The Douhet dilemma

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

I haven't written much about General Giulio Douhet, the Italian prophet of airpower whose name is -- almost -- synonymous with strategic bombing. His 1921 (revised edition, 1927) book Il dominio dell'aria (usually translated as The Command of the Air) is one of the most definitive expressions of airpower extremism -- the idea that aircraft alone could win wars. In it, he articulated a theory of airpower which is essentially what I call, in the British context, the concept of the knock-out blow: fleets of unstoppable bombers roaming the skies, bombing cities and factories and infrastructure, thereby so undermining the morale of the civilian population that resistance collapses and the nation surrenders. He was widely influential among the staffs of the air forces of Europe, as James Corum has discussed.1 Whenever the origins of strategic bombing are discussed, Douhet's name is almost certain to pop up, often linked with that of Hugh Trenchard -- sometimes with the implication that Douhet was the source of belief in the bomber. For example:

The ideas [of strategic airpower], emanating from Douhet and Mitchell and strongly supported by Wever in Germany and Trenchard in Britain, strongly called for the exercise of concentrated bombing over the enemy's homeland.2

So why haven't I mentioned him more often? Because I don't believe he had much influence, if any, on the development of airpower theory in Britain. This is not a new idea -- Robin Higham argued as much in the 1960s,3 as did Malcolm Smith in the 1980s,4 and it seems to be pretty much accepted by specialists today. Both Higham and Smith point out that there was little discussion of Douhet in Britain before the mid-1930s, and The Command of the Air was not published in English until 1942.5 There are some important differences in the British and Italian theories: in particular, the latter held that absolute air supremacy was not only possible but necessary. More importantly, there are many plausible, native sources of British airpower theory dating from before 1921.

This all meshes with what I've found. Although my own research is of course incomplete, so far I have not seen any mention of Douhet in the public literature before 1934. The earliest was Herman de Watteville's "Armies of the air" in the October 1934 issue of Nineteenth Century and After, which summarises Douhet's beliefs and their reception in Europe. Almost simultaneously, L. E. O. Charlton gave a series of lectures at Trinity College in Cambridge in which he discusses Douhet very positively; these were later published as War from the Air: Past, Present, Future (London: Thomas Nelson and Son, 1935). (One indication that Douhet was not widely discussed in English at this time is the disagreement over how to translate the title of his book: de Watteville calls it The Mastery of the Air, while Charlton goes for the more prosaic Air Supremacy.) There was also an article on Douhet in the RAF Quarterly for April 1933, though I haven't seen this. The first discussion of Douhetism in The Times does not come until October 1939. Even J. M. Spaight, who had a good knowledge of the foreign-language airpower literature, does not seem to have referred to Douhet in one of his books before 1938.

Now, the late publication of The Command of the Air in English does not necessarily mean Douhet can't have had any influence. Some could have read it in the original Italian, though probably not many. Whole or partial translations also appeared in other languages well before 1942, including French which was widely spoken by educated Britons -- Charlton was one who learned of Douhet's ideas via this route.6 Also, Douhet was actually a prolific writer who wrote for newspapers and the like, and such shorter articles may have been a less daunting way into his ideas for a non-native speaker of Italian than a whole book might have been, and equally may have been translated for foreign publication. Smith notes that it's hard to believe that the British air attaché in Rome didn't report back on Douhet. And so on.

Aside from the lack of positive evidence for Douhet's influence in Britain, there are two major problems that I can see. The first is timing. The first edition of The Command of the Air seems to have attracted little attention even in Italy; it was not until a revised edition was published in 1927 that Douhet's ideas were widely discussed there. So there must be little chance of Douhet influencing foreign airpower theorists before 1927. And by that time, the knock-out blow idea was already firmly established in Britain: in particular, it was popularised by P. R. C. Groves in a series of very influential newspaper articles from 1922 onwards (not unlike Douhet himself, in fact).

Now, it might be possible that Groves picked up these ideas from Douhet somehow. And there's even a semi-plausible avenue for this, for Groves had attended the Versailles peace conference as the British air representative, which position he also held on the Permanent Advisory Commission for Military, Naval and Air Questions of the League of Nations. There he would have come into contact with thinkers and aviators from all over Europe, and it's easy to believe he might have heard about Douhet there.

But this leads me to the second problem: Groves doesn't mention Douhet at all. Now, this might not be thought surprising: maybe Groves wanted credit for himself, or wished to avoid the "not invented here" syndrome. But it's easy to show that this is very unlikely, for Groves actually constantly quoted foreign writers to buttress his case. For example, he used the following remark by Marshal Foch over and over:

The potentialities of aircraft attack on a large scale are almost incalculable, but it is clear that such attack, owing to its crushing moral effect on a nation, may impress public opinion to the point of disarming the Government and thus become decisive.7

It wasn't just that Groves liked French generals of towering reputation; he also quoted the relatively obscure General von Altrock, editor of Militär Wochenblatt, an important forum for aviation theorists in Weimar Germany. So it seems to me that if Groves was at all familiar with Douhet's writings, he would have quoted him in support alongside Foch and von Altrock.

So my conclusion is that Douhet had little influence on British airpower thinking. There's no evidence that anyone was paying much attention to him until the mid-1930s, by which time the knock-out blow paradigm was in full flower. And I haven't even discussed the evolution of strategic bombing theory in Britain in the First World War, which led to the earliest fully-fledged knock-out blow theories, even before Groves took up his pen. But -- there's always a but -- there's one last possibility. Michael Paris notes that Frederick Sykes (a hugely important figure in the early Royal Flying Corps, and later, the second Chief of the Air Staff) was in Italy twice in 1911, to examine the development of Italian military aviation, and suggests that he may well have come into contact with Douhet or at least heard or read of his ideas, which he was developing even at this early date.8 Sykes was later the Chief of the Air Staff at the time of the RAF's formation in 1918, and had a far-reaching vision of the strategic value of airpower (certainly more so than Trenchard at this time). And one of Sykes's acolytes in the RFC/RAF was P. R. C. Groves.9 So perhaps Douhet influenced Sykes and so, indirectly, Groves as well? The Douhet dilemma remains ...

  1. James S. Corum, The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, 1918-1940 (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1997), 89-104. 

  2. John Ray, The Night Blitz, 1940-1941 (London: Arms & Armour Press, 1998), 10. 

  3. See 'The place of Douhet' in Robin Higham, The Military Intellectuals in Britain, 1918-1939 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1981 [1966]), 257-9. 

  4. Malcolm Smith, "'A matter of faith': British strategic air doctrine before 1939', Journal of Contemporary History, 15 (1980), 423-42. 

  5. Smith says that the RAF Staff College acquired a manuscript translation as early as 1927; but he refers back to Higham for this and I can't find where Higham talks about it. He does mention a manuscript in the possession of the US Army's Air Corps Tactical School in 1933. 

  6. Again, Smith says that Charlton read the Italian edition, and refers to Charlton's bibliography in Menace of the Clouds (London: William Hodge, 1937) as evidence -- but as the title Charlton gives is of the 1932 French translation, La Guerre de l'Air, I don't think so! 

  7. The Times, 22 March 1922, p. 13. Later writers also frequently repeated this quote, which is one measure of Groves' influence: the remark was made by Foch to Groves personally (for the record, on 11 January 1921). So effectively did this Foch quote support Groves's position that some opponents dug up other Foch quotes to counter it, denying that Foch believed that aircraft alone could win wars. 

  8. Michael Paris, Winged Warfare: The Literature and Theory of Aerial Warfare in Britain, 1859-1917 (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1992), 189-90. 

  9. Ibid., 240. 

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10 thoughts on “The Douhet dilemma

  1. CK


    Thought you might be interested in this piece by Billy Mitchell from Popular Mechanics, February 1935.

    It’s fascinating. In many respects wildly off the mark, yet in others exteremly prophetic:

    “In addition, suppose that the cities themselves are attacked directly by high explosive bombs and gas. We learned in the last war that it requires comparatively little aerial activity to cause the evacuation of a city. People become terrified even at the sound or appearance of airplanes. In the future they will neither hear nor see them; the first indication of their presence will be the explosion of enormous projectiles and the sprinkling of gas.

    Should this occur in a city such as New York, one of the greatest disasters in history would result. High explosive bombs are extremely incendiary. A few well placed would put the city in flames which could not be controlled. A little gas mixed with the high explosive would spread terror and panic among the population. Two or three modern airplanes, attacking each of seven cities in this area nightly, would drive at least 20,000,000 people from their homes.

    In all probability, we shall not see the great numbers of airplanes we had in the last war. Now, aerial power will be exerted by air cruisers. They will set out on their missions alone. Their crews will be equipped with high-altitude suits, which carry oxygen on the belts, and chemical means of heating them. Automatic pilots will guide the ships. The course will be checked by radio in a manner which cannot be interfered with by the enemy. It is so difficult to find aircraft in heavy clouds and in the dark, that the menace of opposing aircraft will be almost negligible.”

  2. Post author

    Thanks, CK. It’s broadly similar to a lot of the British stuff I’ve read, except that I don’t know of anyone who claimed that only two or three bombers could have such effects! Though there was a Tasmanian MP, I think, in the 1930s, who calculated that the entire Australian coastline could be defended by half a dozen aeroplanes (or maybe it was as much as a dozen). Perhaps somebody should dust his plans off and forward them to the Hon. Brendan Nelson MP … would save heaps on JSFs and Super Hornets.

    Incidentally, Mitchell stole the (provisional) title of my thesis for his article’s title!

  3. CK

    Well ahead of the game over at LP. Seems to be a consensus among some commentators (well, maybe one) that we could deal with the issue with a few Swordfish and some state of the art cruise missiles.

    BTW, I was bumming around on a remote-ish beach last week and guess what came over just off the sand at 200 feet?

  4. CK

    That it be. I never thought I’d get to see it on the ground. But zipping by unexpectedly by so close you could almost touch it … now that was something.

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