The Command of the Air is the greatest military treatise on air war ever written – a dogmatic manifesto promising victory through strategic bombing.
Giulio Douhet (1869-1930), air war’s greatest prophet, ought to have been a First World War fighter ace. In fact, he may never have learnt to fly. He was an army officer, reaching the rank of general, but trench-war stalemate had turned his mind to alternatives. He became obsessive about the potential of military aviation, sending a long memorandum to the Italian war minister in which he proposed breaking the Austrian front by launching attacks on the enemy’s cities with a fleet of 500 bombers.
For going over the heads of his superiors, he was court-martialled and imprisoned for a year. Later, in 1920, he was exonerated, on the basis that he had acted for ‘the good of the country’. The following year, he published his masterwork, The Command of the Air.
In 1927, he published a second edition, in which his conclusions were stated with yet greater force. After his death, Douhet’s work was translated into French, English, German, and Russian, becoming a major influence on the doctrine of Europe’s air-forces, contributing to growing public apprehension about aerial bombing as a new world war became ever more likely.
Douhet’s starting-point was the openness of the sky and the speed with which aircraft could cross it. ‘Because of its independence of surface limitations and its superior speed,’ he explained, ‘… the aeroplane is the offensive weapon par excellence.’ Armies followed roads and railways, and then had to fight their way through enemy defences. Navies were restricted to the sea and slowed by the heavy medium of water. Aircraft could go anywhere within their radius of action, flying over enemy lines to bomb industry, infrastructure, and workforces.
‘No longer can areas exist in which life can be lived in safety and tranquillity, nor can the battlefield any longer be limited to actual combatants. On the contrary, the battlefield will be limited only by the boundaries of the nations at war, and all of their citizens will become combatants, since all of them will be exposed to the aerial offensives of the enemy.’
Maximum bombing power
Such, he claimed, was the destructive power of aerial bombardment that air power would become dominant in war, and national air-forces dominant over the other two services. At a time when most air-forces operated as army or navy auxiliaries (the RAF was still exceptional), Douhet was a forthright advocate of ‘Independent Air Forces’ and ‘maximum bombing power’. He harboured an apocalyptic vision of the war to come: ‘Within a few minutes, some 20 tons of high-explosive, incendiary, and gas bombs would rain down. First would come explosions, then fires, then deadly gases floating on the surface and preventing any approach to the stricken area. As the hours passed and night advanced, the fires would spread while the poison gas paralysed all life.’
What defence was possible against the destruction of cities by aerial bombing? Only ‘the command of the air’, which meant ‘the ability to fly against an enemy so as to injure him, while he has been deprived of the power to do likewise’. And how was this to be achieved?
Only, it seems, by having a bomber force more powerful than the enemy’s, one capable of destroying the enemy’s ‘centres of maintenance, concentration, and production’ of military aircraft.
Neither anti-aircraft guns nor fighter aircraft could provide effective defence, and resources devoted to them drained strength from the decisive arm: the bomber force. The three-dimensional vastness of the sky and the speed with which aircraft moved through it precluded effective anti-aircraft gunnery. Additionally, the numbers of guns needed to cover every potential target made this form of defence enormously expensive. Fighters had the problem of getting aloft and finding their enemy before damage could be done. This, in Douhert’s view, was a more or less hopeless task, especially when they would have to concentrate in great numbers to ensure they could attack in safety.
No air defence?
There should be no air defence was Douhet’s trenchant conclusion: ‘… there is only one attitude to adopt in aerial warfare – namely, an intense and violent offensive, even at the risk of enduring the same thing from the enemy. The one effective method of defending one’s own territory from an offensive by air is to destroy the enemy’s air power with the greatest possible speed.’
Douhet was a terrible prophet, but a false one. He commits the cardinal error of assuming that the enemy is the passive victim of one’s military plans. His whole conception of air war rests on the assumption that the bomber will always get through, and that the damage it can then do will crush the resistance. He was wrong on both counts, as British experience in 1940 was to demonstrate.
The British developed an early warning system linked with a command-and-control network that allowed their fighters to intercept bomber squadrons. Trained as hunterkillers, the British fighterpilots then operated as aerial guerrillas, using surprise, speed, and manoeuvrability to carry out ‘hit-and-run’ attacks on far larger enemy formations.
Heavy losses forced the Germans to switch to night bombing. Then, indeed, the bomber got through. But neither the infrastructure nor the morale of London was broken by the Blitz. Instead, a million ordinary Londoners, mobilised in a plethora of volunteer roles, kept the city alive and breathing. Britain survived. Douhet was wrong.
Nonetheless, even a false prophet often preaches partial truth. The Command of the Air remains a visionary conceptualisation of the potential power of massed strategic bombing. If the defence has proved more innovative and resilient than Douhet envisaged, the threat is real enough, and millions have indeed perished since 1921 in the holocausts of aerial destruction predicted in The Command of the Air.
An English translation of Guilio Douhet’s The Command of the Air is currently available in a University of Alabama edition, where it appears alongside three other works, The Probable Aspects of the War of the Future (1928), Recapitulation (1929), and The War of 19– (1930).