An airman’s war with the US Navy

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Billy Mitchell’s War with the Navy: The Interwar Rivalry Over Air Power. By Thomas Wildenberg. Published by the Naval Institute Press, Annapolis MD, 2013.

Reviewed by Dr Gregory P Gilbert

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THE more Mitchell crusaded for an independent air service, the more radical he became …. He became impatient with those who disagreed with him and he believed that Army and Navy brass who opposed him conspired to protect their privileges and authority.
– unnamed source quoted in Billy Mitchell’s War with the Navy, p. 186

US World War I Army Air Service general William ‘Billy’ Mitchell remains a highly controversial figure. Some biographers have portrayed him as the founder of the US Air Force (actually formed in 1947) and the creator of strategic bombing.

In this book Thomas Wildenberg explains how he was neither, and that he sees Billy Mitchell’s most important contribution to the US military as his leadership in France during World War I.

Mitchell received the DSC and DSM for his achievements as America’s senior combat airman 1917-1918. Subsequent events surrounding the future of US air power during the interwar period led him to twist the truth and distort reality to achieve his goal to increase the US spending on military aviation. He was a showman who sought and gained popular support for his cause at the expense of others in the military. His disregard for the facts presented by others, including his own superiors, led to his being court-martialled in 1925 for insubordination.

Billy Mitchell’s War with the Navy is not a biography. It is more a case study of how past leaders adopted various methodologies to further their own cause with the military establishment.

During the 1920s Mitchell’s voice was the loudest in a cavalcade of air power opinions. Wildenberg explains how Mitchell gained remarkable political, media and popular support and was able to stage or manipulate events to gain publicity, and to be fair, Mitchell’s aim of increasing the amount of money allocated to military aviation in America was commendable.

However the peace meant that there were very few funds available for military expenditure and aviation was just one of many defence necessities desperately needing funds. By exaggerating the effects of air power and ignoring the factual evidence presented by others, Mitchell was unable to substantiate his claims despite their popularity. In effect Billy Mitchell’s decision to target Navy funding was a calculated response to the perceived overly large naval expenditures of the times and he did in effect generate a war with the Navy.

Billy Mitchell ultimately lost his war by over extending himself and progressively alienating his superiors in the US Army. The US Navy won decisively in both delaying the formation of an independent US air force and by gaining resources for its own aircraft carriers, shore bases and naval aviation.

Defence of the maritime approaches to the US remained largely a US Navy responsibility and modern battleships – strengthened and updated in an effort to survive air attack – remained an important component of the US Navy until at least the end of World War II. Of the 25 battleships that served during WWII only two were lost, both during the Pearl Harbor attack.

After sinking the ex-German battleship Ostfriesland during an exercise in 1921 Mitchell and his disciples believed that bombers had made the battleship obsolete overnight. There were many reasons why this was not true but in the public imagination facts were irrelevant and, additionally, the truth could not be released without disclosing official defence secrets.

As Wildenberg points out even in 1942, during the Battle of Midway, land based B-17 Flying Fortress bombers were unable to cause significant damage on the Japanese Fleet. In what was effectively a re-run of the bombing exercises of 1921 but this time in actual combat conditions, the B-17 bombers were unable to sink any of the approaching Japanese armada. It was the naval aviators operating off the US Navy’s carriers that sank the enemy.

This book makes one think about how to generate change in a defence environment where funding is extremely limited. It also reveals how significant efforts can be made to improve survivability instead of just accepting the claims of a new wonder weapon. The work also makes one think about the contemporary discussion over what resource priorities Australia needs to allocate to air-sea operations and whether it resides largely within the RAN or the RAAF should not matter.

This is a discussion that has not occurred and is long overdue. The relatively low priority for the development of an offensive anti-surface warfare missile for Australia’s F-35A aircraft, estimated to be fully operational by 2025, is just one example of how such unresolved intellectual debates can influence reality. What priority should be allocated to anti-ship missiles within Australia’s maritime strategy? It is no good saying that it is not my part of ship. The US forces have resolved their rivalry over air power largely with the US Navy’s ability to sustain itself as the second largest air service in the world – behind the USAF which is the largest and most capable. Such organisations are clearly not the answer for Australia.

Billy Mitchell’s War with the Navy is well worth a read. I suggest it will go well with a glass of wine and a comfy chair so that one can contemplate the alternative futures of Australian naval aviation and air-sea operations.

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