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.

Dr. Mets writes that Spaatz left Portal’s meeting having “suffered one of the toughest defeats of his official life.” This is sheer invention, as are other parts of his account of the dispute.3 In fact, Spaatz immediately reported to Arnold that the decision that had been reached…”was justified…predominantly on the absolute necessity to insure the initial success of Overlord,” and that “the time has arrived now when the most essential thing is the fullest coordination of the air effort in the support of Overlord.”4 Mets not only bowdlerizes Spaatz’s message to Arnold, but apparently is unaware of what General Ira Eaker, the Commander in Chief of the Fifteenth Air Force, to whom he refers frequently in his book, has to say about what happened. Eaker had flown from Italy to confer with Spaatz, and was in London on the day of the meeting, joining Spaatz at its end. He recorded in his diary:

I have never seen him [Spaatz] quite so jubilant and overjoyed. He had won out completely on the command set-up, and Tooey was “not too displeased” that the “communications plan had won out over the oil plan.”

In the weeks before D-day on June 6 almost all the railway centers that had been designated as targets in the transportation plan had been attacked, and after Paris was liberated, an analysis of the French daily railway records showed that the offensive had had immediate and devastating effects. By the time of the landings, German military traffic had been utterly disrupted and rail traffic in the northern half of France had all but come to a standstill.5 After Brussels was captured in September, three sets of German charts were found, on which were plotted the daily movements of different categories of rail traffic in northern France and Belgium. The plottings, which started in 1940, not only corroborated the conclusions drawn from the analysis of the French records, but also showed that the bombing of rail centers had completely stopped the transport to the steel mills of the Saar of the iron ore that was mined in eastern France and Lorraine. As the plan had predicted, economic as well as military traffic had been disrupted.

In September, when Eisenhower surrendered control of the strategic air forces to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a Combined US/UK Strategic Targets Committee (the CSTC) was set up. Disregarding Tedder’s insistence that the railway network was the “common denominator” on which not only military but all economic traffic depended, and a target in whose destruction all aircraft, from bombers to fighters, could play a part, the committee immediately designated synthetic oil plants as first priority targets for the bomber forces, placing transportation together with ordnance depots and motor transport plants in second priority.

Despite the hard evidence provided by the Paris and Brussels records (to which Dr. Mets makes no reference), the intelligence agencies and planners had become prisoners of an antirailway prejudice. They had supported Harris in his insistence that the demands of Overlord should not get in the way of the strategic purpose of the forces that he commanded—the destruction of German industrial cities. They had argued that there was so much spare capacity in the railway system of northwestern Europe that no amount of bombing could affect military transport. The US Economic Objectives Unit had stated that rail transportation had been “adequately analyzed as a strategic target system” and had “usually received low ratings on the grounds that damage to rail transport can under most circumstances be absorbed in the general economic system without producing effects on the fighting capabilities of the enemy.”6

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, they were not prepared to change their views and continued to minimize the value of attacks on the railway network (particularly railway centers), at the same time claiming that all that was needed to bring about the collapse of Hitler’s Reich was a few more weeks or months of bombing, whether “area attacks” by night on industrial cities or, when weather allowed, of precision bombing of specific industrial plants by day.

They were to be disappointed. Despite the destruction of aircraft factories, German aircraft production at the end of 1944 turned out to be twice what it had been at its start, largely because of the dispersal program that had been devised by Albert Speer’s industrial organization. Nor did the destruction of synthetic oil plants prevent the Germans from mounting a powerful counter-offensive in December in the Ardennes, any more than did German morale crack because of attacks on their cities.7

Not surprisingly, the Joint Chiefs of Staff became impatient about the failure of the promises that lay behind the doctrine of strategic bombing. But, as Dr. Mets correctly tells us, Spaatz had by then ceased to believe “in the chimera of one air operation that would end the war.” He even told Arnold that such attacks as had been made on rail communications (and industrial areas) were indicating “that the breaking point may be closer at hand than some of us are ready to admit” [my italics]. Nonetheless, he agreed that both the American and British Bomber Commands should embark upon an offensive against east German cities. Moreover, despite Tedder’s insistence on concentrating attacks on specified railway targets, at the end of February of 1945 nine thousand American aircraft, in a huge display of air power, made a sweep over Germany, hitting railway targets far and wide—unfortunately, in a repeat demonstration, including two Swiss towns, which inexperienced pilots bombed, believing they were over Germany. Berlin was attacked several times, and on the night of February 13, Dresden was heavily bombed by RAF and, on the following two days and, after a brief gap, a third, by US bombers.

What happened to Dresden should not be forgotten. Some one hundred thousand people were killed in a city that was left a smoking ruin.8 Public opinion in the UK was outraged, and Winston Churchill, who had been an ardent proponent of the offensive, then denounced it as terror bombing. But despite all the attacks that followed, Germany still struggled on. Not until April, when the Russians were fighting in Berlin itself, did Spaatz declare that the strategic war was at an end.

In the light of Dr. Mierzejewski’s new study, it now seems highly unlikely that the destruction that was caused by the later attacks on Germany’s eastern cities—in the effort to carry out the doctrine of strategic bombing—was necessary. Conscious of the controversies about policy in which Eisenhower, Tedder, Harris, and Spaatz had been involved, he is careful to describe himself as a historian “who has no institutional ties past or present to any of the actors.” What he has written is based mainly on German records that were either not available, or not fully assessed, by the official American and British postwar bombing surveys. He has also studied British and American archival material, as well as German historical studies of what happened to the Reich’s economy in the final two years of the war.

It turns out that the intelligence and planning staffs that were opposed to the transportation plan had failed to appreciate that the German economy was totally dependent on its rail system—for example, more than 90 percent of the Reich’s energy supplies depended on the transportation of coal.9 Mierzejewski has found that from October of 1944 even the desultory bombing of German railway centers had begun to destroy the German economy. He also concludes that both Speer and the German railway authorities fully understood what was happening and what would be the consequences if the offensive against the nodal points of the railway network was continued in accordance with a coherent plan, instead of their being attacked mostly when weather conditions precluded the bombing of specific industrial plants regarded as more important targets by the Air Staff planners. As it was, all the repair facilities that could be mustered in Germany could not cope with the damage to the system that bombing was inflicting. Four months after the September attacks began, writes Mierzejewski, “the exchange of vital commodities in the Reich economy, especially coal, had broken down and every form of industrial production was in decline or had ground to a halt.” Mierzejewski pinpoints the dislocation of the marshalling system in railway centers as the major factor in the breakdown of the transportation network.

Tedder appreciated that the damage inflicted by successful attacks on Germany’s dispersed synthetic oil plants had serious effects, but he never believed that this could become as critical to the future conduct of the war as would disrupting and blocking both the flow of the coal on which the plants depended and the dispatch of their products to the points where the oil was wanted. In any event, as Mierzejewski points out,

Oil was not crucial to German industry. Even if EOU’s [the US’s Economic Objectives Unit] prescription had been fulfilled in its entirety, the assault on Germany’s petroleum resources could not have harmed the Reich’s basic industrial economy and, given the fanaticism of Nazi resistance, could not have ended the war alone.

Tedder styled the arguments that were leveled against the transportation plan “Aunt Sallies and red herrings.” What he did not know was that the antipathy to the bombing of transportation targets had become so deep-rooted that the main intelligence agencies that were concerned rarely, if ever, took the trouble to read the masses of Ultra intercepts that they received, showing what was happening to Germany’s railway network. For months the Combined Strategic Targets Committee had been “suppressing Enigma information on the Riechsbahn and the economy.”10 One intercept, dated October 20, 1944, stated that the

Reich Minister for Equipment and War Production reported that, on account of destruction of traffic installations and lack of power, from 30 to 50 percent of all works in West Germany were at a standstill.

If this message, as well as the German charts of railway movement captured in Brussels, had been drawn to the attention of the Chiefs of Staff by those whose responsibility it was to do just that, it is inconceivable that a concerted and coherent continuation of the transportation plan would not have been accorded the highest priority of the strategic bomber campaign. Had it been, it is clear from what Mierzejewski has discovered that the war might well have ended several months before it did, while much of the later destruction of German cities could have been avoided. Equally, the disposition of Soviet, UK, and US forces at the end of the war would have been quite different from what it was in June 1945. The Second World War had, in fact, provided a chance to validate the concept of independent air power in which Billy Mitchell and other air chiefs placed their faith—that of winning wars over the heads of battling armies. The opportunity was, however, missed by a failure to agree on how this was to be done. Today, in the nuclear and missile age in which we live, when conflict between two nuclear-armed opponents would mean mutual suicide, the entire doctrine of strategic air war has ceased to have any meaning.

This Issue

March 29, 1990