Thursday, June 21, 2012

Soldier of Monarchy: General Giulio Douhet

General Giulio Douhet, aerial warfare visionary and the prophet of strategic bombing was a military innovator and the first great airpower theorist in history. His thinking was decades ahead of his time as he foresaw the day, even at the turn of the last century, when air power would become the dominant offensive weapon of the future, capable of winning wars all on its own long before anyone else saw control of the skies as vital or, indeed, saw hardly any military value in aircraft at all. He was born in Caserta on May 30, 1869 into a family with a long tradition of military service and, in keeping with that tradition, attended the Italian military academy and graduated at the top of his class, earning a commission in the artillery in 1892. He was an innovator from the very start of his career who immediately saw the potential in making the Italian army a mechanized army. He commanded a battalion of the elite bersaglieri light infantry when these were mounted on motorcycles for the first time, giving them added speed and mobility. When Wilbur Wright visited the Kingdom of Italy in 1909 he met the American inventor-aviator and at once saw the potential for the military use of aircraft and became an early and tireless advocate for it.

His foresight was first proven in the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-12 when he was given command of the first ever aviation battalion in Italian military history. Under Douhet, Italy broke new ground by becoming the first power to successfully carry off air-to-ground attacks with the bombing of Turkish outposts in Libya. This was all the proof Douhet required and he immediately saw a brilliant future for military aircraft. Drawing on his wartime experiences, after the conflict he wrote and published the first manual on the doctrines of air combat entitled “Rules of the Use of Airplanes in War” in 1913. Thanks to Douhet, the Kingdom of Italy had taken an early lead as the first world power to take aerial warfare seriously. However, being a ground-breaking thinker is rarely easy. When Italy entered World War I, Douhet was first posted as chief of staff of an infantry division but given his talent and experience was soon transferred to command the army aviation division. He called for Italy to devote huge resources to the air arm and to launch a campaign of saturation bombing against Austria. However, very little was done before his criticisms of the supreme command earned him the wrath of General Luigi Cadorna who had him arrested and court-martialed.

Sadly, this was not out of the ordinary and should not at all reflect poorly on Colonel Douhet as an officer. By 1917 General Cadorna had sacked a total of 216 generals, 255 colonels and 355 battalion commanders who he blamed for one thing or another or who simply disagreed with his handling of the army, over a time when Italian losses had been heavy and territorial gains extremely modest. However, Colonel Douhet used his time well. As he sat in confinement he continued to write about his ideas for the future of war in the air and to further refine his theories on military aviation. Today many remember the bombing raids of the German and Allied armies on the western front but few realize they had only recently discovered the strategy that Douhet had been advocating for years. In 1917, after the disastrous battle of Caporetto, Douhet and the other critics of General Cadorna were proven correct and the top general was replaced and Douhet was released, restored to his rank and put back in command of the new Central Aeronautic Bureau. In 1921 he published his most famous work, “The Command of the Air”. He held a post in the government of Mussolini for a very short time before retiring from the army with the rank of major general in 1923. He died in Rome on February 15, 1930 at 60 years old.

Why, at the end of it all, was General Douhet such a visionary who we should still remember today? What were his great ideas and theories? He was the first to call for an independent air force, separate from the army and the navy (eventually realized in the Regia Aeronautica) and the first to call for versatile fighter planes, what he termed a “battle plane”, that would be capable of air-to-air combat and ground attack missions. Douhet believed that massive fleets of bombers could be used as the ultimate strategic military weapon. He envisioned ground forces being used solely in a defensive role, guarding Italian territory, while the air force was the primary offensive arm of the military and would devastate enemy countries and armies, destroying their infrastructure and forcing them to capitulate. This, he argued, he would be more cost effective, save lives that would otherwise be wasted in human-wave attacks and would make warfare more swift and decisive.

Not everyone in Italy appreciated the ideas of General Douhet or saw his work as applying to them since other countries (such as Germany, France and Britain) had such larger air forces. However, the use of air power was central to Italian victories in Libya against the rebel Islamic forces, in Abyssinia and was absolutely vital in defeating the communist forces in Spain. However, despite a greater emphasis being put on air power in Italy after his time, the country was never in a position, industrially, to fully implement his ideas. Nonetheless, all of the great aerial warfare leaders from Germany, France, Britain and America read his books and were well studied in his theories. These were, to varying degrees, adopted during World War II particularly by the U.S. Army Air Corps and the British Royal Air Force which carried out large-scale strategic bombing, which were key factors in the ultimate Allied victory. Some more recent military historians have at times downplayed the foresight of General Douhet, arguing that no country has ever won a war through the sole use of air power. However, none have fully adopted the strategies he envisioned to carry this out and even in more recent years there are examples in places such as Kosovo and most recently in Libya which prove just how far-sighted Douhet was. In any event, his influence is enormous simply by being the first to imagine a great and central role for air power in warfare. The development of air forces all over the world owe a debt of gratitude to General Giulio Douhet.


  1. The influence of General Douhet in aviation warfare is colossal, but sadly, he does not receive a lot of recognition. His hometown of Comune di Caserta is several distance from my hometown of Comune di Salerno. Without General Douhet I highly doubt aviation warfare would be what it is today. His support of disgraceful Mussolini and collectivism, in particular fascism, is dishonorable; however, his love of and self-sacrifice to the Italian monarchy is admirable. The following website dedicated to the air-force of the Kingdom of Italy (in Italian and English).

    1. What Oswald Boelcke was to air-to-air combat Douhet was to strategic air warfare. As for Mussolini, I find nothing dishonourable in those who considered him the best of several bad options. Were there any non-collectivist options at the time? Many military leaders, to varying degrees, supported Mussolini because a socialist/communist revolution was a very real threat at the time and, early on, the order Mussolini brought was not an oppressive order. Deep down he was a republican traitor of course but in the context of the time it is easy to see how many viewed him as a necessary evil.

      Douhet may not be given all the credit he is due today or even in his own time, but everyone read his books and no one else had even thought of what he had back then. The Italian military also suffered from a lot of bickering among the high command. Douhet was unfairly criticized but he also unfairly criticized others, it was unfortunately all too common and at times, as it did with Douhet, robbed the Kingdom of Italy of some exceptional talent at crucial times.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...