The Beginning: Strategic Bombing
in the First World War
THE history of strategic bombing in the twentieth century is a history of the tension between imagined possibilities and technical realities. In seeking the roots of this tension, it is necessary to turn to World War I, where combat aircraft made their first serious appearance in both tactical and strategic roles—from short-range battlefield reconnaissance to long-distance bombing of enemy cities. In the end, tactical aviation received a fuller test than did strategic flying: the latter's demands on plane and pilot were more onerous, and armies, unsurprisingly, prioritized their tactical forces since they were of greater immediate use to the war effort. The result was that, by 1918, strategic bombing had received only a brief trial. Because its possibilities seemed far-reaching, however, this experience left a legacy with an important impact on postwar thinking; it formed a foundation for extrapolation, speculation, and zealous advocacy. 1 But the perception and interpretation of the experience itself had been shaped by expectation.
The First World War commenced only eleven years after the Wright Brothers made their first successful but brief ascent over the windy dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The airplanes of 1914 were frail machines constructed mainly of wood, cloth, and wire; their capabilities were speculative at best. Military experts had varying expectations for these craft, but even the most conservative understood that an aerial perspective would facilitate observation and reconnaissance. Indeed, the aerial perspective quickly proved so valuable that it was aggressively sought and fought for, prompting the development of purpose-built fighter aircraft. Throughout the war, increasingly capable fighters sought control of the air to allow other aircraft to carry out reconnaissance work, including trench mapping and artillery spotting. Other tactical missions evolved, such as contact patrol (for tracking ground troops), close air support, and battlefield interdiction bombing.
The role aircraft might play beyond the battlefield had long been the