The Forgotten Visionary

When we think about strategic bombing doctrine, and its early proponents and converts within the United States armed forces, we naturally thought of men of such status as the famous and controversial William “Billy” Mitchell or the colorful Benjamin “Benny” Foulois – seldom, if ever, does the name of Edgar S. Gorrell come to our mind. A sad example of what writers called “phantom lagoons”. In those early days of aviation, when writers tended to enlarge the personal profiles of anyone who could achieve a milestone in this new field of human endeavor, some names gathered more recognitions than others. This type of reporting or writing only enhanced the profile of those controversial and colorful characters, leaving other equally important names in the history of aviation in a historical lagoon. One of those men stuck in the phantom lagoon was Colonel Edgar S. Gorrell of the US Air Service.

Gorrell began his military service after graduating from the US Military Academy at West Point in the spring of 1912. After a relatively un-distinguished Army career, Gorrell decided to enlist in the infant Air Service when the US declared war on the Central Powers in April 1917. Two months later, Gorrell was deployed to France as part of the spearhead of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). His unit, the Bolling Mission, arrived at the French capital in July of the same year, well ahead of the AEF main force. In France, young Gorrell was assigned to the new US Air Service Technical Section. The Section’s main objective was the development of an attack and bombing strategy to be implemented against German targets deep inside the Kaiser’s homeland. Here is where the first steps towards the US air strategic doctrine, a policy that has dominated America’s air campaign strategy since then, began to take shape. Heavily influenced by the great British’s strategic visionary Major General Hugh M. Trenchard, who was at the time head of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and his liaison at Paris, Major Lord Tiverton, who in September 1917 had proposed to the RFC that a new and more destructive type of aerial assault be implemented in order to submit ordinary Germans to the full power of the Allies new weapons; Gorrell began to form the outlines of what could have become the main US strategic bombing campaign plan on the Western Front. By October, Gorrell’s outlines had become a more serious technical proposal than he originally thought, one that he presented to the AEF commanders in mid November 1917. The proposal called for a massive bombing campaign against German troop concentrations, dockyards, industrial areas and major population centers deep inside Germany itself. The new American plan, as the paper was later known, utilized all of Tiverton’s four main concepts first presented to the RFC in September. The first of these concepts was the determination of bombing targets, distances, enemy offensive and defensive capabilities around them, projected casualties figures and weather patterns around the selected zone. Next was the evaluation of America’s, and its Allies, overall air resources and capabilities assigned to the determined objective. This was followed by logistical studies and planning implementation mechanisms. Last, Gorrell encouraged commanders to plan their assaults on areas where the impact of saturation heavy bombing would cause the greatest effect to German civilian moral, which was the plan’s original combat target.

The similarities between Tiverton’s and Gorrell’s papers were one of the reasons that the name of Gorrell is seldom known outside military aviation historians today. As the American Plan moved up through the chain of command, it gained more and more converts among field commanders, and although the Plan was not implemented because of aircraft production shortages and training shortfalls, it was of such depth that it went on to serve as the cornerstone of the US Army Air Corp’s bombing doctrine during the Second World War. In the early months of 1918, before the great German offensives of the spring, Gorrell wrote a second paper titled “The Future Role of American Bombardment Aviation”. This paper followed almost the same path as the American plan. It called for the same four principals when preparing to engage an enemy with aerial power. But by the time the paper was ready for serious consideration, an Armistice was signed in a railway car outside Versailles ending the War to End all Wars, and thus the paper was relegated to some obscure long term planning divisions. De-mobilization was at top of the American commanders minds, but this did not mean that the two papers were neglected or even ignored, in fact, the opposite occurred. During the inter-war years, much of Gorrell’s visionary ideas were implemented in the Army Air Corps Tactical Manual, forming the backbone of the US air effort little more than twenty years later.

Edgar Gorrell’s natural traits helped him shape American military aviation tactics for decades. His selflessness enabled him to incorporate foreign-developed concepts into his own ideas and his analytical mind made him redefine those concepts and apply them to the American reality, thus forming a new thesis on the use of American air power. A thesis that would dominate US Air Force’s strategic doctrine ever since those months in 1917.

– Raul Colon

1 U.S. Air Force: A Complete History, Air Force Historical Foundation 2006
2 Air Power: The Men, Machines and Ideas that Revolutionized War, Stephen Budiansky, Penguin Books 2004

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