It begins with Trenchard

“The controversy raged over the whole field of the offensive which embraced questions of strategic desirability, operational possibility, economic, industrial and moral vulnerability, and legal and moral responsibility…”

-Official History of the Strategic Air Offensive against Germany 1939-45

The First World War witnessed the first use of air power in combat. At the conclusion of the Great War, air power was still an embryonic, little-understood modern weapon. However, the dropping of the first bombs heralded the beginning of a ghastly new battlefield.

In response to shocking attacks on London, Prime Minster Lloyd George appointed war hero General Smuts to draft a paper suggesting how Britain’s air forces should be organised to meet this new threat. His paper, completed in 1917, laid the foundations for the Britain’s aerial warfare strategy for the Second World War:

  • It inspired the creation of the RAF, an independent entity from the Army or Navy
  • The Air Service can be used as an independent means of war operations (rather than just supporting ground troops)
  • In future, air bombardment alone might determine the outcome of a conflict

In 1918, Sir Hugh Trenchard was appointed as the first Chief of Air Staff. Hastings writes that ” his passionate belief in the potential of a bomber offensive against an enemy nation was to dominate the Royal Air force for more than twenty years” (34).

Trenchard wrote:

“It is not, however, necessary for an air force, in order to defeat the enemy nation, to defeat its armed forces first. Air power can dispense with that intermediate step, can pass over the enemy navies and armies, and penetrate the air defences and attack direct the centres of production, transportation and communication from which the enemy war effort is maintained.”

In short, his thesis was that victory can be achieved by bombing enemy vital centers, thus breaking the enemy’s will to fight.

Trenchard’s theory made some major assumptions:

  • The bomber will always get through; it does not need an escort
  • Civilian morale is fragile. The effect of bombing on morale is more than the physical effects
  • The offensive is the stronger form of war
  • Night navigation, target acquisition, and bombing accuracy are manageable problems
  • Air superiority is a prerequisite for all other military operation
It time, each of these points (in varying degrees) proved to be untrue.
The powers and limitations of bomber forces were an enigma to most politicians and the public as Britain entered the War in 1939.
Bernard Shaw reflected on the the potential horrors of air attack and on ‘cities where millions of inhabitants are dependent for light and heat and water and food, on centralised mechanical organs like great steel hearts and arteries that can be smashed open like a great steel heart in half an hour by a boy in a bomber.”
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