Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Billy Mitchell on Organizing the U.S. Air Service

At last the American Army was to be given a chance to get together and show what it could do. The great German offensive, begun in March 1918, had forced this decision on the superior command in France. At Château-Thiérry, all branches of the Service demonstrated their ability to stick to it, stand losses, and give blow for blow. For nearly a year we had been scattered around, in ever increasing numbers, among the French and British troops, learning in a great series of battles the methods that were necessary on the European battlefields.

It had been my good fortune to enter into combat with the French Army only seven days after our declaration of war. And, from that time on, every opportunity was taken to participate in and observe every major operation undertaken by the Allied troops. People seldom learn by the experience of others—the facts in the case have to be forced into one's own consciousness before they are fully realized.

At Château-Thiérry our Air Service was given the first chance to act in organizations sufficiently large to retain their identity as fighting units, and to try out our tactical combinations which we had worked out as being particularly applicable to our own people.

To be sure, we had very few organizations there—one Pursuit Group (the First) of a hundred airplanes, three Corps Observation Squadrons of twenty-four airplanes each, and the beginning of a Night Reconnaissance Squadron, the last named having been forced by the fact that all movements were now being made at night, and that night reconnaissance was the only means of determining where the attacks were to be made.

And I had waited so long for an opportunity to see how our men acted when placed entirely on their own footing that I watched every detail with the greatest care. I had heard all the comments by our Allies as to the difficulties they had had, and what we might expect under similar circumstances. Among the things that I watched the most carefully was how our combination in the air—our team work in the air—would be, because, in Europe, more difficulty had been experienced in getting combination in the air than probably any other one thing; that is, it is very difficult to get Pursuit Squadrons of twenty ships to act together and in combination; much more difficult to get groups of from sixty to a hundred ships to act together, and extremely difficult for the different branches of aviation to act with each other, because in the air nowadays we have as many different branches as there are on the ground.

To my great satisfaction I found out from the first big fight we went into that our combination in the air was wonderful. We had it from the start. It was due, I believe, first, to the great intelligence and physical excellence of our pilots; next, to their careful training, and, third, to the fact that all of our navigating personnel (pilots and observers) had been used from their infancy to games such as football, baseball, hockey, and polo, where combination, reliance on one's companions and team work are the underlying factors.

The most difficult thing in air training in its broadest phase is to teach the various commands how to make an instantaneous estimate of the situation in the air.

To begin with, in Pursuit Aviation, the Unit Commander must know the object of the operation. He must be able to find his place, which may be anywhere from the ground up to 20,000 feet above the lines and in the enemy's territory; and, when he sees an enemy formation, individual plane, or several different kinds of aviation formations at the same time, he must be able to make up his mind what to do instantly, and act on it with boldness and foresight.

In Observation Aviation, particularly that branch which acts in close liaison with the troops on the ground, the Infantry must be made to feel the close proximity of their own airplanes— the whole-hearted support which the air will give the ground— and the greatest mutual understanding must be created between them.

In all aviation, particularly with green troops, this combination of feeling between the ground and the air is one of the most difficult things to obtain and requires the longest training.

At Château-Thiérry we were greatly outnumbered in the air by the Germans, who had succeeded in smashing up the aviation of the Sixth French Army, and had succeeded not only in concentrating the bulk of their aviation on this front to help in their general offensive, but had re-equipped their whole aviation within a comparatively short time with an excellent pursuit ship— the Fokker— which was a great advance from their former pursuit ships of the Albatross and other similar types.

Being so greatly outnumbered caused us very heavy losses, but, on the other hand, taught us a great deal that we could have learned in no other way. Theory and practice were mixed in our daily combats to such an extent that, with the experience that we had had before, we came out of the Château-Thiérry operations with the distinct theory of how aviation should be handled in great numbers and how these things should be put into effect. The soundness of the theories was proved by subsequent operations, and we soon had the opportunity of showing, first at St. Mihiel, and then in the Argonne, what these were.

As soon as the great German offensive had been stopped in the Château-Thiérry area, a counter stroke was decided upon by the superior command, and, for that purpose, the formation of the First American Army went forward with great speed. This stroke was to be made against the German pivot of maneuver for their whole Western Front, which extended, roughly, from the Argonne Forest to the line of the Meuse River and Verdun. If this place held, and its communications behind it through the Trèves Gap, the retirement of the bulk of the German forces farther west to the sea could be carried out in an orderly manner. Should this area fall, the backbone of the German resistance would be broken.

The task, then, of the First American Army was to fight down the resistance of the Germans from the Argonne Forest to the Meuse River, and, as a preliminary to this, in order to insure the protection of the American Army's right flank in the direction of Metz (their great fortress and railroad center in this area), it was necessary to reduce the St. Mihiel salient, which acted as a great thorn in the side of any advance north from the Verdun area. The first mission of the First American Army was to reduce the St. Mihiel salient, and then go for the Argonne.

In an operation of this kind, particularly with new and untried troops, the command of the air is essential, and, as I was given the duty by our great commander, General Pershing, of drawing up the plans for our aeronautical forces, I recommended the strongest aviation contingent to be furnished which had ever been brought together under a single command during the war. As is usual under these conditions, every objection has to be overcome, and every reason has to be advanced as to the necessity for such things as distinguished from the concentration of maximum forces in another place. My recommendations were approved by Marshal Foch, and the concentration was commenced.

American, French, British, and Italian air forces were involved in this movement, which amounted to some 1,500 airplanes of all kinds, namely, squadrons and groups of corps observation, army observation, army artillery, pursuit groups, day and night bombardment, and reconnaissance groups, and the whole French Air Division. The organizations had to come from all sections of the Western Front, localities had to be chosen for them, airdromes prepared, supplies of spare parts for airplanes, millions of rounds of ammunition for the machine guns and bombs, thousands of gallons of gasoline and oil, and a system of replenishment of personnel for all these different units. All of these had to be connected up by telegraph, telephone, wireless telegraphy, and motorcycle, automobile, and airplane couriers. The anti-aircraft artillery, machine guns and searchlights, and the system of information for the whole Army had to be linked together with this great mass of aircraft. And above all, the greatest secrecy had to be maintained to prevent the Germans finding out about the air concentration until it was too late for them. 

The Staff of the Air Service of the First Army which handled these operations consisted of five different sections, namely:

  • An Operations Section, which provided for the plans and execution of all military operations against the enemy— where, how, and when the squadrons, groups, wings, and brigades should be placed and should work;

  • An Information Service, which received and distributed all information to the various parts of our own Army, and to the armies acting on our flanks;

  • A Balloon Section, which handled the operation of all our balloons;

  • A Material Section, which handled the construction of all airdromes, had the handling of all transportation for their supply, and the obtaining of all things which the different organizations would use, such as airplanes, gas, oil, ammunition, photographic material, radio equipment, and the thousand and one things pertaining to such a great force;

  • The fifth section was the Administration Section, which handled all correspondence, replenishment of personnel, personnel records, and all routine matters relating to the pay and distribution of the men.

The officers in charge of these various sections had been carefully trained for their work and not only understood it themselves, but understood how to work with each other. The work which these officers did at this time laid a foundation for our Air Service which continued throughout the remainder of the war, and which will continue in the future if maintained.

The Aviation Headquarters acted in the closest liaison with our Commander, General Pershing, and his Chief of Staff, personal reports being made every morning, and oftener when required, as to the progress of operations, and excellent official and personal relations existed between all departments of the Staff of the First Army. And to those of us who had been in the Army for some years, nothing gave us greater satisfaction than to see the seriousness, the method, the cooperation, and the industry which each department maintained. If any one was at fault, he saw it immediately, and was perfectly free to acknowledge it, and immediately attempted to rectify it. With such men to work with, there is nothing too difficult to do in a military way.

While group after group of the airplanes from the different nations were going to their appointed places behind the line which had been prepared by our construction squadrons for their reception, and were carefully hidden inside the hangars so as to prevent their being seen by the enemy, the Staff of the First Army Air Service was completing its plan of employment for our first operation as an army.

The plan of employment is the most important document which has to be prepared at the beginning of a battle, and from its complete and thorough understanding does success or failure result.

A plan of employment tells each branch of aviation what it must do in accordance with the general object of the operations, and how every detail is to be handled as occasions may arise. In general, it provides for three distinct phases of a combat:

First, the preparation of the attack, where great secrecy is necessary, when hostile reconnaissance of all kinds must be prevented, and while we find out all we can about the enemy without showing too much activity;

Second, the actual attack up to the first objective, that is, where we strike, and in which the mission of the aviation is to destroy the aviation of its enemy, then to attack his ground troops, and to insure proper cooperation and observation for our own infantry and artillery;

Third, the exploitation of the battle, where the enemy is pursued both in the air and on the ground, every organization behind his line is attacked by bombs and machine guns, where the aviation attacks with the troops, and where our air reconnaissance is pushed miles into his territory.

Our theory of operations was to assign to the troops themselves the aviation which they needed for their own operations, that is, the Observation Squadron to the Army Corps for use by the infantry and artillery, and Pursuit Groups for their local protection. All the rest, which made up the great bulk of the aviation, particularly pursuit and bombardment, was to be put into a central mass and hurled at the enemy's aviation, no matter where he might be found, until a complete ascendancy had been obtained over him in the air; after this, to attack his ground troops, his trains, his depots of ammunition and supplies, and his railroad stations and lines of communication.

In addition to this, his airdromes were attacked both night and day, so as to force him either to arise and accept combat, or to lose his airplanes in the hangars themselves on his own fields.

Sources: This article originally appeared in the August 1919 edition of World's Work magazine. The images used are from the Pentagon art collection.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting how Mitchell uses the term "pursuit ships" instead of fighters.