The thousands of young men who flew in the terror-filled skies over Nazi-occupied Europe laid the foundation for American air power well into the 21st century, all while confronting some of the most timeless questions in the history of human conflict.
In February 42, Brigadier General Ira Eaker’s Eighth Air Force consisted of seven men and no aircraft, a humble beginning for an aerial armada that would quickly grow so large it would dwarf America’s biggest corporations in size and dominate the skies over Western Europe during World War II.
The history of the Eighth, particularly its adoption of a controversial strategic bombing philosophy that by 1945 had brought Nazi Germany to its knees, is the subject of historian Donald Miller’s recent book Masters of the Air. The ultimate success of this strategic bombing force, which sprang from the imagination of pioneers such as Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell following World War I, laid the groundwork for how the United States has fought its battles for aerial superiority ever since.
No dry-as-dust scholastic treatise, Miller’s book bridges the divide that so often separates academic and popular history, giving due attention to the brave young men who had to face the “exploding bombs, burning fuel, smoke, and torn flesh of war” as the aspirations of Mitchell and the remarkable men who followed, such as General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, were translated into reality.
World War II: The story of the Eighth Air Force and the air war in Europe has to be one of the most exhaustively covered topics in military history. What led you to write this book?
Miller: Most books on the Eighth fall into two broad categories. There are academic works that focus on the impact of strategic bombing—whether or not it worked—and ignore or lightly pass over the combat experience. And then there are books written largely for airpower buffs. These tend to be lightly researched and deal almost entirely with blood-and-thunder stories in the skies. My book is about men in combat, air warriors fighting an entirely new kind of warfare. I also deal with the economic, psychological and social impact of strategic bombing, as well as its morality. There are two sets of victims in the bomber war: the boys who did the bombing and those they bombed. Both victims suffered appalling casualties, mental as well as physical. It’s these people I’m interested in. War is a great indicator of character; it puts human beings under extreme stress, and under stress we reveal ourselves most completely. I’m interested in fear, what it is and how people respond to it, how they deal with it or succumb to it. These are the deeply human questions that Stephen Crane asks in his classic novel The Red Badge of Courage. Will I fight or will I run? How will I stand up to fear-filled experience? Who will help me? What made the story of the air war doubly interesting to me is that the moral questions it brings up are universal and eternal, questions about ends and means, good and evil. What kind of behavior is morally justifiable to bring down a morally repugnant regime? When is force proportionate, and when is it disproportionate? Does the achievement of good (i.e., the eradication of an evil regime) justify the killing of noncombatants? These are not easy answers, but since we live in a world at war it is important to constantly reexamine the gray areas. Post–World War I bomber theorists such as Billy Mitchell and the Italian General Giulio Douhet envisioned a new type of warfare where the primary target was not the enemy’s army but its highly vulnerable civilian population. These prophets of bomber warfare were convinced that civilians lacked the fortitude to stand up to vertical warfare waged with high explosives, fire bombs and poison gases—that generation’s equivalent in terror-generating capacity of atomic warfare. The wars of the future, they said, would be decided swiftly, precisely because the decisive blows would be directed at civilians who when intimidated by cataclysmic bombing would force their governments to capitulate. This, of course, is the idea behind terror bombing today, including 9/11; it aims to demoralize its victims and weaken the spirit of resistance, but as World War II showed, terror bombing rarely accomplishes this.
WWII: What is your opinion of the “Greatest Generation” hype, and is that term misused?
Miller: I don’t buy the idea of the Greatest Generation, even though my own father served in the U.S. Army Air Forces [USAAF] in World War II. This was a generation like any other in our history, made up of both the good and the bad, but one that lived in crisis times and responded with stoic courage to that challenge, just as the Founding Fathers did, just as Lincoln and Grant’s generation did. Several years ago I was doing a book signing in New Orleans and a Vietnam vet told me that his father had told him that he had not served in a real war. Well, any fighting man who puts his life on the line for his country is a hero in my book, whether he’s in Grenada or on Iwo Jima. And let’s not forget, most of the men and women of the so-called Greatest Generation buried their heads in the sand while fascism was on the march in Europe. It took an invasion of American soil to wake them up. But once awakened, they were absolutely sensational.
WWII: After returning from the August 17, 1942, mission to bomb the railroad marshaling yard at Rouen, France, Colonel Frank Armstrong, commander of the 97th Bombardment Group, exclaimed, “We ruined Rouen,” setting a precedent for exaggeration that you say was a feature of AAF bombing reports for the remainder of the war. Why were such claims made so routinely, and did they hurt the cause of strategic bombing?
Miller: They were made out of weakness. In 1942 and early 1943, the Eighth Air Force was an undersized, poorly trained outfit that could not bomb accurately or effectively and was getting pounded by the Luftwaffe. Churchill was urging Roosevelt to disband the Eighth, fold it into Britain’s Bomber Command and have it bomb entire cities—targets it could hit—under the cover of darkness. That didn’t happen, of course, but the Eighth continued to hit targets it could not destroy: impregnable Nazi U-boat pens on the coast of France and airplane manufacturing plants and ball-bearing factories that were either quickly rebuilt or dispersed and hidden all over the Reich by Albert Speer, Hitler’s minister of armaments. American bomber barons and AAF publicists continued to argue, against all the evidence, that these early raids were effective. So when the AAF finally suggested a target—Germany’s synthetic oil plants—it could take out with lethal consequences for the enemy, commanders like General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, his chief air adviser for the D-Day invasion, did not give this target the attention it deserved until after D-Day, which for them was, quite understandably, the paramount objective of Allied military strategy at that moment.
WWII: In the 1930s, the U.S. Army Air Corps came to be dominated by what has been called the “Bomber Mafia,” airpower theorists dedicated single-mindedly to the idea of strategic bombing. Could the United States have taken another course in regard to aerial warfare?
Miller: Oh, yes! We could have gone the German way and adopted an entirely tactical air force. I did not go into this in the book, but I think it is geography that dictates here. Think of Germany’s frontiers. In the east you have the Soviet Union, and to the west France. No matter how a war develops, once it does the Germans know they are going to have to quickly move to defend those borders with troops; or as it turns out to be the case, since they are the aggressor, to have to launch a massive land invasion quickly and effectively. Great Britain was in a different situation. It had committed sizeable ground forces to [Europe] during World War I and had suffered terribly. As a result, the British tried to take advantage of its separation from the mainland and developed a sizeable navy as well as an air force. America was even more isolated—both geographically and politically—so it developed an air force intended to protect its borders and made combat aircraft to sell to the British and the French. It is really geopolitics that enters the picture as the future belligerent powers begin to consider how to develop their own air power, and this explains why each country creates the kind of air force it does.
WWII: Who were the key players in the evolution of American air power?
Miller: First of all there is General Hap Arnold, who directed AAF operations worldwide from a desk in Washington. He was an insistent proponent of an independent air force and a doctrinaire believer that America’s heavy bombers would not need fighter escorts over German airspace. He is a wonderful character because his life is a timeline of the evolution of American air power. He was trained to fly by the Wright brothers, was a disciple of Billy Mitchell and in the 1930s was given the funding and authority to build what became the largest air force in the world. He was volatile, with a quick-trigger temper, who kept unrelenting pressure on his commanders in Europe to get fast and decisive results, knowing that the very survival of the Eighth Air Force was in jeopardy. Then there is his friend Ira Eaker, his co-author of several books on air-power theory. Eaker was sent to England in early 1942 to build the Eighth Air Force from nothing. In a little over a year, he created an organization the size of General Motors, one of the greatest striking forces in history. Then there’s Jimmy Doolittle, the first American to bomb Japan. He replaces Eaker in January 1944 because Arnold does not think Eaker is aggressive enough, and Doolittle immediately orders his fighter pilots to not only escort the bombers, but to also aggressively engage the Luftwaffe, to destroy its fighter force in all-out air combat. He is also an interesting character because he has an edge; he is outspoken, at times to the point of insubordination. Later in the war, when the Eighth resorts, for a brief time, to terror bombing—the indiscriminate bombing of civilians—he opposes it on both military and moral grounds. That took courage.
WWII: Who was the greatest American air leader of the war?
Miller: Carl Spaatz. He oversaw the whole thing, as commander of the American air arm in Europe. Although more subdued on the surface than his boss, he had Arnold’s blazing passion. An inspiring leader, he was also a team player. Unlike Sir Arthur Harris, head of the RAF’s Bomber Command, he didn’t kick and scream about diverting heavy bombers to support Operation Overlord, even though he would have preferred to send his bombers against Nazi oil. And he and his staff are the ones who came up with the idea of bombing Germany’s oil facilities with relentless resolve. They brought it to the top of the list for discussion and then pressed insistently for its acceptance.
WWII: Historian Stephen McFarland said, “The American air war in World War II was the fruit of six staff officers working with adding machines in extreme heat and humidity, largely without intelligence in formation, divorced from the exploding bombs, burning fuel, smoke, and torn flesh of war.” Why did the AAF’s early leaders, some of whom had seen combat, seem at times unaware of what aerial combat was really like?
Miller: They were transfixed by the power and potential of their new weapon, the Flying Fortress. The Bomber Mafia got so enthusiastic about what that plane could do that they became blind to the challenges it would face. They weren’t empathic; they didn’t try to understand their enemy, what he could do and would do to stop that bomber. This was a case of rampaging hubris. They had been pushing the theory of strategic bombing since the Army Air Corps’ inception, and the B-17 gave them the bombload and combat radius to finally prove the theory. When the B-17 first took to the air, it was as fast as any fighter in the sky, but when our bombers were sent into the wildly unpredictable European weather, against the best air defense system in the world, with undertrained crews and with leaders with no heavy bombing experience to fall back on, U.S. bombing doctrine collapsed. Yet the Bomber Mafia kept insisting their bombers could get through to the targets without long-range escort fighters. For men like Arnold, Eaker and Spaatz, strategic bombing had become more than a doctrine; it had become an unexamined creed, based more on faith than fact.
WWII: A principal goal of the AAF leadership was the creation of an independent air force. Did this desire impact U.S. strategy during the air war in Europe?
Miller: It really became an issue toward the end of the war when the question of the terror bombing of German cities came to the fore. On one hand, you had Arnold telling Spaatz that unless he destroyed the German military economy soon, Arthur “Bomber” Harris would get the credit for winning the air war and the AAF would never get its independence. On the other hand, you had Eaker, who was now commanding Allied bombing operations in the Mediterranean theater, warning Spaatz that if the AAF started targeting civilians it would tarnish its war record and damage its chances for autonomy.
WWII: Things did not all go according to plan. The P-51 Mustang, for example, is justifiably regarded by many as the top Allied fighter of the war. Yet, you say that it almost slipped through the cracks. How?
Miller: It was the air leaders’ single minded focus on bombers. It was not until the Eighth began to sustain staggering casualties when it sent its bombers into the heart of Germany in 1943 that Hap Arnold began to push for development of a long-range fighter. He didn’t push hard enough, however, until the end of that summer, after the Regensburg-Schweinfurt and Ploesti raids, suicidal missions on which the Eighth accomplished little and suffered unsustainable losses. Arnold admitted after the war that this was a huge mistake. It was more than that; it was a mistake that could have lost the air war. Fortunately, there were other people inside the AAF who believed strongly in the Mustang and pushed its development. The fact that the P-51 was deployed at exactly the right time, just before D-Day, is one of the miracles of the war. That winter and spring before the invasion, Mustangs and P-47 Thunderbolts equipped with auxiliary fuel tanks decimated the Luftwaffe in brutal aerial combat, allowing the invasion to go forward. In those battles of attrition—the greatest air battles ever fought—the bombers were the bait. They were hitting targets, like Berlin, that the Luftwaffe had to come up and defend, and in defending them they were mauled—losing, most critically, their finest pilots. Although ingeniously hidden German aircraft plants continued to produce fighters in great numbers up to the fall of 1944, there were not enough trained pilots or enough fuel to turn them into an effective air defense system.
WWII: The Eighth often takes the blame for the appalling D-Day losses suffered by the GIs of the 1st and 29th Infantry divisions on Omaha Beach. Was the AAF’s performance on June 6, 1944, a success or a failure?
Miller: In reading about the D-Day landings, both the Eighth and Ninth Air forces seem like the bastard stepchildren. It’s unfair to overlook their immense contribution. Remember, 28,000 Americans were killed during the buildup to the invasion, and in the Battle of Normandy, 10,000 of these were just before D-Day. That’s a lot of lives, far more than were lost on the beaches on June 6. The Ninth Air Force did an incredible job on the ground after Normandy. Major General Pete Quesada, one of the war’s greatest tactical commanders, was remarkable. He gets over there and tells his pilots: “I’m going to take you to the front lines so you can see the beating the guys on the ground are taking. I’m going to take you to the hospitals to show you what war does to people. You might not want to do any of this dive-bombing stuff, but it helps.” He also puts pilots in tanks and gives them radios so they can talk air force language to the guys flying the Thunderbolts and tracking down enemy tanks and performing aerial artillery operations for infantry. They did an incredible job. I remember standing on the bluffs of Omaha Beach with a bunch of veterans and what really struck me was who wasn’t there on D-Day. The U-boats weren’t there, and the Messerschmitts and Focke Wulfs weren’t there. If they had been, it would have been a very different battle.
WWII: In the months leading up to D-Day, General Eisenhower and the leaders of the strategic bombing campaign found themselves locked in a terrific debate over the use of air power to support the invasion. Was Eisenhower right in asserting that he must have complete control of the AAF?
Miller: Eisenhower was absolutely right in that great showdown with the Allied air commanders. But he was also right, a little later, to give in to Spaatz’s pressure and allow two strikes against Nazi oil as well. They were the beginning of truly effective strategic bombing. The Eighth had finally found a vital and vulnerable industry, one without which Germany could not win the war; and having achieved air supremacy, it was able to hit it repeatedly and effectively until Germany ran out of oil.
WWII: You say that the February 3, 1945, raid on Berlin was a more important turning point than the decision to firebomb Tokyo in March 1945. Wasn’t the Berlin mission just another in a long series of strikes on the German capital?
Miller: No, the earlier raids were aimed at military targets exclusively. On February 3, the AAF crossed a moral threshold. It targeted refugees at railroad stations who were escaping the Red Army. The idea was that the bombing would create transportation bottlenecks that would delay the movement of German troops to the collapsing Eastern Front. Thousands of civilians had already been killed in American raids on marshaling yards in the built-up areas of German cities, but up to now—except for a raid against Munster in October 1943—German civilians had not been directly targeted. Remember, however, that in February 1945 there was tremendous pressure to finish the war in Europe and move men and resources to the Pacific. It might have been wrong to deliberately target civilians, but it was equally wrong not to finish off the Nazis as soon as possible. Every day victory was delayed, thousands of innocent people inside the Reich died. Most people don’t realize that there was a crisis of confidence in the Allied camp in January 1945. I’ve read the reports of the meetings of the senior military leaders. These men were despondent. They had just been surprised by a tremendous German offensive in the Ardennes—the Battle of the Bulge—and intelligence reports indicated that the Germans were speeding up the production of new jet fighter planes and of fast, silent-running submarines with supplemental electric motors that would allow them to remain submerged for up to 72 hours. The Combined Chiefs of Staff had expected to win the European war by Christmas 1944. Now it looked to them like the war might last far into 1945, with the defeat of Japan coming 18 months or so after that. This led to pressure for stepped-up bombing, and this included bombing population centers in the hope of extinguishing the last embers of German resolve. The bombing of refugees in Berlin and other cities of eastern Germany, including the fire bombing of Dresden, was the direct outgrowth of this January crisis. This bombing was ineffective, however. The bombing that brought the German economy to complete collapse was the kind of bombing the Eighth had been doing since D-Day: heavy and repeated attacks on German oil and transportation targets.
WWII: In September 1939, Roosevelt urged the belligerent European powers to refrain from the “inhuman barbarism” of targeting civilians, but within three years he was proclaiming to Congress that the people of Germany were going to be hit “heavily and relentlessly.” Was this escalation of violence deliberate or a natural progression?
Miller: As General William T. Sherman noted, almost all wars have a built-in dynamic, a demonic capacity for acceleration and excess, not necessarily by deliberate decision, but by the process of harnessing a people’s emotions and material resources to finish off the enemy, especially if one side is convinced it is fighting for a just cause. Yes, wars—especially total war—fly out of control. Yet it is wrong to criminalize the behavior of American air commanders who resorted to terror bombing in the last month of the war out of a desperate desire to finish off a repugnant enemy, one that was already defeated but wouldn’t admit it.
WWII: Operations Thunderclap and Clarion make it clear that U.S. leaders had crossed the Rubicon in terms of targeting civilians. Did any senior AAF leaders oppose this?
Miller: Doolittle kept saying that the emphasis should remain on military targets, that bombing the military economy was working. Spaatz agreed, but he reluctantly condoned the Clarion campaign of February 1945—the bombing of small German towns and cities to bring the war home to those who had not yet been bombed—as a desperate long-shot effort to quicken the end of the war. When it didn’t work, he called a halt to terror bombing at the end of February.
WWII: You cite an internal memo from Maj. Gen. George C. McDonald, head of Eighth Air Force intelligence, to Maj. Gen. Frederick Anderson, Spaatz’s deputy commander, in which McDonald says that if the bombing of civilian targets is to be seen as “the shortest way to victory, it follows as a corollary that our ground forces, similarly, should be directed to kill all civilians and demolish all buildings in the Reich.” How were Allied leaders able to make the distinction between the methods used by air and ground commanders to achieve the desired end?
Miller: McDonald’s letter is amazing. It’s almost insubordination. I had never read anything like it before. That letter must have been a wake-up call, for it ended with a plea, similar to Doolittle’s, that the Eighth return to—and I quote—“the demonstrated methods of making the most effective contribution to the conquest of the enemy.” To fight the war more humanely was also, in this case, to fight it more effectively. For Spaatz, who had immense respect for McDonald, the letter must have come as a shock, and it undoubtedly had an influence on his decision to issue a new bombing directive that stated in the strongest language that only military objectives were to be attacked.
WWII: The concept of blitzkrieg has come under a great deal of scrutiny from historians recently. In your book you talk about the Reich’s “blitzkrieg economy.” What was that, and does it provide a different view of Germany’s wartime economy than we generally have?
Miller: The theory of the blitzkrieg economy purports to dispel one of the most popular misconceptions about the Nazis: that from the start of the war in 1939 they had ruthlessly mobilized the resources of the German state for total war. This theory originated with the work that the American economist John Kenneth Galbraith did in 1945 for the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey. After interviewing Speer and other German economy leaders, Galbraith concluded—and other economists and historians later built on his theory—that Nazi Germany had initially mobilized at a level sufficient only to support a series of cheap and easy victories over its European neighbors. These were supposedly blitzkrieg wars, won by lightning-quick ground and air assaults, and they were supported, supposedly, by a blitzkrieg economy, a production system mobilized only for the short term. It was a guns-and-butter economy that didn’t force the civilian population to make deep sacrifices. It was only later, after the German army was stopped in front of Moscow in the winter of 1941-42, that Hitler purportedly began a program of all-out mobilization. Recent research by historians like Williamson Murray and Richard Overy dispels the idea of a blitzkrieg economy. German production records indicate that Hitler had already begun preparing in the mid-1930s for a global war of racial conquest and had followed a course of steadily expanding military preparedness. As early as 1939, the Nazis made severe cutbacks in consumer production and moved resources and labor from the consumer to the military sector of the economy. Germany actually mobilized a much greater part of its female workforce than Great Britain, which mobilized women to a greater extent than any other Allied nation except the Soviet Union. Hitler, it is clear, expected to fight a great war of European and possibly global conquest, but it came up on him faster than he expected, provoked by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; and his economy was not yet up to speed to fight both the Soviet Union and a production colossus like the United States, for there was a lot of waste and flab in the economy. Speer’s so-called production miracle was not achieved by converting a blitzkrieg economy into a total war economy. He simply used more effectively, and with less military interference, resources already being committed to all-out war. He and his teams of technocrats brought to peak performance a war economy that had already begun to be rationalized in 1941 by his predecessor Fritz Todt, who was killed in a plane crash in 1942. With Hitler’s vast European conquests, Speer had virtually the entire continent to draw upon for his shortages of labor and raw materials: oil from Romania, coal from Polish Silesia, slave and contract labor from every country the Nazis had occupied.
WWII: There has been a great deal of debate in academic circles about the true value of the strategic bombing effort. Detractors say the expenditure in blood and treasure far exceeded the actual results. To back up these arguments they often turn to Galbraith, who comes off poorly in your book. Why?
Miller: I lost a lot of respect for Galbraith. I cut my teeth intellectually on his work—impressive, sharply argued books such as The New Industrial State and The Affluent Society. When I started this book, I believed he was right—that strategic bombing was a failure, or at best a limited success. Yet when I read the report he wrote for the Strategic Bombing Survey, I found him arguing that the bombing that was done in 1944-45 delivered unrecoverable blows to the German economy. What’s going on here, I asked myself? Here’s what I think happened. In his Vietnam era writings, Galbraith called the air war against Germany a disastrous failure, leaving unsuspecting readers to assume that he had arrived at his conclusion in 1945. In his understandable opposition to President Lyndon Johnson’s first large-scale bombing of North Vietnam, Operation Rolling Thunder, Galbraith insisted that strategic bombing had never worked, not in Vietnam, not in Korea, not even in World War II. And prominent journalists and historians, among them David Halberstam and I.F. Stone, have taken a page from him and argued that the Strategic Bombing Survey, which Galbraith was instrumental in drafting, proved conclusively that strategic bombing had not worked. Now it is one thing to challenge the AAF’s claims about strategic bombing and quite another to argue that the bombing survey says what it decidedly does not. The survey—and I have read all 200 or so volumes—argues unambiguously that bombing was decisive. And the extensive archival research I did for my book, in this country and in Europe, convinced me that while bombing did not win the war, the war could not have been won without it. As Speer pointed out, the losses inflicted by the Allied bombers was for Germany the “greatest lost battle of the war.” And it was the Americans, he told British interrogators, who delivered the most telling blows, destroying indispensable areas of the economy, not entire cities. I think the idea that strategic bombing was a failure is one of the great myths of the war. While bombing depressed morale, morale bombing did not work. Conducted predominately by the British, it was designed to crush the spirits of German workers to the point where they either rose up against their government or walked away from their jobs in order to protect their homes and families. Morale bombing did neither, for it was based on a flawed understanding of how people react to a crushing, long-term catastrophe and on a wildly optimistic view of the German people’s opportunities to revolt. Bombing produced political passivity—people stopped caring about public issues and became consumed with their own private battles for survival. This is not behavior that nurtures revolt. Even if you lose faith in the government, how in a police state do you translate your disillusionment into active revolt? Germans of conscience, as well as those who came to their senses toward the end and admitted defeat, lived in a society in which complaining people were hanged from lampposts by Nazi vigilantes for the crime of defeatism.
WWII: Your book is exhaustive in its treatment of both the theory and practice of the air war in Europe. Was there something you had to leave out that you would have liked to include?
Miller: I would have liked to do a little more on people like Robert McNamara, who instituted statistical control in the AAF. People like him did two things that were very important. First, using primitive computer punch cards, they developed a selection system for Army recruits that allowed the AAF to identify the cream of the crop. This ended up robbing the infantry of a lot of good men and making the AAF an elite outfit. Second, they were instrumental—and after the war would become more so—in target selection. This is a story that needs to be told. I’d have loved to pursue it, but it is a big story that deserves its own book.
Chris Anderson is the editor of World War II Magazine.
Originally published in the December 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.