Today, we celebrate, or at least acknowledge, obscurity, horror, firsts, and aviation…in our own way, of course. As a natural consequence of today’s missive, your intrepid researcher/correspondent will endeavor as is his wont to bring you, his regular readers, entertainment, history, facts, (limited) opinions, and at least some sober analysis of events that took place on 14 November. Among many other things, Robert Fulton was born on this day in 1765, James B. McPherson of Civil War fame was born in 1827, King Gillette patented his safety razor in 1904, and the Somme offensive ended in 1916. But today, we talk about flying…and not.
Since Bishop Wright’s boys flew in the Kill Devil Hills in December 1903, the US Navy had been interested in aviation for scouting around the fleet.
Aviation was an amateur endeavor in the heady days before WWI turned it into a deadly enterprise. It was dangerous before airplanes started carrying weapons, but usually only to the intrepid adventurers flying the fragile kites. Since Bishop Wright’s boys flew in the Kill Devil Hills in December 1903, the US Navy had been interested in aviation for scouting around the fleet. Naval gunnery was not yet capable of firing over the horizon, but it wasn’t that far off. In 1910, Eugene Ely, a former auto salesman who taught himself to fly well enough to get a job with Glenn Curtis met Washington Chambers, who had been appointed by the US Navy to investigate the possibilities of heavier-than-air flying machines for scouting. Since radios of the time weighted as much as the airplanes did, the machines would have to launch and land on or near a ship to have any use to battle fleets at sea. On 14 November, 1910, Ely took off from an 83-foot wooden platform built on the deck of light cruiser USS Birmingham anchored in Chesapeake Bay while in a Curtis pusher, the first time a heavier-than-air machine had launched (if barely) from a ship. Ely died in a crash less than a year later.
By the time the all clear sounded at 6:15 on 15 November, about 4,300 homes were destroyed, and two-thirds of the buildings in the city were damaged.
Early in WWII Hitler placed prohibitions on attacking populated areas. Gradually those prohibitions fell away until they were a dim, if quaint, memory. In the industrialization of the West Midlands of Great Britain ancient cities like the ancient cathedral city of Coventry, with its dense population and proximity to coal, became prime targets for German bombers. Along with the 14th century cathedral was the Coventry Ordnance Works which made gun mountings for the Royal Navy, and other plants that together supplied a quarter of the RAF’s aircraft. On the night of 14 November 1940, some five hundred German bombers from Luftflotte 3 and the pathfinders of Kampfgruppe 100 bombed Coventry in an operation called Mondscheinsonate (Moonlight Sonata). By the time the all clear sounded at 6:15 on 15 November, about 4,300 homes were destroyed, and two-thirds of the buildings in the city were damaged. Over a thousand people were killed and injured during the attack, and only one German bomber was shot down. It was the first use of pathfinder aircraft equipped with beam-riding navigation equipment and bombing patterns intended to mark targets, and one of the first to use a mix of high explosive and incendiary bombs to intentionally start large fires.
Those first six months was crucial for the future of strategic bombing, and for the notions of an independent air force.
Studying Coventry and the other large air strikes in Europe and Asia before America’s entry in WWII was Heywood S. “Possum” Hansell, an American Army Air Corps officer, a man with a long pedigree of service. Hansell was a member of the “Bomber Mafia,” a small group of vocal advocates of daylight precision air bombardment that included Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, Ira Eaker and Jimmy Doolittle. Hansell was the chief of the Foreign Intelligence Section in the Office of the Chief of the Air Corps, and responsible for writing two papers known as AWP-1 and AWP-42, outlining the Army Air Force’s plans for strategic air warfare against both Germany and Japan. As a reward for his work, Hansell was given the command of the 1st Bomb Wing, the B-17 component of the Eighth Air Force in England. Those first six months was crucial for the future of strategic bombing, and for the notions of an independent air force. Hansell was also the architect of the Combined Bomber Offensive with the RAF. Soon, hansell found himself shifted out of Europe and the Flying Fortresses to Asia and the Superfortresses, the B-29s. But Possum was a better staff man than he was a commander, and the multitude of serious command-level problems on Saipan, with the B-29, and with the completely new command arrangements (Twentieth Air Force was commanded from Washington). As a result, Hansell was replaced by fellow Mafia member Curtis LeMay. After the war Hansell held a number of minor, if important posts in training and administration, retiring from the Air Force for the last time in 1955. Possum Hansell, the architect of the bombing campaigns in Europe and Asia, died in Hilton Head, South Carolina on 14 November, 1988.
History was going to be made either way, but the outcome was, it was thought, in the bag for one side.
And so. As Barack Obama told the assembled Republicans on 10 October 2010, “elections have consequences.” Last week, your intrepid researcher briefly discussed the then-upcoming election, where the United States was choosing between the first woman presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, from a major party and the first non-politician, non-military candidate, Donald Trump, from another. History was going to be made either way, but the outcome was, it was thought, in the bag for one side. Except…it didn’t roll that way. Much to nearly everyone’s surprise, the political neophyte Donald Trump won the Electoral College, and rather resoundingly. One of the (many) consequences of this election is the almost-certain end of the Clinton family’s quarter-century of influence on national politics. Another will be that Trump, having very few political debt to pay, will be free to choose people who will do their jobs, not kowtow to others just to curry favor. Once again, we shall see.