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The Significance of Airpower in World War II

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Airpower did not significantly change the nature of warfare until World War II. Three examples of airpower’s significance in the conflict are the German Blitzkrieg, the Battle of Britain, and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In the Nazi blitzkrieg of Poland, France, and the low countries the Luftwaffe acted as a vital member of a team.1 In support of tanks, mechanized infantry, and infantry, the Luftwaffe attacked all enemy aviation and airfields. Additionally, it attacked all railway junctions and stations, barracks, depots, bridges, and motor convoys on roads — that is, everything used by an army for mobilization and concentration.2 Given that most of the attacks happened without warning most of enemy air forces were destroyed on the ground, and thus could not protect the other targets. Henry J. Reilly in his article Blitzkrieg argued that blitzkrieg would not work against any enemy that had equal or superior ground and air forces.3 It did work in Poland, France, and the low countries because Poland and the low countries were simply unprepared, and their aircraft were caught on the ground. France was prepared to fight the previous war. German forces simply used the Ardennes forest, which the French thought was impenetrable to tanks and motorized infantry, to go around the Maginot Line. It was not until December 1941 that the German Blitzkrieg was opposed by equal force in the Red Army and stopped in the vastness of Russia.

The Battle of Britain began on July 10, 1940 and was the first battle exclusively fought by opposing air forces. Additionally, it illustrated that the German tactics that allowed the Luftwaffe to enjoy air superiority during the conquest of France would be of little use during the Battle of Britain. As it demonstrated in France, the Luftwaffe devoted its energies and skill to close air support of the German Army. Thus, it did not develop a strategic bombing strategy, nor did Germany have the capacity to construct and maintain a long-range bomber fleet. The planes the Luftwaffe did have such as the ME 109 lacked the range to give German pilots sufficient time in combat. Additionally, pilots of damage aircraft were either captured or lost in the Channel, and the aircraft losses were difficult to replace.

Unlike the Luftwaffe which had difficulty replacing planes, the RAF had a superior number of planes, but lacked the pilots to fly them. Additionally, RAF pilots were not concerned about range, since combat was taking place over friendly home territory. As a result, during combat pilots could land and refuel, and safely bailout of damaged planes. Furthermore, using high and low-level radar stations throughout England, RAF Fighter Command was able to utilize the pilots it had effectively by reinforcing fighter groups under attack.

Despite all those advantages, by late August 1940, the Luftwaffe had nearly achieved its objective of destroying the RAF. By that time, it had destroyed nearly all of Fighter Command's airfields, and Luftwaffe raids did not allow the British and of time to repair them. However, Germany was running out of time and good weather. Hitler calculated that only an attack on London would force the English fighters into open combat. Because of the damage to its airfields Fighter Command could not initially protect London from bomber attack. While the new focus of attack devastated London, it allowed the air fields of Fighter Command to be repaired. By September 15, 1940 RAF Fighter Command committed its 250 fighters to intercept the German bombers east of London. By September 17, 1940, Fighter Command had shot down nearly 60 German bombers. It was a stunning defeat for the Luftwaffe and caused Hitler to indefinitely postpone Operation Sea Lion. The Battle of Britain was won by the effective use of air power in combination with radar on the British side, and by the changing of tactics on the German side allowing the British to remain free and a thorn in Germany side, thus assuring the downfall of Hitler's Germany.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that started at 0755 on December 7, 1941 with the first of two waves was unique in its size and scope in naval aviation. Sailing from Japan to Pearl Harbor by a route that would take the Japanese Fleet through rough seas and well outside commercial shipping lanes the Japanese had reached a point north of Pearl Harbor where their strike force could be launched. The planes of the first wave dive-bombed and strafed Navy and Army airfields to keep US fighters and other planes on the ground. At the same time, low-flying torpedo planes attacked warships moored on both sides of Ford Island and at the Navy Yard's 1010 Dock. Shortly after 0800, bombers dropped their armor-piercing bombs on Battleship Row. In 30 minutes, the first wave had completed its task; it headed back to the fleet. Then, about 15 minutes later, the second wave came on. Again, it dive-bombed, strafed, and machine-gunned anything the first wave missed. By 0945, the second wave turned out to sea back to its carriers; behind them a twisted mass of metal that was the United States Pacific Fleet. Although the attack was successful it was not a complete success. The main target of the attack, the aircraft carriers of the United States Pacific Fleet were at sea. The Japanese also missed the fuel depots and machine shops.

The attack was successful because the United States was unprepared. Most of its naval forces, men and material, were engaged in assisting the British in the Battle of the Atlantic. Germany was considered the greater threat. Additionally, the fighter planes that were on hand, P-40 Tomahawks, were inferior to British Hurricanes and Spitfires.4 They were also no the match for Japanese fighter planes. Furthermore, the United States did not consider Pearl Harbor a viable Japanese target. It considered the Philippines to be a better target for the Japanese. From 0755 on December 7, 1941 all other forms of surface naval warfare were obsolete. Aircraft carriers and fighter planes replaced battleships. By the Battle of Midway in June 1942, the first naval battle in which the opposing fleets never saw one another, and only six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor; the United States defeated the Japanese Fleet. A defeat from which the Japanese navy could not recover.

These examples have made clear that airpower is an essential part of any offensive or defensive military operation. Those forces that have control of airspace in a given conflict will win, and those that cannot take control of airspace in that conflict will lose. Nevertheless, airpower, no matter how essential, is still just a part of any military operation.

Notes

1 Alexander P. De Seversky, Victory Through Air Power, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1942), 44. De Seversky was Chief Russian Naval Pursuit Aviation in 1917. Through his military exploits he was recognized as the leading Russian ace of the Naval Air Force. By 1918, because of his technical contributions to the progress of aviation, he was selected to be a member of the Russian Naval Aviation Mission to the United States. By 1921 he was an adviser to General Mitchell and appointed consulting engineer to the War Department by the Secretary of War. In1931, he founded what became Republic Aviation Corporation (353-354). 2 Henry J. Reilly, Blitzkrieg, Foreign Affairs 18.2 (1940): 264. 3 Reilly, Blitzkrieg, 263. 4 De Seversky, Victory Through Air Power, 239.