Of all the gaps in our general appreciation of the First World War, none gets me more worked up than the way Anglophone posterity ignores the wartime invention of aerial bombing and its evil offspring, long-range bombing of civilian targets. So I’m going to talk about it again.
Maybe it’s the strong whiff of denial that upsets me. Anglophone popular history has long been accustomed to blaming Germany for everything bad that happened during the first half of the twentieth century, and is comfortable with blaming the Luftwaffe for the cult of civilian bombing. Ask many Brits how that started and they’ll cite the Blitz of 1940, showing scant regard for the suffering of civilians bombed during the previous decade in China, Spain and the Low Countries (to name the most obvious cases), and completely ignoring the First World War. Even those relatively informed Anglophones who might mention Guernica, Zeppelins and Gotha raids are apt to leave it at that, simply backdating the assumption of German guilt.
To be sure, the German military was an enthusiastic early proponent and serial pioneer of what was known as ‘strategic bombing theory’ – but only as part of a story that also has roots in Italy, Russia and above all Britain (30 December, 1917: Let’s Drop the Mask).
An Italian, Giulio Douhet, developed the theory and the Russian Army developed the first aircraft big enough to make it potentially viable, while German armed forces made the first systematic attempts to put it into practice, with their Zeppelin fleets and then with their purpose-designed Gotha bombers. The British were meanwhile open to the arguments of their own strategic bombing theorists. Though never first on the plot during the War’s early years, the British Army and in particular the Royal Navy always kept up with the game, developing purpose-built bombers and using them in increasing numbers to carry out raids against militarily relevant targets ever deeper inside enemy territory.
Nobody’s efforts ever came close to fulfilling the war-winning potential ascribed to strategic bombing by its ‘air-minded’ European proponents, but then nobody thought the technology was yet ready for the job and in any case no European authority was willing or able to advocate the slaughter of countless civilians during an epoch that still considered warfare a civilised activity. By 1918 it had become clear to all but the most ardent enthusiasts that, even if strategic bombing might be a game-changer, it wasn’t going to win this war anytime soon.
The Italians and Russians were anyway in no position to risk resources pursuing the theory further, and the German high command, having noted the limited impact of Gotha raids, had scaled down its interest in air power. With the French never more than dabblers in long-range bombing, because they were primarily interested in aircraft as an adjunct to the ground war on the Western Front, and the US military effort entirely focused on the same campaign, the only major military power still chasing the dragon was Britain.
Relatively rich in resources and right at the forefront of contemporary aviation technology, Britain was home to a fervent group of strategic bombing believers within the RFC and the RNAS, led with bombastic commitment by the nation’s most persistent profit of air power, Hugh Trenchard, and backed by some very noisy armchair strategists running the popular press.
An early fan of Douhet, Trenchard had joined the RFC in 1913 and taken command of its home training squadron in August 1914. By general consent one of the least competent British pilots to have gained his flying certificate in peacetime, but equipped with a clear-eyed determination to prove the importance of air power to modern and future warfare, he was transferred to France in November of that year as commander of No.1 Wing and was promoted brigadier-general in August 1915, when he replaced General Henderson as the RFC’s field commander on the Western Front.
It was a fact of life that Allied aircraft were inferior to German machines in 1915, but Trenchard wasn’t a man to let the weapon of the future languish on the defensive. He committed his squadrons in wholehearted support of the BEF’s aggressive policy of ‘permanent warfare’ in the trenches, sending large numbers of obsolete aircraft on constant raiding missions over enemy lines and accepting heavy losses more cheerfully than many of his field commanders. During another period of German superiority in the spring of 1917, he flung everything the RFC could muster in support of the ill-fated Nivelle Offensive, and emerged from the carnage of Bloody April as a fully-fledged bête noir for many combat officers (7 May, 1917: Up In The Air).
Trenchard’s approach was, understandably enough, a lot more popular with the British Army’s high command, and he made that count. Always convinced that the offensive potential of aerial warfare lay in strategic bombing, he lobbied insistently for development of a mass bomber fleet, and eventually got one. The creation of an independent RAF was in part a reflection of his views (not least because it enabled the grouping of army and naval heavy aircraft), and his preliminary appointment as its chief of staff in January 1918 was a demonstration of government commitment to the concept of strategic bombing.
The appointment was also fraught with political intrigue, centred on the machinations of Lord Rothermere, Britain’s new air minister and the contemporary definition, along with his brother Lord Northcliffe, of a press baron. Rothermere’s principal aims can be summed up as a desire to get rid of Haig and his like, and to end the horror of the trenches by concentrating all available resources on winning the War through strategic bombing. As such he led a political faction supporting a far more radical swerve to heavy bombing strategy than anything advocated by Trenchard, who never lost sight of the need for aircraft to respond to immediate tactical priorities on the ground, and was anyway a friend and supporter of Haig. On discovering that Rothermere was simultaneously promising the Royal Navy a massive fleet of anti-submarine aircraft – a move that would effectively starve the Western Front of air power – Trenchard resigned in March, although his resignation was not officially accepted until 11 April.
Now a major-general, Trenchard was instead offered command of the RAF’s planned strategic bombing force, the very embodiment of his ideas. After trying and failing to add overall control of RAF offensive operations to the job description, he accepted the offer in May, and the new Independent Air Force (IAF) came into being on 6 June 1918.
The IAF was specifically tasked with carrying out its own strategy for long-range, heavy bombing attacks on any target deemed militarily relevant, without reference to British Army or Royal Navy priorities. Other powers had imagined it, and Germany had taken the first, relatively half-hearted steps towards putting it into practice, but the British were the first to follow strategic bombing theory all the way and create a weapon designed to win wars by inflicting mass carnage on an enemy’s homeland.
Like every other massed bombing fleet in history, the Independent Air Force was a failure. Stationed at various airfields in eastern France, it dropped around 350,000 tons of bombs during the course of 162 raids that were rarely accurate and made little strategic difference to the course of the War. Long-range raiders faced vastly improved anti-aircraft defences by mid-1918, and casualties were high. In total, 153 IAF pilots and 194 other aircrew were killed before the Armistice, although those figures include losses during the final Allied offensives on the Western Front, when the IAF made a more conventional contribution, co-operating with other formations in support of ground operations.
Faced with disappointing results, Trenchard behaved like every other believer in strategic bombing theory in deciding that success was just a matter of deploying bigger fleets of bigger bombers. The IAF grew in size throughout its short life. By August it comprised four squadrons of day bombers and five of night bombers; it expanded constantly during the next four months; and plans to add Italian, Belgian and US units to Trenchard’s strength were interrupted by the Armistice.
Trenchard and his followers (including a rising star in Major Arthur Harris and a full battery of popular press barons) also typified true believers by exaggerating, or at least optimising, the impact of bombing raids on enemy production and morale. Their excuse was the conviction that technological progress would make failure to develop a strategic bombing force a recipe for total defeat in any future war. Their tragedy, in an epoch enthralled by the world-changing potential of new technologies, was to be believed.
Trenchard went on serve as RAF chief of staff from 1919 until 1930, and guided development of the service as a strategic bombing force while other powers opted for a more mixed approach to aerial warfare. Though he had government support, he was never remotely likely to receive funding for the kind of fleet he envisaged in a political atmosphere dominated by disarmament and pacifism, and when war came the RAF’s bombers again proved too small and few in number to deliver on strategic bombing theory.
Belief was still strong – in 1938 official British government figures predicted the death toll from one major raid on London at around 600,000 – and so the Second World War’s heavy bombing story was essentially a repeat of the First. Germany tried to bomb Britain into submission with what turned out to be insufficient force, and the British led the Allies in once more upping the game, pounding Germany (and Japan) with massive bombing raids, exaggerating their impact to secure the further expansion that would surely bring results, and failing consistently until 1945 revealed the grim truth about strategic bombing’s destiny.
Winning wars with huge fleets of big bombers had after all been a hideous chimera, leading humanity to Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the gateway to Hell. The false, dark vision was foisted on humanity during and after the First Word War by misguided militarists from many countries, but the British tried harder than anyone to make it a reality.