Uniting against the Reich: The American Air War in Europe (Aviation and Air Power)

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Release Date: 
October 31, 2023
University Press of Kentucky
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“Uniting Against the Reich is Truxal’s first book, and it is based on solid research, sound if debatable judgments, and a refreshing lack of moralistic tone.”

The effectiveness of the Allied air war over Germany in World War II continues to be debated some 80 years later. The Combined Bomber Offensive against German transportation, energy, munitions, and human assets was a costly campaign in terms of losses of planes and airmen. From 1942–43 to the end of the war, its effectiveness improved and this was due, according to young military historian Luke W. Truxal, largely to the traditional principle of war known as unity of command. 

Uniting Against the Reich is Truxal’s first book, and it is based on solid research, sound if debatable judgments, and a refreshing lack of moralistic tone. Truxal, who teaches history at Columbia State Community College in Tennessee, points out the doctrinal differences between American and British air force commanders and the internal fight for resources among U.S. air commanders that initially hampered strategic bombing efforts. The British believed in nighttime area bombing of cities, while at least initially the Americans pursued daytime “precision” bombing of military and industrial targets.

But “precision” bombing in World War II was a chimera. What Clausewitz called war’s “friction” operated as much in the air as it did on the ground and at sea. The Americans learned this the hard way with unacceptable losses of planes and pilots for limited results. And, as Truxal notes, there was no unity of command early in the Combined Bomber Offensive—British and American air commanders did their own thing without regard to the overall Allied strategy. Efforts to improve coordination at various wartime conferences failed. The infighting between American and British air commanders and among American air commanders was intense.

Meanwhile, the commanders of ground forces in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy, and later in France and Germany, demanded air resources in support of their campaigns, which detracted from strategic bombing efforts against the German homeland. The lack of unity of command, Truxal believes, led to costly failures in bombing attacks on the Ploesti oil fields in Romania, aircraft production facilities in Regensburg, and ball bearing plants at Schweinfurt. And it was those failures plus the planning for Overlord (the D-Day landings) that led to Allied reorganization of the Combined Bomber Offensive under unified command.

Truxal credits Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and Gen. Carl Spaatz with gradually establishing a unified command that used American air resources in true strategic fashion—targeting German transportation networks (especially railroads), oil refineries, munitions plants and, ultimately, cities in a strategic manner to hinder German war-making capacities and undermine German morale. Experts today differ on the overall effectiveness of the strategic bombing campaign, but Truxal persuasively argues that it played a considerable role in Germany’s defeat.

The book’s narrative also includes the roles played in the strategic air campaign by American commanders Ira Eaker, Jimmy Doolittle, Haywood Hansell, Hap Arnold, Curtis LeMay, as well as British commanders Arthur “Bomber” Harris, Charles Portal, Arthur Tedder and others. They didn’t always see eye-to-eye on tactics, even as they shared the same overall goal. It took strong leadership at the top to reign in the egos of these commanders.

After the scare of the German offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge, both American and British bombers targeted cities with little or no regard for civilian casualties. The citizens of Berlin, Hamburg, Dresden, and other German cities paid an enormous price for their leaders’ lurch into total war.

Strategic bombing never achieved the promise of air power enthusiasts such as Giulio Douhet and Billy Mitchell. Strategic bombing did not win the war by itself, but it made a pivotal contribution to the Allied victory both in Europe and the Far East. Truxal summarizes the ultimate success of the bomber offensive in Europe by noting: “By the time the Germans surrendered on 8 May 1945, the command system established by the Americans had enabled them to concentrate their air forces against a German strategic system and apply pressure on it through aerial bombardment over sustained periods of time.” Unity of command made that success possible.