Lectures of the Air Corps Tactical School and American Strategic Bombing in World War II

  • Published

Lectures of the Air Corps Tactical School and American Strategic Bombing in World War II edited by Phil Haun. University Press of Kentucky, 2019, 320 pp. 

Airpower historians owe US Naval War College professor Phil Haun a debt of gratitude. His new book, Lectures of the Air Corps Tactical School and American Strategic Bombing in World War II, fills in a crucial piece of the story of American airpower development—what was said at the Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS). For decades, the lectures that formed the basis for the high-altitude daylight precision bombing (HADPB) strategy the Air Force carried into World War II were hard to find or only quoted in fragments in secondary sources. Since the 1990s, the only real source on the school and its teachings was Robert Finney’s History of the Air Corps Tactical School 1920–1940. Now, Phil Haun has brought together the as-given lectures into one place, opening a new path of study and understanding for historians. 

The ACTS was the intellectual source of HADPB and the training ground in the 1920s and 1930s for the generation of officers who would lead the Air Force, both in strategy and in the air, during World War II. What has always been difficult to find are the full lectures given at the school—lectures that taught the future leaders but also acted as the verbalization of the ideas being formed at the school. In a period of small defense budgets and deep skepticism of airpower, the strategies promulgated from the ACTS created the rationale for having an air force and defined a mission only aircraft could perform. These strategies, almost verbatim, acted as an outline for Air Force strategic operations in the fast-approaching World War II. 

The book is a collection of the 10 most important lectures written by the early leaders of the Air Force, like Muir Fairchild, Harold George, and Laurence Kuter. Haun went to the Air Force Historical Research Center archives and found the original typed lectures and reproduced the ones that best explained the school’s philosophy on the primacy of the airplane in the modern battlefield, the offensive capabilities of the bomber, and the vulnerabilities of an industrialized nation. Haun then augmented each lecture with a short summary that provides a historical perspective and a condensing of the key points each instructor wanted to be carried forward. 

These lectures form such an important part of the historical record because every major Air Force field commander in World War II (except Curtis LeMay) went through the curriculum of the school, making the bombing campaigns against Germany and Japan a reflection of the principles taught there. To understand the purpose of the streams of B-17s and B-24s filling the European skies or the push to find a suitable base for B-29s in the Pacific, we first must understand the ACTS and the ideas that it produced. While the school taught a months-long curriculum on airpower theory and execution, it was also the incubator for strategies that could make the plane the prime weapon on the battlefield. The lectures reproduced here explain the core ideas the early proponents built their efforts upon. For the first time, the professional and casual historian alike can easily follow the progression of thought and see the accompanying analysis. 

At the end of the book, Haun neatly summarizes the actual results of the theory—its practical successes and frightening failures—in a summary essay. The information on the campaign against Japan was a bit dated, but it was otherwise an excellent correlation of theory to events. He pulled key points from the essays just presented and compared their predictions against German/Japanese industries and the capabilities of the airplanes that eventually carried the burden of combat. 

As a bonus, the book contains several primary source appendices, including the Combined Bomber Offensive Directive, the Pointblank Directive, and the full text of Air War Plans Division 1 (AWPD-1) by ACTS instructor Haywood Hansell et al. All are delightful bonuses that make these important documents readily available, but AWPD-1 is especially neat to see. It was the blueprint for airpower in World War II, full of calculations based on the lectures given at the ACTS and is another primary source document that is hard to find in print. 

I didn’t just enjoy the book; I appreciated the opportunity to delve into these important primary source documents at home in a single volume. I highly recommend this text. A copy is a must for any World War II historian’s bookshelf. 

Daniel Schwabe 

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."