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Giulio Douhet: Early Proponent of Air Power

by Jim H

Giulio Douhet and His Theory

Douhet was born in Caserta, Italy on 30 May 1869 to a family that for many generations maintained a tradition of military service to the House of Savoy. He was also a poet and playwright. Douhet was an outspoken man who did not care who he offended with his revolutionary ideas. At a time when the military was going the way of the “Zeppelin”, it was Giulio Douhet who strongly advocated his idea of using bomber aircraft.

Giulio Douhet in the 1920s.

Giulio Douhet in the 1920s.

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

Strategic Bombing

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

An early supporter of strategic bombing and the military superiority of air forces was General Giulio Douhet. He argued that command of an enemy’s air space and subsequent bombing of industrialized centers would be so disruptive and destructive that the pressure for peace would be overwhelming. He maintained that control of the air could win a war regardless of land or sea power. History was to prove him correct in his assumption.

Air Power is the Future

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

War with Turkey

By 1911, the Ottoman Empire was in its death throes while Italy was keen to rebuild her empire of the past and seized the opportunity presented to them. She became involved in a conflict with Turkey and set out to exploit the opportunities presented within Italy’s perceived sphere of influence. The Italian invasion of the Turkish possession of Libya marked the beginning of this Italo-Turkish War (1911-1912). The Italian army sent along with its aircraft complement of nine aircraft, commanded by Giulio Douhet. A series of first’s became recorded:

  • The first combat reconnaissance on 23 October 1911
  • First bombing mission on 1 November 1911
  • The first aerial photo reconnaissance
  • First aircraft shot down (by Turkish rifle fire)

Relieved of Command

Based on the results of fledgling air power in Libya, the army formed an aviation battalion under the command of Douhet. Like those who came before him and those who would come after him, Douhet became impatient with the foot-dragging of his superiors. He commissioned his friend, Gianni Caproni, to build a three-engine, 300 horsepower bomber without any previous authorization to do so. Douhet became relieved of command of the aviation battalion and reposted to an infantry division.

World War One

With the outbreak of the first world war, a particularly offensive memorandum became known to the public. In it, he detailed various types of military shortcomings as well as predicting disaster for the Italian military. This “affront” was seen as the last straw by his detractors. The military court-martialed Douhet and imprisoned him for a year. He was released following Italy’s disastrous results at the Battle of Caporetto. Approximately 600,000 Italian casualties resulted from this action. It became the worst disaster in the history of the Italian armed forces. Douhet became exonerated in 1920 and promoted to General in 1921.

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

Giulio Douhet, 1921

Command of the Air

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

Conventional War is Obsolete

Giulio Douhet believed that modern warfare between large land armies had become obsolete. Furthermore, he believed that modern warfare favored the defense. As can be inferred, his assumptions were based on the experiences of the First World War. Douhet had approached his theoretical writings from an amoral perspective. That is, he took a scientific approach to the matter of war and all things that go with it. For example, he reasoned that; A defender in a prepared position with a gun firing one shot per minute would be overrun by an attacker if it took the attacker took one minute to cover the territory to reach the defender. Therefore one attacker would die and the other would capture the position. If there are obstacles that impeded the attackers, the number of attackers would rise proportionally to the time it took to reach the position. Therefore a five-minute crossing would need six men. Five consumed by enemy fire and one to capture the position. Of course, his premise was based in “a perfect world” with no “magic bullets”.

Controlling the Air Wins Wars

Central to his theory was the premise that control of the air alone could win a war regardless of those armies on land or at sea. Douhet believed that bombers would reign supreme by bringing the war to the civilian population centers. Suggested bombs include high explosive’s, incendiaries, and gas. To be sure, the use of such ordinance is quite horrifying. However, Douhet reasoned that the end result would save lives. The civilian population, “driven by an instinct for self-preservation”, would force their government to sue for peace, thus ending a war quickly.

Douhet’s vision was of bombers that would be self-defending and fly as fast or faster than fighter aircraft. Fighter planes should be reduced to the secondary role of defending bomber formations. Preemptive airstrikes should be the order of the day. There was no need for the niceties of civilized society (declaration of war) as war itself was an uncivilized action. Lastly, the air arm should be independent of all other services and receive the lion’s share of military expenditures.

Douhet became an early supporter of Mussolini. He died of a heart attack on 15 February 1930 in Rome, Italy.

Giulio Douhet’s Vision

Interestingly, while Douhet’s vision of future wars was meant to save lives & property. War, he viewed, was inevitable, and naturally, the sooner it was over the better. His theories would help achieve this.

While there is much to discuss and debate concerning his theories, the intent is to give a general overview of a visionary and his work. We have seen his theories put to the test in conflicts as recent as “Kosovo Crisis”, Douhet’s theories remain very popular to this day.

Written By: Eddy Cassin

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