The Final Act Cover

Striking the Hornet’s Nest

Naval Aviation and the Origins of Strategic Bombing in World War I

Geoffrey L. Rossano and Thomas Wildenberg

Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2015, 304 pages

Book Review published on: February 1, 2019

For a modern joint duty officer, Striking the Hornet’s Nest has to be one of the most frustrating books a person could pick up. The “hornet’s nest” was a description President Woodrow Wilson used to describe the German submarine pens at Zeebrugge, Belgium. With the German implementation of unrestricted submarine warfare, interdiction and elimination of the submarine threat was an extremely high priority, not only for the triple entente but also for its new American ally as well. As the United States prepared to start sending troops across the Atlantic, it wanted to be reasonably sure they would arrive safely. The German submarine menace was real and worrisome.

Unfortunately, the United States was not prepared for entry into the Great War at all. It had no modern combat aircraft and no modern field artillery, but it had a fine infantry rifle with rather insufficient numbers. There were a few bright spots: there was an industrial base waiting to be tapped and a population of ready and willing volunteers. Of course, bringing all this potential to bear on the fight would take time.

Entente allies had tried to combat submarines in open seas and found the prey to be frustratingly elusive. Greater payoffs appeared to be available by striking the submarine bases where sorties originated and critical replenishment and maintenance took place. Striking the submarine pens in Belgium was a “Navy problem” but not a blue water challenge. The location of these pens upstream and inland from the coast made them very difficult targets; they were too inland to engage with naval gunfire and well out of range of land-based artillery. Allied planners turned to the airplane to provide a potential solution. Bombing the sub pens was not a new American idea, the French and British had been trying for years with extremely limited success.

This was the first strategic bombing challenge for U.S. forces, and because it was a navy target, the U.S. Navy took it on despite the fact that it had no suitable aircraft and few trained pilots. Spoiler alert: the war ended before they became organized. It was not for lack of trying, but one bureaucratic obstacle after another frustrated their efforts. Without their own bombers, they had to beg, borrow, or trade for suitable aircraft. The British Handley Page 100 was an excellent choice, but the British were extremely reluctant to give them up. The Italian Caproni 5 looked promising, but it was plagued with unreliability problems. Among the solutions: trade U.S. Liberty engines for aircraft and build the British DH-4 in the United States. Both options became part of a potential solution but generating an effective force simply took too long; although the U.S. Marine squadron operated as a unit late in the war, the U.S. Navy’s Northern Bombing Group never flew a combat mission.

The greatest successes of Navy and Marine aviators came as a result of temporary assignments to Allied air units to gain combat experience. The Navy had one ace, David Ingalls, who scored all his kills while flying with the Royal Air Force’s No. 213 Squadron.

A knowledgeable reader cannot help but sense the tension and experience the same sort of frustration as those who worked so hard to bring this effort to fruition, but the reader’s frustration is amplified by perfect hindsight. One can feel the clock ticking as 11 November 1918 approaches and so little has been accomplished. It was a noble effort but ultimately unsuccessful. However, the challenges of that war laid the foundations for the development of plans, equipment, and training that would be the foundations of the Allied strategic bombing effort in World War II.

The authors are thorough in their research, perhaps a little too thorough in some cases, making some of the detail a bit tedious. Still, this is a worthwhile illumination of a time and of the heroic efforts to accomplish a mission that had been never been done before.

Book Review written by: Thomas E. Ward II, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas