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

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Trenchard and the Birth of Strategic Bombing

Hugh Trenchard
The father of the RAF was one of the first to grasp that aviation would radically change warfare. Before Hap Arnold, before Tooey Spaatz, before Douhet and de Seversky, even before Billy Mitchell, there was Britain's Hugh M. Trenchard. Yet, Trenchard today rates barely a footnote in most histories of airpower. When mentioned at all, he is remembered mainly as an advocate of an independent air force and as the first true practitioner of strategic bombing.

In his day, Trenchard was known as the father of the Royal Air Force—a gruff and forceful patron saint of airpower. He trained and organized the RAF (then the RFC) for World War I, then led it into battle, pioneering many of the concepts central to air warfare today. In this article we discuss Trenchard's contributions to the birth of strategic bombing.

Trenchard was one of the first to grasp the radical impact aviation would have upon land warfare. The revelation came in September 1912, when he flew as an observer with Longmore during army maneuvers. In less than an hour, Trenchard was able to locate the opposing force. He and Longmore reported back to headquarters, then set out again to find their side's cavalry and redirect them. Trenchard realized that no army could maneuver in secret with airplanes to spot them. From 1912 on, he was convinced that aviation would change the conduct of war. 

In August 1915 Trenchard became commander of all British air forces in France. He would proceed to win numerous commendations for his innovative tactics and firm leadership.  Despite these successes for airpower and Trenchard's ease with Allied airmen, he often faced trouble with his superiors in London. The discord reached a peak in April 1918 when Trenchard abruptly quit his post as the first chief of the Air Staff after only four months in the job and just two weeks after formation of the Royal Air Force. He blamed headquarters politics. However, within a few weeks, he expressed shame at his behavior at a time when the Germans were poised to invade Paris. Returning to France, Trenchard took command of an inter-Allied independent bomber force.

Trenchard's aim was to use long-range bombing to take more of the offensive to Germany itself, but the French commanders, who were leery of the independent air force, needed convincing. The father of the RAF faced an issue that would hound air commanders until the end of the 20th century: the allocation of airpower. Even the head of the French air service, Gen. Maurice Duvall, believed that allocating bombers to Trenchard for independent bombing equated to making the bombing of Germany the primary objective and relegated defeat of the enemy in the field to a secondary role.

The debate laid bare the essential point: armies had grown attached to airplanes, and the trade-offs necessary to apply airpower to theater wide objectives raised huge concerns for ground commanders. They were not soothed by Trenchard's assurances that he could easily divert bombers to support missions when ground forces got in trouble.

The 1918 campaign did not resolve this issue; indeed, it reappeared in every major combined campaign until the end of the 20th century. In the summer of 1918, with all eyes on his bomber force, Trenchard had to produce results. His strategy was to distribute attacks across different points in Germany to keep the German air force off balance and unable to concentrate against the Allies. 

Trenchard's favorite targets were railways, since the Germans were short of rolling stock, and blast furnaces, because they were easy to find at night. His pilots also specialized in bombing German airfields.

Two Handley Page Bombers

His new challenge was motivating aircrews to carry out the campaign in spite of nearly overwhelming hazards. They not only had to make deep night bombing raids, flying under-powered machines loaded with bombs weighing up to 1,650 pounds, but also had do it in bad weather. Trenchard, as quoted by Boyle, later said, "My job was to prod, cajole, help, comfort, and will the pilots on, sometimes to their death." His customary technique was to make frequent unannounced visits and talk straight. Often he watched the squadrons take off, waiting up until they returned. 

The Handley Page bomber crews were Trenchard's prized veterans, assigned the most difficult long-range night missions. The aircraft were also prized for the loads they could carry. Metz, Cologne, Coblenz, Stuttgart, and many tactical targets in Germany felt the weight of Trenchard's bombers. They routinely raided cities up to 200 miles from their bases in France. Steadily, their bomb tonnage increased, from 70 tons dropped in June to 1,000 tons in August. 

After World War I, Trenchard battled for the continued existence of the Royal Air Force. In 1919, Churchill, who became secretary of  war and air, recalled Trenchard to be chief of the Air Staff, a position he kept until his retirement in 1929.  British, French, and American airmen in two wars all owed much to Trenchard's practical ability to mold airpower into a respected weapon of warfare. That he did so in an age when airpower's technologies were still sorely lacking made the feat even more remarkable.

Excerpted from  "Trenchard at the Creation," by Rebecca Grant, Relevance, Summer 2011

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