Mitchell and the Great Offensive

Sept. 9, 2008

In the summer of 1918, the Germans poised for a giant offensive which might have changed the outcome of World War I. Unveiling the enemy plan was a desperate Allied problem—solved by the daring of Billy Mitchell and his airmen. This account of the reconnaissance that altered history is from Isaac Don Levine’s Mitchell, Pioneer of Air Power, first selection of the Airpower Book Club (see page 25) reprinted by permission of Duell, Sloan and Pearce.

Defeat was staring the Allies in the face when American forces moved to the battle front. Pershing had now discovered that Mitchell was right about the air service, which was staffed by good men “running around in circles,” as he described it himself. He appointed Gen. Mason M. Patrick chief of the air service. Patrick assumed office, according to his own account, when at the front “the situation was exceedingly critical.”

The 2d Division of the AEF, in savage fighting near Chateau-Thierry, helped to hold the enemy across the Marne. By the middle of June the Germans seemed to have paused for another leap, which everyone felt sure was coming, not knowing exactly where. Gen. Hunter Liggett, Commander of the 1st Army Corps to which Mitchell was attached, moved his headquarters to Chateau-Thierry. When Mitchell went there to coordinate the activities of his air force with that of Major Gerard, he noted in his diary: “I have never seen a more stunned group of people than the officers of the 3d French Army headquarters, and for that matter, the troops as well.”

Mitchell observed that the Germans were girding for “one great final campaign.” As the atmosphere was being charged more and more with expectation, he seemed like a veritable dynamo, flying over the front and to points of supply and various headquarters, and making preparations for the inevitable blow. He promoted Major Brereton from the command of the 12th Aero Squadron to the leadership of all attack operations. Brereton, like Mitchell, had also acquired the reputation among the pilots of being the kind of commander who “never assigned anyone to a mission that he would not do himself.”

There was nothing orthodox about Brereton. He was a “radical” in air warfare. He demonstrated this on July 1, when together with Haslett he went up to do a special observation job for the artillery. Now the Germans enjoyed tremendous superiority in the air, flying in packs of fifteen to twenty planes. To overcome this, Brereton simply ordered ninety-six planes into the air to protect the observation machine. This was an extraordinary experiment then. “There was such a swarm of planes above us that we practically never looked into the sky, but kept our attention entirely on the work before us,” wrote Haslett. “It was the nearest we ever came to our big threat to literally blacken the skies by droves of American airplanes. However, none of these were American airplanes, although the aviators were Americans.” The result of the mission was the blasting by artillery and the capture of the town of Vaux, a considerable local victory.

The tension was mounting hourly as Ludendorff was massing seventy divisions—this was revealed subsequently—for the grand and final assault. It seemed as if the all-time low point in the fortunes of the Allies had come. In his Leaves from a War Diary, Gen. James G. Harbord has this entry for July 9: “If the Germans do not bring off a very heavy offensive in the region between Chateau-Thierry and Rheims within the next few hours our French Allies are going to explode, blow up, disintegrate, go off, flatten out, or undergo some other psychical and physical phenomenon. It has been announced daily for days, but the Boche must know how we are worrying about it, for he has so far failed to produce either the heavy offensive or any visible usual preparations for it.”

The same day, on July 9, Mitchell wrote, “The attack of the Germans is awaited daily.” He had attended a conference of the corps commanders at the headquarters of General Degoutte. He came away from it with profound respect for General Liggett, after hearing him outline the American plan of action. “I never felt more proud of one of our commanders,” wrote Mitchell. “General Liggett with his fine strong face and his six feet two of good American bone and muscle stood up there among the warriors of the Old World as an example of the power and potentialities of our own great country.” He noted with delight that Liggett was one of the few general officers “who is taking a distinct personal interest in aviation.”

As far as his own plan of operations, Mitchell figured that the Allied forces were outnumbered in the air almost five to one, that the American units were particularly short of pursuit aircraft, although they could boast superb human material, and that they would have to make up for these deficiencies by superior strategy and tactics.

The informed and expert military observers everywhere realized that the outcome of the war would be decided that month. The comparative lull along the entire front could bode nothing but a violent storm. In view of the great reserves of American troops arriving in France, it was “now or never” for the Kaiser and for Ludendorff. For the commander in chief of all the Allied armies, General Foch, it would be the crucial test of his career. The AEF, too, would now face its first great trial. And to Billy Mitchell it would present the gravest challenge of the war.

On Bastille Day it seemed as if the zero hour had come. Mitchell was in Paris making a last-minute attempt to get a supply of new airplanes to the front. The Germans had moved up masses of troops to various positions. While the Allied commanders did not know exactly where the enemy would strike, it was believed that the drive would be directed at the peak of the salient on the Marne.

The evening of the fourteenth, Mitchell was having a late dinner in Paris. He was joined by Donald Brown of the Red Cross. He expected to drive back to his headquarters at Haute Feuille. At ten minutes past midnight of July 15 the northern sky was lit up with great flashes and the rumbling of the distant heavy artillery could be heard. “I was certain that the main attack of the Germans was being launched,” he jotted down in his diary, and invited Brown to join him if he wanted to see “the greatest battle in history.”

A little before three o’clock in the morning Mitchell, driving at breakneck speed, reached headquarters. “The whole sky was lighted up by the flash of the artillery on both sides,” he noted. “Rockets and signals were appearing everywhere; searchlight beams were sweeping the skies; the buzz of airplanes going and coming, and the noise of the bombs dropping, covered the whole line.”

Mitchell began to issue orders disposing of his forces for action by daylight when Major Gerard with his aide, coming from army headquarters, were announced. The two French air officers were in a very perturbed state. No one was as yet certain where the main blow would strike. The Germans were pressing the sector of the 3d French Army along the Marne, where the Americans were entrenched at Chateau-Thierry, as well as that of the 4th French Army toward Rheims and the Champagne. The plan was clearly to drive south and enflank Paris, only forty miles away from the apex of the salient. It now appeared that the French air division, due to a confusion in orders, proposed to have the American and British squadrons patrol the skies immediately. Mitchell saw no advantage to the plan, feeling certain that it would lead to heavy and unnecessary losses. He proposed instead that a reconnaissance mission be carried out over the active front to find out what the enemy was doing. Major Gerard agreed and left.

Mitchell decided to do his own reconnaissance. He lay down and snatched a few minutes of sleep. He possessed all his life this capacity to concentrate and relax at will. Before daybreak the commanding officer of the American air force was winging his way alone over the inferno below and across the salient held by the Germans. Underneath the ground troops were putting up terrific resistance. Everybody was sure that all the bridges across the Marne had been destroyed, and the word had gone out that the enemy must not cross the river.

Mitchell flew straight north. He had climbed high and except for general artillery fire, he saw no unusual troop movements in the center of the large pocket which formed the Chateau-Thierry salient. He then turned and flew up the Marne where the American sectors began. In the vicinity of Jaulgonne he spotted a few Fokker planes whose pilots either did not see him or ignored him. He swooped down low as he approached a turn in the Marne. It stuck him as strange that the roads did not gleam with their usual whiteness. Suddenly he beheld east of Dormans five bridges spanning the river. It did not seem possible. Observing no German planes overhead, getting no attention from any of the enemy antiaircraft guns. Mitchell descended to within 500 feet of the ground. “The whitened roads were green with thousands of German troops driving in toward the Marne with the steadiness and determination of a huge caterpillar,” Maj. Elmer Haslett wrote in his chronicle of this singular flight in his Luck on the Wing immediately after the war.

The masses of stalwart German troops were streaming toward the five bridges, which turned out to be pontoons. Having made this discovery, Mitchell flew on in the direction of Rheims. Here a crucial battle was going on. The American infantry of the 3d Division was endeavoring to stem the onslaught. Enemy planes were beginning to swarm in the sky. After reaching the field of the 1st Pursuit group safely, Mitchell ordered an aerial attack upon the bridges and rushed over to the headquarters of General Liggett to report his observations. He immediately made a similar report to Major Gerard of the 3d French Army. And then he climbed into his car and drove to the headquarters of General Foch, where he went at once into conference with his friend, Major Armengaud, general staff liaison officer of aviation.

The Germans were pouring across the Marne, and it was clear that there would be no holding them back by frontal counterattacks. Mitchell proposed that the enemy’s great supply base at Fère-en-Tardenois be subjected to a massed attack from the air by all the available bombardment and pursuit units. This was approved. “It was quite evident,” he recorded, “that, as the Germans were attacking at the head of the salient of which the base was formed by Soissons on one side and Rheims on the other, if we could get in from either side of the base, we could turn the whole German position and if successful, attack them in the rear and perhaps destroy their whole army. It was the best chance that presented itself during the war and Marshal Foch was not slow to avail himself of it.”

World had spread along the front that an American pursuit plane had flown over the enemy lines and discovered the location of the bridges over which the Germans were sweeping across the Marne. “This flight by a pursuit plane and the resulting information was, I think, unquestionably one of the greatest flights of the entire war,” wrote Haslett. “I did not learn until several days later who the aviator was. No one seemed to know, nor could we find any record on the regular reports.” According to Haslett, Mitchell whose aid he became after Armistice, had scribbled a little note before leaving his headquarters on the solo mission and left it for his chief of operations, Capt. Phil Roosevelt. The message said that in the event he did not return by eight o’clock that morning, Major Brereton should be notified to take command of the American air force at the front. Roosevelt had been out all night, and the note never reached him, as Mitchell returned in time to retrieve it.

“It was singularly fortunate that the man who undertook this hazardous mission was a rare tacticians and strategist,” concludes Haslett. “He realized the awful truth where the ordinary airman would not have conceived the possibilities of such a situation. He knew that the biggest effort to intimidate and conquer the world. And when the flyers found out who had made that mysterious flight, our morale was strengthened one hundred percent.” The airmen gloried in having a chief of such fighting caliber.

Mitchell was strenuously at work on the forthcoming aerial assault on the base at Fère-en-Tardenois. In the meantime Colonel Hartney’s 1st Pursuit Group was in the air nearly all the time. “I shall never forget July 15, 1918, as long as I live,” he writes. “It seemed as if the whole German army, in desperation, simply hurled itself at our part of the lines.” In Berlin there was jubilation as reports from the front told of the German troops marching on the way to Paris.

On July 16, at noon, British and American air squadrons launched a combined attack, bombing and blowing up a number of ammunition dumps. The Germans were taken completely by surprise by this attack in broad daylight, according to Mitchell, and were put on the defensive to the air, having to assemble unexpectedly a large force to protect their bases in the rear. The British suffered a loss of twelve planes in the operation.

“We had found the Achilles heel of the German position north of the Marne and had seized the initiative in the air,” Mitchell rejoiced. “It is the first case on record where we, with an inferior air force, were able to put the superior air force on the defensive and attack whenever we pleased, without the danger of the Germans sending great masses of the pursuit aviation over to our side of the line. What we could do if we had one thousand good airplanes instead of a measly two hundred and fifty!”

In spite of this, with the Allied line broken in the center, Berlin was sure of having virtually achieved victory. But Mitchell’s flight was beginning to affect the German prospects. Foch was already setting the stage for a surprise move, the most decisive one in the war. In the night, divisions were being shifted to the vicinity of Soissons, the dormant northern flank of the salient. In the daytime, to mislead German aerial observers, troop movements were instituted in the direction of Rheims, to simulate the rushing of reinforcements there and to divert attention from the concentrations going on at the opposite flank. Mitchell was massing his air forces to support the scheduled surprise blow at the base of the salient.

“It was an operation fraught with the greatest importance for the Allies,” commented Mitchell. “If it succeeded, the Germans would have to retire from the Chateau-Thierry salient.” And that would spell the loss of Germany’s last chance on the Western front.

In the early hours of July 18 the Allied armies, led by the Americans, struck at the German flank with terrific force. In the melee which followed, Mitchell’s airmen were at the forefront suffering grievous losses, but inflicting far heavier ones on the enemy. For a while, in the course of this battle, everything seemed to hang in the balance. Would the Germans make a stand and hold their positions, or would they retreat rather than face being cut off from behind the Marne? The Allied high command could get no answer to these questions. Yet it was extremely vital to find out what the Germans were doing. Mitchell ordered Brereton to carry out a reconnaissance. Brereton called in his chief of operations, Haslett. Short of personnel, the Americans were staying on the job twenty hours a day.

Brereton and Haslett agreed that to get the information desired would involve a squadron of twenty-five planes, with a likely loss of eight planes and sixteen officers in the operation. The high command, aware of the depleted American aviation, insisted that the mission would justify all losses. Haslett suggested that perhaps one “hard-boiled” pilot and one observer with “guts” might accomplish the necessary purpose.

“If you’re so hard-boiled and brave, why don’t you tackle the mission just outlined,” challenged Brereton. “Go ahead and win yourself the Croix de Bois (Cross of Wood).”

“Well Maj. L.H. Brereton, I’ll go, you know that, and I’ll get the information, but I can’t pilot a plane,” retorted Haslett hotly. “I am the observer. If you will order a pilot for me, there will be no further delay.”

Haslett had of course been baiting Brereton to join him on the perilous errand. And now he saw the taunting, harsh Brereton suddenly turn into the milk of human kindness itself. He replied:

“Well, Elmer, we have never asked anyone yet to do what we would not do ourselves. If you want to go on that mission, I’ll go with you.”

Haslett has described this mission as “Brereton’s famous flight,” although it was just as much Haslett’s famous flight. The two officers made for the airdrome, where a plane had been ordered in readiness. When they were already aboard, Brereton hesitated, for he realized that he was going without the permission of his superior officer, at a time when air commanders could hardly be spared. His hesitate, it appeared, was occasioned by the thought of the extraordinary blunder of Major Brown, in command of the 96th Squadron, who had got lost in a fog while flying over a quiet sector of the front and led his unit of five planes and their crews to land with him in enemy territory. The Germans captured the whole outfit with their machines intact, and had just dropped a message on one of the American airdromes, reading: “We thank you for the fine airplanes and equipment which you have sent us, but what shall we do with the major?” Mitchell considered this the most disgraceful performance in the war. Should Brereton himself be taken prisoner as a result of some mishap, none of his friends, according to Haslett, “would be able to explain why, in his responsible position, he ever even started out on such a hazardous mission.” However, at the last minute, he made and announced his decision:

“Well, I guess Bill Mitchell can handle it all right, and as he made that flight the other day by himself, I guess we together can take this one.”

Haslett narrates in his book how he quickly arrived at the realization that without fighter escorts it was useless to keep searching the skies for enemy planes. He therefore concentrated his attention on the ground, charting and mapping everything he could observe. He describes the war panorama as a wonder tour: “Imagine the solid and continuous barrage of thousands and thousands of shells bursting in a line for miles and miles, the barking cannons on each side, like so many ferocious dogs spitting fire, roads filled with on-marching troops, coming up in formation form both sides, walking as it were into that veritable valley of death and destruction; the air filled with hostile planes and our whole safety depending upon the supposition of being alone and so far behind the lines that the Germans would not realize the presence of an enemy plane.”

The flight was long, but successful. The information secured was so startling that Brereton circled over the corps headquarters at La Ferté and dropped a message there. When they landed at the airdrome, where the other flyers were in the dark as to the mission, Brereton and Haslett made for army headquarters with a full report. “We didn’t know whether we would be condemned for undertaking it or congratulated upon its successful completion. … Brereton kept closed like a clam, while the position of my mouth was not unlike an oyster.”

When the intelligence reached Major Gerard, the chief of the French air service, he came over immediately to offer his congratulations to Brereton and Haslett. Mitchell learned about it from the French, and he rushed over in jubilation. Brereton was out, but he patted Haslett on the back. “When General Mitchell did that, I knew we had done something,” observed Haslett.

Soon enough the findings of Brereton and Haslett were communicated by General Degoutte all along the line:

“The enemy is in retreat on all our fronts.”

About the Author: Isaac Don Levine, a veteran writer on historical, political and military affairs, noted for studies of Soviet Russia, has contributed frequently to national publications. In preparing his account of General Mitchell’s contributions to airpower, he delved deeply into the private files of the late general and had the cooperation of many of Mitchell’s closest friends and associates, building his sources into an authoritative and colorful story. Mr. Levine lives in Waldorf, Md.