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By the end of the first century of flight, warplanes would at last fulfill their mythic promise, as air power brought crushing precision, speed, and lethality to the battlefield in the Gulf Wars and Afghanistan. But that achievement would require both new inventions and new thinking that boldly challenged air force orthodoxy -- above all, the deeply entrenched myth of the bomber's omnipotence that even the repeated bitter and costly experience of war had failed to shake. This epic history draws on combat memoirs, letters, and diaries; archival records and museum collections; and eyewitness accounts by the men who fought -- and the men who developed the breakthrough inventions and concepts -- to weave a vivid and dramatic account of the airplane's revolutionary transformation of modern warfare.
But telling the story of air power is not the same as offering up a complete history of aerial combat or a definitive account of the men, the institutions, or the machines that have waged war in the air. As I soon discovered, the only way I could stick to my chosen path was if I was prepared to be quite ruthless. There is, accordingly, much that is justifiably famous in the history of military aviation that I simply had to abandon by the wayside if I was to have a prayer of getting where I was going.
To those who would condemn me for failing to mention this famous airplane or that decisive battle, this legendary squadron or that heroic flyer, I plead completely guilty, and only hope that I may seek mitigation on the grounds that my intent has been to follow my tale where it led me and not (as so much military history so often does) to provide an exhaustivecataloging of all who undoubtedly deserve credit. I would also appeal to the wisdom of the French saying that Winston Churchill always said was his favorite: "L'art d'être ennuyeux, c'est de tout dire"-"The art of being boring is to tell all."
I am deeply indebted to the great scholars of air power and aviation history without whose works I could never have found my bearings in this vast field. Many were also extraordinarily generous in their personal assistance to me: answering questions, suggesting sources, and offering much-appreciated critiques of portions of this work. I would like to thank in particular James S. Corum, professor of comparative military studies at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, Maxwell Air Force Base; Richard P. Hallion, the former United States Air Force Historian; Herman Wolk, Roger Miller, and Wayne Thompson of the U.S. Air Force History Support Office; and John D. Anderson, Jr., professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland. If I have managed to get above the trees and see the forest at all, it is because of the trails these and many other scholars of air power and aeronautical history have blazed to the vistas.
In recounting specific incidents and details that illustrate and substantiate this story, I have, whenever possible, tried to consult original sources, including memoirs and personal letters; official publications, reports, and memoranda; and contemporaneous views as expressed in newspapers, films, and other popular media. I am grateful to the archivists and staffs of the United Kingdom Public Record Office, the Library of Congress Manuscript Division, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, the Imperial War Museum, the Royal Air Force Museum, the German Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv, and the U.S. Air Force History Support Office for their kind assistance.
My sincere thanks also go to Ralph Erskine, whose broad knowledge of military and naval history, not to mention his exceptional critical eye, generosity, and sound judgment, has made me just one of the many writers who are in his debt; Bill Cook, for valuable discussions and advice; Will O'Neil, Chief Scientist, Center for Naval Analyses, for valuable suggestions and for providing many copies of articles from his remarkable personal aviation library; Jean Roberts, for sharing original research and copies of documents on the life of S. F. Cody; David Mets and Sy Deitchman, for insights into the history of precision guided weapons; Ephraim Asculai, for helpful comments on early drafts; Maj. John Beaulieu, Office of the U.S. Air Force Historian, for kind assistance on many fronts; Yvonne Kinkaid, U.S.
Air Force History Support Office, for helping me obtain copies of documents and answers to questions; Joseph Chambers and Bruce Holmes of NASA Langley Research Center and James Fallows of The Atlantic Monthly, for explaining principles of aerodynamics and flight; and Maj. Gen. Charles Metcalf, Ret., and Ron Hunt of the U.S. Air Force Museum, for allowing me an inside look at aircraft in the museum's collections. I also would like to give my special thanks to Peter and Celia David, whose kind hospitality made my research trips to London so pleasant and memorable.
I thank James Corum for lending the photographs from his extensive collection that appear here. The aircraft profile drawings were done by graphic artist Dave Merrill.
It was an age of miracles.
The year 1900 began with an excited rush of newspaper articles, sermons, and speeches marveling over the transformations that had taken place in the century just past. "The nineteenth century," editorialized the New York Times, "has been marked by greater progress in all that pertains to the material well-being and enlightenment of mankind than all the previous history of the race." In "every department of science and intellectual activity," agreed the Washington Post, "we have gone beyond the wildest dreams of 1800."
People were not merely living in a miraculous age; they were keenly aware of living in a miraculous age, one in which there seemed no limit to what human ingenuity might do. Inventions were not merely providing new material comforts and easing burdens; they were breaking down the very certainties of centuries.
Change had come at a mind-spinning pace. The historian Mark Sullivan, born in 1874, wrote that as a boy he had carried a lantern "of a model as old, at least, as Shakespeare, a cylinder of tin with little jagged holes punched through it." Candles and candle molds were common household articles. Half of Americans still were farmers, and they still used tools that a farmer from a thousand years before would have had no trouble recognizing. Grain was mowed with handheld scythes and threshed on a barn floor using a flail made of two sticks joined together with a leather thong. As late as the 1880s, Sullivan recalled, a farmer who wanted a barn went out to the woods with an axe, chopped down oaks, trimmed them, and got his neighbors together for a barn raising. The blacksmith's shop and the gristmill were still fixtures of every rural hamlet, plying trades unaltered in their essentials since the Middle Ages.
The typical American or European of the mid-nineteenth century lived in a world that was not just medieval in its material and tangible dimensions; it was medieval in its cadences and habits of mind. The rhythms of life were set by the sun's rise and fall and the procession of the seasons. Men, and news, and knowledge, traveled at the speed a man or a horse could walk in a day-perhaps twenty-five miles, on a good day, on a good road, in good weather. Henry Adams, the historian and educator who struggled in his autobiography to fathom the world turned upside down that he now lived in, did not exaggerate when he observed that the "American boy of 1854 stood nearer the year 1, than the year 1900" in the education he was given.
In 1900 Henry Adams would stand in the Gallery of Machines at the Great Exposition in Paris and feel "his historical neck broken" as he contemplated the almost silently whirring dynamos that lit the fair's buildings and grounds. "He began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross," Adams wryly observed, his distant third-person voice perfectly echoing the disconnectedness from all things certain and familiar that the new century had ushered in. "The planet itself," he wrote, "seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm's length at some vertiginous speed." Even history, the laying out of an orderly sequence of events linked by cause and effect, history as Adams had practiced it as a professor at Harvard, had been stood on its head by this "sudden irruption of forces totally new." The year 1900, he conceded, "was not the first to upset schoolmasters. Copernicus and Galileo had broken many professorial necks about 1600; Columbus had stood the world on its head towards 1500; but the nearest approach to the revolution of 1900 was that of 310, when Constantine set up the Cross."
Modern social historians look back on the Victorians and belittle their naïve awe of science, technology, and progress, but Adams was no naïf, and what he expressed was what millions felt, and felt with perfect justice. Theirs was a world where the familiar bearings were simply gone, where religious belief, social conventions, even consciousness itself were being refashioned by the onrush of science; where even popes and kings might tremble before the impersonal forces of steam, steel, and electricity; where "everything was flexible, everything was possible," in the words of the historian Howard Mumford Jones. Inventions had annihilated distance and time. By 1900 there were a million and a half telephones in the United States; it was possible for a man in New York City to sit at a desk and carry on a conversation with a man in Omaha, 1,250 miles away, a feat that only a few decades earlier would have meant a journey of weeks. The network of railroad track had quadrupled since the Civil War, to 193,000 miles; a train now arrived and departed Chicago every four minutes. The railroads had freed travel from the weather, linked small towns with great cities, standardized time across the vast reaches of the continent. Every city and town used to keep its own local hours, resetting the clocks to 12:00 as the sun reached its zenith at noon each day; now even the smallest town was part of a rhythm and consciousness that pulsed to the tempo of the railroad and the metropolis. Electric lines and gas pipes tied individual houses to huge networks, pulling them out of their self-sufficient isolation into an unseen world beyond.
Distance and time were being annihilated by the way news now traveled, too. The decades after the Civil War had brought the Linotype machine and a new process for making white paper from cheap chemically digested wood pulp instead of expensive linen fibers, and daily newspapers sprang up everywhere. By 1900 there were 2,226 metropolitan dailies in the United States, many producing multiple editions each day as their high-speed rotary presses churned out the latest news, telegraphed from across the nation and around the world. The problems of even the most distant reaches of the world were now on people's minds and lips. In 1900 American farmers sent five thousand tons of wheat to help relieve a famine in India.
Invention was sweeping aside conventions and social distinctions as old as civilization itself. Where Marx failed, chemists and electrical engineers triumphed. The San Francisco Examiner observed that "in the span of a single life, the humblest artisan enjoys what kings could not purchase with their treasures a century ago." Costs of once unimaginable luxuries and conveniences plummeted. In 1900 Kodak introduced the Brownie camera; the camera cost one dollar and a roll of film that took six pictures cost ten cents, and suddenly everyone was a photographer; the stiff formal portraits of professional photographers were replaced in family albums with backyard scenes and youngsters mugging for the camera. Electric streetcars became so efficient they dropped their fares from a dime to a nickel. By 1901 there were 76,945 post offices in the United States, an all-time peak, and the recently introduced Rural Free Delivery system let loose a flood of mail-order retailing that freed customers from the tyranny of local merchants. The cornucopian fruits of the entire industrial and commercial energy of the nation were now directly available to farmers and housewives; everything from a suit to a book to a collie dog to a kitchen stove could be bought without leaving one's home.
Even death itself was unclenching the hold with which it had so untiringly and capriciously embraced humanity. As late as the 1870s people generally saw a doctor as a last resort, and with good reason, for the cure was often literally worse than the disease, and it usually wasn't much of a cure, either. By 1900 advances in microbiology and pathology were turning medicine, and public health in particular, into a science, and the results were nothing short of the miraculous. Pasteurization of milk, chlorination of water, and the drainage of swamps were eliminating diseases that had crippled and killed generations: brucellosis, yellow fever, malaria, typhoid, cholera.
And none of this happened without its being measured, and noted, and marveled over. It was the Age of Confidence, the Age of Optimism, the Age of Energy, the Age of Progress, but most of all it was the Age of Self-Consciousness, for people were filled with a palpable sense of living in a time of great consequence.
The transformations wrought by invention were nowhere more self-consciously on display than in the international expositions that Henry Adams and millions of others flocked to. Between 1876 and 1910 the United States staged a dozen of these pageants to progress; in all they drew a staggering one hundred million visitors. For the World's Columbian Exposition that opened in Chicago in 1893, the building of the fairground itself became an epitome of the limitless mutability of this amazing new world. On a boggy stretch of Chicago lakefront a million cubic yards of topsoil was shifted in three months, a million willows and ferns and other trees and shrubs trucked in and planted. Freight trains on newly laid track hauled in twenty thousand tons of iron and steel and seventy million board feet of lumber, and a shimmering white fantasy city of castles, temples, domes, Corinthian columns, and colossal sculptures arose on what had been a swamp just a few months before. The artist W. Hamilton Gibson hailed Chicago's "White City" as a "New Jerusalem," and he actually meant it.
The largest crowds were always to be found at the Electricity Building, a palace of forty thousand panes of glass whose centerpiece was a shaft seventy-eight feet high, covered with thousands of electric lights. The fair's organizers turned down a proposed plan to buy the Colosseum in Rome, dismantle it, ship it across the Atlantic, and reconstruct it "stone by stone" in Chicago, but the scheme would not actually have been out of keeping with the spirit the exposition sought to capture. Anything was possible.
The turn of the century brought not only an outpouring of reflections on how far mankind had come but also an irrepressible urge to project where it would go next. Newspapers sought out eminent persons to visualize the world a hundred years hence; the results, as Mark Sullivan recalled, "were usually grandiose." Some prognosticators, to be sure, seemed more concerned about the domestic and familial comforts that new inventions would bring; Ladies' Home Journal foresaw business travelers being able to phone their wives from aboard ship while crossing the Atlantic, while others were content to predict home ice-making machines ("everybody his own iceman").
Most, however, dwelt not upon the mundane material facts of new inventions that were likely to come, but on how these new machines would continue to transform life and society. In the view of most of these experts, there was almost nothing in the future that would not be touched by the tidal force of technological progress that the last century had unleashed. The Reverend Newell Dwight Hillis, a well-known clergyman and writer, looked into this crystal ball of progress and saw an all-encompassing vision of the world to come: "Laws are becoming more just, rulers humane; music is becoming sweeter and books wiser; homes are happier, and the individual heart becoming at once more just and more gentle."
If inventions could have great consequences, they could also have terrible consequences. In 1901, two years before the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, H. G. Wells contributed a remarkable series of five articles to the North American Review. "Anticipations: An Experiment in Prophesy" was the title.
Among Wells's predictions was the perfection of the airplane, not in itself a terribly surprising prognostication from someone in 1901 setting out to be a prophet. But what Wells had to say next was rather more striking. "Directly that is accomplished," he wrote, "the new invention will be most assuredly applied to war."
Wars of the future, Wells continued, would be marked by a decisive struggle for the command of the air, and the bombs that would then rain down from aircraft would leave no spot on earth safe:
The victor in that aerial struggle will tower with pitilessly watchful eyes over his adversary, will concentrate his guns and all his strength unobserved, will mark all his adversary's roads and communications and sweep them with sudden, incredible disasters of shot and shell. The moral effect of this predominance will be enormous. All over the losing country, not simply at his frontier, but everywhere, the victor will soar. Everybody, everywhere will be perpetually and constantly looking up, with a sense of loss and insecurity, with a vague distress of painful anticipations.
Wells's apocalyptic prophecies would become much more widely known a few years later when he published a popular novel that elaborated this vision in vivid detail. The War in the Air opens on a world of the not too distant future. The English Channel has been spanned by a 150-foot-high bridge, monorails and gyroscopically stabilized two-wheeled cars whisk people about their daily business, shops are filled with produce from all over the world, and rumors are buzzing that the armies of the world's great nations are conducting secret experiments with flying machines.
When war breaks out between Germany and America, a fleet of German airships suddenly appears over New York City, and this world of wonders becomes a world of death. "She was the first of the great cities of the Scientific Age to suffer by the enormous powers and gross limitations of aerial warfare," explains Wells's narrator. "She was wrecked as in the previous century endless barbaric cities had been bombarded, because she was at once too strong to be occupied and too undisciplined and proud to surrender in order to escape destruction." As the line of German airships cruises the length of Broadway methodically dropping explosives, buildings and bridges collapse, and soon all of Manhattan is engulfed in a sea of crimson flames, "one of the most cold-blooded slaughters in the world's history, in which men who were neither excited nor, except for the remotest chance of a bullet, in any danger, poured death and destruction upon homes and crowds below."
The last chapter of the story takes places thirty years after the war. A young boy and his uncle are walking through the deserted ruins of London, where a few refugees and their derelict cows and pigs now wander the abandoned high streets.
"But why did they start the War?" the boy asks.
"They couldn't stop theirselves," his uncle replies. "'Aving them airships made 'em."
Wells was no pacifist. Shortly after The War in the Air appeared, he lent his name to an influential body of British notables who were pressing the government to recognize "the vital importance to the British Empire of aerial supremacy, upon which . . . its very existence must largely depend." Wells meant his tale to be a warning of a grim reality that must be realistically faced. As he explained much later in his autobiography:
[even] before any practical flying had occurred, I reasoned that air warfare, by making warfare three dimensional, would abolish the war front and with that the possibility of distinguishing between civilian and combatant or of bringing a war to a conclusive end. This I argued, must not only intensify but must alter the ordinary man's attitude to warfare. He can no longer regard it as we did the Boer War for example as a vivid spectacle in which his participation is that of a paying spectator at a cricket or base-ball match.
Wells wrote his science fiction with a serious purpose, and to a considerable extent that was how his readers took it. The lessons that Wells hoped to drive home in The War in the Air were in fact not far removed from the serious arguments about war and its nature then taking place in both the popular press and professional military journals. Since about 1895, all of the major mass-circulation periodicals in America-The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, Century, Scribner's, The Saturday Evening Post-had been running a steady stream of articles discussing the future of war. War was the great popular intellectual issue of the day, much as religion and slavery had been a half century before. While some writers argued hopefully that civilization was moving beyond warfare as a means of settling disputes, a growing theme of many was that the twin forces of science and nationalism would make a modern conflict between industrialized powers far more destructive, and total, than anything the world had seen before. In 1901 Winston S. Churchill, then a twenty-six-year-old Member of Parliament, warned the House of Commons that the "small armies of professional soldiers" who fought decorous set-piece battles were a thing of the past; in the future, when "mighty populations are impelled on each other," winner and loser alike would suffer disaster when nations resorted to war. "The wars of peoples," he declared, "will be more terrible than those of kings."
Churchill would make the same point even more emphatically three decades later in an autobiographical account of his early days as a cavalry officer. (Among other extraordinary adventures, he took part in the last great cavalry charge in the British Army's history, the Battle of Omdurman in 1898.) "War, which used to be cruel and magnificent," Churchill wrote, "has now become cruel and squalid. . . . Instead of a small number of well-trained professionals championing their country's cause with ancient weapons and a beautiful intricacy of manoeuvre, sustained at every moment by the applause of their nation, we now have entire populations, including even women and children, pitted against one another in brutish mutual extermination."
There had been hints of what was to come in the industrialized slaughter of the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. European generals of the old school had at first haughtily denied that there were any lessons professional military men could learn from the American Civil War battles ("a contest in which huge armed rabbles chased each other around a vast wilderness," Helmuth von Moltke sniffed). But the three decades of relative peace had left a growing void of uncertainty over what would happen if "civilized" nations once again took up arms against one another, and that uncertainty was increasingly filled with foreboding.
Many writers now called attention to the series of innovations in the science of weaponry that had taken place in the 1880s and 1890s: smokeless powder, repeating rifles, long-range artillery, high-explosive shells. Even those who adamantly defended war as a necessity or indeed as an ennobling force for the cultivation of manly virtues and the advancement of civilization-as a surprisingly large number of great men still did-drew the future of warfare in generally apocalyptic terms. To "realists" like Hiram Maxim, whose contribution to the march of progress had been the invention of the machine gun, the apocalyptic face of a war in which "every science" had been pressed into its service was ultimately to the good. By making war "appalling to contemplate it makes nations pause," he explained. "It has led men who are good students of human nature to assert that the best way to preserve peace is to make war as terrible as possible-terrible in its toll of blood and money, terrible in its widespread ravages, and terrible in its uncertainty." Others argued that even if the prospect of appalling slaughter did not prevent war from breaking out, a fierce and terribly fought war would save lives in the long run, as it would inevitably be over far quicker than a war fought with less effective means.
A more chilling, and accurate, prediction of what this terrible new destructiveness on the battlefield would mean came from Ivan S. Bliokh, a Polish Jewish banker and railroad financier who wrote under the name of Jean de Bloch. After making his fortune, de Bloch spent fourteen years studying and thinking about the nature of war in the modern world, and in 1898 he published in Russian a six-volume treatise, The Future of War in Its Technical, Economic, and Political Relations. The next year an English translation appeared in both Britain and the United States, and his work quickly became widely known and much discussed. Military professionals still rank it among the greatest theoretical treatises of military strategy of the nineteenth century, certainly the greatest to be penned by an amateur. De Bloch argued that the increased firepower, rapidity, and range of artillery and the machine gun, coupled with the inherent lack of maneuverability of ever-larger armies, meant that the advantage in warfare had decisively shifted to the defensive.
Stalemate on the battlefield was inevitable. Nations that went to war would be locked in a suicidal test of wills that would pit not just their armies but their entire reserves of industrial and economic power, and of civilian morale, against one another. When Wells and other futurists spun their visions of total war from the air, they were speaking to an already familiar idea: that scientific progress had become an unstoppable, transformative force in warfare.
Among those who were particularly impressed by de Bloch's arguments was Czar Nicholas II. Fearful that his nation's industrial and economic backwardness would place it at a terrible disadvantage in a world whose fate increasingly rested upon scientific and technological mastery, the Czar issued an appeal for an international conference that would seek the "lofty aim" of "general peace and a possible reduction of excessive armaments." On May 18, 1899, the Czar's birthday, representatives of the great powers assembled at The Hague.
Among the Russian proposals quickly approved by the conference was a "prohibition of the discharge or projectiles of any kind from balloons or by similar new methods." At the behest of the American representative, however, the issue was reopened a few days later and the delegates agreed to limit this prohibition to a five-year period only. The argument advanced by the American delegation for this proposal was a precocious foreshadowing of what would become the fundamental debate over air warfare for the century to come. And the position the Americans were taking was the one that would become the quintessential American position in all of those debates to come.
The rationale that had been advanced for banning this new weapon even before it existed, the American delegate Captain William Crozier noted in a lengthy speech, was that it was necessarily inaccurate and indiscriminate and would strike combatants and noncombatants alike.
That was certainly the case for balloons that drifted at the whim of prevailing winds. But, Crozier insisted, future aircraft might not be so capricious: "Who can say that such an invention will not be of a kind to make its use possible at a critical point on the field of battle, at a critical moment of the conflict, under conditions so defined and concentrated that it would decide the victory . . . localizing at important points the destruction of life and property, and . . . sparing the sufferings of all who are not at the precise spot where the result is decided? Such use tends to diminish the evils of war."
Four years before a man first successfully piloted a heavier-than-air craft, a year before Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin had even demonstrated that an engine-driven lighter-than-air craft could be steered with any certainty, the threat of attack from the air was vivid in the minds not only of the man on the street but of statesmen and generals. So too was the seductively powerful thought that by precisely delivering an overwhelming strike from the sky at the very outset of war, armed aircraft could prove not just a revolutionary but a decisive force in conflict.
When the first aircraft began to appear in the military forces of the world's armies a few years later, people saw them with a strange sort of double vision. One image was of the primitive, fragile craft that actually stood before their eyes, dangerous and unreliable, capable of carrying only the daring or the foolhardy a few dozen miles and with no more than a few extra pounds to spare for carrying anything else, about as practical or fearsome a weapon of war as a pop gun.
The other image, no less real in the minds of many, was the one they had come to know so well from the futuristic visions of technological prophets. This was the image of an apocalyptic instrument of total war, a weapon whose destructive power was different not only in magnitude but in kind from anything that admirals and generals and politicians had ever grappled with before, a weapon that would change not just the conduct of war but its very meaning.
"When airships and airplanes appeared," observed the historian Lee Kennett, it was accordingly inevitable that "extravagant and impossible things would sometimes be expected of them."
|Pt. 1||Kitty Hawk to Saint-Mihiel, 1900-1918|
|Pt. 2||Versailles to Madrid, 1919-1939|
|5||Lessons learned and mislearned||125|
|6||The quest for precision||153|
|7||The fight for the fighter||184|
|Pt. 3||Warsaw to Nagasaki, 1939-1945|
|9||Air versus sea||255|
|10||The temporary triumph of tactical aviation||281|
|11||The allied bomber offensive||308|
|Pt. 4||Omaha to Baghdad, 1946-2003|
|12||Strategic air command||345|
|14||Precision, at last||406|