It’s a familiar figure of speech: “What if they gave a war, and no one came?”
I am old enough to recognize this slogan. I was born in 1958, the youngest of five, with my older siblings in college. I grew up during the 60s. Vietnam. Campus radicalism. Jefferson Airplane. Etc, etc.
By and large, World War II doesn’t usually fit this model. After all, there wasn’t much wriggle room here. What if Adolf Hitler gave a war, and no one came? Any reasonable person can be certain about it: it wouldn’t have ended well for anyone.
But actually, there was an interesting moment in World War II when one side did give a war and no one came. In September 1943, the Allies launched a sizable diversionary operation codenamed Starkey. It was part of a series of operational plans put together by Lieutenant General F. E. Morgan, Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander (COSSAC). The first was a contested invasion of Normandy (codenamed Overlord). The second was a quick uncontested landing on the French coast, in the event of a German surrender (Rankin). Finally, Morgan had orders to plan a large deception operation to coincide with these potential invasions, codenamed Cockade. Cockade itself had three parts: a feint against Axis forces based in Norway (Operation Tindall), a phony invasion against German forces based in Brittany (Operation Wadham), and a mock invasion of Pas de Calais (Starkey).
Of the three diversions, the Allies decided on Starkey, timing it coincide with the Allied landings on the Italian mainland at Salerno (Operation Avalanche). The plan was to threaten a landing in northern France, which would hopefully draw the attention of the Germans, prevent them from reinforcing Italy, and thus assist the Allies in getting ashore. A secondary purpose was to test the strength of German air defenses in France, part of the longer range planning for Overlord. To that end, major units of the U.S. Eighth Air Force would fly against targets in northern France, simulating the preparatory stages of an Allied landing.
It all sounds sensible enough. Unfortunately, Starkey misfired from the start. The Allied navies didn’t want to commit major units to a diversion, and so withheld the battleships. Likewise, landing craft were in short supply for real operations, and no one wanted to risk too many of them for Starkey. As a result, German coastal defenses, spotting only light Allied forces, remained silent and refused to reveal themselves. The Luftwaffe, too, failed to rise to the bait. To be honest, its attention was focused on Italy, and there wasn’t much it could have done anyway. As to major German ground formations, they could only be in one place at a time, and in September 1943 that place happened to be Salerno, where they gave the Anglo-American landing force just about all it could handle. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill probably put it best upon first seeing the plans for Starkey: “I cannot feel that there is enough substance to this.”
There you have it. A failed diversion. An enemy who fails to bite. Typical fog of war stuff. End of story, right?
Unfortunately, not in this case. General Ira C. Eaker was the commander of the U.S. 8th Air Force. He had just been through a tough few months. As commander of the American half of the “Combined Air Offensive” (CBO) against Germany, he had known nothing but frustration. Rather than the quick victory over the Luftwaffe that U.S. air force planners had expected, it had been a time of heavy German resistance, high friendly losses in bombers and crews, and minimal results. Voices were already being raised back home about Eaker. Perhaps he wasn’t ready, wasn’t up to the job. Perhaps someone more aggressive would get the results that had eluded him.
Eaker was an experienced officer, and he could hear the whispers. Maybe that’s why he looked at the results of Starkey and saw something different than what other people were seeing. Perhaps, he surmised, the Germans hadn’t reacted because they couldn’t react. Perhaps their air units had already been crippled by heavy losses and didn’t feel like tangling with the Americans. Perhaps the bombing raids up to now had been more destructive than his intelligence officers were reporting. After all, he knew, bomb damage assessment and claims of enemy kills were notoriously difficult to pin down.
As a result, in the words of one scholar of the air war, Eaker looked at Starkey and “immediately claimed victory.” The day after Starkey had concluded, Eaker was in an exultant mood. “They refused to attack our bombardment whenever it was supported by our fighters,” he wrote. Clearly the Germans were weaker than expected: “The enemy could have concentrated his fighters and overwhelmed and overpowered one of these air task forces of ours. This they did not do. This indicates a breakdown in German air command or communication, or both,” he concluded.
Eaker wasn’t the first commander in history to misjudge an operation under his purview. What sets this narrative apart is the conclusion he drew. With the German Luftwaffe clearly off balance (as he saw it), the time had come for the forces under his command to land a knock-out blow. He began planning a series of bold airstrikes on various German targets. Leipzig (Operation Suction). Berlin (Operation Halleck). And finally, the massive German ball-bearing complex at Schweinfurt, hit but not taken out in August 1943.
Eaker wasn’t the only one getting giddy. His boss, General Henry “Hap” Arnold, commander of the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF), was beginning to feed off of the same optimism. On 26 September, he told Eaker that “we obviously must send the maximum number of airplanes against targets within Germany, now that the German Air power appears to be at the critical stage.”
They did just that in a single horrible week from October 8th through the 14th, launching one raid after the other, culminating in a massive strike at Schweinfurt. And they got their unescorted bombers shot out of the sky in prodigious numbers, no fewer than 148 aircraft, along with their highly trained crews. By any accounting, it was a “Black Week,” a week of disaster. It seems the Luftwaffe wasn’t on its last legs after all.
War is never simple, but the failed diversion of Operation Starkey leaves us to ponder one of the most complex questions of World War II: what if we gave a war, and no one came—but we thought they had?