Playing With Fire in Ukraine
The Underappreciated Risks of Catastrophic Escalation
THUS far the war has been, in the air, a strange one. It has been strange in several ways. People had expected the Blitzkrieg to break in full fury in the west, but as yet no thunderbolt has fallen there. Poland felt its impact and crumpled under the stroke, though conditions there seemed, prima facie, unfavorable for the successful conduct of a lightning war. The course of the conflict has not, in fact, followed the book. There have been a number of surprises. In the operations at sea, for example, it was confidently expected that aircraft, not the submarine, would be the chief danger to maritime commerce. The airplane, we were told, would harry and dragoon belligerent and neutral shipping in the narrow waters into which the busy lanes of ocean traffic converge. Actually, the air arm has not been particularly effective at sea, though British aircraft have taken a hand with some success in hunting the submarine. That, however, had been foreseen.
Certainly the achievements of the German air force in Poland fulfilled the expectations of the most sanguine adherents of the blue sky school. In conjunction with the mechanized ground forces it dominated the situation from the first. The lists were set for a tourney between the old order of warfare and the new. Germany's strength lay in her possession of the most modern instruments of mechanical destruction. Poland was, in comparison, a nineteenth century Power. Her cavalry was her pride. One could imagine her gallant horsemen galloping with Jeb Stuart or Sheridan in Virginia. Indeed, her great masses of cavalry might have thundered their way to victory in the still more appropriate setting of the mediæval era. As it was, they were a sheer anachronism. Confronted by armored cars and tanks, hammered by high explosive from the air, they were only flesh for the slaughter. The twentieth century won all along the line. The Polish defeat was a tragedy, but an inevitable one.
In the east, the war in the air was practically decided on the first day. On the morning of September 1, the German bombers made a vigorous attack on all the air bases in western Poland, as well as on strategic railways and junctions. The Polish aircraft, caught in their hangars, were destroyed or seriously damaged. That first sudden blow, delivered treacherously and without a declaration of war, while the Polish Government thought that negotiations were still possible, crippled the Polish air arm for the rest of the war. A gallant fight was still made by the remnant but the odds against it were too great. In any case the Polish equipment was inferior to the German. Germany had the unquestioned mastery of the air.
At first the methods by which she won it were, apart from the fact that the aggression itself was utterly unjustified, fair enough in themselves. Herr Hitler had announced to the Reichstag on September 1 that he would not war against women and children. He was speaking, it will be noted, less than four weeks before the time when women and children were to be slaughtered and mutilated in Warsaw. "I have ordered my air force," he said, "to restrict itself to attacks on military objectives." Replying to President Roosevelt's appeal that civilian populations be spared the horrors of air bombardment, he defined his attitude to this question in terms which, coming from another, would have presaged the waging of a humane and chivalrous war: " . . . that it is a humanitarian principle to refrain from the bombing of non-military objectives under all circumstances in connection with military operations, corresponds completely with my own point of view and has been advocated by me before. I, therefore, unconditionally endorse the proposal that the governments taking part in the hostilities now in progress make public a declaration in this sense. For my own part, I already gave notice in my Reichstag speech of today that the German air force had received the order to restrict its operations to military objectives."
That the German air force did confine itself more or less to military objectives in the opening phase of the war is supported by a certain amount of independent evidence. Mr. H. C. Greene, the correspondent of the London Daily Telegraph, reported in that journal from Cernaŭti on September 10 that military objectives such as bridges, roads, railways and aërodromes had been aimed at almost exclusively, though terrible losses had fallen on the civil population as a result of the attacks. On September 6, Mr. Butler, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, stated in reply to a question in the House of Commons that the information in the British Government's possession showed that the German bombing attacks had in general been directed against objectives serving a military purpose and not indiscriminately against the civil population; but he also was careful to add that the latter had at the same time suffered heavy casualties. Soon, however, evidence began to accumulate that other than military objectives were being attacked and that, in fact, methods of terrorization were being adopted by the German Luftwaffe.
It is true that one must always accept with caution reports from belligerent sources concerning excesses or outrages committed by the enemy. There is inevitably an element of propaganda in such reports. Further, newspaper correspondents on the spot are apt to be impressed by what is told them and are not in a position usually to know or state the other side of the case. Some of the Polish announcements were certainly examples of exaggeration, excusable, no doubt, but still unreliable. For instance, a communiqué of September 2 stated that individual farms and farmers had been bombed -- a somewhat improbable occurrence. On the other hand, it is even more improbable that the reports from many quarters about the ruthlessness of the German air force were entirely devoid of foundation. We have, in fact, unbiased evidence sufficient to convict without any need for dependence on ex parte testimony.
Unquestionably, there were numerous instances of bombing objectives which by no possibility could be termed military. Among them was that of the village of Tomaszow, which was the victim of "a particularly vicious bombing" according to a message to the Times of September 11 from its special correspondent on the Polish frontier. Other instances were attested by Dr. Oskar Zsolnay, a Hungarian official trade delegate who had been in Lwów and who described in a Budapest paper a large number of bombing raids on that city, nearly all of them directed against non-military objectives. Some of the most important evidence was supplied by the American Ambassador to Poland, Mr. Biddle, who on September 8 furnished the State Department with particulars of cases in which non-military targets had been attacked: they included his own villa, more than ten miles outside Warsaw, a sanatorium, a refugee train, a hospital train and a hut for Girl Guides. "It is also evident," he added, "that the German bombers are releasing the bombs they carry even when they are in doubt as to the identity of their objectives." Again, on September 13, Mr. Biddle reported that the village to which he had then moved and which was, he said, "a defenseless open village" had been attacked by German bombers. On September 20 the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Information said in the House that reports from the British Ambassador to Poland supported the evidence of Mr. Biddle on the bombing of open towns.
One may perhaps feel some hesitation in accepting without reservation the statement in the Polish communiqué of September 15 that the bombardment of open towns by German aircraft had "assumed the character of a systematic destruction of all built-up areas or cities without any connection with military operations," but there can be no reasonable doubt about the fact that a great number of non-military objectives were bombed. Beyond question many villages were deliberately attacked and a number of them destroyed. In Warsaw itself the Belvedere and Lazienki Palaces, the Seym (Parliament) building, the Soviet and Rumanian Embassies, the Latvian Legation, a number of churches and some hospitals had been wholly or partly demolished from the air even before the intensive bombardment from air and ground began on September 25. The final state of the city was still more tragic. The correspondent of a Danish newspaper who visited it after the surrender reported that scarcely a house was undamaged and in several districts, especially the suburb of Praga, not one house was left standing. The devastation was due in part to artillery fire, but the bombs of the aircraft contributed very materially. Inevitably the losses suffered by the civil population were heavy in the extreme. It is perfectly clear that if the Germans did in fact attempt to bomb only military objectives, they failed in that attempt most lamentably. The more likely explanation is that no such attempt was made. The city was bombed indiscriminately, subjected, in fact, to a display of Nazi Schrecklichkeit. The destruction was intended as an object lesson. "I should like the gentlemen of London to see what a city looks like when it has been through what Warsaw suffered," said the German wireless announcer on October 4. "These gentlemen ought to see what might happen in their own country if they persist in their mad warmongering."
The fiction that only military objectives were bombed was kept up in the German reports. A communiqué issued by the High Command on September 25 stated: "Important military objectives in Warsaw were successfully attacked in power-dives by German aircraft." It is a sufficient commentary upon this to record that when Warsaw asked for an armistice on September 27, 16,000 soldiers and 20,000 civilians lay wounded in the hospitals. There is little doubt, indeed, that Warsaw was subjected to a bombardment, from ground and air, of which the purpose was psychological, or more bluntly, to terrorize. That particular type of bombardment is nothing new in the practice of German arms. It was tried on many occasions in the Franco-German War of 1870-71. At Strasbourg, for instance, the civilian quarters of the city were shelled by siege batteries in order to "induce the inhabitants to compel the governor to surrender the fortress." The effect was simply to stiffen the determination of the garrison and the inhabitants to resist.
Exactly the same tactics were employed at Warsaw nearly seventy years later, and the same effect was produced; the morale of the city was unbroken, for it was lack of ammunition and supplies, not loss of courage, which finally made surrender inevitable. Methods of frightfulness defeat their aims when used against a determined people. Herr Hitler announced in his speech on September 19 that the British blockade might force him to make use of a "weapon by which we [Germany] cannot be attacked." The fresh resort to Schrecklichkeit here foreshadowed, whether it referred to the poison gas or to bacteriological warfare or merely to massed attack from the air on cities, will not effect its object. On that point there can be no doubt whatever.
The major rôle which the German air force played in the conquest of Poland is no proof that it will achieve similar successes in the west. Poland was, in comparison with Germany, very weak in the air. That her air force, after the initial losses which it sustained on September 1, was able to resist as well as it did testifies to the gallantry of its personnel. It is the more regrettable that its achievements were magnified by some absurd propaganda. The statement in a communiqué of September 3 that 64 German machines were brought down on that day for the loss of 11 Polish machines was entirely unbelievable. The announcement a little later that Berlin had been bombed was no less unconvincing. There is no escape from the conclusion, on the known facts, that Poland was wholly outclassed in the air.
The position is and will continue to be a very different one in the west. Here the German air arm is faced with a far harder task. Neither in numbers nor in quality will it be able to claim superiority over the Franco-British air strength. Indeed, Air Chief Marshal Sir Cyril Newall stated in an interview in Paris on October 7 that the British and French air forces were already well on the road to establishing their supremacy in the air. Some 2,000 to 3,000 German aircraft are said to have been employed against Poland. The total first line strength at Germany's disposal in the west may be 4,000 machines or more. The Allies' effectives are probably as great. In quality of matériel there is probably not much to choose between the opposing combatants, but what little advantage there is should be on the Allies' side. The German Heinkel, Junkers, Dornier and Henschel bombers are undoubtedly formidable aircraft but they are no better than the Wellingtons, Blenheims, Amiots, and Loiré et Oliviers on the other side. No German bomber, so far as is known, carries a bomb-load so large as that of the latest French heavy bomber, the Farman 223. The French Morane 406 C and Bloch 151, the British Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane are at least a match, in the fighter class, for the Messerschmitt 109 or 110 and the Heinkel 112. Sir Kingsley Wood, Secretary of State for Air, declared in the House of Commons on October 10 that the latest British fighters were "definitely better than their German counterparts."
The newest French fighters are also fine machines. The French air force is fortunate in that practically all its equipment is of the latest design and production. At the time of the Munich settlement the French equipment was notoriously unsatisfactory; production had fallen to around 50 machines a month and the flying squadrons were equipped with types which were obsolescent if not obsolete. Now, France has a splendid, modern air force. Her factories are pouring out machines in an increasing flow and the supplies received from America help to swell the volume. The American fighter, the Curtiss P. 36, has already acquitted itself well in action.
It is already evident from the encounters which have taken place that the fighter is the master both of the bomber and of reconnaissance aircraft. That is no surprise to those who followed the air operations in Spain, where -- to quote General Duval -- "the chasse machine considers the bombing machine incapable of defending itself." [i] "It is now definitely admitted," says Captain Didier Poulain, referring to the air fighting in Spain, " that the bomber is practically without defense against the fighter."[ii] In Spain the bombers could avoid heavy casualties only by protecting themselves with screens of fighters, says F. A. Fischer von Poturzyn.[iii] "Whether in individual combat or in formation," says M. C. Rougeron, "the bomber in its present form is no match for the fighter." [iv] The evidence so far obtainable in the present war confirms that afforded by Spain. When a British bombing formation made an attack on enemy warships in the Helgoland Bight on September 29, five out of the six bombers were shot down according to the German official report, which was not denied on the British side. In the epic encounter of five British bomber-reconnaissance aircraft with fifteen Messerschmitts over the western front on September 30, three of the former were shot down and a fourth made a forced landing. The fifth managed to reach its own lines after shooting down two German fighters; it had 80 bullet holes in its structure, its ailerons and rudder were damaged, both its petrol tanks were burst, its retractable undercarriage was jammed. The British fighters have been even more successful in their encounters with the German bombers. They shot down 4 out of the 12 or 14 which raided the Firth of Forth on October 16; and on the next day two bombers which approached the English east coast were both engaged and shot down. Out of 12 German bombers which attacked a convoy in the North Sea on October 21, 4 were shot down by British fighters, and 3 more, it was subsequently ascertained, failed to reach Germany. Two more bombers were brought down on October 22 and 28.
The operations in Poland confirmed another lesson of the Spanish civil war -- the importance of the air arm as a tactical weapon when used in conjunction with ground forces. In Spain the technique of air support in the assault was successfully developed by the Nationalists. An American officer has described this method from personal observation. Bombing aircraft with small bombs and machine guns would fly in single file -- la cadena, it was called -- over the trenches and rake them while the tanks and infantry deployed into assault formation and moved up to the attack.[v] According to a British officer, General Beauman, the principal tactical lesson of the Spanish civil war -- one which will be taken to heart by the great continental armies -- is that aircraft must be used if an attack is to make headway against modern defensive weapons.[vi] In Poland the same method was adopted in a bigger theatre of war. First, aircraft bombed and machine-gunned the enemy's positions, then the armored cars and tanks drove home the initial attack, to be followed in turn by the columns of infantry, whose task was immensely lightened by the preliminary work of the aërial and mechanized spearheads. When the major operations begin on the western front, the use of aircraft to open the way for the ground assault is likely to be a prominent feature of the tactical program.
Another lesson learnt in Spain was the increased effectiveness of the modern anti-aircraft gun as compared with its predecessor of twenty years ago; and here again experience in Poland and on the present western front seems to support the teaching of Spain. The German 88-mm. gun proved itself extraordinarily effective in Spain. Before it arrived, the losses of the Republican bombers from gunfire were almost nil. After its arrival they became severe. "By their anti-aircraft artillery," writes M. Rougeron, "the Nationalists succeeded in protecting their rear areas," the Republican aircraft venturing within range of it only at their peril.[vii] The British 3.7-inch gun is the counterpart of the German 88-mm. gun and is at least as formidable a weapon; the 4.5-inch gun has a still greater range and muzzle velocity, but is fixed whereas the 3.7-inch gun is mobile. Britain, declared Sir Samuel Hoare, the Home Secretary, at Swansea on January 26, 1939, has the most modern and effective types of anti-aircraft guns in the world. Their effectiveness is due largely to the fact they are used in conjunction with the predictor, an instrument which enables its crew, using a telescopic eyepiece, to set it so that it can calculate with great precision the point at which the shell and the flying target will collide in space if level flight is maintained by the latter. The information so calculated is transmitted electrically to a dial on the gun, whose crew can then train their weapon at the indicated spot. Another instrument, the height-finder, is used with the predictor. Altogether, anti-aircraft artillery is today something which cannot be mocked by the pilot as was the "Archie" of the last great war.
Naval anti-aircraft gunnery has been improved to at least a corresponding degree. When introducing the Navy Estimates in the House of Commons on March 16, 1939, Mr. Shakespeare, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty, told his audience that if he had the choice between being in a battleship which was being bombed and in the aircraft which was bombing it, he would choose the former every time. His words were borne out on September 26 by the result of an attack by about twenty German aircraft on a squadron of British capital ships, with an aircraft carrier and destroyers, in the North Sea. Not a single hit was scored by the aircraft, not a single casualty caused on the warships; the attack was beaten off without difficulty and two of the aircraft were shot down. The Germans claimed that an aircraft carrier -- subsequently stated to be the Ark Royal -- was destroyed, that a battleship was badly damaged, and that no loss was sustained by the German aircraft, which returned safely to their base. There was no truth in any of these statements. Again on October 9 German aircraft made both level and dive bombing attacks on British warships in the North Sea, but scored no hits and inflicted no casualties. Two of the bombers, one with a wounded man on board, made forced landings on the same day in Denmark, and a third in Norwegian waters. The presumption is that all three had been damaged by the warships' fire. The effectiveness of the German anti-aircraft guns had already been demonstrated during the raid of September 4 by British bombers against the German fleet at Wilhelmshaven and Brunsbüttel; it was claimed by the German and not denied in the British official report that five of the twelve attacking bombers were brought down by the anti-aircraft batteries. On this occasion, however, the raiders had something to show for their losses, for they scored a direct hit with a heavy bomb upon a German battleship.
The greatly increased strength of the active defense, in the air and on the ground, has doubtless been one reason why there has been a certain shyness about beginning the long-range raiding attacks which had been expected. Against well-defended areas such raids must be, by day, very perilous adventures. The raiders are certain to be forced to pay heavily for any successes they may achieve. They have to run the gauntlet of the outer gun zone, the zone of the interceptor aircraft, and then the inner gun zone, before they can reach their objective, and they have to clear the same hurdles on their homeward run. By night the chances of the bombers' coming through are better; but even then they will probably find their task no light one. Blinded by the searchlights, they will be a fairly easy mark for the interceptors, and in clear weather the anti-aircraft guns should be able also to claim some victims. When they do get through they will then have to find their objectives -- and this will often be difficult. The "blackout" is now so effective that there is little apparent difference, from the air, between the built-up areas and the open countryside. Night-flying raiders groping for a particular factory or military establishment will probably have to plaster the whole area with bombs in which the objective is supposed to be. That is a costly method of trying to hit a target, costly in petrol as well as in high explosive. Most of the bombs would probably fall on empty ground. Even if London as a whole were the objective, the odds are, as Major General Foulkes has pointed out, that only one bomb in ten, on the average, would hit a building, for 90 percent of the whole area is open space. "In the area within fifteen miles of Charing Cross, containing a population of eight and a half millions, the odds against a bomb falling within fifty feet of any particular spot is two and a half millions to one."[viii]
The indiscriminate bombing which such a method of trying to hit a given objective would involve is hardly a practice which either side will be eager to initiate. Not only would the effect upon neutral opinion be unfavorable to the belligerent who began it, but the result would inevitably be to stiffen the determination of the nation which figured as the first victim of such an attack. Moreover, the belligerents in the west are too evenly matched in the air to make it safe for the one to expect the other not to make a strong counteroffensive. Even if the initial stroke were confined strictly to military objectives, the reply to it might not be similarly restricted. Perhaps -- one cannot tell -- it was for this reason that the French and British air forces refrained from trying to smash up the German troop concentrations and the trains carrying men and matériel from Poland to the west. The very fact that bombing raids into the interior of the enemy country had been begun might be the signal for resort to la guerre totale in the air, with all its horrors. That may come yet, but one harbors a faint hope that behind the reluctance to begin long-distance raiding attacks there may be, as a conscious or subconscious influence, the idea that bombing should be confined to the zones of active operations and their immediate vicinity. Some vague suggestions for an agreement to limit bombing in this way were indeed put forward by Herr Hitler in 1935 and 1936. In any case, it is evident -- whatever be the reason -- that neither side has desired to be the first to bomb objectives far behind the other's lines.
Long-range raids there have been, but their purpose has been primarily reconnaissance and secondarily the distribution of literature, not of high explosive. Some surprise has been expressed that the first task of the British Air Force should have been to disseminate propaganda in this way; but, in fact, it is not in the least a novel task either for the British or other air services. Raids for such a purpose were frequent in the last great war. The Germans, for instance, dropped leaflets among the Indian troops in France in November 1914, urging them to revolt; the flaw in the plan was that the language used was Hindi, whereas the particular troops to whom the appeal was made spoke Urdu. Attempts to seduce the Senegalese troops in Gallipoli were similarly made by the Germano-Turkish air force in October 1915. French airmen, on their side, dropped leaflets on many occasions, notably in May 1915, to inform the German people of Italy's participation in the war on the Franco-British side. British aircraft dropped an enormous number of notes during 1917 and 1918. America's entry into the war was made known in this way, as was also President Wilson's message to Congress early in 1918. So great was the effect of this propaganda that Field Marshal Hindenburg thought it necessary to issue a proclamation in September 1918, urging the people to pay no attention to "leaflets intended to kill the soul."
The recent flights made into Germany by the Royal Air Force for reconnaissance and the distribution of leaflets (dropped in the form of "bricks" which broke up in the air) were carried out at a great height and encountered very little opposition. That these raids are, from the German point of view, anything but a joke, is evident from the severe penalties threatened against any inhabitants found reading the leaflets. How great will be the effect of such propaganda it is impossible as yet to say. It may well be that in retrospect it will be seen as no less important than if an equivalent weight of bombs had been dropped. The British flights had another effect, too. They demonstrated beyond possibility of doubt that all northern, western and even central Germany lay within the range of British aircraft. They showed the true value of Field Marshal Göring's assurance that if an enemy machine crossed the German frontier it would be at once brought down.
The demonstration of Britain's ability to carry the war into Germany contributed, no doubt, to the latter's hesitation to launch air attacks upon Britain in the early days of the war. Whatever the cause, the thunderclap for which all ears were straining was not heard. The result was something of an anticlimax. The whole country had braced itself for the worst. Measures of passive defense had been organized on a colossal scale. Millions of children, invalids and expectant mothers had been evacuated from the danger areas on or before the outbreak of war. Hundreds of thousands of hospital beds had been earmarked for air raid casualties. Doctors, nurses, air raid wardens, auxiliary firemen, decontamination squads, dispatch riders were all standing by and waiting for their services to be needed. And then, lo and behold -- nothing happened. People began to ask: Will nothing happen at all? That question has not been answered yet. But it may be answered at any time. Devastating air attacks may have been launched on London and other cities before these words appear in print. They may be simultaneous with a great thrust on the western front, the object being to pin down in England fighter squadrons which would otherwise be available for reënforcing the units in France. If the Maginot Line is to be smothered by high explosive bombs, preparing the way for an onset by giant tanks, all the fighter aircraft which can possibly be assembled by the Allies will be needed to beat off the German bombers and their escorting fighters.
Whether the raiders come to London and Paris or not, whether they cause destruction on a widespread scale or not, they cannot decide the issue of the war. That will be decided by sea power. Admiral Mahan's doctrine that the belligerent who holds command of the sea can never be beaten in the end will again be proved true. Air power cannot prevail against sea power, regardless of the methods of Schrecklichkeit it uses. And the result must be the same whether it comes soon or late. Germany will be beaten; the only question is how long it will take. The collapse of Germany may come sooner than any man could now surely predict; it may come within the three years for which the British Government is laying its plans; or perhaps we may have to wait until grass has long been growing in the streets of Hamburg.
[i] "Les Leçons de la Guerre d'Espagne." Paris: Plon, 1938, p. 154.
[ii]Journal of the Royal United Services Institution, August 1938, p. 582.
[iii] "Luftmacht." Heidelberg: Vowinckel, 1938, p. 85.
[iv] "L'Aviation de Bombardement," I. 36.
[v] "The Aëroplane's Rôle in Battle in Spain," by Brig. Gen. H. J. Reilly, in The Aëroplane, April 29, 1939.
[vi] Brig. Gen. A. B. Beauman: "A Short Outline of Modern Tactics." London: Rees, 1939, p. 46.
[vii] "Les Enseignements Aériens de la Guerre d'Espagne," 1939, p. 105.
[viii] "Commonsense and A.R.P." London: Pearson, 1939, p. 32.