Progressive Prophecy

As air power can hit at a distance, after it controls the air and vanquishes the opposing air power, it will be able to fly anywhere over the hostile country. The menace will be so great that either a state will hesitate to go to war, or, having engaged in war, will make the con­test much sharper, more decisive, and more quickly finished. This will result in a dimin­ished loss of life and treasure and will thus be a distinct benefit to civilization.


There is one thing certain: Air power has given to the world a means whereby the heart of a nation can be attacked at once without first having to wage an exhausting war at that nation’s frontiers.

• MAJ. HAROLD LEE GEORGE, 1935 21 July 1921

For Billy Mitchell, the final attack on a relic of the Kaiser’s navy was as important as any he had directed on the Western Front. One by one, the six Martin mb-2 bombers and a single Fland – ley-Page flew past Mitchell’s Osprey, a blue and white DH-4 with a blue command pennant flapping from the rudder. The dual­engine biplanes formed the essence of the First Provisional Air Brigade, which Mitchell had created ad hoc in January 1921. For the next six months, its thousand men had devoted their full attention to preparing for the task that now awaited the seven bomber crews—sinking the rust-covered German battleship Ost – friesland. The Navy had received the dreadnought, along with sev­eral smaller warships, for testing as a result of the Versailles Peace Treaty, and Mitchell had convinced influential congressmen that the Air Service should participate in those tests as well. To him, though, only the Ostfriesland mattered. His goal was to dem­onstrate—unequivocally—that bombers could sink the world’s mightiest warships. By proving that air power had supplanted the Navy as America’s traditional first line of defense, Mitchell be­lieved that he would establish an ironclad rationale for his dream of an independent air force.

The challenge was formidable. The Navy anchored the Ost­friesland sixty-five miles off the Virginia Capes, requiring Mitch­ell’s aircraft, based at Langley Field, Virginia, to fly almost one hundred miles before arriving at their destination. Navy rules also limited the number of hits airmen could score against the imposing target. Launched in 1911, the twenty-seven-thousand – ton dreadnought sported a four-layered hull and numerous wa­tertight compartments. It had survived eighteen direct hits and a mine detonation at the Battle of Jutland. And it had withstood earlier attacks that morning and on the previous day by Navy air­craft and Mitchell’s Martins. The Martin bombers had scored three hits with 1,100-pound bombs, but Navy inspectors deemed that the ship remained seaworthy. Mitchell agreed; he knew that stan­dard bombs would not suffice to wreck the German behemoth. In his eyes, the previous attacks had been for the Navy’s benefit, as they permitted observers to scrutinize the damage inflicted at pe­riodic intervals. After the next bomb run, he aimed to make fur­ther inspections superfluous.

Slung beneath the fuselage of each bomber that flew past the Osprey was a specially built two-thousand-pound bomb. While those bombs would likely cause substantial damage to the Ger­man battleship if they hit it, Mitchell had directed his crews to drop their ordnance in the water near the ship. He planned to take advantage of the Navy’s limit on direct hits by relying on the hammer-like pressure of underwater explosions to crush the un­armored hull. The first of the massive bombs exploded one hun­dred feet off the Ostfriesland’s starboard bow, causing the ship to list 15 degrees before righting itself. The second detonated three hundred feet in front of the vessel. The third glanced off her port bow, exploded in the water, and ripped a gaping hole in the hull. The fourth landed off her port beam, and the fifth struck the wa­ter twenty-five feet off the port side near the waist gun turret. These last two blows raised the bow, causing the ship to roll from side to side while the stern disappeared below the waves. A sixth bomb landing off the starboard side blasted the stern out of the water. Suddenly, the bow began rising until it reached a height of one hundred feet above the surface, and the stern slid downward. Twenty-one minutes after the first two-thousand-pound bomb fell, the Ostfriesland sank.

Mitchell hovered over the battleship during the attack at an al­titude of three thousand feet, five hundred feet above his bomb­ers. From among the flotilla of vessels observing the tests he now picked out the Henderson, the Navy transport filled with admi­rals, generals, congressmen, and foreign dignitaries, and dived to within two hundred feet of the craft. Grinning widely, he doffed his goggles and helmet and waved his arms to the cheers of many of those on deck. All did not respond approvingly, however; sev­eral admirals wept. For Mitchell the moment was one of supreme triumph. “The problem of the destruction of seacraft by Air Forces has been solved, and is finished,” he wrote in his report of the tests. Fie was certain that his bombers had vindicated his faith in the supremacy of air power and justified the need for an indepen­dent air force.1