1956 - 2021, Celebrating  over 65 Years of Service

Beneficial Bombing; The Progressive Foundations of American Air Power, 1917-1945
by Mark Clodfelter
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press

1111 Lincoln Mall, Lincoln, NE 68588-0630

Web Site:
Binding:  Hardbound Height:




Pages:  392 No. Photos:
 numerous photos

While the United States strategic bomber force is in a steady state of decline (approximately 500 B-52, 90 B-1 and 25 B-2 bombers), a number of books have recently addressed the philosophy and history of using bombers to subdue the enemy without the need for a ground war. This book looks at that same material from 1917 to the end of WWII. The United States lagged behind the world in the development of bombers well into WWI. This state of affairs was not surprising as France, Britain and Italy had to meet the German threat to their ports, cities and military sites from the outbreak of war in 1914, whereas the United States did not enter the fray until 1917. At this time, aviation was in its infancy and the mindset of the U.S. Army, as well as the greater contingent of the U.S. Navy, did not consider the airplane as much of a weapon. Billy Mitchell was one of the early American believers that airpower might hold the secret to winning a war. In May 1917 he visited Maj. Gen. Hugh Trenchard, commander in the field of Britain’s Royal Flying Corps. For Trenchard, a tightly controlled, continuous aerial offensive was the key to success. In his opinion the assignment of air units to ground commanders for defense was a mistake. He tried to form a force designed to destroy the German army’s means of supply and reinforcement, but lacked sufficient aircraft to do so. Mitchell was affected deeply by the general’s ideas and thus proposed to General Pershing’s chief of staff that the American air contingent be divided into “tactical” and “strategic” aviation. Pershing failed to approve.

A young MIT graduate, “Nap” Gorrell was picked by Mitchell to determine Air Service requirements including the need for aircraft of various types. He was thus charged with estimating the number of bombers needed while considering the prospects of strategic bombing. Gorrell ultimately produced America’s first plan for a strategic air campaign. This plan was underpinned by consultations with veteran American pilots, British air commanders and Gianni Caproni, the designer of large Italian bombers that were slated for American production. Caproni also gave Gorrell a list of Germany’s major industrial targets. WWI ended before any of these ideas could be implemented.

The story of Mitchell’s battle to have his way and concentrate air power in an independent air force is well known. His ultimate court-martial passed the baton to younger officers: Frank Andrews and “Hap” Arnold. Also convinced that air power was important was Gen. George Marshall. However, in the inter-war years and during the Depression, budgets for large buys of armaments were non-existent.

WWII changed the opposition. Winston Churchill constantly tried to convince Franklin Roosevelt that without America’s support Europe could fall to Hitler. American public opinion did not permit direct intervention but when in 1938 the reality of potential German conquest became apparent, Roosevelt wanted an Army Air Corps of 24,000 airplanes and a production capacity of 20,000 more per year. Congress moved slowly so that by December 1941, the total B-17 bomber force was less than 20. After the Japanese attack on Hawaii, the American aircraft industry was given the order to go “full out.”

The buildup of the strategic bomber force went more slowly than desired but actually was rapid. Airplanes can be produced by mass production, the men to operate them cannot. The author enumerates the contributions of leaders such as Arnold, Eaker, Spaatz, Hansell, LeMay, Brereton and others to the successful formation of the Air Force and their costly lessons learned in actual combat. The ‘beneficial bombing’ theory was found to be wanting. The assumption that the enemy could be overwhelmed by air power alone did not account adequately for the Luftwaffe defensive skills and determination. Further, the expected defeat based on the destruction of the ‘morale’ of the civilian population to the point where they would demand their government to stop the war did not account for the control of a dictator.

This book is well written. The author conveys the history of American air power with a careful blend of the development of theory, the major players and selected results from 1917 to 1945, augmented by 34 photo illustrations. There is much more to the story. Perhaps Mark Clodfelter is working on a welcome sequel that brings us to the present. For those who want more, I recommend Death from the Heavens by Ken Werrell. See a review in AAHS Flightline, No. 174.

Adrian Ryneveld


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