By Eamon Hamilton
Craig F. Morris, The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2017. Notes. Bibliography. Index. 272 pp.
The strategic bomber has stood as one pillar of American military strength since the Second World War, and even today, the deployment of B-1s, B-2s and B-52s to forward bases across the globe sends a strong message to potential adversaries. Serving as a true ‘Book of Genesis’ chapter to this capability, The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory by Craig F. Morris covers the period of 1916 to 1942 and explores the growth of an idea within the United States Army, rather than deal primarily in technology or personalities. By recounting how air power theory matured (and was withheld) within the United States Army, he also delivers an excellent case study on how an organisation reacts to disruptive technology.
There is a stark comparison in air power capability that comes early from Morris. The book’s introduction begins with the arrival of United States Army Air Force B-17s in England in 1942. Operationally untested, their existence still spoke of the maturity of America’s investment in technology, organisation, and air power doctrine during the interwar period. Contrast that scene with the experience of the United States Army’s 1st Aero Squadron in Mexico in 1916, which Morris covers in his first chapter. There is obviously no suggestion that the 1st Aero Squadron’s Curtis JN-3 biplanes were to be used as bombers against Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa; what Morris does is illustrate the lack of intellectual depth the United States Army had with its heavier-than-air aviation capability. While the technology was relatively new, that lack of innovation remains surprising considering how the First World War had quickly illustrated the utility of aviation.
The Mexican adventure serves another purpose – it introduces several personalities from the 1st Aero Squadron who were sent to Europe when the United States entered the First World War. The most significant focus of The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory falls on 1917 to 1919, which stands to reason – it is here that the Aviation Section of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) first encountered the idea of strategic bombing from the Allied (and Central) powers. This transfer of ideas is explored mainly through the experiences of Edgar S. Gorrell, a veteran of the 1st Aero Squadron in Mexico who was sent to Europe to study how the United States would grow its aviation forces in the First World War. The AEF ground commanders wanted aviation to provide the battlefield reconnaissance and air defence, but Gorrell’s exposure to Allied air power theory led him to become a proponent of using bombers to open a ‘new front’ on an enemy’s warfighting infrastructure, effectively bypassing the war in the trenches on the Western Front.
Gorrell is the personality most consistently covered in The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory, which is arguably a testament to the aviator’s recordkeeping and his early advocacy of strategic bombing. The First World War ended before Gorrell could successfully argue the case for an American strategic bomber force, but the Armistice allowed him to leave two critical legacies to the future of air power development. Gorrell was tasked with organising the official history of the AEF, an assignment which allowed him to draw together air power lessons from the AEF and Allied into an official post-War record. On top of this, he drove a post-war bombing survey that examined what impact Allied bombing made on Germany’s warfighting effort.
When dealing with the events of 1919 to 1942, The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory does not enjoy the singular narrative focus that Gorrell’s experiences during the First World War afforded it (Gorrell left the military as a Colonel in 1920 at the age of 28, worked in the motoring industry, and died in March 1945). In Morris’ defence, strategic bombing theory in the interwar period was driven by complex variables, from personalities such as Billy Mitchell and rapidly growing aviation technology; through to economic resources (like the Great Depression), along with shifting strategic and foreign policy. The main conflict affecting strategic bombing theory (and the introduction of a supporting capability) was between the US Army’s General Staff, and aviation proponents within the Air Corps, as the Air Service had become in 1926. As aviation technology grew and the Air Corps Tactical School developed its ideas for air power, the Army General Staff were justifiably worried that a strategic bombing capability would lead to an independent Air Force, and a competitor for government funding.
The examination of this conflict makes The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory an excellent study in how organisations react to disruptive technology (both positively and negatively). The parallels to modern disruptive technologies (for example, autonomous systems, or space-based systems) do not feel completely analogous, given the purely historical lens of this book. That being said, it gives numerous examples of both innovative and misguided thinking at different levels within the United States Army in dealing with aviation. While history arguably vindicated the strategic bomber concept, Morris does well explain Army’s reservations with this new field.
One of the most significant qualities of The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory is also the chief criticism – by covering 25 years in 207 pages, it is very concise. The narrative is clear, comprehensive, and does not feel like any essential facts have been left out. However, the quality of Morris’ writing would comfortably permit this to be a longer work, and the narrative could afford to provide further exposition to selected events, technologies and personalities (beyond Gorrell), that shaped and developed air power theory. On several occasions, this reviewer found himself looking for other resources to further his appreciation of the events in this book – especially about the limited performance of bomber aircraft during the First World War.
While remaining engaging to read, Morris’ work is academically well-presented. It both recounts history as well as briefly discussing the views of academics and historians on the subject matter where relevant. There is considerable inertia when it comes to people’s understanding of events from a century ago, and Morris is clear when he debates, debunks or reaffirms the established narratives of other authors. The introduction specifically accounts for early air power studies into strategic bombing by historians/academics including Mark Clodfelter, Stephen McFarland, I.B. Holley, and Maurer Maurer.
Overall, The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory is clear and well-sourced and can be easily approached by anyone with no depth of knowledge of the central subject matter. This reader found it to be enjoyable and informative, providing a good account of early strategic bombing theory and American air power development. While being a self-contained work, it is likely to whet the reader’s appetite for reading works covering related subject matters.
Eamon Hamilton graduated from the University of Western Sydney with a Bachelor of Communications (Journalism). He works as a Public Affairs Officer for the Royal Australian Air Force. He lives in Sydney. He runs the Rubber-Band Powered Blog and can be found on Twitter @eamonhamilton.
Header Image: A Boeing Y1B-17 in flight. This aircraft would eventually be developed B-17 Flying Fortress. (Source: Wikimedia)