Airpower From the Ground Up

Nov. 1, 2000

The following is excerpted from “Quotable Quotes on Airpower From the Perspective of Surface Commanders and Political Leaders: From the ‘Great War’ to Allied Force,” compiled by Air Force Historian Richard P. Hallion.

“I hope none of you gentlemen is so foolish as to think that aeroplanes will be usefully employed for reconnaissance from the air. There is only one way for a commander to get information by reconnaissance, and that is by the use of cavalry.” —British Gen. Sir Douglas Haig, summer 1914, addressing the British Army Staff College. Within three months, World War I’s First Battle of the Marne and the Battle of Tannenberg had been decided on the basis of information furnished via aerial reconnaissance.

“[Australian air attacks] exacted the most frightful sacrifice from [troops], severely damaging their morale. The feeling of helplessness in the face of the enemy fliers instilled a paralysis in both officers and men. The columns of savaged artillery pieces, automobiles, and motor transport, together with shattered wagons, horses, and men, blocked the road in many places.” —German Gen. Liman von Sanders, commenting in his postwar memoirs on Australian air attacks against Turkish and German troops at the Wadi el Far’a in Palestine in September 1918. With resistance shattered, and with Turkish communications knocked out by an airstrike on the telephone exchange at Nabulus, Turkish forces fell back in confusion. Damascus surrendered by the end of the month and the Ottoman Empire a few weeks later.

“[In World War I] aircraft became an offensive weapon of the first order, distinguished by their great speed, range, and effect on target. If their initial development experienced a check when hostilities came to an end in 1918, they had already shown their potential clear enough to those who were on the receiving end. … We do not have to be out-and-out disciples of Douhet to be persuaded of the great significance of air forces for a future war and to go on from there to explore how success in the air could be exploited for ground warfare, which would in turn consolidate the aerial victory.”–German Maj. Gen. Heinz Guderian, comment in 1937. Guderian became the father of the blitzkrieg used in World War II.

“The air force has become the hammer of modern warfare on land. … Aviation gives modern battle a third dimension. … Modern battle is the fight for cubic space.”–Ferdinand Miksche, a Loyalist infantry officer in the Spanish Civil War and postwar military commentator, writing in 1942.

“[At the battle of Alam Halfa] nonstop and very heavy air attacks by the RAF, whose command of the air had been virtually complete, had pinned my army to the ground and rendered any smooth deployment or any advance by time schedule completely impossible. … We had learned one important lesson during this operation, a lesson which was to affect all subsequent planning and, in fact, our entire future conduct of the war. This was that the possibilities of ground action, operational and tactical, become very limited if one’s adversary commands the air with a powerful air force and can fly mass raids by heavy bomber formations unconcerned for their own safety. … Anyone who has to fight, even with the most modern weapons, against an enemy in complete command of the air, fights like a savage against modern European troops, under the same handicaps and with the same chances of success. … The fact of British air superiority threw to the winds all the tactical rules which we had hitherto applied with such success. In every battle to come, the strength of the Anglo­American air force was to be the deciding factor.” —World War II German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox,” in 1942.

“If I didn’t have air supremacy, I wouldn’t be here.” —US Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme allied commander, in comments made while surveying buildup area at the Normandy bridgehead after Operation Overlord, late June 1944.

“The Normandy invasion was based on a deep-seated faith in the power of the Air Force in overwhelming numbers to intervene in the land battle, … making it possible for a small force of land troops to invade a continent. … Without that Air Force, without its independent power, entirely aside from its ability to sweep the enemy air forces out of the sky, without its power to intervene in the ground battle, that invasion would have been fantastic. [Indeed] it would have been more than fantastic; it would have been criminal.” —-Eisenhower, in 1945 Congressional testimony, arguing for the creation of an independent United States Air Force.

“From the very first moment of the invasion, the Allies had absolute air supremacy. Therefore, the enemy, our own troops, and the population asked the obvious question, ‘Where is the Luftwaffe?’ ” —German General of Fighters Adolf Galland, in postwar memoir on Allied airpower at Normandy.

“[On D-Day, June 6, 1944] the whole of the area through which the [Nazi] divisions must march was being most intensively patrolled by the Allied air forces. No road movement by day was possible in view of this air umbrella, which reached from Normandy to the Paris area.” —German Lt. Gen. Bodo Zimmerman, chief operations officer, Army Group D, in a postwar memoir.

“The enemy’s air superiority has a very grave effect on our movements. There’s simply no answer to it.” —Rommel, when he was commander of German Army Group B at Normandy, days before he was strafed off the road by Spitfires and seriously injured.

“Utilization of the Anglo-American air forces is the modern type of warfare, turning the flank not from the side but from above.” —German Vice Adm. Friedrich Ruge, Rommel’s naval aide, at Normandy.

“In the face of the total enemy air superiority, we can adopt no tactics to compensate for the annihilating power of air except to retire from the battlefield.” —German Field Marshal Hans Guenther von Kluge, who succeeded Rommel as commander of Army Group B, in a letter to Hitler after taking over German forces in Normandy.

“[German Field Marshal Walter Model] did not immediately grasp the full gravity of the situation in France and hoped that he might yet restore it. But he was soon to realize the unimaginable effects of the enemy’s air supremacy, the massive destruction in the rear area, the impossibility of traveling along any major road in daylight without great peril-in fact, the full significance of the invasion.” —Zimmerman, reflecting on the leadership of Model, who succeeded von Kluge as commander, Army Group B.

“The long duration of the bombing, without any possibility for opposition, created depressions and a feeling of helplessness, weakness, and inferiority. Therefore the morale attitude of a great number of men grew so bad that they, feeling the uselessness of fighting, surrendered, deserted to the enemy, or escaped to the rear, as far as they survived the bombing. … The shock effect was nearly as strong as the physical effect. … For me, who, during this war, was in every theater committed at the points of the main efforts, this was the worst I ever saw. The well-dug-in infantry was smashed by the heavy bombs in their foxholes and dugouts or killed and buried by blast. The positions of infantry and artillery were blown up. The whole bombed area was transformed into fields covered with craters, in which no human being was alive. Tanks and guns were destroyed and overturned and could not be recovered, because all roads and passages were blocked.” —German Lt. Gen. Fritz Bayerlein, in a postwar memoir on experiencing the Operation Cobra bombing at St. Lo, which set the stage for the Allied breakout across France.

“The chief credit in smashing the enemy’s spearhead must go to the rocket-firing Typhoon planes of the Second Tactical Air Force. The result of this strafing was that the enemy attack was effectively brought to a halt, and a threat was turned into a great victory.” —Eisenhower, reflecting on the role of airpower at the Battle of Mortain, where the German Army attempted to split the invasion front at Normandy, supreme allied commander’s dispatch, 1945.

“The greatest benefit derived from the tactical air force was in the offensive action of the fighter­bomber in blunting the power of the armored thrust and striking specific targets on the front of the ground troops.” —US Gen. Omar Bradley, 12th Army Group commander, reflecting on airpower at the Battle of the Bulge, in the “Effect of Airpower on Military Operations: Western Europe,” 1945. The 9th SS Panzer Division abandoned its attack on Liege, Belgium, after a single fighter­bomber blew up a fuel truck carrying three tons of gasoline, delaying the German advance for two days.

“The Ardennes battle drives home the lesson that a large-scale offensive by massed armor has no hope of success against an enemy who enjoys supreme command of the air.” —German Maj. Gen. F.W. von Mellenthin, chief of staff of the Fifth Panzer Army at the Bulge, in a postwar memoir.

“[Lt. Gen. Fritz Bayerlein] particularly noted the disastrous and calculated selection of fuel tank trucks as fighter­bomber targets. He and others have vivid memories of precious forward gasoline dumps lost through air attack.” —Bradley in 1945. Bayerlein’s Panzer Lehr Division had to abandon 53 tanks from lack of fuel, and the Sixth SS Panzer Army had to abandon 180 tanks.

“[Allied air forces] found worthwhile targets throughout the whole area of our offensive. Bomb carpets were laid down on the roads and railways behind the front, and our already inadequate supply system was throttled. The mobility of our forces decreased steadily and rapidly.” —German Gen. Hasso von Manteuffel, Fifth Panzer Army commander at the Bulge, in a postwar memoir.

“[Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, the commander of the attack at the Bulge, stated] that the main reason for the failure of the Ardennes offensive was his own lack of fighters and reconnaissance planes and the tremendous tactical airpower of the Allies.” —Bradley in 1945.

“From the high command to the soldier in the field, German opinion has been agreed that airpower was the most striking aspect of Allied superiority.” —Bradley in 1945.

“[With the beginning, in May 1944, of the Allied attack on oil centers] a new era in the air war began. It meant the end of German armaments production.” —Albert Speer, Nazi armaments minister, in his postwar memoirs.

“The morale of the German people, both at home and at the front, is sinking ever lower. The Reich propaganda agencies are complaining very noticeably about this. The people think that [they are] facing a perfectly hopeless situation in this war. Criticism of our war strategy does not now stop short even of the Führer himself. … The people will continue to do their duty and the front-line soldier will defend himself as far as he has a possibility of doing so. These possibilities are becoming increasingly limited, however, primarily owing to the enemy’s air superiority. … The total paralysis of transport in west Germany also contributes to the mood of increasing pessimism among the German people.” —Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, diary, March 12, 1945.

“Not only our military reverses but also the severe drop in the German people’s morale, neither of which can now be overlooked, are primarily due to the unrestricted enemy air superiority.” —Goebbels, diary, March 15, 1945.

“Again and again we return to the starting point of our conversation. Our whole military predicament is due to enemy air superiority.” —Goebbels, reflecting on a conversation with Hitler, diary, March 21, 1945.

“The thing that brought about the determination to make peace was the prolonged bombing by the B-29s.” —Japanese Prince Fumimaro Konoye, in a postwar interrogation, 1945.

“It seemed to me unavoidable that, in the long run, Japan would be almost destroyed by air attack, so that, merely on the basis of the B-29s alone, I was convinced that Japan should sue for peace. On top of the B-29 raids came the atomic bomb, … which was just one additional reason for giving in. … I myself, on the basis of the B-29 raids, felt that the cause was hopeless.” —Japanese Premier Kantaro Suzuki, in a postwar interrogation, 1945.

“The weapon of superior reach or range should be looked upon as the fulcrum of combined tactics. Thus, should a group of fighters be armed with bows, spears, and swords, it is around the arrow that tactics should be shaped; if with cannons, muskets, and pikes, then around the cannon; and if with aircraft, artillery, and rifles, then around the airplane.” —British military historian Maj. Gen. J.F.C. Fuller, Armament and History, 1945.

“No one who fought on the ground in Korea would ever be tempted to belittle the accomplishments of our Air Force there. Not only did airpower save us from disaster, but without it, the mission of the United Nations forces could not have been accomplished.” —US Army Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway’s memoir, The Korean War, 1967.

“If we had had strong air support, we could have driven the enemy into the sea.” —Captured Communist report, 1951, reflecting on how UN air superiority had prevented Communist airpower from intervening in the ground struggle.

“I would like to tell you frankly that, in fact, without direct support of your tactical aerial bombing alone, your ground forces would have been unable to hold their present positions. … Without the support of the indiscriminate bombing and bombardment by your air and naval forces, your ground forces would have long ago been driven out of the Korean peninsula by our powerful and battle-skilled ground forces.” —North Korean Army Lt. Gen. Nam Il, in armistice discussions with UN representatives at Panmunjom, August 1951.

“I learned after a while that my casualties were tremendously decreased if I used the airpower and airstrikes and used [them] properly. And it was there to use.” —An unidentified US Army troop commander in Vietnam, quoted by John Sbrega, “Southeast Asia,” in B.F. Cooling’s Case Studies in the Development of Close Air Support, 1990.

“When you’re in real life, you’re pinned down under fire, and here comes the Air Force, and they just drop the bombs right where they belong and they knock out what they are supposed to knock out, … it’s a fantastic feeling. It’s more than thanks. You just can’t express it, really.” —An enlisted soldier, quoted by Sbrega, “Southeast Asia,” in Cooling’s Case Studies in the Development of Close Air Support, 1990.

“Because the enemy had escalated rapidly, was bombarding us massively, and was using many types of new [air] weapons, … many units and local areas suffered heavy losses. Almost all the important bridges on the railroad and on the road corridors were knocked down. Ground transportation became difficult. Coastal and river transportation were blocked.” —North Vietnam’s official history, commenting on US air attacks on its forces during the spring 1972 invasion of South Vietnam.

“The minimal requirement for a successful [maritime] operation is a favorable air situation. Air superiority will be a requirement for sea control where a robust challenge from the air is possible. Air supremacy is a necessary precondition of command of the sea.” —Royal Navy, The Fundamentals of British Maritime Doctrine, BR 1806, 1995.

“Airpower is the decisive arm so far, and I expect it will be the decisive arm into the end of the campaign, even if ground forces and amphibious forces are added to the equation. … If anything, I expect airpower to be even more decisive in the days and weeks ahead.” —Army Gen. Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in Feb. 21, 1991, Congressional testimony on the Gulf War.

“During the Iran War [the 1980­88 Iran­Iraq conflict], my tank was my friend because I could sleep in it and know I was safe. … During this war [the 1991 Gulf War], my tank became my enemy. … None of my troops would get near a tank at night, because they just kept blowing up.” —Remarks by an Iraqi general, in a POW interrogation, as quoted by Gen. Charles A. Horner, Desert Storm air boss, in USAF publication “Reaching Globally, Reaching Powerfully,” 1991.

USMC interrogator: “How many of your soldiers were killed by the air war?”

Iraqi officer: “To be honest, for the amount of ordnance that was dropped, not very many. Only one soldier was killed and two were wounded.”

USMC interrogator: So then you feel the aerial bombardment was ineffective

Iraqi officer: “Oh no! Just the opposite! It was extremely effective! The planes hit only vehicles and equipment. Even my personal vehicle … was hit. They hit everything!” Quoted by John G. Heidenrich in spring 1993 Foreign Policy.

“It could be said the coalition air forces won the war. Laser guidance was so precise that coalition aircraft were able to deliver two bombs into the same crater-a level of accuracy unprecedented in warfare.” —Gen. Sir Peter de la Billiere, the commander of British forces in the Gulf War, in his memoir Storm Command.

“The air campaign was decisive.” —Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, April 14, 1991.

“Gulf Lesson One is the value of airpower.” —President George Bush, speech at Air Force Academy graduation ceremony, May 29, 1991.

“One of the great things that people should have learned from this is that there are times when airpower-not backed up by [NATO’s] ground troops-can make a difference.” —Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, on Feb. 21, 1996, PBS “NewsHour,” commenting on NATO’s 1995 Operation Deliberate Force in Bosnia.

“They knew everything about us. There wasn’t anything they didn’t know. If we lit a cigarette, they could see it. God knows what they were dropping on us. All sorts of bombs. We didn’t expect that intensity. We couldn’t fight planes with mortars. And our anti-aircraft guys couldn’t do anything. … It felt like we went over every inch of Kosovo. … We spread out, one of us every hundred meters, but they just picked us off. Bosnia was a spa compared to Kosovo. Everywhere, there was a smell of bodies. … I’m going to the woods, where everything is absolutely calm. I’m going to spend 10 days there, thinking of nothing, alone. I want to be alone.” —Reflections of “Milos,” a Yugoslavian soldier bombed during Operation Allied Force, quoted by journalist Rory Carroll in The Observer, June 20, 1999.