Wednesday’s Book Review: “To Command the Skies”

to-command-the-skyTo Command the Sky: The Battle for Air Superiority over Germany, 1942-1944. By Stephen L. McFarland and Wesley Phillips Newton. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.

Although now some 25 years old this book is still the state of the art in this investigation of air power history. I’m not sure if that signals that this is the “final word on the subject” or if the air superiority history of World War II has stagnated. The reality is that this is a very fine study. The U.S. Air Force, and its predecessor organizations, have long advocated for five basic missions:
1. Strategic bombardment.
2. Aerial superiority.
3. Aerial interdiction.
4. Air transport.
5. Close air support.

By far the most important mission that the Air Force has emphasized is strategic bombardment. The Army Air Corps/Forces developed the concept of flying formations of manned strategic bombers that could penetrate an enemy’s air space and eliminate its ability to make war, thus demoralizing the enemy and making the war less costly in blood and treasure than previously thought. Without question, strategic bombing—which was focused on eliminating the war-making ability of an enemy—dominated American air thought and operations from the 1920s into the 1940s. Air commanders found that the manned bomber could not defend itself and required assistance by fighter aircraft to wave off enemy interception.

Accordingly, air commanders elevated the mission of aerial superiority, control of the skies, to enable the bombers to get through to their targets. Controlling the skies became the necessary prerequisite to success in strategic bombing. Authors Stephen L. McFarland and Wesley Phillips Newton, both professors of history at Auburn University at the time this book was published, insist that American success over Europe in 1944 really came at the point two actions coalesced. First, the arrival of reengined and range-extended P-51 “Mustangs” made it possible to escort the bombers deep into Germany. Second, when Gen. James A Doolittle directed those same U.S. fighters to seek out and destroy German fighters, especially those on the ground, instead of directly supporting American bombers. The authors note that a war of attrition against German fighters ensured success overall.

In the process of reaching air superiority, tens of thousands of airmen died in the air war over Europe. At first air superiority was less emphasized than would be the case as time passed. The American commanders tried a variety of approaches to achieve air superiority: fighter sweeps, aerial escorts, and even commando and guerrilla air raids. Destroying the enemy on the ground, a very effective tactic, and in the skies with fighters attacking the enemy eventually assured success. As the authors note: “The U.S. Army Air Forces won this battle for the skies over Western Europe due to numerical and technological superiority, courage, tactics, luck, and enemy mistakes, but more than anything else, training and a willingness to modify tactics and strategies as the war continued” (p. viii).

Authors McFarland and Newton offered a finely-crafted analysis of the subject, moving systematically from theory, to tactics, to technology, to training, to operations. Their emphasis is on the 1942-1944 time frame, especially on how the strategic bombing strategy unfolded during that time. By the time of the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, the destruction of the Luftwaffe had been so successful that there was virtually no opposition in the air.

The authors do a fine job of demonstrating how U.S. Army Air Forces achieved success in the skies over Europe in World War II. It was essentially built on the quest for air superiority. In the process, the air arm lost enormous numbers of planes and crews. The level of attrition would never have been tolerated in the ground forces, but was accepted by air commanders to prove that air power could win the war absent the ground and sea forces. It was a short-sighted objective, perhaps, but it did help make the case for a separate air force no longer a part of the U.S. Army. To Command the Sky is a superb book on an important topic. I still recommend it as the best overview of this important subject in World War II.

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