9 Days, 4 Men, 1 Plan: The path to the creation of AWPD-1 and the importance placed on airpower

By: 1st Lt. Nick Nowland, USAF
Daedalian Member #4921

On rare occasions in history, the right individuals are brought together at a precise moment in time to formulate a plan, and these individuals understand they have a fleeting opportunity to alter the course of history. Had you been walking the muggy halls of the War Department’s Munitions Building in downtown Washington, DC in the summer of 1941, you might have witnessed one of these singular events. For during nine intense days in August, a group of four Army Air Forces (AAF) officers feverishly hammered out the air plan the United States would adopt to defeat Germany. Their plan, labeled Air War Plans Division 1 (AWPD-1), proposed a massive expansion of airmen and aircraft to enable the U.S. to cripple Germany’s war-making capabilities through strategic bombardment.

     As fervent prophets of the power of strategic bombing, these four men understood that the Air War Plans Division provided them an incredible opportunity to make strategic bombing, a niche concept appreciated only by a small group of Army aviators, into the AAF’s main objective. Lt. Col. Harold L. George led Lt. Col. Kenneth Walker and Majs. Haywood Hansell and Laurence Kuter as the core of the AWPD, but these men would rely upon the support of other Army officers in the Munitions Building to gather information and complete their monumental planning task. However, the roots of this team’s success lay in the decade before these historic nine days in 1941.

     These four men had known each other since the 1930s when they had served as instructors at the Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS). The Army Air Corps was the predecessor to the AAF, which was eventually succeeded by the U.S. Air Force. The ACTS’ stated mission was to teach young Air Corps officers air tactics, planning and principles of airpower in line with Army leadership’s view that aircraft should be used to support infantry. However, ACTS instructors strayed from the official Army view that air power was simply a support branch for ground operations, and the school became a laboratory for ideas that supported an independent air service. Although official aerial doctrine was formulated in Army field manuals, the instructors wrote articles and papers expounding their expanding ideas about airpower and often usurped field manuals as the primary doctrinal guides for air squadrons.

     ACTS instructors such as Walker discussed, argued and wrote lectures about the power of heavy bombers and how an air service could mass them into large air wings to strike crippling blows against enemy industries. He argued that relegating aircraft to infantry support roles wasted the true potential of military aviation, and detracted from its most powerful mission: aerial bombardment. Walker’s lecture built upon the works of previous ACTS instructors such as Maj. William Sherman, author of the 1920 book, “Air Warfare,” who had boldly argued that the bomber was the ultimate air weapon that could knock out enemy cities. Walker and his fellow instructors also believed that an independent air branch would provide aviators with the doctrinal and organizational freedom to pursue aerial bombardment, and thus their push for heavy bombers paralleled their support for a separate air service. Although many ACTS instructors in the 1930s were radical in the eyes of the Army, they were standing on the shoulders of airmen who had been arguing for a stronger, more independent air branch since the end of World War I. 

     George had been another vocal ACTS instructor and prepared detailed lectures arguing that bombers should be unleashed on the enemy’s heartland, not to attack cities and kill civilians, but instead to debilitate enemy factories, oil refineries and power-producing plants. Living in an America rocked by the Great Depression, George and his compatriots witnessed the far-reaching negative repercussions that factory shutdowns had on the American economy. ACTS instructors even had to stop flying for a period of time when the sole factory that produced a key part of their aircrafts’ propeller mechanism was flooded and temporarily closed. To the thinkers at the ACTS, modern economies looked fragile, inflexible and vulnerable to bottlenecks. They envisioned economies as spider webs whose branches were interlinked and interdependent. The factories and plants that constituted this spider web appeared to be exposed targets for aircraft, and ACTS instructors believed that if bombers could destroy key nodes in enemies’s complex economies, they could bring the war-making capabilities of those nations to a standstill. ACTS aviators developed these ideas into the “Industrial Web Theory,” and this concept eventually formed the foundation of AWPD-1.

     Throughout the 1930s, the Army increasingly treated these air power proponents as insurgents — men whose disruptive ideas would only disturb the traditional Army and Navy status quo. The Army remembered the embarrassing court martial of Billy Mitchell and the poor press it generated. Moreover, the Great Depression was a time of lean budgets for the military, and the Army spent very little money on aviation. Between 1919 and 1941, the Army spent, on average, less than 12% of its budget on the Air Corps, and during a low point in 1924, provided less than 5% of its budget to aviation. In 1932, Army Chief of Staff Douglas McArthur neatly summed up Army leadership’s antipathy towards airpower when he stated he supported the abolition of all military airpower as “money spent on aviation was money thrown away.”

George realized this was an incredible opportunity for aviators to plan an air strategy largely separate from ground forces …

     The Army Air Corps meager budget meant that the ACTS intellectuals lacked the aircraft and training opportunities to test their theories. Besides a handful of bombing exercises in the ’20s and ’30s and a yearly bombing competition at Langley Field, aviators had no opportunities to test basic components of their theories, such as bombing accuracy in adverse weather conditions, the effectiveness of anti-aircraft fire at different altitudes or the destructiveness of various bomb weights on diverse targets. Unable to afford modern aircraft, ACTS thinkers developed theories based off limited testing and academic projections of aircraft technology’s future progress. In the mid-to-late 1930s, information from the Japanese bombing efforts in China and the German and Spanish air campaigns of the Spanish Civil War did reach American airpower thinkers, and the ACTS incorporated some information from these wars into their writings. Modern historians and military thinkers have written critically of the flaws in these early American airmen’s theories; however, this author believes that modern Air Force thinkers would be absolutely crippled with indecision and anxiety if they were forced to build doctrine and make choices with the scarcity of information and funding that air power advocates faced in the pre-World War II years.

     However, during the late 1930s the status quo among the military branches was shifting and the days of scarce funding were coming to an end by 1941. Multiple variables contributed to this changing climate, including the establishment of a General Headquarters Air Force (GHQ) in 1935 that provided more independence for aviation in the Army and the appointment of airpower-convert Gen. George C. Marshall as Chief of Staff of the Army in 1939. He subsequently promoted several airmen, including Maj. Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, onto his staff and then authorized Arnold to create and lead the Army Air Forces in June 1941. The AAF was effectively an autonomous air branch in the Army. Arnold led an air staff to manage the AAF, and created the AWPD as the planning organ of that staff. Thus, in July 1941, George found himself in the stifling hot Munitions Building in downtown DC, gathering old colleagues from the ACTS into his planning shop.

     Less than one month later, Arnold presented the AWPD with a massive task. On July 9, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had written a letter to the Secretaries of War and the Navy requesting detailed plans that would outline each branch’s manpower, munitions and equipment requirements in an upcoming war. Although the president did not specify a due date for this monumental job, the Army and Navy immediately jumped to work. 

     Amidst this environment, George suddenly found himself in charge of the planning section of the air staff on the eve of probable U.S. involvement in the biggest war the world had ever seen. Usually, the AWPD would provide officers to the Army’s War Plans Division (WPD), the staff now responsible for responding to FDR’s request. However, George realized this was an incredible opportunity for aviators to plan an air strategy largely separate from ground forces, one that embraced theories the ACTS had developed the previous decade. He knew he would have to include support of ground forces in the plan, but if he could make strategic bombardment the foundational and foremost mission of the AAF, he could essentially execute a coup right under the Army’s nose. He could sidestep the entrenched Army leadership that opposed the use of airpower for anything other than ground support. George seized the moment and lobbied Arnold to allow the AWPD to independently create an air plan, and then submit it as an annex to the larger Army document. Arnold supported George’s request and obtained the approval of Brig. Gen. Leonard Gerow, head of the WPD. The frenetically busy Gerow did not have time to worry about the details of an air plan. Thus, in a matter of days, the Army had effectively handed the keys to the AAF’s future to a handful of field grade officers with almost no oversight. 

Thus, in a matter of days, the Army had effectively handed the keys to the AAF’s future to a handful of field grade officers with almost no oversight.

     On Aug. 2, Arnold had ordered George to build a plan by Aug. 12, and had then swiftly departed the country on a secret trip, leaving the AWPD alone to write the plan for American airpower in WWII. In the words of James Gaston in his book, “Four Men and Nine Days,” in 1941, “Strategy, timing, targeting, production, manpower, training, organization, support and basing in this country and around the world — all would be written in the following nine days in a flimsy, sweltering penthouse in downtown Washington.” And they would do it all using paper and Monroe mechanical calculators.

     The air planners focused on three goals. First, Germany would be the primary target, and, once defeated, attention could be focused on her allies. Second, air power would support a final offensive on the European continent, if it became necessary. Third, the AAF would conduct air operations in support of hemispheric defense and protection of the far east.

     George understood the planning assignment was beyond the scope of the four officers of the AWPD, and thus subdivided the plan into 18 tabs covering different subjects. He then assigned 14 tabs to officers on the air staff in the Munitions Building. These men collected information from air bases across the U.S. and worked on broad topics such as: “Personnel Requirements,” “Weather — Its Influence in all Theaters” and “Requirements in Critical Items of Equipment and Tonnage.” George reserved the four most important tabs for the officers of the AWPD: “Bombardment Operations Against Germany,” “Escort Fighters,” “Bombardment Aviation Required for Hemispheric Defense” and “Bombardment Operating Bases.” Further complicating the planning process was the fact that everyone needed to work from the same basic assumptions. They needed to agree on answers to a staggering array of questions like: How many aircraft should comprise a heavy bomber squadron? What would combat attrition rates be? How many bombers did it take to destroy a German factory? How many times a month can aviators fly combat missions? George decided to write a document that covered these assumptions and would act as guide for the various tabs. Furthermore, he needed to complete this as quickly as possible. In a mere two days of writing and discussions with his fellow AWPD members, George penned the collection of “Basic Considerations and Assumptions” that undergirded the entire AWPD-1.

     Basic assumptions in hand, the planners began working feverishly. George had assigned officers to specific tabs on Monday, Aug. 4, 1941, and reminded everyone that the deadline for the plan was Tuesday, Aug. 12. By then, the tabs needed to be complete and ready for presentation. This was a no-fail mission, and the men understood this. The AWPD officers worked until midnight every night, and through the night on two occasions, to complete their task.

     Toiling in the humid, cloying, almost-100-degree heat of August in DC, the planners built their plan. By Sunday, Aug. 10, they had finished most of their calculations and were turning their massive project into a briefing they could present to the Assistant Chief of Staff in Army War Plans, Brig. Gen. H.L. Twaddle. He was the AWPD’s first hurdle in their effort to sell their plan. Twaddle had some comments about the presentation, but after almost two hours, Twaddle approved the AWPD to brief the next echelon in the chain of command.

     What Twaddle did not say during the brief revealed more than what he did say. He did not question the basic assumption of the AWPD planners: the idea that strategic bombing should be the heart of the air plan. This was a great victory for the AWPD, and although George and his cohort needed to clear many more hurdles before the highest levels of the military approved AWPD-1 in the autumn of 1941, the plan’s foundational concept of aerial bombardment was never seriously doubted. Hidden in plain sight, obfuscated by hundreds of figures, calculations, charts and maps, this fervent dream of airpower advocates quietly inserted itself into the Army’s plan for WWII. Like WWI pilots flying effortlessly over soldiers in their trenches, airpower advocates’ theories glided past entrenched Army doctrine to become the core of the Army’s air plan.

He did not question the basic assumption of the AWPD planners: the idea that strategic bombing should be the heart of the air plan. This was a great victory for the AWPD …

     However, the coming years proved many facets of AWPD-1 wrong. For starters, its planners underestimated aircraft and pilot requirements and overlooked the importance of escort fighters. The lack of escort fighters would cost the lives of thousands of American aircrew in 1943 as German fighters savaged bomber formations. Historians have excoriated the AWPD for many of their flawed ideas and explored how subsequent plans revised portions of AWPD-1. However, considering the time, information and manpower constraints with which the planners dealt, their effort was a great success. It provided a comprehensive air plan to defeat Nazi Germany and shape the American half of the Combined Comber Offensive. Helmuth von Moltke the Elder once said that no plan survives contact with the enemy. The AWPD-1 was no exception, but it provided a strong foundation upon which the American military could build its air war against Germany. What more could be asked of a handful of men in nine days in the heat of a DC summer?