*** war and social upheaval: World War II air campaigns

War and Social Upheaval: World War II Air Campaigns (1939-45)

world War II bombing victims
Figure 1.-- Germany began the War with the assumption that only the cities of other countries would be bombed. Air Marshall Göring assured the German people that German cities would never be bombed. As Air Marshall Harris explained, "Germany has sewed the winds and now it will reep the whirlwind."

The World War II air war was conducted in several different campaigns both to support naval and ground forces. Germany build a tactical airforce, primarily because it did not have the industrial capacity to also build a strategic air force as well. The use of tactical air power in close association with mechnized ground forces was in esence the birth of modern warfare--Blitzkrieg. This allowed the Germans to conquer most of Europe. German also used its airforce to bomb eneny cities, beginning with the campaign in Poland. Germany did not, however, conquer Britain, nor could it even reach the United States. These countries did have the industrial capacity to build strategic air forces. America's productive capability added to that of Britain ad the Sviet Union produced air craft for both tactical and strateic operaions as well as cargo airctaft to support operations around the world. America and Britain decied at the onset of their storied alliance that Hitler and the NAZIs were the major threat. Thus the predominance of air assetts were deployed in the European theater and resulted in epic struggles in the skies over northern Europe. Germany began the War with the assumption that only the cities of other countries would be bombed. Air Marshall Göring assured the German people that German cities would never be bombed. As Air Marshall Harris explained, "Germany has sewed the winds and now it will reap the whirlwind." America's huge industrial capability soon permitting aircraft in large numbers to be delivered for the struggle in Asia and the Pacific as well. And Japan which began the War by bombing undefended Chinese cities would also pay a terrible price. .

Geographic Operations

World War II was the first truly world war. Military action took place on all continents except Antartica. And in the mpre remote areas, especially the Pacific, air power was especilly important. There were two key arenas of the War in which the military outcome was decided, Europe and the Pacific. Cmpaigns were also fought in Africa, Arcic rgins, and Asi. These were side show, relatd to the central campaigns in Europe and the Paciic. From the ouset of the War, both in Asia and Europe, air power was decisive and expanded as the war evolved and grew in area and intensity. And one important development was the rapid extension of the range and capacity of aircraft. After the victory in France, Hitler thought the Reich was secure from air attack. And the Japanese from the beginning believe hey were secure behind the vastness of the Pacfic. The fortunes of War and the advance of aviation technology meant that most assumtions were ill founded. The War was essentially decded in Europe, ecpeically the East. This was arguably the area in which airpower was least important. The Luftwafe was not a lrge enough force to alter the battlefieldoutcome as it had done in the mor limited commbat environments in the West. The subsequent Allied air campaign over northern Europe certainly aided the Soviets, but was not the decisive factor. It was key in making the D-Day nvasion possible and spearheading the drive into the Reich. Air power was undenible critical inthe vast Pacific. Almost all of the major Ameriucan offensives involved invading ilads to secure air bases. nd the War was ultimately comcluded with the atmic bombs forced the Japanese to surrender.

Country Air Campaigns

Seven countries had sizeable air operations in World War II. All three Axis countries has substantial air forces and air operations. The German Luftwaffe began the War with the world's most advanced air force and the Luftwaffe played a major role in the early German successes, devestating Warsaw and other Polish cities. The Lufwaffe failed, however, in the Battle of Britain and while scoring major successes in the Siviet Union, ultimately failed. And the Luftwaffe failed to protect the Reich as primissed by Göring from the Allied bombers that demolished German cities nd the NAZI war effort. The Germans began deploying jet aircraft, but Hitler's mismanagement of the program and the advance of Soviet and Allied armies doomed the NAZI war effort. The Japanese surprised Western countries with their advanced Zero fighter and competence of its superbly trained pilots. The country was, unable, to maintain this lead once the United States began turning out large numbers of advanced aircraft. The Italy Regia Aeronautica Italiana had the smallest and least advanced air force of the three Axis countries. Its obsolete planes did not play a major role in the War. As a result, the Luftwaffe had to deploy in force to support the Italian air war. All three major Alied countries had substantial air forces. Britain and Fance allowed the Germans to gain a substantial advantage in the inter-War era. France had aubstantial air force, but commanders did not properly position it. The German defeat of France meant that the French Air Force did not play a major role in the war. The British Royal Air Force (RAF) also faired poorly in the initial fighting, but the Channel stopped the Panzers. Thus the RAF with the support of radar was able to score the first Allied victory of the War--the Battle of Britain. After the Blitz, the British set out to build a modern strategic bomber force to bring the war to the Germns. The Japabese carrier attack at Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the War. The United States had the world's largest aviation industry and soon began prifducing modern aircraft in astronomical numbers. The Unitd States would join the British strategic bombing campaign over northern Europe, but also produce tactical aircraft in huge numbers. Productiuon was so large that large numbers of aircraft were available not only to fight the Pacific War, but to supply allies as well. The Soviet Union began the war with the emense Red Air Force--the largest air force in the world. Poor positioning and obsolete aircraft allowed the Luftwaffe to essentially destroy the Red Air Force during the first week of Barbsrossa. The Luftwaffe dominated the skies, but the Soviet Union was too lsrge for it to have the same impact as it had in Western Europe. The Red Air Force had to be rebuilt, but by 1943 began to have an impact on the savage fuighting in the Eastern Front, especially as the Luftwaffe was being withdrawn to protect German cities firom Allied bombers. .


Air warfare was still relatively new at the outbreak of World War II. The airpalne had played a role in Wold War I, but not a decisive one. Air planes were used in a tactical mode, but not for close air support, primarily because they were not equipped with radios. And while both sides were moving toward strategic operations, the War ended before signicicant strategic bombing began. The Allies were preparing for a major strategic operation againt Grmany in 1919. In the inter-War period, air strategists debated the role of warfare. Some believed that bombers could not be stopped and bombers alone could win a future war. It was the Germans who hit on the most effective use of aircraft, largely becausevthey did not have the industrial capacity to build a startegic bombing force. The Heer comanders who transferred to the Luftwaffe naturally saw the proper rile of air power was to support ground troops. The result was Blitzkrieg and this insight almost won Germany the War. Britain in the en was only saved becaue the Channel stopped the Panzers. Hitler tended toward the the use of bombers to pulverize enemy cities. The Luftwaffe was not a strategic bombing force, but could do the kob against undefended cities. Thus the Luftwaffe pulverized Warsaw and other Polish cities (September 1939) and duing the Western offensive Rotterdam when the Duch attempted to resist (May 1940). The Luftwaffe's limitations came to light during the Battle of Britain and Hitler's idea of pulverizing enemy cities was shon to be ineffivte during the Blitz (September 1940). While th Gemans did not have the industrialmcapacity to build a strategic airforce, the Allies did. American and British air commander thought that Germany could be defeated buy an air campaign. This proved not to be the case. And some authors have questioned the strategic bombing campaign on both military and moral grounds. Critics point to the fact that Armments Minister Albert Speer suceeded in increasig German war production during th bombing. These assessmnts for the most part lack academic rigor. What is often ignored is the counterfactual, how much more Speer could have increased production without th bombing. And the importance thof the resources the Germans had to divert from the all-important Eastern Front to battle the Allied bomber streams. As for the moral arguments, they are indeed troubling. But given the character of the NAZI regime and the genocide underway and palnned after the War, the greates moral failure the Allies could have made was to have failed to defeat the Germans. The strategic bombing campaign played a major role in the Allies war effort, for example making the D-Day landings possible. This was, however,onlu one part of the contribution o the Allied victory.


Corum, James S. Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, 1918-1940" (University Press of Kansas, 2000).

Doubet, Giulio. Command of the Air.

Fest, Joachim C. Hitler (Vintage Books: New York, 1974), 844p.

Hillgruber, Andreas. Strategie=Hitlers Strategie: Politik und Kriegf�hrung 1940 bis 1941 (Frankfurk am Main, 1965).

Snyder, Louis L. Historical Guide to World War II (1982).

Speer, Albert. Inside the Third Reich (New York, 1970).


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Created: 5:53 AM 9/27/2008
Last updated: 6:11 AM 5/15/2014