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Crossing the threshold

It was not until World War I that the application of aerial attacks on an enemy’s homeland was introduced as a regular part of warfare. Aircraft specifically designed for such missions including the necessary bombsights and directional devices as well as bomb racks began to be developed. Beginning in 1916, French aircraft launched strikes against several German cities in retaliation for enemy assaults on Paris and other French towns. The British undertook a series of raids on Zeppelin factories and other military targets in Germany. It was Germany which led the way in demonstrating how aircraft could be used against the enemy’s own territory.

From January 1915 to November 1916, Zeppelins attacked targets in the north of England and the Midlands as well as in London. In May 1917 raids against London and other cities involved genuine bombers rather than airships, and their employment served to reinforce the earlier impression of a basic threshold having been crossed in the means of modern war.

Civilians become targets of choice
The notion that civilians could be a legitimate and even important target of air strikes had acquired a tentative acceptance. As one authority on the use of airpower in World War I wrote, ‘One principle seems to have been followed [which was] that military objectives could be bombed wherever found, regardless of their location, and, it seems, regardless of the injury to non-combatants and private property.’ The establishment of an independent British bombing force in April 1918, and the amalgamation of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service into the Royal Air Force was a clear sign of changing attitudes to bombing. By the end of the war, Britain built almost 50,000 flying machines of all types.

New wars
In the interwar period a heated and generally abstract debate developed over what the experience of World War I had to say about the potential of strategic bombing – that is bombing civilians rather than troops on the battlefield. The discussion remained abstract because there was little actual evidence on which to base conclusions. This did not prevent such voices as military historian Sir Basil Liddell Hart from arguing that strategic bombing might prove the decisive weapon in a new war. He argued that when it was realized that strategic bombing would inflict ‘a total of injury far less than when a war was spread over a number of years, the common sense of mankind will show that the ethical objection to this form of war is at least not greater than to the cannon-fodder wars of the past.’

Liddell Hart based his support of strategic bombing on the supposed fragility of civilian morale in wartime. Drawing in part on his analysis of the effects of the limited German bombing campaign against British cities in World War I, he focused on the spirit and will of societies as a whole in supporting the military in the field. Defeat in war, he claimed, ‘is the result not of loss of life, save, at the most, indirectly and partially, but by loss of morale.' The quickest way to undermine or destroy this morale, he claimed, would be by a sustained campaign of strategic bombing. This was an argument that was to prove critical to the subsequent British bombing offensive against Germany in World War II, and it was elaborated on at the time by the famous Italian airpower theorist, General Giulio Douhet.

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