Bombing the People

Published in History Today

Bombing the People:  Giulio Douhet and the Foundations of Air-Power Strategy, 1884-1939
Thomas Hippler    Cambridge University Press   285pp   £65

The Italian soldier, Giulio Douhet, is one of the few well-known names in the history of air power strategy, along with Hugh Trenchard, father of the RAF, and Billy Mitchell, the American air power pioneer. Command of the Air, originally published in 1921, was the mature statement of Douhet’s theories about how the air could change the nature of war.

Thomas Hippler’s detailed and thorough account of Douhet’s thinking shows us that his ideas were slow to mature and full of paradoxes and contradictions. Writing before the First World War, Douhet was a ‘pacifist’ on bombing, hostile to the idea that aircraft should be used to bomb civilians. By the time Command of the Air was published, he had become an advocate of a large-scale and immediate attack by bombers, using conventional bombs, gas and germ warfare, against the vulnerable urban heart of the enemy nation. This was a remarkable transition. Hippler argues that Douhet came to accept the ‘democratic paradox’ that a modern nation has to employ any means to defeat a wicked enemy. Since the enemy was responsible for violation, the citizens of the enemy state shared that responsibility and should become legitimate objects of aerial warfare. By 1915-16 Douhet’s later ideas on bombing the vital centres of the enemy to demoralise and terrorise the enemy home front had already appeared in print. To create the possibility for doing so it was necessary to establish what Douhet called ‘command of the air’, or, more commonly today, air superiority. The contradiction lies in Douhet’s argument that counter- force attack to win command of the air should be carried out at the same time as massive bombing attacks, creating an unresolved tension between the air or the ground as the principal objective for an air force. This may be less of a contradiction than Hippler implies, for it is exactly what the Luftwaffe tried to do in September 1940 and the American air force in 1944 over Germany. 

The real problem with Douhet, Hippler suggests, is the idea that air power was a democratic instrument suitable for an age of total war, that seemed to justify immediate assault on the enemy home population from the first days of a war. Douhet claimed this would produce victory for the side that could hit hardest and soonest. This was not supported by any practical experience, nor any appreciation of the technical problems involved. Like the bombing-scare literature of the inter-war years, it was a fantasy, well beyond the capability of the Italian, or any other, air force in 1939. Bombing Germany took four years of ever heavier escalation. It did not produce instant victory after a few devastating raids, as Douhet had supposed. Perhaps, Hippler points out, the fact that Douhet never learned to fly reduced his ability to understand the inherent limitations of air power. 

Hippler is rightly cautious about ascribing too much strategic influence to Douhet. His major works were available in France, Germany and, later, the United States (in 1942), but Douhet’s writing simply preached to the converted, on issues such as the need for an autonomous air force or the fragility of civilian morale. Although not very original, Douhet expressed his views in powerful and articulate polemics against his many critics. He has been rescued from obscurity because what he said has reinforced air force claims later in the 20th century for an independent organisation and a distinct doctrine. In practice this has proved to be a dead end. Douhet’s greatest critic, the Italian airman, Amedeo Mecozzi, favoured limited but effective strikes using fighter- bombers against the key tactical and strategic targets supporting the enemy’s military operations. The First Gulf War against Iraq in 1991 has sometimes been viewed as the triumph of Douhetism, but it was in reality the vindication of the much-neglected Mecozzi.

Although over-long and densely written, historians will be grateful to Hippler for putting Douhet and the debates he engendered firmly on the map. In the end, much of what he wrote on air power and total war was evident to anyone reflecting on the lessons of 1914-18. The American bombing of Japan in 1945, and of Korea and Vietnam later on, did not need Douhet except as corroboration.

Richard Overy is author of The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 (Allen Lane, 2013).

The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email