Max Hastings’ Bomber Command is a powerful argument in support of not allowing a new generation of Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Trenchard’s spreading unchecked the gospel of “airpower above all.” Tom Clancy in Every Man a Tiger, a book about Lieutenant General Chuck Horner, the US joint air commander during Gulf War 2 (Desert Storm, 1991) wrote at length about the latterday Trenchards still embedded in the US Air Force. Clancy and Horner thought their logic lacked realism. That lack of realism didn’t stop former US President Bill Clinton from believing the bomber apostles that ethnic trouble could be bombed to a halt in Kosovo in 1999.
Both presidents George Bush had the good sense not to fall for this nonsense, whatever else they may have done. Perhaps this is because both were fighter pilots, Bush Snr during World War Two and Bush Jr in the Texas National Guard. Modern coalition and joint warfare is no place for service chauvinism and branch one-upmanship. As Horner points out, joint headquarters and coalitions nowadays fight wars, not services. There is no room for doctrine or jingo-talk that suggests otherwise.
“The doctrinaire advocates of airpower believe, as an article of faith that destroying the “controlling centres” of an enemy nation will render the enemy impotent and helpless, no matter how powerful his forces in the field. The doctrinaire advocates of land power conceive of air only as flexible longer-range artillery, really useful only against those same enemy forces in the field. The reality does not so much lie in between as it varies with the demands of the situation,” Clancy writes. “There is a further debate among airpower intelligentsia about whether the attack should be aimed at destroying an enemy’s means (his military forces and the various facilities that allow him to make war) or his will (his determination to resist). The extremists on both sides hold that if you do one, then you don`t need to do the other. Both are wrong,” Clancy adds. “Attacking an enemy’s will can pay big dividends, but it is hard to know exactly how to do it. Bombing cities into dust sometimes works, as does targeting his military capabilities, but both are costly and have many drawbacks; so the theorists can debate in their ivory towers until they run out of words. In Desert Storm, coalition air forces attempted to destroy the will of Iraq by bombing leadership targets in Baghdad, but these attacks failed miserably to degrade Iraq`s determination to resist. Why? Because coalition air commanders did not know what constituted the sources and strength of Saddam’s (Hussein) will.”
Hastings records it was no better during World War Two. Britain totally misread the Germans. They imagined German society and industry to be highly militarised. The reverse was true. “Because he (Adolf Hitler) regarded war as an instrument of policy to be use and discarded as a matter of short-term expediency, he sought to employ the minimum (Hastings` emphasis) possible economic resources to enable the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe to achieve a given objective…” As a result there was, as late as 1943, an enormous slack capacity in the economy that could be diverted from consumer production Nearly a million-and-a-half people were still employed as domestic servants and six million more in consumer and service industries. Another myth swallowed whole by the British, and still widely believed by the public to this day, was that of the efficiency of the German war machine. A more disorganised lot would be difficult to imagine. The truth of the German war economy was not that some all-powerful entity was in charge, but that no one was in over-all charge. Hitler practiced divide-and-rule among his major and minor henchmen till the day he died. “The ceaseless struggle for personal power among the Nazi leaders precluded the much more coordinated economic controls and policies adopted as a matter of course in Britain and America,” Hastings wrote.
This was not the only area where British airpower theory was delusional. “The RAF`s misfortune was that it had believed its own publicity. For twenty years it luxuriated in the conviction ‘We are, ergo we are capable of a strategic bombing offensive,” Max Hastings explained. Between the fall of France in June 1940 and the US entry into World War Two in December 1941, Bomber Command was the only Branch of any British service that could take the war to the Germans. Hastings` evidence is that Prime Minister Winston Churchill never bought into the strategic bombing claptrap – but until D-Day became a certainty, he had nothing else to show Germans and occupied Europe that Britain was still in the war. Hastings argues this is where a horrible irony arises: During the first part of this period the RAF faced the bleak reality that its ends, winning the war through the strategic bombing of Germany, was well beyond the capacity of its means: its bomber aircraft and bomber aircrew. When from 1943 onwards the introduction of airborne radar and Pathfinders changed this equation, the bomber barons – and they were not called this for no reason, fiercely protective of their personal fiefdoms and convinced through faulty bomb-damage assessments from sycophantic staff that Germany`s collapse was imminent, would not let go from the notion that they were on the cusp of single-handedly winning the war. How effective bombing had become – and how unable it was to end the war was illustrated by the destruction of Darmstadt on the night of 11/12 September 1944.
“The Royal Air Force entered the Second World War committed to demonstrating that the air-dropped bomb was a weapon of unique capabilities. Political, social and professional pressure on the infant service drove the airmen to adopt a messianic approach, and it is precisely for this reason that some historians have argued that the RAF should never have become an independent service in 1918. The airmen, desperately jealous of their freedom, became obsessed with their need for an independent function. Only a strategic bomber offensive seemed able to provide this,” Hastings concludes. Britain invested immensely in strategic bombing, by some estimates up to one third of its total war effort. The air dropped bomb was no more potent than any other explosive object. “The airmen`s great error, in which they have persisted to this day, was their refusal to admit that they overstated their case.” Horner considers phrases such as “strategic bomber offensive” as obsolete at best and misleading at worst. We should remember that.
Tom Clancy with Chuck Horner
Every Man a Tiger
Sidgwick & Jackson
Pan Grand Strategy Series
(First published by Michael Joseph, 1979)