The Pioneer Plan for Air War

Oct. 1, 1982
Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt from the book Forged in Fire published by Doubleday this month. It is the second of a two-volume work on the development of US airpower, written under the auspices of the Air Force Historical Foundation.

The genesis of what became known as AWPD-1 lay in the long-expressed complaint by successive Secretaries of War and their key military advisors that the White House did not have a consistent and clear policy with regard to the war. As Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson viewed the situation, there was a dangerous state of drift, a failure by President Roosevelt to provide a plan and a stirring call for united action. As he sourly put it: “The President takes his advice from the last person he speaks to.”

Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall expressed his frustration in similar terms: “First the President wants 500 bombers a month and that dislocates the [production] program. Then he says he wants so many tanks and that dislocates the program. The President will never sit down and talk about a complete program and have the whole thing move forward at the same time.”

The result, as Secretary of State Cordell Hull continued to repeat wearily, was that “Everything is going Hellward.”

The problem at its simplest was that the country had a President who was willing to go to war and a citizenry that was not. The public clung to the belief that the involvement of American forces could be avoided, the attitude best reflected by the August confrontation in the House of Representatives, where by a single vote the draft law was retained.

Although the German invasion of the USSR took some of the pressure off the British, as the summer ran on it appeared that both countries were on the brink of disaster, and President Roosevelt was anxious to act vigorously on their behalf.

Overall Production Requirements

Some months earlier, as a result of General Marshall’s worry that he could not legally request funds for an Army larger than 2,800,000, President Roosevelt had asked both services to make studies of the production and force requirements needed to defeat the Axis. In May, Marshall and Chief of Operations Adm. Harold Stark asked their staffs to begin work on strategic estimates for an orderly production expansion, but it was not until the Soviet Union was invaded that any real momentum developed in the endeavor. It began on July 9 with a secret request by Roosevelt to Stimson and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox asking them to have drawn up “overall production requirements required to defeat our potential enemies.”

The following day, in a fateful but seemingly unrelated event, Lt. Col. Harold L. George arrived in Chief of the Air Staff Brig. Gen. Carl “Tooey” Spaatz’s office, atop the Munitions Building. He had relinquished command of the 2d Bomb Group, at Langley Field, Va., to take over as chief of the newly established Air War Plans Division (AWPD).

During the 1930s, Hal George had spent five years at the Air Corps Tactical School, first as Chief of the Bombardment Section and then as Director of Air Tactics and Strategy. He headed a small cadre of exceptional officers who were refining the air warfare theories of Douhet, Mitchell, and Trenchard.

The philosophy had long been infused in the minds of Army air leaders, most of whom either had attended the Tactical School before its doors were closed, in 1940, or had served in Gen. Frank Andrews’s GHQ Air Force. Gradually, the attitude in the War Department, which for years had steadfastly rejected the doctrine of strategic bombing, had shifted to a greater awareness of the role strategic airpower would play should the United States become involved in the war. Marshall, as noted, was in the forefront of this changing view.

Still, the two schools of thought were far apart. Ground officers could argue with pointed accuracy that in France, and now in Russia, German airpower was tied to the unparalleled sweep of the Wehrmacht and not to bombing far-distant industrial targets. In this latter regard they saw that England had withstood a siege of sixty-seven consecutive nights of bombing while its industry continued to operate and its public remained undaunted.

Prior to the formation of the Army Air Forces and the new Air Staff, the Army’s General Staff and its War Plans Division dictated and controlled overall Air Corps policy. Now the principal areas of AAF personnel, intelligence, operations, training, and supply were under the direction of the Air Staff. But what of Air War Plans?

Maj. Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, as Deputy Chief of Staff for Air, was officially appointed a member of the Joint Army-Navy Board on the same day Roosevelt asked for an assessment of what it would take to win a war. Arnold expected that plans for an air war would be drawn in the War Plans Division of the War Department, and that is the way it would have been in the momentous weeks that followed had it not been for Hal George. Few realized that the opportunity George was about to grasp would be as important in its ramifications as the reorganization of the air arm itself.

In Name Only

When he reported to Spaatz, Hal George found the largest part of his division was its name. Besides himself, the Air War Plans Division consisted of three officers: Lt. Col. Howard Craig, Chief of the “Projects Group;” his assistant, Lt. Col. Orvil Anderson; and Lt. Col. Kenneth N. Walker, who was the sole member of the War Plans Group. Walker, a very close friend, had been a senior instructor at the Air Corps Tactical School when George was a student there. Like George, he was imbued with an abiding—even overwhelming—faith in the doctrine of strategic airpower.

They were soon joined by a fourth member cut out of the same strategic mold. He was Maj. Haywood S. “Possum” Hansell, Jr., former instructor at the Air Corps Tactical School at the same time George and Walker were teaching forbidden theories. Hansell, younger, a crack pursuit pilot in spite of his bombardment convictions, had been serving in the equally small Air Intelligence Division, heading up a section on strategy and analysis. He had just returned from England loaded with RAF Intelligence digests on German industrial targets. George wanted him on his team.

In fact, because Craig and Anderson were fully occupied on projects in being, it was a three-man team until it became a foursome through a request that another old friend and colleague from the Tactical School, Maj. Larry Kuter, be assigned. Kuter had remained with G-3 after Andrews’s departure. He and “Possum” Hansell had been classmates at the Tactical School, and Kuter, having graduated at the head of his class in 1935, was asked to remain as a bombardment instructor.

The President had specified that he wanted the production estimates in a matter of weeks. Under whatever time limits, the order was viewed in the War and the Navy Departments as staggering. To begin with, the members of the Joint Army-navy Board knew that there had to be a military strategy on which to base production and manpower figures. The only guidelines were Rainbow 5, at best a broad contingency plan, supported by the general agreements reached with the British in the American-British Conference No. 1 (ABC-1) talks back in January, when US and British planners had secretly met to discuss joint strategy. The overall concept was that offensive war would be waged against Germany and Italy while defending against Japan.

Army War Plans Chief Brig. Gen. Leonard T. Gerow saw the President’s directive as an unusual challenge, for this was the first time in US history that a war plan on a global scale had been asked for. To head the group undertaking the massive job, he appointed a very savvy and gifted major, Albert C. Wedemeyer. Wedemeyer, a West Point graduate and career officer, had spent two years (1936-38) at the German War College in Berlin, and, as a result, his insight into German military thinking, particularly with regard to the USSR, was broader than that of most of his colleagues. Unlike his well-known father-in-law, Lt. Gen. Stanley D. Embick, he had a broad appreciation of airpower and an understanding of its strategic use.

The ranking air officer in the War Plans Division was Lt. Col. Clayton Bissell, combat veteran, Billy Mitchell aide, and bomber proponent. Wedemeyer expected that Bissell and other air personnel assigned to the Division would prepare an “Air Annex” that would be appended to the Army estimates. But their numbers were few and they needed help.

Gerow called Arnold to ask if the air corps could supply assistance. At about the same time, Bissell stopped by to see George and said: “Hey, Hal, how about your team coming over and working under us? It’s a helluva big job.”

What is the Air Objective

George didn’t like the idea at all. He went to “Tooey” Spaatz and told him why. It was obvious the Army would base its estimates on the size of the ground forces it had to defeat. It would do the same when figuring air strength, and it simply couldn’t be done that way. There was no record to show how many fighters you needed to shoot down one bomber, or how many bombers you needed to destroy a target when the bombers were flying under varying circumstances, in varying numbers, and with differing range and firepower.

The War Plans Division had never undertaken a study of the industrial and economic vulnerability of Germany and Japan from the point of view of aerial attack in order to establish priorities. The Air Corps Tactical School had, and Hansell’s intelligence work of the past two years was a continuation of it. Certainly there were those in the War Plans Division who understood all those factors and would attempt to take them into account, but overriding all else was the question: What is the Air Objective?

Spaatz and George were combat veterans of the First World War, and veterans of all the lean, hard years in which they labored and fought to establish an air objective. Hal didn’t have to spell it out for Spaatz. If the War Department prepared the Air Annex, the emphasis was bound to be on tactical air strength as an auxiliary support of the troops. Strategic airpower would be secondary.

If, on the other hand, the Air War Plans Division prepared the estimates, the balance would be there, and for the first time in history the strategic component would become the principal air objective. It was a thunderous opportunity, and Spaatz, not blinking an eye, said they’d better talk it over with Arnold.

It might seem that Arnold would automatically accept the idea, but George was worried. Arnold was one of the few early airmen who had not attended the Air Corps Tactical School. That didn’t mean he wasn’t in favor of what was taught there, but George believed that the impatient Arnold was not excited by long-range plans. That “Possum” Hansell had been innovative enough to get target information on German power-generating plants by going to New York banks once involved in their financing and asking for blueprints was the sort of action that made Arnold grin. But contingency plans for far in the future when he was tied up with God-awful production problems right here and now! What the hell, let WPD handle it! Or so thought Hal George and his confederates. Happily, they were wrong.

Exactly a Week

As it turned out, Arnold cagily suggested to General Gerow that since the War Plans Division was swamped with its task of preparing the requirements for an Army that would number millions, the Air Staff could take over responsibility for drawing up air requirements. Gerow accepted. He asked only that Rainbow 5 and the ABC-1 agreements be used as guidelines. Later, Hal George was to praise “Hap” Arnold for having brought off a momentous coup, but it was George who recognized the opportunity and alerted Spaatz and Arnold. On August 4, George’s quartet of airmen went to work on the air war plan. They had exactly a week to do the job.

Rainbow 5 and ABC-1 called for providing air forces in the Western Hemisphere; an air offensive against Germany while preparing to invade the Continent; close support for the invasion and subsequent ground operations; and air defense and support for strategic defensive operations in the Pacific.

The imponderables were vast, for as Hansell put it, “There were no commonly accepted formulae for such things as: (1) the method to be employed in the air offensive; (2) the specific objects to be sought; (3) the targets to be attacked; (4) the size and composition of the air forces; and (5) the timing of the various major strategic operations, including the mobilization date, the outbreak of war, the buildup of all forces, and the final surface offensive against the Continent. The best we could do was develop our own formulae based on our critical experience at the Air Corps Tactical School, our belief in the potential of strategic bombardment, and our own experience.

“Perhaps no other military operation in all of history presented such an awesome task without providing a usable past experience and at least a few lessons of history. … But if the task was staggering, so too was the opportunity. In a very real way, we sensed that the future of American airpower depended, in large part, on what we accomplished. …”

At the beginning, they gave their study the somewhat deceptive title “Munitions Requirements of the Army Air Forces to Defeat Our Potential Enemies.” A big question was the time left before the United States entered the war, and, here again, from some crystal ball in the War Department came the date of April 1942.

But, to the air planners, it was as much a matter of what as it was when. What types of aircraft would be coming off the production line around which they could build the air offensive against Germany? For the immediate future there were the B-17 and B-24, and beyond them longer-range, more-powerful bombers were in development—the Boeing B-29 and the Consolidated B-32. At the very time George and his team were weighing the problem, Assistant Secretary of War for Air Robert Lovett was meeting with Chief of the Army Air Corps Maj. Gen. George Brett and Wright Field engineers to review design studies of a bomber (eventually the Consolidated B-36) with a 10,000-mile range carrying a 10,000-pound bomb load. Like the B-29, it would have a pressurized cabin.

The impetus to get going on the plane was stimulated by the realization that if Germany defeated the Soviet Union and then forced England to surrender, the United States would stand alone and in need of a truly intercontinental bomber. But such equipment could not be ready for several years under any circumstance, and the planners knew that in the interim they must base the offensive against Germany and Italy—and the defense of the hemisphere and the Philippines—on the B-17 and the B-24. Even as they labored, the contradictory reports were coming back from England that the B-17 was being clobbered over Europe and the B-24 wasn’t capable of even night operations.

Contradictory reports filtering through on the performance of the Fortress and the Liberator could not for one moment dissuade and/or deflect the planners from the determined course. They had no doubts as to the capability of the equipment involved or the tactics that should be employed. Their lives were meshed into the development of one end interwoven into the concepts of the other.

They were racing the clock, and their considerations were focused on the future, not on the piecemeal, misapplied expenditure of aircraft on which they were staking the cause of strategic airpower. If the negative reports on B-17 operations put furrows in “Hap” Arnold’s brow, they simply bounced off the walls of the improvised Munitions Building war room, where they labored.

Aside from the shortness of time to finish the job, they were faced by another time factor. How soon after US entry into the war would the available forces be ready for operations? They saw as their main objective the destruction of German industrial might. To accomplish this goal, they broke down targeting into four major headings: the enemy’s electrical power system; transportation system (railroads, highways, canals); oil and petroleum industry; and, contiguous with all three, the destruction of German interceptor defenses both on the ground and in the air. In all, 154 targets were selected, but central to the plan was the belief that not until the strategic force reached full strength could its effect be felt, and then only be no less than six months of sustained attack.

The tentative date to begin large-scale operations was forecast as July 1943, with the six months of sustained bombing running from April through September 1944. This, predicted the planners, “would in all probability cause the collapse of the German military and civilian establishment.” They also believed that its effect might well make it unnecessary for an army to invade the continent of Europe.

Huge by Any Standard

The numbers of men and planes arrived at to accomplish the global purpose were huge by any standard. More than 135,000 pilots and crews; nearly 900,000 technicians and ground crews; more than 60,000 nonflying officers. Aircraft in all categories were estimated at close to 70,000, with more than half the number designated for training. Replacement aircraft were figured at more than 2,000 a month. With these production figures and their breakdown as to location and type were included munitions estimates based on how often each target would have to be hit to keep it out of commission.

In this incredible compilation of production needs, attention was also given not only to the defense of the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific but also to tactical air support for the Army ground forces. The planners felt this last was the weak point, the Achilles’ heel of their plan. They knew they were playing a numbers game. Give the Army what it wanted—tactical air forces in England and the Mediterranean—and perhaps they could get it through the War Department. Further, the Air Annex was supposed to be limited to production estimates. Instead, in making only the estimates, they had seized fortune at the flood and, with Hal George leading, were attempting to ride the tide to a previously unacceptable air objective.

A Select Audience

They knew when they presented the plan the whole thing could be rejected—nullified—called back—canceled out, with the attendant effect on their careers. They did not have to remind themselves that they were proposing that the War Department abandon its prevailing doctrine that the principal use of army aviation was in support of the troops. What they believed was going for them was the nature of the war, the fact that airpower could be used against Germany long before an army would be ready to invade.

War Plans Division was operating flat out, and when AWPD planners officially submitted their massive document to Wedemeyer, his officers took the package, stamped it “Annex 2, Requirements of the Army Air Forces,” and added it to their own bundle of papers.

Still, the program had to be presented to the high brass, and George decided they would put together a formal explanation of the plan with each of them describing a part of it. They would use maps and charts but no script or notes.

On Tuesday, August 12, the curtain went up for a select audience led by Brig. Gen. Henry L. Twaddle, Army Assistant Chief of Staff for G-3, and members of his staff. There was a nice Machiavellian touch in making the Army Chief of Operations and Training the first of the General Staff to judge the plan. Twaddle had formerly served under Andrews, and Larry Kuter had served under both. To Kuter, Twaddle was a friendly sort, an infantry officer more interested in self than in selflessness, but worth cultivating, a good man for an ambitious and enterprising major to be on friendly terms with. He obviously thought highly of Kuter’s intellect and talents, and through their association knew something about airpower. It was he, after all, who had permitted Kuter to joint AWPD. Therefore, with the thought that flattery might make Twaddle twinkle, they invited him to hear the war plan first. The presentation took two hours, Hal George acting as the keynoter.

There was little doubt that the assembled were impressed with what they heard, perhaps even a bit overwhelmed. In using the provisions of Rainbow 5 and ABC-1, George knew he was on firm ground when he described the primary air objective “to conduct a sustained, unremitting air offensive against Germany and Italy to destroy the will and capability of Germany and Italy to continue the war; and to make an invasion either unnecessary or feasible without excessive cost.”

The first of several more demanding tests came ten days later when the plan was presented to a gathering that included General Gerow and Robert Lovett. The four knew they could expect strong support from the Assistant Secretary of War for Air, but Gerow was a big question mark. He, too, was an infantryman and, they figured, had an infantryman’s way of looking at aviation.

Others thought differently. Known as “gee” to his friends, Gerow, like Dwight Eisenhower, was considered by Marshall to be an intelligent and broad-minded officer. To the enormous relief of the air quartet he proved he was just that. Gerow had questions, as did others, but he seemed satisfied by Hal George’s answers. When it was over, the planners felt they were past another mighty hurdle, but the biggest jump of all lay ahead.

On a Saturday, August 30, they went before Marshall and Arnold and a mixed General Staff, Air Staff, and civilian audience, including, among others, W. Averell Harriman, Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease expediter. This was the critical point. Marshall could flatten them with the shake of his head. He listened intently as they explained. Then the questions from General Staff officers and war-production representatives began. The queries were hard and sharp and contentious. There was no hiding the fact, as Hansell phrased it in retrospect, that “our request was out of all proportion to the requirements brought forth by the Army and the Navy,” which meant they were making excessive production demands at the expense of the other services.

“The Plan Has Merit”

When the questions and answers and objections died away, Marshall, who had remained noncommittal, rose and gave the verdict. “Gentlemen,” he said, “I think the plan has merit. I would like the Secretary and the Assistant Secretaries to hear it.”

Thanks to the perception of George Marshall, a roadblock was to be avoided. By directing that the plan be brought directly to Stimson, Marshall circumnavigated the Joint Army-Navy Board. He knew that if the admirals got their hands on the plan they would automatically reject it. The Navy was thinking in terms of ships and all that it took to build them; it saw no reason for Army Air to be any more than an auxiliary, as Navy Air was.

Marshall asked for a repeat performance and brought National Defense Advisory Commission overseer William S. Knudsen and his production chiefs. Gerow was there again, as was Arnold. Once more the searching questions, mostly from Knudsen and members of OPM (Office of Production Management), and once more the answers, this time well supported by Lt. Col. Edgar Sorensen’s A-4 Division of the Air Staff.

Finally, on Thursday, September 11, the four weary planners accompanied General Marshall to Secretary Stimson’s office and described what became known officially as AWPD-1. Said Stimson when they had concluded, “General Marshall and I like the plan. I want you gentlemen to be prepared to present it to the President. I will speak to him about the date. Thank you for coming to my office.”

The four departed jubilant. At long last the use of strategic airpower had been officially accepted in principle by the Army. It was a thunderous victory! But one thing was sure: There was going to be a helluva fight with the Navy and the production people, not to mention the Lend-Lease eagles, in trying to implement the handiwork of Hal George, Ken Walker, “Possum” Hansell, and Larry Kuter.

The least they could do was take time to hoist a glass in celebration of having accomplished what many would have deemed impossible.

De Witt S. Copp was an Army Air Forces pilot during World War II. He has written numerous books and screenplays on military and civil aviation. Mr. Coop has served in Europe and the Far East as a newspaper and magazine correspondent. In researching A Few Great Captains and Forged in Fire, he used many previously untapped sources, including personal diaries, newly declassified documents, and interviews with many of the characters in the books. He and his wife Susan live in Manchester, Vt.