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Gulio Douhet and His Concept of Victory With Strategic Bombardment From Air

Updated on December 29, 2017

The Theory of Air Power

Guillio Douhet is a well-known name in military circles. He propounded the theory of total war and left an axiom that strategic bombing of an enemy, can by itself bring the opponent to its knees. He was an Italian general who at the turn of the last century laid out the first theories on air warfare. Douhet died in 1930 and an entire generation of Air Force Generals and Marshals were influenced by his theories.

Douhet wrote ' The command of the Air', which became a bible for military thinkers all over the world. The concepts outlined by Douhet were also articulated by Billy Mitchell from the USA and Walter Wever as well. Douhet, however, gained greater fame and aviation strategists in Europe began to swear by his name.

Douhet's Theory

Douhet proposed that war can be won only by strategic bombardment. He was of the opinion that war should be extended to civilian targets to terrorize the population as this will hasten the surrender of the enemy. He first proposed this concept in the 1911-12 Italian -Ottoman war in Libya. He proposed heavy bombing of the Turks as a prelude to victory. But the Italian high command was not impressed by Douhet's theories.

Douhet was a supporter of Benito Mussolini and his fascists and was a respected general in Italy. His theories were avidly read. He also advocated terror bombing as part of what he termed 'total war'. He also brought forward a new concept 'Favorable Air Situation'. this in effect meant complete control of the airspace as a prelude to victory.

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, the Axis powers made use of Douhet 's theory of strategic bombing with success, particularly in Poland and Ethiopia. But theirs was a limited operation as the Germans never had a heavy long-range bomber. The theories were put into effect by the Allies. Air marshal 'Bomber' Harris, the RAF Marshal was convinced that strategic bombing of Germany would bring the enemy to its knees.

The RAF worked out the plan for strategic bombing of Germany. The targets were the Industrial and population centers in Germany like the Ruhr. Massive 4 engine bombers began night bombing missions over Germany. Later in the 1944, the RAF admitted that it was bombing civilian targets to terrorize the population. Subsequently, the press release was withdrawn at the insistence of Winston Churchill.

USAAF and Douhet

The USAAF took up Douhet's concept of strategic bombing with gusto and led to 1000 bomber raids over Germany. The B-29 had both the endurance, range, and payload to inflict terrible damage on German cities. But Douhet misread one aspect and that is moral. Now after the war we know that strategic bombing though effective did not break the will of the German populace to fight. On the contrary, they fought with greater determination. Thus Strategic bombing alone could not have won the war. The principle of victory is that the infantry soldier must hold the ground and till that happened, victory eluded the Allies.

In the East, the Japanese Air Force had like its German counterpart, no long-range heavy bomber. But they did use their bombers in China. The effect was minimal as the Japanese army occupied most of the cities, rendering strategic bombing redundant. This proved that no victory is complete without soldier holding the ground.

The strategic bombing of Japan is much discussed. This bore fruit when the USAAF inducted the B-29 in its arsenal. this long-range heavy bomber could bomb Japanese cities with ease operating from Bases which the Japanese Airforce could not touch. The havoc they unleashed on Japanese cities was 10 tenfold of that inflicted on German cities. partly this was due to the type of construction prevalent in Japan that made use of a lot of wood. This type of construction was easy prey to the firebombing raids indulged in by the USAAF, with the aim to terrorize the population as per Douhet's concept.

Favorable Air Situation

Douhet's theory of a favorable air situation as a prelude to victory was also proved correct. His concept of 'Terror Bombing' was vindicated with the dropping of the Atomic bombs over Japan. Douhet was no doubt a far-sighted thinker, but he overlooked one significant fact, that no victory is possible without the army infantry. The infantry must hold the ground for a decisive victory.

In Vietnam despite a favorable air Situation and heavy strategic bombing the USA lost the war. it was a humiliating defeat and showed that the theory of Douhet by strategic bombing alone was suspect. Despite using B-52 bombers and dropping more bombs over Vietnam than in World War II, the results belied the US claims. The Bombing had little effect as the US army never controlled the ground in Vietnam. The terrain and jungles gave an advantage to the communists who used it to their advantage and in hindsight, one can see that thousands of US soldiers died for nothing.

Korea is another example as despite a 'favorable air situation' the US army had to settle for a stalemate and ceasefire as they could not push the Chinese army back. The war in Afghanistan is the latest example. here again, despite overwhelming air superiority, the US has decided to retreat. This is because of the failure of the US army to dominate the hills and countryside.

Final Word

Douhet died in 1930. He was no doubt a far-reaching thinker. His theories need refinement and his concept of strategic bombing alone as a prelude to victory is flawed. But he deserves credit as the first thinker who envisaged use of air power to win a war.

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    • MG Singh profile imageAUTHOR

      MG Singh 

      5 years ago from Singapore

      Thank you Rose, loved your comment

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 

      5 years ago from Riga, Latvia

      Voted up and interesting. This was a fascinating bit of history which I didn't know about. Passing this on.

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