed as offering a kind of direct line to convince enemy leadership to concede. The ironically-named Air Corps Tactical School, by contrast, focused its inter-war efforts on collapsing an opponent’s economy. In this way, it lost sight of how the Army Air Forces might use its aircraft more tactically to affect the enemy’s ability to continue to wage war, as it ended up employing them in World War II more than has been recognized if one challenges early conceptualizations of airpower as flawed. A quick strategic fracturing of the German economy proved impossible given its elastic industry.

1943 United States Army Air Forces strategic bombing raid on the ball bearing works at Schweinfurt, Germany. (Wikimedia)

Between 1942 and 1945, U.S. heavy bombers dropped a total of 714,719 tons of bombs in the European theater. Of that, about 22 percent could perhaps be considered as strategic. But that number is probably far too high, as much of that number has been generously acquired by including the target sets shaded gray in the table below, of which it is unlikely more than half really constitute strategic targets. “City areas” comes closest, obviously, to representing the vision of the strategic bombardment theorists like Giulio Douhet and Billy Mitchell, and the Army Air Force devoted only 6.6% of total bomb tonnage to such efforts. While it could be argued the Army Air Forces’ lack of precision resulted in unintended effects on the civilian populations of cities, the Army Air Forces intended these errant bombs to hit more tactical targets that just happened to be located in urban areas.

The Army Air Forces also focused on aircraft factories that produced material for the battlefield, including the tactical mission of destroying aircraft production to help achieve air superiority. These kinds of attacks only received about 6% of the Army Air Force’s bomb tonnage. It devoted slightly more to other unspecified industrial targets. The attritional nature of these attacks no doubt had an effect, but it is doubtful whether that effect merits the label “strategic” as airmen understood it.

Transportation and the means to enable transportation (e.g., oil) received the majority of the Army Air Forces’ effort against Germany. These targets should be considered as tactical because their primary intent was to keep the nation from using its railroads to send soldiers and materiel to the battlefield and from using its oil to fly airplanes and drive tanks. Attacks on marshaling yards, which received 27% of U.S. tonnage, sought to prevent troops from being moved from one theater to another as reinforcements, for example, as did roads and bridges and therefore sought to interdict Germany’s logistical capacity. How well these attacks succeeded, however, is debatable. Likewise, oil kept tanks and airplanes moving on the battlefield, bringing these two target sets to a total of 36.5% of Army Air Forces’ tonnage. It could be argued, as Alfred Mierzejewski has, the marshalling yards constituted more of a strategic target than a tactical one in that they were the most vital node affecting key aspects of German society. But even taking the extreme step of removing the target set entirely, given Mierzejewski only argues for that approach beginning in September of 1944, and only considering oil, airfields, railroads, military installations, and ground cooperation still leaves 39% of target sets devoted to affecting German fielded forces, a far higher percentage than one would consider when reading books about U.S. strategic bombardment.

That so many of these military targets happened to be in cities and that so many battlefields happened to be located at a significant distance from them is irrelevant in declaring a target to be strategic given the primary effect was on the German military. But that is not how we tend to think because of one of strategic bombardment’s key assumptions: that one need not target fielded forces when one can fly over them directly to an enemy’s vital centers. Yet, by their own self-serving logic of total war, airmen understood an enemy’s vital center to be replete with combatants. In thinking about total war, influential airmen like Billy Mitchell turned civilians—such as those industrial workers who made war material—into combatants.  Paradoxically, though, they continued to distinguish falsely between the tactical area of the traditional battlefield and the strategic area of an enemy’s vital centers because it served their own purposes.

Note: The teal shading indicates targets seeking a primary effect on fielded forces, while the gray denotes more strategic targets, again, with a very conservative coding that gives strategic targets the benefit of the doubt. (Army Air Forces Statistical Digest)

Note: The teal shading indicates targets seeking a primary effect on fielded forces, while the gray denotes more strategic targets, again, with a very conservative coding that gives strategic targets the benefit of the doubt.

Over time we have accepted the U.S. Army Air Forces’ own flawed vision of strategic bombardment as useful for understanding World War II. But this narrative misconceptualized strategic bombardment, in part because airmen sought so fervently to conduct independent, decisive air operations to separate themselves from the U.S. Army because they believed this was the best way to use airpower. As a result, this approach led them at times to downplay the importance of ground support. It is important to parse differences in how airmen envisioned using airpower in a strategic bombardment campaign, how those understandings changed over time, and how they actually employed it.

Re-envisioning the strategic bombardment campaign as far more tactical helps us to view the Army Air Forces’ efforts as a holistic theater air war requiring mutually supporting and simultaneous missions of air superiority, bombardment, and close air support, among others, to defeat Germany. The battlefield was a large one, stretching all the way from Normandy to Berlin and beyond. Working from the flawed vision of airmen for strategic airpower, historians, students, and airpower practitioners have not fully appreciated the tactical effect the heavy bombers had on the European theater of World War II far beyond the notable times they directly supported soldiers. Ultimately, they may have provided as much support to the fielded forces as did Pete Quesada’s airmen riding in tanks across northern France, calling in attacks on Germans. They just did it in a very different way.

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: B-17s over Germany in March 1945. (U.S. Air Force Photo)