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Giulio Douhet

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“Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after the changes occur.” Giulio Douhet, 1921

Hitler’s Germany lay in ruins. It’s major cities a smoldering shell of their once great majesty. Her industry’s all but destroyed. Her infrastructure a mere ghost of what was once. It can be argued that what ultimately led to the demise of the Axis was airpower. Many would think that things develop as they may when situations arise. However in the case of strategic air power, this was a carefully tried and tested field.

At the end of the first war to end all wars, Europeans feared a second. Many felt that a second war would bring unimaginable horror to the cities of Europe via the new third arm of the military. With the bombing of Guernica, by the Germans during the Spanish civil war, Air power was here to stay.

An early supporter of strategic bombing and the military superiority of air forces was General Giulio Douhet. He argued that command of an enemy’s air space and subsequent bombing of industrialized centers would be so disruptive and destructive that the pressure for peace would be overwhelming. He maintained that control of the air could win a war regardless of land or sea power. History was to prove him correct in his assumption.
We have seen his theories put to the test in conflicts as recent as “Kosovo Crisis”, Douhet’s theories remain very popular to this day

The Man and His Theory

Douhet was born in Caperata, Italy to a family that, for many generations, maintained a tradition of military service to the House of Savoy. He was also a poet and playwright. Douhet was an outspoken man who did not care who he offended with his revolutionary ideas. At a time when the military was going the way of the “Zeppelin” it was Douhet who had been strongly advocating his idea of using bomber aircraft.

Douhet had never flown an aircraft and had only seen three airplanes in his life up to this point, but he had intuitively seen the potential of air power.

Douhet’s involvement with the Italian Air Force began around 1909. By this time he had written two significant books on the mechanization of war. In an article he had written for a military journal he predicated that air weapons were the way of future. He wrote, ” to us who have until now been inexorably bound to the surface of the earth, it must seem that the sky, too, is to become another battlefield no less important than the battlefields on land and at sea. For if there are nations that exist that are untouched by the sea, there are NONE that exist without the breath of air”. “The army and the navy must recognize in the air force the birth of a third brother-younger, but none the less important, in the great military family”.

By 1911, the Turkish Empire was in it’s death throes while Italy was keen to rebuild her empire of the past and seized the opportunity presented to them. She became involved in a conflict with Turkey and set out to exploit the opportunities presented within Italy’s perceived sphere of influence. Her invasion of the Turkish possession of Libya marked the beginning of this conflict (1911-1912). The Italian army sent along it’s aircraft complement of 9 aircraft, commanded by Douhet and a series of first’s were then recorded: The first combat reconnaissance, October 23 1911; The first bombing mission November 1 1911; The first aerial photo reconnaissance; the first aircraft shot down (Turkish rifle fire)!

Based on the results of fledgling air power in Libya, the army formed an aviation battalion under the command of Douhet. Like those who came before him and those who would come after him, Douhet became impatient with the foot dragging of his superiors and commissioned his friend, Gianni Caproni, to build a three engine, 300 horse power bomber that, as it turned out, was years ahead of it’s time. This was the first in a series of affronts to the powers that be, the military, that led to his being relived of command of the aviation battalion and being reposted to an infantry division!

With the outbreak of the first world war, a particularly offensive memorandum became known to the public. In it he detailed various types of military shortcomings as well as predicting disaster for the Italian military. This “affront” was seen as the last straw by his detractors. He was courts martialed and imprisoned for a year. Following his release, the very type of disaster he had prophesied came to pass at Caparetto. Approximately 600,000 Italian casualties resulted from this action becoming the worst disaster in the history of the Italian armed forces.

Having been “vindicated” via the event’s of World War 1, Douhet still found road blocks to his theories. After serving 8 more months in the military Douhet resigned from active duty. He settled upon writing as a way of life. In 1921 he produced his definitive work, “Command of the Air” . It was within the pages of this work that he laid out in detail the foundations for a “modern war”. The book represented a culmination of his writings and teachings while in the military, the very thoughts and ideas that had caused him so much grief during his tenure in the armed forces.

The genesis behind his writings was his belief that with the advent of modern technology in his case this represented, poison gas, tanks, planes & machine guns, modern warfare between large land armies had become obsolete. Further he believed that modern warfare favored defense. As can be inferred, his assumptions were based on the experience’s of the first world war. Douhet had approached his theoretical writings from an amoral prospective. That is he took a scientific approach to the matter of war and all things that go with it. For example, he reasoned that; A defender in a prepared position with a gun that fired one shot per minute would be overrun by an attacker if an attacker sent two men to assault the position given that it took the attacker one minute to cover the territory to reach the defender. Therefore one attacker would die and the other would capture the position. If there are obstacles that impeded the attackers, the amount of attackers would rise proportionally to the time it took to reach the position. Therefore a five minute crossing would need six men. Five consumed by enemy fire and one to capture the position. Of course his premise was based in “a perfect world” with no “magic bullets”.

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