Maxwell and the Advent of High Altitude Bombing in Europe during World War II

  • Published
  • By Dr. Silvano Wueschner
  • Air University Historian

Soon after the United States entered World War II, the U.S. Army Air Forces began building up its air forces in Britain.  Elements of the 97th Bomb Group, Eighth Air Force, arrived at Royal Air Force High Wycombe, England on May 12, 1942.  On August 17, 1942, three months later, 12 B-17s from the 97 BG, led by then Major Paul Tibbets, carried out the first high altitude AAF heavy bomber raid over Europe against the railroad marshalling yards at Rouen-Sotteville, France.  The operation was a success as half the bombs landed in the target area and only one of the twelve aircraft sustained minor damage and the raid convinced the British of the ability of American heavy bombers to successfully carry out missions over Europe.


The operational planning for this raid had its inception in a series of secret planning sessions, termed American British Conference, in early 1941.  On July 9, President Franklin Roosevelt requested the Joint Board of the Army and Navy to prepare an estimate of the over-all production requirements required to defeat America’s potential enemies in case the United States entered the war.  The Joint Board, in turn, tasked the Army’s War Plans Division to develop the plan.


Lt. Col. Clayton Bissell, a member of the WPD, approached Lt. Col. Harold George of the recently established Air Corps Air War Plans Division to help develop the plan’s air annex.  Other members of the AWPD included Lt. Col. Orvil Anderson, Lt. Col. Kenneth Walker, and Major Haywood S. Hansell.  All had served as students, instructors, or both, at the Air Corps Tactical School, Maxwell Field, Alabama, what became known as the “Bomber Mafia.”


In the 1930s, the “Bomber Mafia” developed the tenets of high altitude daylight precision bombing doctrine, based on the industrial web theory.  According to the theory, modern societies consisted of a number of interlocking sectors, such as transportation, oil production, and steel production.  Thus, the systematic destruction of the multiple nodes of each sector by long-range heavy bombers flying in daylight would eventually bring about the collapse of an adversary’s economy and war-making capabilities and, thus, his surrender.  By June 1941, the Army Air Forces had developed the technology—long-range heavy bombers (the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator) and the Norden bombsight—to operationalize the doctrine in combat.


George was reluctant to detail any of his airmen to the WPD since he believed that Army and War Department leaders did not universally accept the potential effectiveness of airpower.  George was convinced that any plan developed jointly with the Army would have stressed tactical air coordination with ground forces and would have focused on targeting enemy military formations and logistical support in support of an invasion of Europe. 


Consequently, George approached his immediate supervisor, then Brig. Gen. Carl Spaatz, who echoed these same concerns.  Spaatz and George went to Lt Gen Henry “Hap” Arnold for his support in convincing Brig. Gen. Leonard Gerow, Chief of the WPD, to permit George and his group to autonomously prepare the air requirements plan. Gen Gerow agreed, and George and his group, augmented by other like-minded Airmen, went to work on the air plan, now known as Air War Plans Division 1.  This plan served as the initial plan for the use of strategic airpower in the coming war. 


George and his group completed AWPD/1 in one week, August 4 to11, 1941.  Although George’s plan provided for general airpower support for defensive operations in the Orient and the defense of the continental United States and Western Hemisphere, it emphasized the reduction of German combat effectiveness by the strategic daylight aerial bombardment of “vulnerable nodes in Germany's economy, including electrical power systems, transportation networks, and oil and petroleum resources.”  It clearly reflected the philosophies that the “Bomber Mafia” had debated and refined during the 1930s at the ACTS.  Ultimately, Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson approved the air plan.


To carry out the strategic bombing of Germany, the AAF activated Eighth Air Force on January 2, 1942 at Savannah Army Air Base, Georgia, and now Maj Gen Carl Spaatz assumed command at Bolling Field, Washington, DC, three days later.  On May 12, the first contingent of the 97 BG arrived in Britain and began preparations for the August 17, 1942 attack on the Rouen-Sotteville marshalling yards in France, the first AAF bombing attack over occupied Europe.