By Johannes Allert

The lingering question remains as to why Edgar Gorrell is repeatedly misidentified as a stalwart advocate for strategic bombing. One clue, in particular, involves his analytical work compiled in the First World War entitled ‘The Future Role of American Bombardment Aviation.’ The plan above called for a robust air campaign aimed at German industry designed to break both German production and morale; however, the plan was shelved once Armistice was declared.[1] Withdrawing from the world’s stage, America quickly re-embraced isolationism. Yet, air strategists in their stubborn willfulness remained convinced that subsequent wars required sufficient strategies and weapons designed to mitigate problems associated with trench warfare.[2] Then, in 1935, technology and theory merged with the development of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and the coincidental discovery of Gorrell’s of plans by a fervent disciple of “Billy” Mitchell – Lieutenant Laurence S. Kuter, later a General. This serendipitous moment reinforced his existing argument for strategic bombing in lectures he conducted at Maxwell Army Air Base. Believing strategy and technology could transition from theory to reality, the impressionable young Lieutenant arranged a meeting with its author to verify the data. Upon arrival, Kuter was surprised to discover Gorrell invited former members of his staff to corroborate the information. To a man, each concurred that the Lieutenant’s lecture matched the original plans. Vindicated, Kuter departed for Maxwell confidently stating:

We may return to our steel desks considerably refreshed by the knowledge that our school plans and our theories are not only supported by, but [are] identical with the plans of the level headed commanders in the field when the grim realities of actual war demanded effective employment.[3]

raid_by_the_8th_air_force
A Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress during the raid on the Focke Wulf plant at Marienburg, 9 October 1943. (Source: NARA)

Overlooked in the young Lieutenant’s statement, was the slight detail involving ‘employment of effective plans’ that, in reality never occurred. Furthermore, aircrews did not fly steel desks and the advent of the Second World War revealed a savage reality of aerial combat consisting of unexpected headwinds, radio interference, dispersed targets obscured by cloud cover, and skies filled with flak and fighters. Only the arrival in late 1944 of long range Allied fighter escort in substantial numbers alleviated the bomber’s plight. Kuter simply made a mistake common to us all – he saw what he wanted to see. Gorrell and his staff merely reinforced it.

Thus, the combination of events served as the catalyst for initiating a narrow and ideologically driven agenda. History, however, reveals Gorrell’s penchant for tackling any project assigned to him by meticulous analysis and hard work. Consequently, his recognition of aviation’s vast potential resulted in expansion and development of airlift capability that far surpassed his ‘significant achievement’ of 1918. It is also interesting to note that while analysis of his bombing study receives frequent coverage, his ‘Gorrell Histories’ remains virtually untouched. This is ironic given the fact that its intended purpose was to ‘assist in establishing Army aeronautics on a sound basis for the future.’[4] Furthermore, the manner that Gorrell’s obituary was written indicates Kuter, another West Point alum, as partly responsible for crafting the legacy of the late air executive to reinforce the ‘bomber mafia’ narrative. Gorrell’s ‘mistaken identity’ simply coincided with the leading aviation proponents’ narrative. Consequently, his death combined with strategic bombing’s overwhelming consensus sufficiently prohibited others from offering a counter-narrative.

Yet, it is the development and expansion of air transportation that endures. The ability to transport and sustain forces globally on a consistent basis in peace and war for over seventy years remains an underappreciated, yet unique and critical feature of the modern U.S. Military arsenal. Whether it is airlift’s support in battle or providing humanitarian aid in peacetime, success simply cannot occur without it. Gorrell recognised this early on and, in keeping with his philosophy of constant analysis, laboured ceaselessly to improve and expand it.

Similarly, it is the task of the historian to revive and revise Gorrell’s story and contribution. Unlike proponents of strategic precision bombing, historians must instead consider the broader actions and provide a greater contextual understanding of events and individuals of human history.

Part One and Two of this article can be found here and here.

Header Image: A Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Mark Clodfelter, Beneficial Bombing: The Progressive Foundations of American Air Power, 1917-1945 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), pp.22-9.

[2] James P. Tate, The Army and its Air Corps: Army Policy toward Aviation: 1919-1941 (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1998), pp.166-7.

[3] Clodfelter, Beneficial Bombing, pp.58-9.

[4] Edgar S. Gorrell, Gorrell’s History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service, 1917-19 Record Group 120 (National Archives, Washington, D.C. 1923), pp.1-4.

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