The Air War

26 Jan

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The Second World War was not the first war in human history to take combat into the skies. The 1911-12 Italo-Turkish War was the first armed conflict in history to see aircraft utilized in a military role, although it was restricted to aerial reconnaissance only. The modern dogfight would not evolve until the First World War, when such personalities-cum-celebrities, such as former race car driver Eddie Rickenbacker, Manfred van Richthofen, a.k.a the Red Baron, and Albert Ball took the skies, engaging in mesmerizing aerial battles that not only captivated yet also had become incredibly romanticized in a world unfamiliar to the brutality of aerial warfare. Invented in 1915 by Dutch aircraft pilot and engineer Anthony Fokker, the interrupter gear allowed for a machine gun to fire between propeller revolutions, not only granting a pilot greater ease in an aerial battle, rather than being forced to throw bricks at an adversary, or tote a rifle or revolver into the clouds, a common practice in the early years of aerial combat, but would also revolutionize the face of the modern air war. Many of the developments of the First World War would bleed over into the Second World War only two decades later, such as flamethrowers, armored warfare in place of convention dragoons and horseback cavalry, as well as aircraft and the concept of strategic bombing to subdue an enemy belligerent and force them into submission. A concept born by the German Air Force, and manifesting itself in the form of daring, albeit sluggish, zeppelin assaults on London, the notion of strategic bombing, like most new ideas, was regarded as radical and impractical, much like the Western Allies’ palpable contempt for the tank, although it was invented by Great Britain, the foremost of the Allied powers, culminating in their ultimate defeat in France in the summer of 1940 in the face of Heinz Guderian’s overwhelming Blitzkrieg. Overshadowed by the innovation of strategic bombing, advocated in the United States by the outspoken First World War fighter ace Billy Mitchell, the invention of the monoplane in 1915 helped also shape the future of aerial combat, and yet again can trace its lineage to the mind of Anthony Fokker, in the form of the Fokker Eindecker, the world’s first successful fighter aircraft to be constructed in said configuration. As Germany tore itself apart in internal strife and turmoil brought about by the Treaty of Versailles, combined with the inept and inadequate Weimar Republic of the 1920s and 30s, replaced by Hitler’s Third Reich upon his election as Chancellor on January 30th, 1933, and securing for himself immutable emergency powers under the Enabling Act passed within a month and a half of his election, she also began to militarize. With the election of Hitler in 1933, as well as his permanent enacting of emergency powers, Paul von Hindenburg, a German general and veritable hero of the First World War, yet incompetent president within the fragile Weimar Republic, began to fade into the folds of history, his position possessing less and less importance until his death, similar to the plight of Italian king Victor Emmanuel III in the face of Benito Mussolini and his aggressive policies regarding combat in and potential annexation of Albania, as well as Greece. Throughout the 1920s, Germany combated within itself as factions aligning with differing political, religious, and economic ideologies took their almost chronic hatred for one another to the streets in semi-organized riotous gun battles and miniature civil wars, primarily fought by veterans of the previous war. With the rise of the National Socialist German Workers Party, the NSDAP, or Nazi, Party, during the calamitous and bloody events of the 1920s, the persona of Adolf Hitler, a failed artist of Austrian heritage and twice wounded veteran of the First World War, manipulated the ingrained distrust and hatred of the factions into action, and turned said hatred into a political movement, organized and lethal in its approach. Although the Nazi Party remained a specter haunting the Weimar Republic, it also remained relatively unpopular with most Germans until Hitler’s imprisonment after his failed “Beer Hall Putsch” in 1923, a failed attempt to overthrow the faltering Weimar Republic. Yet during his imprisonment, one that could actually be described as comparatively lavish in response to the treasonous act committed by him, he authored his autobiography, Mein Kampf, which caused him to surge from an infamous nobody with an amazing oratory talent, to a veritable celebrity in the eyes of the German people, promising to shepherd them from the bloody turmoil of the 1920s and newly cresting painful reality of economic torment brought about by the Great Depression, started in the United States following the Black Friday Stock Market collapse of 1929, which caused people to default on loans, forcing banks into closing, and simultaneously forcing the United States government to withdraw loans from Germany that were being utilized to pay reparations to the governments of France and Great Britain, who were in turn paying back the United States for loans withdrawn during the War. This unstable economic policy caused the Depression to go international, forcing many nations into economic downturn, and even collapse. Yet in the ashes of the Depression rose the phoenix: Adolf Hitler. Captivating audiences, small at first yet growing exponentially in size as his reputation spread, the middle-aged dynamo was democratically elected Chancellor in January 1933, and served as such until his death in the Fuehrerbunker in Berlin on April 30th, 1945, while Russian troops stormed the German capital, the black heart of the German Reich. Throughout the 1930s, Germany militarized in direct dissent to the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which stated that the German military could not exceed a size of 100,000 men, as well as the operation of a diminutive navy, no submersible fleet, and no air force. Germany broke all of the above. As Germany expanded into the Rhineland, taken from it as part of the territorial provisions listed in the Treaty, the French military, manning the territory, which it had annexed under the Treaty, withdrew. Following the end of the First World War, the Allied powers, as well as the world, wished to avoid war at any and all costs, the most apparent being the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, so the concept of appeasement became commonplace in the interwar period in European politics, primarily in Great Britain and France’s complacency regarding the German annexation of Austria in March 1938 to form the Anschluss, as well as Great Britain’s dispatching of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in October of that same year to negotiate the secession of the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia to Germany. No Czech representatives were present at the Munich Accords. In March of the next year, Czechoslovakia was invaded and annexed as a whole, while Great Britain and France, the preeminent Allied powers, defending freedom’s frontier in the First World War, turned a hypocritical blind eye to the Czechs’ plight. With Germany’s eyes shifting to Poland, the stage for the Second World War was set. The British government, similar to her 1839 agreement with Belgium, binding her to military action in the event of invasion by a foreign aggressor, which dragged the British into the First World War in August 1914. Yet prior to the German invasion of Poland, a series of events helped form the German Luftwaffe, as it came to be known, into a coordinated and lethal force: the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. With the distribution of wealth in Spain incredibly unbalanced, and with the unpopular Bourbon monarchy maintaining power with a gauntlet-tight grip, the Conservative faction inside the Spanish government, headed by radical Generalissimo Francisco Franco, rose in revolt, deposing the monarchy in a coup. They were immediately contested by the Liberal faction, and within days, war broke out, leading to a particularly bloody three-year civil war characterized by its unadulterated ferocity and barbarity. Franco immediately summoned the succor of Germany and Italy, two Fascist forces inside Europe, to come to his aid. The Italians committed a massive force of ground forces, while the Third Reich committed a diminutive ground force and air detachment, known by the moniker of the Condor Legion. The Spanish Civil War would allow the German Wehrmacht to solidify and perfect its battle tactics and coordination before combating the Western Allies in the spring of 1940 following the uneasy standoff of the Phony War of late 1939. The Luftwaffe would do the same, most notably in the leveling of the metropolitan hub of Guernica in the spring of 1937, the first documented use of carpet bombing, and the subject of a later Picasso work. By autumn 1939, Germany’s Blitzkrieg had become almost flawless, and Poland was crushed within three weeks of her invasion by Germany on September 1st, 1939. Within two days the Western Allied powers of France and Great Britain declared war, sealing France’s fate, as well as leading to Britain’s three month subjection to aerial assault by Germany. In comparison to the Western Allies, Germany’s strategic bombing never came to fruition. Most of the Luftwaffe‘s strength was committed to the Blitzkrieg in the form of fighter aircraft and dive bombers, rather than long range medium and heavy bomber aircraft, and one large scale attempt at German strategic bombing failed, culminating the climactic Battle of Britain, and also being the first major reversal suffered by the German military. Yet the Allied bombing campaign was a complete foil to its German opposite. Originally relegated to RAF Bomber Command, with the arrival of the United States in December 1941 following the attack on Pearl Harbor on the 7th and the German and Italian declaration of war four days later, the bomber force in England was significantly augmented. The Allies believed in a war of attrition, a bona fide Fabian strategy, of combating Germany while simultaneously wearing her down through a brutal strategic bombing campaign designed to cripple her industry, primarily in the field of avionics and petroleum, and later moving into assaulting everything. This originated in the autumn 1940 bombing of Berlin by a relatively small flight of RAF Bomber Command aircraft, only a handful of which actually dispensed their bombs on target. The attack had been orchestrated in response to a stray German bomber accidentally dropping its bombs on London after missing an RAF airfield and straying into British suburbia. The British assault on Berlin can only be compared to Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo in April 1942. It had no real strategic value, yet the psychological effect was almost immediate. Hitler had proclaimed the city impregnable to Allied air assault, and it had been proven false. Hitler set about on a course for vengeance, which would force the German Luftwaffe in France into a lengthy air battle devised at crushing London and other metropolitan centers, rather than focus their attention of the RAF rallying points along the coast, operating in conjunction with the revolutionary Chain Home Radar system. Leaving both of these entities intact, the Luftwaffe suffered considerable casualties during the attempted destruction of London, as well as other centers such as Birmingham and Liverpool. With the arrival of the United States Army Air Force in early 1942, as the Air Force would not become its own branch of the American armed forces until 1947, the strategic bombing campaign tipped the scale enormously in the Allies’ favor. As the war wore on throughout 1942 into 1943, with Germany combating the Western Allies in North Africa and later Sicily and continental Europe with their invasion of Italy in September 1943, as well as the Soviet Union since June 22nd, 1941, and now bogged down in ferocious fighting in Stalingrad and Sevastopol, and later Kharkov and Kursk, Germany had spread herself horribly thin, and her industry was being pounded almost daily by Allied strategic bombing raids. Initially tiny flights of bombers, generally barely topping one hundred, the number soon skyrocketed to over one thousand flying a single raid. Initially, with Germany occupying all of Europe, from the Brittany Peninsula in France to the river Volga in Russia, safe for the British Isles, German industry was relatively unhindered by the Allied bombing, but following several severe reverses, primarily at Stalingrad, a staggering blow Germany would never recover from, and also the Allied invasion of Italy and later France, German industry began to shrink back to within Germany’s borders, this being combined with Romania’s surrender in September 1944, Germany’s primary petroleum supplier, was a calamity Germany could not afford at such a late stage in the war. Similar to Japan’s conundrum in 1941 due to the League of Nations oil embargo while she was at war with China and preparing to go to war with the United States, Germany was now sitting on a limited stockpile of the incredibly valuable material, and needed to mete and dole the precious substance sparingly. The Luftwaffe had also fallen into a state of disarray, as most experienced pilots from the early stages of the war, most veterans of the Battle of Britain and Spanish Civil War, were now dead, and being replaced by poorly trained recruits, most of which were unfit for service, similar to the underage, overage, and ill men being recruited for the Wehrmacht during the later stages of the war, as Germany’s manpower supply had begun to dry up. For every group of five German soldiers serving in the Second World War, four were killed in combat against Soviet Russian forces. By war’s end, nearly nine million German troops had been killed, and as the war drew to a close, men as young as sixteen and as old as sixty were being recruited for service to defend the Fatherland against the Soviet invader, as well as the Western Allies, who invaded in late March 1945 as part of Operations Plunder and Undertone. With Germany’s industry becoming more and more limited as more and more occupied territory was recaptured by the Allies, the Allied bombing campaign began to take a severe toll, originally targeting the aircraft industry, primarily Focke-Wulf and Messerschmitt, and later shifting focus to encompass ball bearing plants, petroleum processing facilities, tank factories, small arms manufacturers, and the like. Germany was gradually dying the most painful death the Allies could imagine: strangulation. Combined with the strategic bombing of factories and production facilities, the Allies also bombed metropolitan centers to destroy German morale and confidence and support for the German war effort, culminating in the RAF fire bombings of Hamburg in Operation Gomorrah in July 1943 and Dresden in February 1945. Although the Allied bombing campaign was extremely successful, dropping over 3.4 million tons of bombs on Germany by 1945, averaging roughly 27,700 tons of high explosives per month, it was not without casualties. The American Eighth Air Force alone suffered sixty percent casualties. With an American Boeing B-17G heavy strategic bomber possessing a crew of ten men, that average translates to six of those men being killed or wounded over Germany, and only four returning alive and unscathed. With the arrival of the United States in England in 1942, RAF Bomber Command handed over the treacherous daylight raids on Germany to the USAAF, while the RAF would take the less hazardous night raids. This factor contributed overwhelmingly to the American casualty statistics attributed to the USAAF in Europe during the Second World War. Overall, the strategic bombing campaign strangled Germany into submission, crushing the morale of the average German citizen and severely damaging Germany’s manufacturing capabilities, forcing the Third Reich into a virtual panic by war’s end. This, combined with several foreign factors, including Romania’s surrender in September 1944, as well as Germany’s shrinking supply of ample manpower, contributed heavily to her surrender in May 1945 following the climactic Battle of Berlin, the site of Hitler’s suicide.

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One Response to “The Air War”

  1. Avid October 7, 2014 at 12:10 pm #

    I’ll try this again! a goo article on the war in Europe, I was in Germany in the 70’s and visited many of these sites while in Country, I was fascinated by the culture and wanted to find out how the people there felt during this time. It was quite an experience to see land that had been bombed and was grown over with grass that almost wiped out any evidence of war there. Also interesting was the difference between the elderly and the younger people where many of the younger crowed were pro peace, I learned so much and this article years later remind me of many things I saw and experienced while there.

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