The Air War: 1939-1945

Richard J. Overy – Professor of History at University of Exeter. Educated at Cambridge. Taught at Cambridge, Queen’s College, and King’s College.

Main Themes

- Airpower did not win the war autonomously as some advocated. Airpower created conditions for success when combined with land and/or naval power. The role of airpower should not be overemphasized but viewed as a component of a greater whole.

- Two categories of air strategy: general and limited. Limited air strategy confines airpower to a tactical support role of the ground or naval forces. General air strategy includes the elements of the limited strategy but also includes autonomous action for strategic, rather than tactical, effect (ie. the strategic bombing offensives). The British and U.S. adopted a general air strategy while the Germans and Russians adopted more limited air strategies. The German experiences early in the war confirmed their belief that the appropriate use of airpower was a limited air strategy.

- The Allies overestimated Axis aircraft production while the Axis underestimated Allied production. Early in the conflict both sides made strategic aircraft production decisions that proved, for the Axis nations, irreversible to the necessary extent later in the war. Delayed production of necessary airpower instruments proved fatal to the Axis powers.

- Differences in strategic approach, leadership, and industrial priority favored U.S. and British airpower throughout WWII.

- Major elements of airpower for a nation: strategy/doctrine, economic mobilization, geography, technology, organization/personnel, and leadership.

- The Strategic Bombing Offensives failed from the point of view of generating autonomous victory but succeeded from the point of view of complimentary effects with forces operating in other domains. Intelligence and technical capability were the two primary factors that conditioned the nature of bombing success.

- Consistent demands of Airpower on all nations: ability to link military and engineering traditions, satisfactory ratio between pilots and aircraft within overall strategy, and the appropriate integration of the Air Force into the wider political and military context. “The Allies demonstrated that military virtue alone was no substitute for material power.”

- The Allied balance of quality and quantity was more successful for Airpower strategies in WWII than the Axis pre-occupation with quality alone.

- The Allies promoted cooperation between military and civilian scientific and intelligence efforts whereas the Axis subordinated the civilian component to the military.

Previous Class Notes:

- Until 41’ no knockout blow could be delivered from the air (no strategy, not the equipment, production and training)

- Uncertain Nature of Airpower Entering the War: doctrinal instability led to guess-making at the outset; moral effect of offensive airpower

- Battle of Britain: British air defense overcame numerical disadvantage; German failure prevented recognition of Luftwaffe as a strategic asset

- Leadership: Hitler takes over the Luftwaffe without any knowledge of airpower; V1/V2 programs not realistic, Hitler unsatisfied; overreliance on political allies in lieu of experts

- Grand Strategy: Opening of the Russia front gave western powers breathing space to develop AFs; Use of airpower in a delaying/softening capacity in Pacific before invasion resources were available made the strategic difference. Air closely associated with sea power in the Pacific.

- JP needed oil, has non-aggression w RU until 41’(avoid two front). JP lacked resources and was out produced in all areas.

- USA poor rdr, intelligence, perception and prep led to the surprise at Pearl Harbor.

- Politics and airpower: Hitler used it to effect at Munich; led to a second arms race; Hitler’s alleged promise to limit attacks to military targets; element of the unknown and power of imagination made it an interwar political tool. Combined armes for rapid/economic way to victory (strat bomb took too long….) Had to fight two different air wars; AD in the west against bombers, and gorund/CAS in the East (RU used air fairly similar to GE)

- General versus Limited Strategies: US, RAF wanted general strategies allowing for theater flexibility; GE, JAP conceived airpower as a limited arm supporting others; France and Norway lessons led to generalized strategy for Britain; LW didn’t realize Britain would adopt a generalized strategy; 2-sided coin argument of generalized AF strategy…had its limitations but was strategically decisive. In the East; CAS and support, in West bombing and all spectrum. Strat bombing was the least expensive way to get to GE, and placed a ceiling on GE output (but they didn’t have all mobilized into war production before late in the war around 44’)

- RAF Air Defense: fighters are for destroying bombers, not fighters; theories of Douhet & Mitchell, theory of the offensive, and refusal to acknowledge a counter to the bomber slowed the rise of air defenses. ENG bombed out of desperation.

- Economy of Force & Bombing Debate: destroying will to war without setting foot on the continent; Debate unresolved by advent of nukes; Relationship of civilians to war changed by interwar airmindedness; USAAF lack of independence created evangelical defense of the bombing mission; USAAF settles on industrial web theory; LeMay says airpower can do the job alone; little effect on German populations; no top-down capitulation

- War of Economies: aircraft production; large quantity production plus the maintenance of technical parity; capitalization versus fascism

Applications to Strategy:

- Generalized airpower strategy built on an independent airpower service is decisive in achieving theater advantage over an enemy who fails to develop and field such a service

- Forms of economy and civil governance are determinant in the ability to field airpower effectively

- Air was not decisive, but important

- JP/GE had strong will and ‘ideals’, but lacked US and ENG material, A/C and pilots to fight. (You need both)

- A/C and associated production is essential. Access to raw materials too. Lack of centralization and direction of war efforts hampered GE too. GE had a DELTA of capacity that they ‘never’ exploited, thankfully. Involvement of the entire society of research, science and intelligence to deliver a best possible output was done best by ENG and US. GE and JP missed an opportunities here.

- COG in GE? Maybe the top 5-6 leaders in a totalitarian system are the COG. In a Clausewitzian absolute war, one COG might work, but in real war there are probably more (Trinity; People, Leaders, Commander)

- The cumulative effect of simultaneity attack on a broad scale led to undermining of GE war capacity.

Scholarly Review:

The Air War 1939-1945, by R.J. Overy. New York: Stein and Day Publishers, 1980.

The publication of The Air War, 1939-1945 in 1980 immediately and permanently altered the way that historians have examined the nature of aerial warfare during World War II. Overy’s ingenious examination of the global nature of planning, building, deploying, and utilizing air forces remains the finest overall study of the topic more than a quarter-century after its first publication in Great Britain.

The impact of this book reaches much more broadly than simply setting a standard for historians. Since its release in America in 1981, airpower students across the country have studied, pondered, and debated Overy’s history. In fact, conclusions drawn in this work—and studied within the U.S. Air Force education system—are even today an integral part of U.S. Air Force doctrine.

There is little battle history in this book. Instead, it is a strategic assessment of the air war from a number of angles. It is an examination of the complexities of national mobilization of industry, the intricacies of political discourse, the undeniable influence of science and technological change, the impact of leadership in both industry and the military, and how intelligence operations succeeded and failed during wartime.

In large measure, the book details two different air strategies, how they were employed by the combatants, and why one succeeded and the other failed. The West—America and Great Britain—developed a “general” strategy for its air assets which dictated the use of airpower across a wide range of military activities—from transport to autonomous bombardment—all accomplished at the same time. The Axis developed a “limited” strategy for its air assets—Germany’s dictating airpower in a major supporting role for the army, and Japan’s linking its airpower to the navy. Although Germany and Japan saw success in the early stages of the European war, they soon lost the ability to carry on offensive air operations while the Allies were employing a relentless offensive against them. In the end, the Axis lost its freedom from Allied attack and, consequently, its freedom to attack the Allies who maintained the ability to attack at will while safe from Axis aerial strikes during the final three years of the conflict.

In the end, industrial might determined the outcome of the air war. The vast resources employed by America and Great Britain were essential to their ability to carry out their “general” strategy for the air war. The “Arsenal of Democracy” overwhelmed the Axis powers from 1942 until the war ended in 1945. Although it is tempting to claim that airpower was a decisive factor in victory, the truth is more complex. Air actions during the war were often complimentary to surface operations. Likewise, surface advances often enabled Allied airpower to further success in autonomous ways. The capture of the Marianas in the Pacific provided bases for Army Air Forces B-29s to attack the Japanese mainland—eventually with atomic weapons. It was the symbiotic relationship between Allied airpower and overall Allied military success that is the essence of Overy’s story and the lesson for the Air Force today.

Reviewed by Dik A. Daso, Ph.D., Curator of Modern Military Aircraft, Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum

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