• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Doctrine of Destruction

Master of Air Power: General Carl A. Spaatz

by David R. Mets
Presidio, 430 pp., $22.50

General Carl Spaatz was Commander in Chief of all the US Air Forces that fought in Europe during World War II—in numbers, probably the largest assemblage of aircraft that ever came under one man’s direct control. After Germany’s surrender on May 8, 1945, General “Hap” Arnold, the Chief of Staff of the Army Air Forces, wanted him to assume the corresponding position in the war against Japan. General MacArthur, the Supreme Allied Commander in the Pacific, disagreed. Spaatz was therefore sent to command the US Eighth Air Force, whose redeployment from the United Kingdom was just beginning, and of a fleet of “Superfortresses,” the new B-29s.

In addition, Spaatz had something that the other US commanders in the Pacific, including General George Kenney, MacArthur’s top airman, did not have—the atom bomb, about which he had known nothing until his return to Washington to prepare for his new assignment. After he was briefed about the nature of the new weapon, Arnold gave Spaatz a list of four Japanese cities that Henry Stimson, the secretary of war, had agreed were to be the targets against which the weapon was to be used, if an imminent test to see whether it worked proved successful. On August 6th, 1945, only a week after his arrival in the Pacific, and in accordance with explicit presidential authorization, Hiroshima was effaced. Nagasaki was destroyed three days later. After witnessing the ceremonial surrender of Japan on September 2, Spaatz returned to Washington, where after some six months he succeeded Arnold as Chief of Staff of all the Army Air Forces. At his own wish, he retired from the post after two years. He was then aged fifty-seven.

The biography that Dr. David Mets has written contains much interesting information about Spaatz up to the time he took command of the US Eighth Air Force in the UK in 1942, and about his years of retirement, but the account of what happened during the period of Spaatz’s European command is more than a little lopsided. Nor does Dr. Mets’s sequential record of the events in which Spaatz figured bring to life a picture of the warm-hearted, unpretentious, and friendly man whom I knew and who devoted his life with single-minded and unflagging attention to the service whose independence from the Army he managed to secure during his two years as Chief of Staff.

Spaatz graduated from West Point in 1914, gaining his wings in 1916, and spending the final year of the First World War in France. He was an ardent admirer of Brigadier General “Billy” Mitchell, the most glamorous American airman to emerge from the First World War, and shared Mitchell’s commitment to the doctrine that wars can be won over the heads of battling armies by bombing the enemy’s homeland. In promoting this doctrine, Mitchell publicly denounced Washington’s military establishment for “their incompetency, criminal negligence and almost treasonable administration of the national defense.”1 He was court-marshalled and dismissed from the service. Spaatz and his close friend Arnold, both then majors, fruitlessly testified on Mitchell’s behalf.

The notion that there was more to the exercise of air power than providing support to troops fighting on the ground, or to ships battling at sea, was, of course, not uniquely American. The shape of this air force “strategic” doctrine varied from country to country depending on a host of considerations—the cost of building a technically effective bomber force, the range of operation that was required, and the need to assure a degree of air superiority adequate to allow the force to penetrate an enemy’s defenses. The Luftwaffe began its assault on the UK in 1940 by trying to destroy the RAF’s airfields and fighter defenses. When it was defeated in what became known as the Battle of Britain, it simultaneously lost the ability to bomb specific targets by day, and resorted to indiscriminate night bombing. The RAF ran into the same problem. Daylight bombing on German targets in the early stages of the war proved both costly and ineffective, so that night “area attacks” on German industrial cities almost automatically became a policy of necessity.

All these difficulties were known to Arnold and his lieutenants when the US entered the war, but they were nonetheless determined to succeed in daylight bombing where the RAF and the Luftwaffe had failed. It was a costly challenge. In August of 1942 one spectacular daylight raid by the US Eighth Bomber Command against two of Germany’s ball-bearing plants cost sixty out of a force of some three hundred bombers. Not until February of 1944, when effective long-range fighter-escort became available—by which time the main part of Germany’s armed forces were in desperate retreat on the eastern front—did it prove possible for the US heavy bombers to penetrate deep into Germany by day in order to strike at specific targets.

In telling his story, Dr. Mets has relied mainly on official histories written soon after the end of the war, on biographies, and on such selected documentary material and interviews as would justify the policies with which Spaatz’s name is conventionally associated in the controversies—in which Dr. Mets accords me a central role—that marked the operations of both the US and British strategic air forces. It is unfortunate for him that his book was written before the publication of The Collapse of the German War Economy, 1944–1945, Dr. Alfred Mierzejewski’s new study of what happened in those two years.

Six months after Spaatz took command of the US Eighth Air Force in the UK in June 1942, he was transferred to the Mediterranean, and given command of the North African Allied Air Forces under General Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander, and of Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, Eisenhower’s Deputy for Air, who during the previous two years had commanded the British Middle East Air Forces. A few months later I went to work for both Tedder and Spaatz, it being my job to go over the ground from which the Axis forces were being driven in order to assess—as a check on intelligence reports—what effects our air attacks had actually had on the enemy. The most significant of my findings was that the rail network on which the Axis forces in Africa and Sicily had depended for the movement of troops and supplies, and which also handled civilian traffic, including coal, had virtually been paralyzed before the Allied landings in Sicily, mainly as a result of the bombing of six railway centers between Naples and Palermo during the preceding weeks.

When Eisenhower moved to the UK at the end of 1943 as Supreme Commander for the invasion of Europe, code-named Overlord, with Tedder as his deputy, Spaatz resumed command of the Eighth Air Force. Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, the Commander in Chief of the RAF’s Fighter Command, had previously been named commander of the Allied Expeditionary Air Forces (AEAF) for the invasion, and I was assigned to work jointly with him and Tedder in setting out the air plan for the preparatory phase of the invasion. I based the plan mainly upon what had been learned in the Mediterranean about the best way to paralyze a railway network in order to achieve two objectives at one and the same time—first, to make it difficult for the Germans to move troops and supplies by rail, and second, to help bring enemy industry to a standstill.

The plan was immediately rejected by the head of RAF Bomber Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, who was totally opposed to having his forces used for what he regarded as a diversion from the strategic purpose for which they had been designed, equipped, and trained: namely, the destruction of Germany’s industrial cities. Bombing the railway system of north-western Europe in order to make it difficult for the enemy to bring up reinforcements and supplies by rail was to him a tactical operation that could be adequately discharged by the separate Tactical Air Forces comprising medium bombers, fighter bombers, and fighters.

Spaatz was not at first against what became known as the transportation plan, but his fear that Harris would insist on carrying on with nighttime area bombing made him determined that the Eighth Bomber Command should also continue on its own in the implementation of the Billy Mitchell doctrine of strategic air power. As an alternative to an offensive against the European communications network, he proposed the daylight bombing of Germany’s scattered synthetic oil plants, on which Hitler’s western forces mostly depended for their fuel—the larger part of Germany’s armed forces, which were engaged on the Russian front, had been receiving their supplies from the Romanian oil fields.

Harris and Spaatz soon joined forces in trying to prevent what they regarded as the subjugation of their “strategic” aims to the “tactical” needs of Overlord. Spaatz had an additional worry. The proposed “transportation plan” threatened his independence, and would place him under the command of Leigh-Mallory, a man with whom Spaatz had little in common and whose demeanor, as some of his staff put it, was too aloof and “British.” As Tedder wrote, Spaatz was from the start determined not to take orders from Leigh-Mallory, or even to have his operations coordinated by him.2

Harris’s and Spaatz’s opposition to the transportation plan soon received the concerted backing of a network of planning and intelligence agencies, including the British Air Ministry’s Directorate of Bombing Operations. In general they all believed that Germany could be defeated by “strategic bombing,” at the same time as they were convinced that there was so much spare capacity in the European railway system that no amount of bombing could prevent it from handling German military traffic.

The argument came to a head on March 23, 1944, at a meeting of all the air chiefs that was called by Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, the head of the British Air Staff, in the presence of Eisenhower. Tedder had prepared a paper in which he argued that quite apart from the difficulty of executing Spaatz’s “oil plan,” mainly because of the dispersal of the plants and of the depth of penetration that some of the attacks would demand, an offensive against oil could have no immediate effect on Overlord. The Germans had adequate stocks of fuel already available both inside and outside the Reich. On the other hand, Tedder stated, the transportation plan, which postulated systematic attacks against the railway complex—not against “any single component of the railway system such as bridges and locomotives”—would not only “disorganize and delay” military traffic but, since the system was “the one common denominator of the whole enemy war effort,” pressing attacks on railway centers in the Reich, as the AEAF plan proposed, might well “prove to be the final straw.”

At the end of the meeting Portal, with Eisenhower in full agreement, summed up by saying that while the destruction of synthetic oil plants was a valuable objective in the longer term, there was no alternative to the transportation plan so far as Overlord was concerned. A few days later this conclusion was endorsed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US and the UK, and both heavy bomber forces were placed under Eisenhower’s command. Tedder was named as his deputy, with power to act on his behalf.

  1. 1

    Allen Andrews, The Air Marshals (Morrow, 1970), p. 167. See also DeWitt S. Copp, A Few Great Captains (Doubleday, 1980).

  2. 2

    Lord Tedder, With Prejudice (London: Cassell, 1966).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print