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The following article on WW2 Air Strategy is an excerpt from Bill Yenne’s book Hap Arnold: The General Who Invented the US Air Force. It is available for order now from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

On November 11, 1943, US Army Air Forces Commander Hap Arnold was on his way overseas once again, this time to a series of high-level summit conferences, and for his first visit to the Mediterranean Theater since the Allies landed in Italy. He was going to talk with the masterminds of the war effort on WW2 air strategy.


During the fast-paced, five-week journey, he accompanied President Roosevelt to his only wartime conference with Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek (the leader of the Republic of China), code-named Sextant, and to the first of two “Big Three” conferences between Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, code-named Eureka. Because the Soviet Union was not then at war with Japan, Stalin refused to attend the meeting with Chiang in Cairo, so the Anglo-American leaders flew to meet Stalin in Tehran.

For Roosevelt and Churchill, the objective now with conferences was not so much planning strategy, but managing the momentum of previously initiated strategy. In the European Theater of Operations, it was the momentum building toward Operation Overlord, the long-awaited cross-channel invasion. Because of the “Germany first” doctrine, this was the most important initiative of all.

Though it would not be officially created until early 1944, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had already agreed to Arnold’s proposal for the creation of a new organization called the U.S. Strategic Air Forces in Europe (USSTAF) that would be the coordinator of the Eighth and Fifteenth. It would bring more unified command to WW2 air strategy.

Roosevelt and Churchill sat down with Chiang Kai-shek and his entourage on November 23. In his diary, Arnold calls it a “historic meeting,” but in his memoirs, it is merely a “meeting.” His dislike for Chiang, his supplicants, and his narrow-mindedness is palpable in both. Reflecting upon Sextant in his memoirs, he wrote, “Sometimes I wondered why we were saving China, for the dissensions among their warlords [Chiang’s bickering generals] gave us few clues.”

However, saving China was the immediate goal of the actions in the China-Burma-India Theater, and the supply routes into China were an important topic of conversation, although Chiang’s parochial and intransigent position was essentially unchanged since Arnold had met with him in Chungking. An agreement was reached on the tonnage that Arnold committed the USAAF to deliver across the Hump. He noted in his diary that this was unilaterally rewritten by the Chinese two days after Sextant adjourned, committing him to “2,000 tons [monthly] more than I could possibly carry.” He rewrote the rewrite and sent it back. Chiang did not quibble.

In retrospect, the Cairo Communiqué (or Cairo Declaration) that concluded the meeting could have been written without the conference, but it did serve to summarize the aims of the United States, Britain, and China with regard to the war against Japan. “The Three Great Allies expressed their resolve to bring unrelenting pressure against their brutal enemies by sea, land, and air,” read the document.

The communiqué concluded with a reaffirmation of that controversial declaration of the Casablanca Conference, stating that the “three Allies . . . will continue to persevere in the serious and prolonged operations necessary to procure the unconditional surrender of Japan.”

Though Arnold made no mention of it in his diary for security reasons, an important element of the discussions of waging war against the Japanese from China included the still-unrealized strategic air campaign against Japan itself, and the B-29 Superfortress, which would make this a reality, thus consolidating WW2 air strategy.

Assuming that the B-29s would be operational by the spring of 1944, the biggest obstacle to these strategic bombing missions was the tremendous distances involved. To put this predicament into perspective, Schweinfurt, which was the signature challenge for the Eighth, was 450 miles from England, while Japan was three thousand miles from the nearest Allied base that could be supplied by sea.

When eying a map of the Pacific, the planners could see that the ideal bases for the bombers would be on Guam and the Mariana Islands (such as Saipan and Tinian). They were about 1,500 miles from Tokyo and could be supplied easily by large cargo ships. But these potential bases were held by the Japanese and unlikely to be recaptured until late in 1944. Therefore, the only potential near-term basing scenario would be deep inside China.

The American commanders in China, Stilwell and Chennault, contributed ideas about where in China the bombers could be based, and from this, K. B. Wolfe developed a plan, approved by Arnold in October 1943 and code-named Operation Matterhorn. On November 20, Arnold activated the XX Bomber Command, with Wolfe as commander, to operate the Superfortress fleet against Japan from fields at Chengtu (now transliterated as Chengdu) beginning in June 1944.

“The operations from China against Japan were not simple,” Arnold says in his memoirs. “After hauling their own gasoline and bombs from India, the B-29s would have to go back to India and refuel, taking on as much gasoline as they could, and return to China, where they would bomb up and take off for Japan. The distance from the Assam region to the Chengtu area was about 1,200 miles; from China to the nearest point of bombing in Japan, about 1,600 miles. So, when the airplanes finally got back to their bases in India, they had covered a distance of about 5,600 miles, and had carried some 3,500 gallons of gasoline into China.”

President Roosevelt signed off on the plan at Cairo. It was now up to Wolfe to deliver the Superfortresses and up to Chiang to build airfields of adequate size for the huge bombers.

Roosevelt, Churchill, and the Combined Chiefs of Staff departed from Cairo on November 27 for their meeting with Stalin in Tehran. Iran had been picked as a conference site because of its proximity to the Soviet Union and Stalin’s wariness of traveling too far from home while his armies were still locked in fierce combat with the Germans across a vast front.

The leading agenda item on the Big Three portion of the Eureka Conference, as it had been when Churchill and Harriman had met with Stalin on previous occasions, was the Soviet leader’s impatience with his Anglo-American allies for not yet having opened a “second front” against the Germans. By this, he meant the cross-channel invasion of northern France, not the invasion of Italy that they had conducted two months earlier. For their part, Roosevelt and Churchill assured him that they were working toward this goal for the spring of 1944.

Although Arnold noted that “neither [Stalin] nor his generals seemed able to comprehend the necessity for strategic bombing or a more cohesive WW2 air strategy,” Stalin had obviously been following the Eighth Air Force campaign against the Reich with great interest. He went so far as to inquire about obtaining some American four-engine bombers for his own air force.

“He asked me for improved airplanes and he asked me for heavy bombers,” Arnold wrote. “I told him if he wanted heavy bombers he would have to send his engineers and maintenance and combat crews to the United States to go through our schools, or we could send the necessary personnel to instruct his men in Russia. He thought over these two suggestions for a while and finally agreed that something like that must be arranged.”

It never was.

Arnold reminded Stalin that the USAAF had been trying without success to obtain Soviet cooperation for “shuttle bombing” missions. Under this concept, Eighth Air Force bombers taking off from England could bomb targets deeper inside of the Reich if they could land and be refueled in the Soviet Union. As Arnold points out, the Soviets did agree at Tehran to allow shuttle missions, but they did not begin until June 1944, and they were terminated in September. “For a while, the Russians were glad to have us,” Arnold recalled in his memoirs. There was need for a better coordinated WW2 air strategy among the allies.

They permitted their people to come around and talk with our soldiers and officers, see what we were doing, and how we were doing it. It created a cordial relationship. But when our radios and our magazines—Life, Time, the Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, Look, PM, and such periodicals—started coming into our various squad rooms, dayrooms, and clubs, and their people had an opportunity to see the kind of life we lived in the United States, apparently the Russian leaders didn’t like it. Orders were given that there would be no more fraternization between the Russians and the Americans at the shuttle bombing bases. Almost as quickly as it had started, all contact with the Americans stopped.

“Looking back on the Teheran Conference, I think everyone who had carefully thought out our over-all strategy for beating the Germans must have been in accord with Stalin’s idea of how to win the war,” Arnold wrote in his memoirs. “In simple words, as taken from my notes, this was: ‘Hit Germany hard. Synchronize the operations of Allied troops on the two fronts, east and west. Then hit the Germans from both sides where it hurts most. Hit her where the distance to Berlin is shortest. Don’t waste time, men or equipment on secondary fronts.’ The prescription matched the planning of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the United States, wherein we adopted the principle set by the President, of beating Germany first and then turning to Japan.”

However, when it came to fighting Japan, Stalin was immovable. Roosevelt and Churchill tried at length to cajole him into a commitment to enter the war against Japan, but he flatly refused. As Arnold observed, “Regarding Japan, my impression was that Stalin had made up his mind and was not going to change it. Under no circumstances would he be drawn into a two-front war.”

Though he was as disparaging about the Soviets in general as he was about the British in general, Arnold was quite taken with their “fearless, brilliant” leader. In his diary, he also betrayed a sense of wonder—absent in his accounts of other summit conferences—about his having been at what he perceived as a crossroads of history.

Implementation of WW2 Air Strategy in Europe

On December 8, as the Combined Chiefs adjourned, Hap Arnold flew to Italy, with a brief stop in Sicily, where he had some important news for his longtime friend, General Tooey Spaatz, now commanding the Twelfth Air Force. It had previously been decided that the new U.S. Strategic Air Forces in Europe (USSTAF) would be headquartered in England, with its staff drawn from the existing bureaucracy of the Eighth Air Force. As suggested in Arnold’s diary, it was at this point that it was confirmed that Spaatz would command the USSTAF—as Arnold had recommended, and Eisenhower had agreed—effective on the first of January, 1944.

Accompanied by Spaatz, Arnold visited the sprawling complex of airfields being built for the Fifteenth Air Force between Bari and Foggia, on the heel of the Italian boot, northeast of Naples.

At Foggia on December 8, Arnold was met by his son Hank, who was temporarily detached from his duties as an artillery officer with the 45th Infantry Division to serve as his father’s aide for the next few days. Together, they visited the Foggia-Bari area and traveled to Naples. Here, they looked at pre-invasion damage done by Allied bombers and post-invasion damage done by German bombers.

Arnold held meetings with Spaatz, Doolittle, and Cannon, then called on General Mark Clark, commander of the U.S. Fifth Army, the umbrella organization for all American ground operations in Italy, as well as British General Harold Alexander, commander of the Allied 15th Army Group, the command umbrella above the American Fifth and British Eighth Armies in Italy.

In 1918, Hap Arnold had gone to Europe hoping to see the battlefronts of World War I from the air, but instead, he viewed the front from the eye level of an infantry soldier. In December 1943, he found himself within earshot of the front lines of World War II for the first time.

Bomb holes, mine holes, railroad ties cut in two by German heavy ploughs pulled by locomotives. Villages and towns demolished, partly demolished. Destruction and devastation everywhere, mud and more mud. Trees cut down by explosives to block the road. Hospitals, field and evacuation, ambulances, operating room, removing bomb and shell splinters from the soldier’s head, pulling a mangled hand together, tying a body together after a shell fragment tore loose a hip and almost all of a buttock, wounds in the abdomen, holes in back and abdomen the size of a football, blood, transfusions. . . . Hands, legs, shoulders separately and together in plaster casts to rebuild broken and shattered bodies. Nurses doing their part, working overtime, smiling. Patients gritting their teeth and saying: “I’m feeling fine.”

Stepping out of the hospital, he watched artillery barking at the Germans on a hill just beyond. Aircraft fighting overhead. Whistling shells going overhead with their loud bangs as they explode. Bombs and shells bursting on the German positions a scant 1,800 yards away. Men crouching behind walls in the mud, tents under bushes and trees. Wet feet, shoes muddy and wet, never dry; trench feet. More whistling shells and their deafening explosives and our guns barking. [Antiaircraft] guns opening up [on] Fw 190s and [Bf] 109s overhead. Spitfires coming into the fight, bridges out, infantrymen crouching behind any kind of cover. German observers watching our movement up the road from the hill beyond. A tank blown to bits from running over a mine, five bodies lying in small pieces on the ground. Civilians, men and women, clinging to desolated and despoiled houses, and mud, mud, mud. The Germans over on the hill watching us, perhaps wondering who could be so foolish to come up there.

Later in the day, Arnold held a press conference at which he called Germany “groggy” after the weight of the Combined Bomber Offensive, although he knew that the offensive was barely under way. The Associated Press reported that Arnold “predicted today, in a tour of the Italian front that Germany would be unable to offer much resistance to the Allies’ assault from the west when it came.” The New York Times asked him about USAAF strategic operations in the Mediterranean and reported his reply as confirming that “the airfields now available in southern Italy and other Mediterranean bases are enough for the total bombing of southern Germany and the Balkans.”

Though the spin, clearly designed for morale purposes, was positive—and hopeful—Arnold knew that the strategic campaign was still on the uphill side of the curve. The Schweinfurt missions were not isolated among the total scope of operations in illustrating the difficulty that the USAAF still faced in their portion of the Combined Bomber Offensive.


WW2 Air Strategy Within the USAAF


The USAAF was now a massive organization, including 2,372,292 personnel and 64,232 aircraft by the end of 1943. Most important for Arnold was that he now had 3,528 Flying Fortresses and 3,490 B-24 Liberators, not to mention 3,181 medium bombers (B-25s and B-26s), 5,100 P-47 Thunderbolts, and 1,165 P-51 Mustangs.

Now operating 10,456 transport aircraft, the USAAF maintained an infrastructure of bases and depots on six continents. The Air Transport Command, meanwhile, was now the largest “airline” the world had yet seen, flying a busy passenger and freight schedule that crossed the Atlantic and the Pacific and routinely circumnavigated the globe. Most of its routes were clear of Axis interference.

On December 17, 1943, Orville Wright traveled to Washington, D.C., to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of his first heavier-than-air flight and to present the Collier Trophy for the “outstanding contribution to aviation during the past year.” The recipient was Henry Harley Arnold, whom Wright himself had taught to fly at Huffman Prairie, Ohio, thirty-two years before. Hap Arnold’s “outstanding contribution to aviation during the past year” was building the USAAF into the largest air force in the world.

This article is part of our larger resource on the history of aviation in World War Two. Click here to read more about WW2 aviation.


This article on WW2 air strategy is from the book Hap Arnold: The General Who Invented the US Air Force © 2013 by Bill Yenne. Please use this data for any reference citations. To order this book, please visit its online sales page at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

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