planners, such as Billy Mitchell, expressed disappointment that the war
had ended before aviation had demonstrated its potential. Nevertheless,
they examined what evidence there was. They then attempted to predict
the future of technology and to imagine future conflicts. Although most
of the prophets worked for their governments, they often went outside of
the military to broadcast their theories. They were published in the
aviation journals of the time. France’s Revue de l’aeronautique
militaire was the first, but Italy’s Rivista Aeronautica, which debuted
in 1925, quickly became the main forum for Giulio Douhet, his
supporters, and critics.
nearly 20 years of peace following World War I, which saw only minor
colonial uprisings and the Spanish Civil War, did not provide too many
chances for the prophets to test their theories. Yet the war had given
them enough evidence to decide that to end a future conflict quickly and
with minimal loss of life, a bombing campaign was necessary, directed
not at the troops, but at the cities of the enemy. The idea of bombing
to deprive the enemy of the means and will to continue to fight became
known as "strategic bombing."
Bombing cities made sense to the prophets. Well-trained troops had
already proved that they had the endurance to withstand protracted
attack. Yet, civilians in cities had demonstrated the opposite.
Trenchard claimed that civilians "are not disciplined and it can not be
expected that they will stick stolidly to their lathes and benches."
During the Gotha raids on London, the city had gone through a minor
panic; many had fled to the countryside for safety, and the newspapers
had run columns criticizing the government’s inability to protect the
capital. In studying the effects of the Gotha raids, the prophets
theorized that increased, intensified attacks, which included incendiary
and gas bombs, would cause a populace to rise up against its government.
This would result in chaos, with loss of productivity, riots, looting,
and eventually a toppling of the government leading to surrender. The
country that would emerge victorious from a bombing war would be the
country whose populace could endure the bombings while delivering
greater damage to the other side.
Hugh Trenchard, one of "the
bombing campaign would be as much a psychological as a physical battle.
Trenchard studied the effects of British bombing attacks on towns in
Germany and estimated that the psychological damage was twenty times
greater than the material. And interestingly, living under the threat of
an attack was as damaging to civilian morale as an actual attack. The
German city of Trier experienced only seven raids, but underwent more
than 100 air raid alarms--each one demanding that people leave their
jobs or beds and hurry to shelters in fear. Workers who spent the night
in shelters listening for the sound of bombs did not come to work the
next day or were too tired to perform their jobs properly. In this way,
bombing could destroy a nation’s production without destroying its
a military theory on targeting civilians posed wrenching moral and
ethical questions. Douhet noted, "Humanity and civilization may avert
their eyes" in thinking about bombing civilians. But the prophets knew
that in the modern democratic world, a nation went to war on behalf of
its citizens, not a king or emperor." Spaight defined the new target as
"the sovereign people who war and it is their nerve and morale which
must be broken." The greatest concentration of people was in the cities,
and so they were the best targets.
the build-up of air forces, the prophets knew that a single massive
bombing would not win a war. Instead, the plan, as outlined by Douhet,
was first to gain air superiority by destroying an enemy’s air force,
preferably while on the ground. The next step was to bomb, concentrating
on the industrial sections of cities, in order to prevent the enemy from
rebuilding its military. Since bombsights were extremely inaccurate at
the time, a massive amount of bombs would have to be dropped over a
large rectangular area on the theory that one might hit the actual
target. Civilians would have to take shelter in order to avoid stray
bombs. Once the nation had surrendered, ground troops would move in to
occupy the country.
Although "the Prophets" didn't
express their philosophy until after World War I, Caproni advocated
strategic bombing during the war and built aircraft to support that
view. This photo shows the Caproni Ca33 over Northern Italy.
is the prophet known as the "father of air power." An Italian
artilleryman, he evidently never learned to fly although he was chief of
his country’s air section in 1913 and 1914. His strong ideas about the
uses of bombing made many claim that the industrialist and aircraft
manufacturer Gianni Caproni was funding him to ensure a future market
for Caproni bombers. He published frequently in the Rivista Aeronautica
and in 1931, released his book Command of the Air, with a second, more
strident, edition published in 1937. It was not translated into English
until 1942, although unofficial translations were circulated around the
English and American Air Corps. Despite this, top American and British
officers claimed never to have seen his writings and maintained that he
did not influence their bombing campaigns during World War II.
Caproni provided a
well-developed rationale for bombing such enemy targets as industrial
plants, port facilities, railway bridges, junctions, and marshalling
yards as a way to eliminate an enemy's capability to sustain a war
effort. The Caproni Series 4 triplane bomber, shown in this photo, was
much larger than the earlier Ca 3 although its performance was not
the U.S. and English air forces used the theory of strategic bombing in
their struggles to gain independence from the other military service
branches. The Royal Air Force had gained independence during World War I
but was threatened with losing it during the interwar period. Advocates
of an independent U.S. air force felt that, because strategic bombing
does not depend on partnerships with ground or naval troops, the needs
of an air unit were often neglected when the people overseeing the
budget were more interested in tanks or battleships. It was felt there
had to be a separate service branch, with its own budget, hierarchy, and
staff. To keep a nation safe, an independent air force capable of
winning the war by bombing was necessary for national security. But not
until after World War II and the advent of the nuclear bomb did the
United States have an independent air force.
in their own writings, the prophets sometimes expressed remorse at the
barbarity of their ideas, as later in life Spaight told militaries to
"make machines and not mankind the mark of your attack." Strategic
bombing may have seemed cruel, but for the prophets, a quick war with
bombing cities was better than an extended war with the carnage and
horrors of World War I. Since then, there have been a number of wars and
military conflicts, but strategic bombing is considered a viable theory
that is still argued and debated today.