27 February 2016

Hans von Seeckt and the Doctrinal Foundations of the Luftwaffe, Part One

With the defeat of Germany in the First World War, probably the harshest restrictions by the provisions of the Versailles Treaty dealt with Germany's military aviation, a reflection of the effectiveness of the Imperial German Air Force, the Luftstreitkräfte, during the latter half of the war. Four articles of the Treaty specifically addressed aviation in the postwar Germany. The Allies required the defeated Germans to surrender large quantities of aviation assets, including 17,000 aircraft and engines. Any sort of air force was strictly forbidden and the Germany aviation industry was shut down for a period of six months following the Treaty going into effect. No aircraft, engines or parts could be imported during that six month period and once that period had expired, Germany could only build aircraft that were of limited range, speed and engine power. Finally, the Germans had to surrender control of their airspace with the Allies having free overflight and landing rights throughout Germany. With the German government accepting the Versailles Treaty on 23 June 1919, the demobilization of the Luftstreitkräfte began with the official disbandment taking place on 8 May 1920. Along with effectively stripping Germany of an air force, the Treaty also placed strict limits on the size of the German Army and Navy, with only a lightly armed 100,000 man army with no tanks or heavy artillery and a 15,000 man Navy with obsolete ships and small patrol craft. The Navy was forbidden to have submarines or aircraft. To ensure compliance with the harsh measures of the Treaty, the Inter-Allied Control Commission was established with broad authority to inspect any military or industrial facility on short notice. 
General Hans von Seeckt
Leading this diminished military force was probably one of the most under-rated military theorists of the Twentieth Century, General Hans von Seeckt. Descended from a line of noble Prussian military officers, from an early age von Seeckt had shown promise, vitality and vision and he rapidly moved up the ranks into the German general staff (the leadership of the Imperial German Army). He led German forces in the 1915 Serbian campaign and then led a very innovative mobile campaign in 1916 that pushed Romania out of the war. As chief of staff of the Ottoman field armies in Turkey in 1918, he showed a remarkable grasp of the strategic picture of war as he commanded a coalition of armies of varying strengths and weakness, successfully able to use the diverse forces at his disposal to carry out a war of maneuver against the largely static mass armies of Russia. Unlike many German generals, von Seeckt was highly educated outside of military matters, was fluent in English and French and also knew Latin and Greek. Prior to his service in the First World War, he had traveled extensively in Europe and as far as India. As the commander in chief of the interwar Germany army, the Reichswehr, he was even fond of having breakfast with the publishers and editors of several Berlin newspapers. 

What made Hans von Seeckt unique in comparison to his peers in Britain, France and the United States, was his vision that the next war would be a war of mobility and maneuver with smaller, more highly trained agile forces than with large mass armies. Many military thinkers of the day framed future wars through the lens of their recent First World War experience while von Seeckt felt strongly that the paradigm of war would change with technology, transforming the waging of war. As early as 1919 he was already advocating an all-volunteer military, feeling conscription belonged to a past era of slow, lumbering mass armies on the field. Mass armies were only suitable for defense and von Seeckt saw the only use for conscription for a reserve militia force. As many military theorists in France began to think more defensively (hence the Maginot Line), von Seeckt saw a mobile offense as the key in any future conflict. 

Captain Helmuth Wilberg
Core to his ideas of maneuver warfare was the need for a fully independent air force that did more than just support the army- an idea that was pervasive in the United States at the time in particular given the apathy of the Army Air Corps towards long range bombing. As the head of the postwar Reichswehr in 1919, von Seeckt saw to it that what would be come the Luftwaffe got funding priority. As his air advisor, von Seeckt selected Captain Helmuth Wilberg, one of Germany's first aviators who had commanded over 700 aircraft in the field during the First World War. Wilberg was an unusual choice given that he didn't have the Prussian military background most in the Reichswehr expected. His father was an artist and his mother was Jewish- given that anti-Semitism in Germany had roots that went back well before the rise of the Nazi regime, Wilberg's family enjoyed a privileged status as his father had given art lessons to the daughter of the Kaiser. With the patronage of the Kaiser's family, Wilberg entered the military and began a successful career as a military officer. He even did a two year stint as the military tutor to some of the Kaiser's family members before joining the German general staff. In 1910, Wilberg became the 26th licensed pilot in Germany and became an ardent supporter of aviation development in prewar Germany. During the First World War, Wilberg gained renown as a unit commander for his analytical leadership style. 

With von Seeckt as the head of the Reichswehr (the term was used interchangeably for both the entire inter-war Germany military and for the Germany army of the time), he made Wilberg the senior officer in charge of all air matters- while Germany was forbidden by treaty to have an air force, in effect, Wilberg was the head of what would become the Luftwaffe. With Wilberg in charge of aviation, von Seeckt reorganized the German military with a particular emphasis on aviation. Since the Germany military was restricted in size, this gave von Seeckt a chance to pick the best and brightest of the war veterans who wished to continue serving in the military. The two men set about creating the plans for a future German air force that operated on von Seeckt's ideas on the employment of air power. 

General von Seeckt saw a fully independent air force as an offensive weapon in its own right- it's first task was air superiority- to control the air allowed for unhindered movement of his mobile army forces. Once control of the air was secured, then the air force would move in concert with mobile land forces to disrupt the enemy's ability to mobilize and supply its own forces. His own words still resonate in air power doctrines to this day: 

"The war will begin with a simultaneous attack of the air fleets- the weapon which is the most prepared and fastest means of attacking the enemy. Their enemy is, however, not the major cities or  industrial power, but the enemy air force. Only after its suppression can the offensive arm be directed against other targets."

This contrasts strongly with the strategic bombing doctrines of the same period that were being espoused with growing enthusiasm in Great Britain and the United States. Doctrinal theory that would later influence Allied strategic bombing plans in the Second World War saw the enemy's center of power as the cities and their industries whereas while von Seeckt did see that morale could be affected by attacking the enemy's cities, he saw the primary target of his air force the enemy's military, its air force in particular. Though he never ruled out bombing of enemy cities, he certainly foresaw that any future adversary would target German cities and he vigorously pushed the German government to establish a national system of civil defense. 

"Through aerial attack, one has the possibility of striking the centers of resistance of the enemy state Not a new target, but one more easily reached by air, are the key elements of military strength, whose disruption degrades the land army's powers of endurance. The only difference is that, when before the decision was sought on land and sea, now it is also sought in the air."

Within the newly formed Reichswehr, what was once the general staff (headquarters command) became the "Truppenamt" or "Troops Office", with von Seeckt as the chief of the Truppenamt. There were four sections in the Truppenamt- T-1 (Operations and Planning), T-2 (Army Organization), T-3 (Intelligence), and T-4 (Training). Only sixty officers were selected for the Truppenamt, giving an indication to the draconian restrictions on the Reichswehr. Acting as adjutants to the Truppenamt were what were called Inspectorates which were specialized staffs that established doctrine, training, and requirements for specific army units. These branch inspectorates focused on things like artillery, infantry, communications, medical corps, and so on. In addition, there was a mixed military and civilian staff group called the Waffenamt or Weapons Office. It was the Waffenamt's responsibility to develop, procure, and test weapons for the military. Many other military organizations in other nations had similar groups, but only in Germany were these functions centralized under one command- that of Hans von Seeckt. 

There was a fifth Truppenamt section that was in many ways the most important and it was designated TA(L). This was the air staff office with Helmuth Wilberg in charge. Wilbert made sure there were aviators in every section of the Truppenamt- of the sixty officers that made up the Truppenamt in 1920, six of them were aviators. Of the sixty officers assigned to the Waffenamt, six there as well were aviators. An even larger number former military aviators were employed as civilian staff to the different groups, insuring there was sufficient "air mindedness" in literally every corner of the Reichswehr. To foster an "air mindedness" throughout the rest of Germany within the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty, von Seeckt encouraged the sport of gliding throughout the Germany with the establishment of glider clubs which created a pool of potential pilots for the future Luftwaffe. Glider competitions were hosted by von Seeckt himself would award prizes for proficiency and skill in the air. 

Institutionalizing such "air mindedness" in the German military was unprecedented when compared with the military leadership structures of other nations. But simply having aviators on staff everywhere isn't enough. In the upcoming second part of this article, I'll talk more about what all those aviation staffers did in a systematic way that established the doctrinal foundations of the Second World War Luftwaffe that made it such an effective weapon in the first several years of the war. Stay tuned!

Further reading: 

Source: The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, 1918-1940 by James S. Corum. University of Kansas Press, 1997, pp 49-59.

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