Strategic Air Power: "...designed or trained to strike an enemy at the sources of his military, economic, or political power." Tactical Air Power: "... using or being weapons or forces employed at the battlefront; of, relating to, or designed for air attack in close support of friendly ground forces..." Merriman-Webster Online
Introduction to American Air Power Leading up to WWII
Report of the Commanding General of the Army Air Forces to the Secretary of War
The United States Air Force Museum's section on WWII Combat Europe features a lengthy report from the Commanding General of the Army Air Forces, which was sent to the Secretary of War; in Section One the report stressed several points which led to both the development of strategic and tactical methods towards defeating the Nazis in Europe. The following points were addressed to the Secretary of War in a section called "Assets and Liabilities":
There were 30,000 civilian pilots in America in 1939, many of them willing to train pilots for the war effort; 2) the DC-3 was readily available as a reliable transport plane; 3) Production of the B-17 Flying Fortress bo0mbers and the B-24 Liberator began in 1938 and mass production of those aircraft began in 1941; 4) American industry showed amazing flexibility in converting to the war effort: "Only in America would a piano company believe that it could convert to building aircraft wings in a few months, and do it"; "a tire manufacturer built fuselages and tail surfaces"; a "former pickle plant turned out airplane skis and floats...and a manufacturer of girdles and corsets began making parachutes."
In a section called "Blueprints for Air Power" the General of the Army Air Forces wrote the Army Air Forces began preparations for war "long before Pearl Harbor" and previous to 1935 - when the General Headquarters Air Force was set up - the Army's air power was under the "piecemeal direction of Corps Commanders." But because a ten-year program was set up, there was some preparation for WWII underway, albeit "the Army Air Forces received but a small fraction of the promised funds."
Patton's Air Force by David N. Spires
Following WWI, according to the excellent resource book, Patton's Air Force, "many army air leaders came to view close air support of army ground forces as second-or third-order priority." The most important use of air technology, or air superiority, after WWI, according to author Spires, was in preventing enemy reconnaissance. In the early 1920s tactical air strategy was focused on having more planes in the air than the enemy, so the operations of the enemy below could be observed. The second most important use of the air force was "...interdiction, or isolation of the battlefield by bombing lines of supply and communications behind them" (page 1). The third most important use of airplanes, Spires points out, was "attacking enemy forces at the front, in the immediate combat zone." This third strategy, prior to WWII, was considered "the most dangerous and least efficient use of air resources."
By the mid-1930s, though, strategic bombardment became the most widely-accepted doctrine among leaders of the Army Air Corps, according to Spires. Indeed, the U.S. Army Training Regulation 440 (Employment of the Air Forces of the Army) listed "strategic bombardment" a priority "equal to that of ground support," Spires reports (3). That in itself was a change from earlier strategy, but in the April 15, 1940 Army Field Manual, the use of air power gained even more status; in Employment of the Aviation of the Army, the use of tactical aviation in wartime was "rekindled" - due in large part to German blitzkrieg victories.
Still, notwithstanding the increased credibility that air power was assuming, Spires writes that following maneuvers in Louisiana and North Carolina in 1941 "...a shortage of aircraft, unrealistic training requirements, inexperience, and divergent air and ground outlooks on close air support led both General Arnold and Lt. Gen. Lesley J. McNair, Commanding General of the Army Ground Forces, to declare..." joint training between air and ground commanders "unsatisfactory." Indeed, Spires writes (4) that by the spring of 1942 the "state of air-ground training" in the Army was "cause for genuine concern."
There was a predictable yet seemingly restrained power struggle ongoing during the buildup to the U.S. engagement in Europe, between the ground forces and air command units; Spires writes (4) that a Field Manual on April 9, 1942 (Aviation in Support of Ground Forces) offered "much to satisfy the most ardent air power proponents in the newly designated Army Air Forces (AAF)." There would be some layers of authority to go through however, since the ground commanders would initiate requests for air power - through air support parties - and the requests would then be sent to air support command for approval. If indeed approved, the command at air support would issue orders to aircraft.
But, who would control whom? Spires writes that "difficulty" was created through the issue of whether ground command would have control of air command.
By July of 1943, following the major fighting in North Africa, where German air power had proven to be much stronger than the Allies expected, an Army Field Manual (FM 100-20) used capital letters to spell out the new attitude regarding U.S. air power.
The key message of the manual read: "LAND POWER AND AIR POWER ARE CO-EQUAL AND INTERDEPENDENT FORCES...NEITHER IS AN AUXILIARY OF THE OTHER." In lower case letters, the Field Manual continued: "The gaining of air superiority is the first requirement for the success of any major land operation." The first mission priority (17) in the Field Manual - in order to gain "air superiority" - was the development of "improved communications equipment" and of a "reliable early warning radar network." Next in priorities was "interdiction - aerial attack on enemy lines of communication and supply behind the front line - designed to achieve isolation of the battlefield..." And third in the Field Manual's priorities was "close air support - attacking enemy forces near or on the front line."
Air Power Flexibility and Versatility during WWII
One very clear example of versatility within air commands and cooperation between ground forces Tactical Air Command, and strategic air power, occurred in September 1944, when the XIX TAC "embraced air support responsibilities on three fronts" (103). In eastern France the TAC flew "armed reconnaissance and column cover missions" to help the Third Army's move into the Metz river area; it kept watch on Patton's flank and flew "interdiction sorties" against Nazi forces scurrying out of southern France; and it played the "key tactical air role in Brittany" during the sieges of the Breton fortified port facilities." Patton, meanwhile, garrisoned the "north bank of the Loire River thinly" with VIII Corps, and he "relied entirely on his air arm to alert him to and blunt and tactical threats from the Germans" (104). The air command, according to Spires, "greatly benefited from Ultra intelligence on German locations" and hence, from the beginning, the "watch on the Loire' became largely an air force show, and it marked an historic milestone for tactical air power."
Meanwhile, another classic example of the sophistication and cooperation that the XIX TAC had achieved with Patton and other forces on the ground occurred on September 7, when a squadron of F-3s located a long German vehicle column along the Lorie River near Chateauroux. The 155th pilot jumped on his radio and notified the 406th Fighter Group, which "expended all of its ordnance and ammunition" (106). When the 406th group left to reload their ammunition, many vehicles were already destroyed and on fire; when the 406th returned, and finished up the job, some 132 motor transport and 310 horse-drawn German war vehicles were demolished. "This mission," Spires writes, "served as the most outstanding example of reconnaissance-fighter-bomber coordination that, by September, 1944, had developed into a routing but very effective system."
Even more impressive, on September 9, the XIX TAC forces - led by General Weyland and upon learning that a large number of German troops were possibly ready to surrender - flew reconnaissance above a long line of the troops. Surrender terms were offered, and the XIX TAC notified the Germans that if the terms were not accepted, the XIX TAC would "return to attack them" (107). Upon learning that the 20,000 Germans would surrender, Army General Simpson invited Weyland to attend the surrender, and when Weyland attended the surrender ceremony, "he was pleased to hear that the XIX TAC's aerial presence overhead received primary credit for compelling the surrender." It had not ever happened before that "an air commander [had] been present or received such laurels when one ground unit surrendered to another."
B-17 Crew Member - a Gunner - writes to his Mother
Dying can't be hard, it's the uncertainty which makes one fear it," wrote "John," a gunner in a B-17, to his mother, in September 1943, from "somewhere in…