09 October 2015

General Giulio Douhet, the First Air Power Visionary

Giulio Douhet, air power visionary
Those of us interested in aviation take it almost for granted the unyielding pace of technological development that has driven aviation forward through time. But even less heralded are those in aviation history who have shaped the thinking of aviation- it's easy for us to lay eyes on an aircraft or even to put our hands on one. They're very tactile and sensory experiences in aviation- to see one, hear one, feel one, even ride an aircraft. But how do you experience aviation doctrine? How do you grasp the thought processes that have shaped aeronautical progress? They're very abstract and not prone to enjoyment and appreciation by most of us. However, technological progress is a rudderless boat in chaotic waters without visionaries and thinkers to provide steering and direction. Of course we can name designers like Jack Northrop or Andrei Tupolev. Or pilots like Charles Lindbergh or Chuck Yeager. But the subject of today's blog posting is none of those- he didn't design any aircraft, he didn't even fly aircraft. But his writings on air power have left an indelible mark on aviation, if not history itself. 

Born in 1869, Giulio Douhet was a rare breed of Italian army officer who was both an infantry and artillery officer and what we might call a technocrat, having studied science and engineering as well. His earliest writings as part of the General Staff of the Italian Army covered mechanization and the incorporation of what would be come tanks in military doctrine. But with the arrival of lighter-than-air aircraft like dirigibles and the first practical biplanes prior to the First World War, Douhet quickly appreciated the advantages of aviation in war- aircraft could move in three dimensions and operate above and out of the reach of ground and naval forces with relative impunity. In 1912 when the Italians first used aircraft in combat in Libya, he wrote Rules for the Use of Airplanes in War, one of the first efforts to create a doctrine for military aviation- despite his own background as an artillery and infantry officer, Douhet felt that the current military leadership lacked an understanding of the inherent advantages of air power and an almost zealous desire to educate the establishment on air power would be Douhet's mission in his life. 

When the First World War broke out in Europe in August of 1914, Douhet was forty-five years old and no less energetic than officers half his age. With a near-insatiable appetite for the latest developments in aviation, he advocated the building of a force of 500 bombers that could bomb enemy forces from above without having to engage in prolonged combat. He worked closely with the Italian engineer Gianni Caproni in advising him on his own Caproni line of bomber aircraft. But Douhet would find the Italian military leadership incompetent as defeat after defeat was suffered by Italian forces. Convinced that aviation technology could reverse the lagging fortunes of the Italian military, Douhet wrote and spoke frequently to anyone and everyone in the military and government establishment. By 1916 his superiors had had enough when he had ordered construction of Caproni bombers without authorization. He was stripped of his rank and imprisoned on charges of "issuing false news" and "disturbing the public tranquility". It didn't stop him, though. He continued to write and refine his theories from his cell. 

In the fall of 1917, the Italian Second Army was completely routed at the Battle of Caporetto (in modern day Slovenia), suffering over 300,000 casualties. The Italian government in desperation released Douhet from prison and commissioned him as a general in charge of coordinating the nation's aviation strategy and doctrine. It would be too little too late as the entrenched Italian bureaucracy was unwilling to enact his plans and he resigned in protest in June 1918. With the Armistice in November of that year ending the First World War, Douhet's trial verdict was reversed and he was promoted, but by this point in his life he had lost faith in the Italian government and refused to return to duty. During the interwar period he traveled Europe visiting other nation's air arms, consulting with air officers and meeting with aircraft designers. In 1921 he wrote his landmark work Command of the Air which advocated an relentless air campaign of bombing an enemy's population and production centers, reducing their moral and material means of resistance. Properly conducted, he reasoned, such an air assault could force a quick decision and save millions of lives in the long run by avoiding a costly ground war. Douhet also pointed out that the efficient and proper means of carrying out such an air campaign would require an independent air arm led by an aviation-minded general staff. At the time, this was a revolutionary concept and only in Great Britain was the nascent Royal Air Force an independent air arm. For other industrialized nations of the 1920s, their air arms were subordinated to the army. 

Billy Mitchell, USAAC
Reception of Douhet's work outside of Italy was mixed. It wasn't even required reading at the RAF Staff College. But his work would find converts primarily in the United States- at the time the Air Force was part of the Army as the US Army Air Corps. One officer in particular would even meet with Douhet- Brigadier General Billy Mitchell. It was the year after Mitchell had demonstrated the vulnerability of warships to bombers by sinking several captured German warships off the Virginia coast. Mitchell had copies of Command of the Air sent to his superiors and he got banished to Hawaii and then Asia as a result. In 1925 Mitchell wrote a book of his own, Winged Defense, in which he refined Douhet's ideas of a strategic air campaign further and even declared the battleship obsolete as aviation technology matured. As a result, Mitchell was demoted in rank back to colonel. He would later be court-martialed for publicly criticizing the US military following the crash of the airship USS Shenendoah in a storm. But his six week court martial provided Mitchell the perfect forum for advocating views shaped by his mentor, Giulio Douhet. 
Sir Hugh Trenchard, RAF

Douhet died of a heart attack in 1930 and Mitchell himself would die in 1936, neither man living to see how their views of air power would come to fruition in the Second World War. While Command of the Air got little attention in the Royal Air Force, the most influential individual in the RAF at the time fortunately was a proponent of Douhet's theories- Sir Hugh Trenchard, Chief of Staff of the RAF and the man known as the "Father of the RAF". Trenchard, like Mitchell, would refine Douhet's ideas. By the time of the Second World War, Trenchard was every bit the irritant to the establishment as Douhet and Mitchell were, but had enough influence to avoid their fate. Following the disastrous loss of Norway to the Germans in 1940, Trenchard used his position in the House of Lords to criticize Prime Minster Neville Chamberlain's prosecution of the war which contributed to his replacement by Winston Churchill. Trenchard used in influence to put like minded officers in key positions in the Royal Air Force. After the war, Trenchard advised General Henry "Hap" Arnold in his own push for an independent United States Air Force.

The same year Mitchell died in 1936, contracts were issued to both Boeing and Douglas for a large four-engined bomber- while both companies' designs, the XB-15 and the XB-19, respectively, remained experimental, the engineering and design work on such a unprecedentedly large bomber would shape aviation technology throughout the Second World War. 

Source:  Whirlwind: The Air War Against Japan, 1942-1945 by Barrett Tillman. Simon and Schuster, 2010, p9-16.

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