The War in the Air Over Europe September 1939 - May 1945

World War I had seen some air raids over England and Germany, but the technology was not yet available to wreak total havoc on the civilian population. The very idea of targeting a civilian population in a time of war was anathema to most of the world’s leaders.

Giulio Douhet, an evangelist of air power and later Mussolini’s air force adviser, postulated that the bomber would be the main weapon of the next war. Fighters were seen as too slow or secondary to the bomber forces. American Air Force Colonel William “Billy” Mitchell sank German war prize battleships from the air, despite the objections of the Navy. His flamboyant attitude and disregard of orders eventually led to his court-martial, but it was really an attempt to silence him. One of his little-noticed predictions was that of an attack on a little-known outpost called Pearl Harbor. Other prophets of air power included Hermann Goering, who oversaw the huge buildup of the Luftwaffe into an effective tactical air force.

“The bomber will always get through.” Stanley Baldwin, then UK Prime Minister, told the House of Commons on November 10, 1932. The strategic bomber, as envisioned by Douhet, was preeminent in the west. Fighters and other aircraft had less priority. At the start of the war, the RAF had separate “Commands” for different roles. Fighter Command oversaw the air defense of the British Islands. Bomber Command was the striking arm of the RAF. Coastal Command protected the maritime lanes that Britain depended on for survival. While under unified overall tactical command, these three units fought each other constantly for allocation of more resources and acted as separate air forces.

Air Vice Marshall Sir Arthur Harris led bomber Command. “Bomber” Harris was a veteran of the First World War, and a student of Douhet. He believed that Bomber Command could win the war alone through targeting the German civilian population making the tools of war for the Nazis. If production were disrupted to the point it was nonfunctional, Germany would have to surrender. Also, the was widespread public opinion in England and elsewhere that the Germans had brought the possibility of air attack on themselves, that the raids on Guernica, Warsaw, Rotterdam, and London were illegal raids that demanded harsh payback.