While Interwar air theorists were fond of arguing that strategic airpower was a cheaper alternative to massive armies and navies, the truth was that it was (and remains) extremely expensive. This is largely the reason that Great Britain and the United States became the dominant strategic airpowers of the Second World War - they were the only nations whose resources allowed them to invest in such a concept. This is not to say that other powers did not try.
It is rather shocking to consider how far French airpower had fallen between the two world wars. At the end of the Great War, the French Aéronautique Militaire was the largest air force in the world, consisting of some 3,700 aircraft – all of which were the equal of any other major power. Regardless, heavy bombardment seemed to have made little impact on French high command, the 1918 interdiction campaign against the Briey-area, for example, being generally regarded as a failure. Still, like most of the nations described here, strategic airpower was seen by French airmen after the war as a means toward service independence, and as such, France was one of the few countries to readily translate and publish Giulio Douhet’s works.
Progress came with the establishment of an Air Ministry in 1928 and the Armée de l’Air in 1933, still final authority rested with the Chef d’État-Major des Armées, dominated throughout the Interwar years by army commanders who had admittedly little understanding of airpower. (As we have seen, this was not unusual). French airmen made a concerted effort to bring Douhet’s concepts into reality, particularly in regard to the heavily-armed bomber he called the “battleplane.” The problem was, in order to get military approval for such aircraft, French airmen had to classify these bombers as multipurpose units, resulting in pitiful BCR (bomber/combat/recon) designs like the Breguet 410. The old phrase that ‘to be a jack of all trades is to be a master of none’ certainly applied here, and it should also be noted that at the time of Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, French documents were still referring to strategic bombers as ‘heavy defensive aircraft.’
While the Breguet 410 saw only limited use, its ungainly design was typical of French bombers of the 1930s.
With the socialist rejection of small-government conservatism growing throughout Europe in the wake of the Great Depression, the Aéropostale scandal of 1932 provided an impetus for Édouard Daladier’s Radical government to strong-arm France’s aviation industry into modernization. Under the leadership of Pierre Cot (1933-1934, 1936-1938), the Air Ministry began nationalizing France’s aviation industry, merging heretofore cottage industries into major corporations (a similar event occurred in the US). Cot was easily France’s leading proponent of military aviation reform and his position as a civilian administrator should be noted here: the French military traditionally took a hard line on dissent and certainly would have never tolerated someone as outspoken as Mitchell, Trenchard, or Douhet within its ranks.
Pierre Cot. As noted earlier in my discussion with Nic, Venona decryptions in 1943 revealed Cot as a Soviet agent under the code name “Dedal.”
Guy La Chambre and Prime Minister Édouard Daladier exit the council of ministers, 1938.
Air doctrine from Cot’s ministry show a strong Douhetian influence, arguing for the need to gain air superiority at the onset of war and dedicating much of his second term’s budget to bomber production. Still, many of Cot’s reforms were undone by his successor, Guy La Chambre (1938-1940), including Cot’s most important reform: giving air forces defensive command independent of army commanders. Indeed, failure to appease French army officers - Maurice Gamelin in particular - proved to be Cott’s undoing in regard to airpower reform. The success of tactical aviation in the Spanish Civil War had a global impact on airpower thinking, and for the French, it confirmed the army’s old argument that military aviation was best used in support of - and subordinate to - the Army.
Plan II (Victor Denain - 1935)
Plan II Revised (Pierre Cott - 1936)
Plan V (Guy La Chambre - 1938)
Airborne Infantry: 24
Of course, before condemning La Chambre, it should be noted that he was not personally opposed to a strategic air role for the Armée de l’Air, and the decisions made during his tenure were by no means dissimilar to that of Britain at the time. The difference comes in management. Nationalization had not gone smoothly and while production-numbers increased, production-times still lagged. It was not uncommon for aircraft just entering service to have been designed over eight years prior, and it was this sort of problem that worried La Chambre enough to caution against a hard line on the Munich Agreement of 1938. Similarly, it is worth noting that there was little standardization in the French aviation industry, best exemplified by the myriad of fighter designs France had in 1939 compared to Germany, which had built its fighter force almost entirely around the Bf-109.
Underpowered and pitifully armed, the Morane-Saulnier M.S.406 was France’s most numerous fighter during the German invasion, with 453 serving in on frontline units as of 1 April 1940.
France’s most modern fighter in 1940, the Dewoitine D.520. Only 11 were on frontline service as of 1 April 1940, the number increasing to 57 the following month.
While making up only a tenth of France’s fighter force (140 in frontline units as of 1 April 1940), the Curtiss P-36 (purchased from the US) accounted for nearly a third of all French aerial victories in 1940.
This was a shame as there were several French companies that produced innovative and modern designs; it’s just that these were outnumbered by older designs unsuited for the task of modern war. It certainly did not help that the French government steadfastly refused purchasing foreign orders until domestic objection forced the issue – and even then, these orders were limited in scale. In hindsight, there seems to have been a reluctance in French leadership to decisively resolve these issues, being more interested in consolidating and maintaining power than resolving power structure. This quote is a long one, but I think it sums up the French situation nicely:
Despite the far-sighted though initially disruptive industrial restructuring of 1937, the adoption of an air rearmament plan worthy of the name in 1938, and the emergence of up-to-the-minute aircraft in 1939, war in and from the skies remained the Achilles heel of French defense right down to 1940. . . . French air rearmament right into the war remained an unsatisfactory half-way house, the product of competing views of its main purpose and of compromise as to the Armée de l’Air’s relation to Gamelin’s land forces. . . . The inadequacy of French air strength, 1938-9, originated, in Gamelin’s estimation, from the late start to French air rearmament. Exacerbating this basic problem, contended Gamelin, was the mismanagement of the aviation industry’s modernization in 1936-7 – a task which the general thought should have been entrusted not to a political ideologue such as Cot but to a proven businessman or a military technocrat. These handicaps to French air rearmament were, according to Gamelin, complicated further in 1938-9 by the failure of the political authorities to resolve unambiguously the place of the air force in national strategy and within the command structure. . . . Daladier shared as well the calculation of the Radicals (to say nothing of parties further to the left) that, historically, the more French military chiefs were kept divided and beset by their own rivalries, the less likely they were to challenge their submission to civil authority. . . . Consequently, resort was made to compromise: at the price of stepping back from direct command of the northeastern theatre facing Germany, Gamelin was empowered to distribute air as well as land forces between different theatres of operations wherever France had interests and military deployments. On this murky definition of attributions the issue of an integrated air-army command was left to rest.
Alexander, Martin S. The Republic In Danger: General Maurice Gamelin and the Politics of French Defense, 1933-1940. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 1992.
Despite its reputation for technological backwardness, Russia was actually one of the earliest nation’s to embrace the airplane. Scientist Nikolay Zhukovsky opened an aerodynamics institute in 1904 – the first of its kind – and Igor Sikorsky constructed the world’s first four-engine aircraft in 1913, a later variant of which (the Ilya Muromets) was arguably history’s first heavy bomber. Still, despite Russian ingenuity in the field, the lack of a powerful industrial economy left the Imperial Russian Air Service painfully dependent on foreign imports, which usually consisted of outdated leftovers from Western Europe. Naturally, the Eastern Front of the Great War failed to reach the heights of strategic incubation witnessed on the Western Front, and as a result, the new Soviet government saw little real use for aircraft aside from the obvious role of tactical ground-support.
The technological issue still remained in the Interwar years, the preceding years of economic ruin and civil war having brought the aviation industry to a standstill, with many of Russia’s brightest aviation minds fleeing Eastern Europe for their lives. The solution to this was quite shrewd: Germany, tied down by the Versailles Treaty, signed a trade agreement with the Soviet Union on 6 May 1921 which, among other things, saw to the construction of a Junkers aircraft factory on the outskirts of Moscow. It was a mutually beneficial agreement, one that was absolutely critical to the development of a Soviet aviation infrastructure. The degree to which German air theory influenced the Soviets in unclear, but it is worth noting that the dominant concepts in both nations complemented one another. Air power was best used in support of the army, with tactical and interdiction strikes being used to aid in quick breakthroughs.
Soviet military theorist Mikhail Frunze, purged in 1925 during a routine hospital visit.
In large part the absence of strategic bombing from doctrinal debates simply reflected continuing shortages in materiel and personnel, a stunted industrial base’s inability to make good these deficiencies, and the limited capabilities of even the most advanced aircraft and bombs of that day. Yet it also reflected a widespread and long-lasting prejudice that bombing was merely an extension of the artillery. In 1928, for instance, the initial study by a leading VVS [Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily (Military Air Forces)] theorist, E. V. Agokas, was entitled Aerial Artillery, and in 1932 the Soviet Military Encyclopedia still defined an ‘aviation bomb’ simply as ‘an artillery shell that is released from a flying machine.’ Not surprisingly, the Main Artillery Administration retained responsibility throughout this era for developing and designing aircraft bombs, and a VVS study of 1927 on ground attacks in effect equated the role of bombs with that of machine guns. Whatever the theory, this study concluded that given the equipment and weaponry available, flyers might act independently as direct participants on the battlefield, but they still could do so only as one major element in a complex of means, and in themselves they remained incapable of delivering the decisive blow (a la Frunze) at the tactical-operational, let alone at the strategic, level.
Jones, David R. “The Emperor and the Despot: Statesmen, Patronage, and the Strategic Bomber in Imperial and Soviet Russia, 1909-1959.” The Influence of Airpower Upon History: Statesmanship, Diplomacy, and Foreign Policy Since 1903. Edited by Robin Higham and Mark Parillo. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2013.
What interest the Soviet government had in strategic bombing seems to have come primarily from Joseph Stalin who, upon consolidating power in 1927, personally assumed control of Soviet defense. Stalin was easily swayed and the programs invested in by his government did not reflect any real doctrinal framework – the goal was modernization, at any cost. There was good reason for concern as, in 1929 for example, the USSR only fielded 50 bombers and 630 fighters in comparison to its whopping 1,800 reconnaissance aircraft. Andrei Tupolev’s all-metal TB-1 monoplane, designed in 1925, had been a giant leap forward by any nation’s standards, and Stalin eagerly pushed for developments based on this design. The same year the new design entered service – the 1935 Tupolev TB-3 – a Russian translation of Douhet’s work was made required reading for all Soviet air officers. Like Benito Mussolini, the influence Douhet and Mitchell had on Stalin is debatable as, for Stalin, strategic bombardment was primarily useful for propaganda. It certainly worked. 1934 saw the introduction of the Tupolev ANT-20, a converted bomber-turned-airborne-loudspeaker, which was by far the world’s largest aircraft, and remained so for the rest of the decade. That same year, the ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ award was specially-created to honor a group of airmen who had rescued the crew of the SS Chelysukin using TB-1s after they had been stranded on ice in the Chukchi Sea.
The effect of Stalin’s ‘Five Year Plans’ was mixed. They certainly succeeded in building aircraft numbers, as by 1939, aircraft output had risen from 2,509 in 1932 to 10,342. The problem was one of quantity over quality. Vasiliy Khripin could claim in 1936 that the USSR had the world’s largest bomber force and be more-or-less accurate, but the vast majority of these bombers were already horrendously out of date. In May 1941, for example, the Soviet heavy bomber force consisted of 11 TB-7s – a 1936 design and the latest Soviet heavy bomber – and 516 TB-3s; suicidally, the Soviet did not hesitate to take these ancient designs to war.
Aside from the usual Soviet resource issues, two reasons above all account for this state-of-affairs. First, Stalin had closely followed the Spanish Civil War and was thoroughly disgusted with the poor performance of Soviet aircraft against those of Italy and Germany. This, combined with the lackluster results from the area bombing of Spanish cities, thoroughly turned Stalin’s attention toward modernizing his fighter and light bomber force.
The Tupolev TB-3 was the world’s first cantilever wing four-engine bomber, and it remained the Soviet Union’s primary heavy bomber throughout the Second World War.
Originally designated the TB-7, the Tupolev Pe-8 was meant to replace the aged TB-3, but problems with its engines saw the design switch powerplants five times in its short service life. Lacking high-altitude turbochargers and flame-dampeners for night operations, the Pe-8 - like the TB-3 - suffered heavy losses.
The Soviets’ emphasis upon tactical aviation at this time was not solely a response to the experience in Spain but also a pragmatic approach to understanding their own position with respect to technology. The Soviet industry of this time did not produce the radios, navigation instruments, sophisticated bombsights, and other technology advanced materiel needed for long-distance strategic bombing campaigns. Creation of simple, rugged aircraft to serve as light bombers and fighters, however, lay within the capabilities of Soviet industry. Therefore, on the eve of war, the Soviets reoriented much of their aircraft production to the building of assault aircraft and light bombers, as well as fighter planes to escort them. It was a wise decision.
Corum, James S. “Airpower Thought in Continental Europe between the Wars.” The Paths of Heaven: The Evolution of Airpower Theory. Edited by Colonel Phillip S. Meilinger, United States Air Force 1997. Reprint, Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1998.
Second was the ‘Great Purge.’ While the true rationale behind these executions may never be known, Soviet command officers were subjected to a slew of accusations of Trotsky-ist conspiracy against Stalin starting in 1937. Not surprisingly, these purges removed several of the USSR’s leading air theorists from life and memory, including such notable officers as Yakov Alksnis (killed 1938), Alexander Lapchinsky (killed 1938), and Mikhail Tukhachevsky (killed 1937), as well as aircraft designers like Andrei Tupolev and Vladimir Petlyakov (both imprisoned in 1937).
The onset of war with Germany eventually loosened Stalin’s hard-line on the military out of sheer necessity, and the Soviet Union’s heavy bomber forces did see limited, though costly, usage. The ever-so-clunky TB-7s fared somewhat better than their TB-3 predecessors, and even went so far as to make a few heavily-publicized strikes on Berlin (which accomplished nothing). Still, the primary usage of this small force of heavy bombers was in support of tactical operations and losses were always high. The Soviet Union unofficially ceased heavy bomber operations altogether on 1 August 1944, and would not undergo any further significant attempts at a strategic bomber program until acquiring US Boeing B-29s in 1945, replicating them as the Tupolev Tu-4 for Cold War usage.
CINC VVS Pavel V. Rychagov - one of over 300 officers executed during Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. When Rychagov referred to Soviet aircraft as obsolete ‘death traps’ at a state dinner, Stalin coldly replied ‘you should not have said that’ and had Rychagov and his family arrested.
As was noted in Part One, despite the broad scale of his work, the degree to which Italian theorist Giulio Douhet actually influenced Interwar air thinking remains a matter of debate. Douhet’s works had always been careful to note that they reflected the needs of Italy first and foremost, regardless of whether or not they were strategically realistic.
A staged publicity shot of Benito Mussolini ‘piloting’ an airplane in 1935. In actuality, Mussolini was a poor pilot and his ‘piloting’ photos were usually taken either on the ground or with him in the co-pilot seat (as in this photo).
Italy was perhaps the best country to rely entirely upon Douhet’s principles, given that it would possess an army that seemingly was doomed to lose most of its campaigns and a navy that preferred convoy duties to open battles with the Royal Navy. Italy’s dictator, Benito Mussolini, was an advocate of aggression, if not specifically of Douhet’s theories, and he embraced aviation as representing the best of Fascist Italy. He learned to fly, and was often pictured at the controls of a Regia Aeronautica aircraft, very much the modern dictator. Italy lacked resources, but if it had taken Douhet at his word and reduced it conventional forces, it might well have been able to build up a strong strategic air force in the 1920s and 1930s. Unfortunately . . . Italy was desperately poor, and building a huge air force would have meant that the Italian Army and Navy would have been reduced almost to zero. This was politically impossible, particularly given the royalist backing of those services.
Boyne, Walter J. The Influence of Air Power Upon History. New York, NY: K. S. Giniger, 2003.
Douhet was an ardent fascist and indeed, Mussolini was quick to install him as Italy’s first air minister in 1926. Douhet did not stay in this post long, but regardless, Mussolini pushed Douhet’s successors to follow said example. Mussolini adored the use of aviation in propaganda and worked hard to build and publicize Italy’s air arm. Regardless, Douhet’s influence within the Regia Aeronautica itself amounted to little more than mere lip service. Airpower is expensive (strategic airpower, doubly so) and in the end, no nation – Italy being no exception – invested in strategic airpower to the extent that Douhet had argued
Unlike Trenchard and Mitchell, it did not help that Douhet lacked a following in the Italian air community. To quote Boyne again, Douhet “began and ended as an outsider, a one-man-band irritant whose arguments became more shrill and repetitive as time went on.” Superbly put. Douhet was not an airman and his critics were quick to point out how dismissive he was of friction in regard to aerial warfare: i.e., engines never needed servicing, payloads never contained duds, and units were always at full strength. Indeed, it was Douhet’s most ardent critic that, in the end, had the most influence over Italian airpower development.
Sometimes called the “anti-Douhet,” Amedeo Mecozzi was a Great War fighter ace who, in the Interwar years, became a major advocate of tactical aviation, publishing works while still holding various military air commands. Mecozzi’s opposition went beyond the practical, vigorously opposing the bombardment of civilians both before and after the Second World War. Instead, Mecozzi pushed for close cooperation with ground forces, with particular emphasis on interdiction strikes as Mecozzi was not a fan of close-air support. Mecozzi perceptively noted that strategic bombardment was ineffective against certain opponents, pointing out its limited usefulness in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-1937) and Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Indeed, there had been limited need for heavy bombardment in either war, and what little bombing that was attempted – poison gas strikes against Red Cross units in Ethiopia and a ‘terror-bombing’ raid on Barcelona – accomplished little but to enrage public opinion against bombardment in general. In contrast, Italian tactical aviation proved critical in isolating Catalonia from the Spanish republic, and the overwhelming public success of German tactical aviation seems to have all but silenced Douhet’s remaining supporters.
Mecozzi wielded considerable influence over Douhet’s successor, Italo Balbo. A trusted member of Mussolini’s inner circle, Balbo took his newfound role seriously, not only earning his pilot’s license (something which Mussolini struggled for years to obtain) but participating in several record flights. Regardless of whatever resources Italy lacked to create a powerful, modern air force, Italy never lacked enthusiasm. In fact, Italian designers like Giovanni Caproni and Mario Castoldi managed to produce several excellent designs hampered only by limited access to quality engines and fuels, to say nothing of mass-production. However, the constant military campaigns of the 1930s served only to hold the Italians back. Military technology is difficult to advance during a state of war and this was particularly true for the Italians. Early-1930s designs – many of which were still biplanes – showed no immediate need for modernization over places like Ethiopia, and as such, by the time the Second World War broke out, were still locked into mass-production at the worse possible time.
Stay tuned for Part Five.
G. A. Blume