Wadle on Wildenberg, 'Billy Mitchell's War with the Navy: The Interwar Rivalry over Air Power'

Thomas Wildenberg
Ryan Wadle

Thomas Wildenberg. Billy Mitchell's War with the Navy: The Interwar Rivalry over Air Power. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. xiii + 271 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-87021-038-9.

Reviewed by Ryan Wadle Published on H-War (August, 2015) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey

Over the past two decades, Thomas Wildenberg’s work has helped to radically reshape historians’ understanding of the interwar United States Navy and the process of its transformation. His studies, including Destined for Glory: Dive Bombing, Midway, and the Evolution of Carrier Airpower (1998) and All the Factors of Victory: Admiral Joseph Mason Reeves and the Origins of Carrier Airpower (2003), have highlighted a number of critical technical, organizational, conceptual, and individual factors that allowed the US Navy to integrate aviation into the fleet. His latest work, Billy Mitchell’s War with the Navy: The Interwar Rivalry over Air Power, shifts gears by giving readers the navy’s perspective of the interwar development of land-based airpower amid the larger debate over whether seapower or airpower should take primary responsibility for coastal defense. Additionally, Wildenberg ambitiously sets out to correct the historical record about Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell, one of the most fascinating military figures of the previous century and the primary figure in the fight between the army and navy for control over aviation.

Wildenberg briefly sketches the story of Mitchell’s life and rapid wartime rise through the ranks to become the most prominent and important figure in army aviation by the end of World War I. Wildenberg portrays Mitchell as a gifted leader and motivator who skillfully led the air service through the American campaigns on the western front, but who was also petty and petulant and repeatedly clashed with other army leaders, including fellow aviators. After the war’s end, Mitchell used his expertise and political ties to advocate for a significant expansion of aviation’s military roles and missions and the creation of an independent air service. In this quest, Mitchell initially began publicly criticizing the navy’s management of its own aviation arm but expanded these criticisms to claim that modern airpower had rendered naval vessels obsolete. In doing so, he sought to undermine the navy’s status as the nation’s “first line of defense” from foreign threats and to position his envisioned independent air force as the new coast defense service and to receive the appropriations that came with such responsibilities.

Naval leaders, unsurprisingly, pushed back at Mitchell’s criticism while simultaneously finding themselves embroiled in a public firestorm over the efficacy of airpower against surface ships that climaxed with the Virginia Capes bombing tests of 1921. These tests, which most famously saw Mitchell’s airmen sink the old German battleship Ostfriesland, only added to Mitchell’s public profile, but his critics—including the head of the navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics, Rear Admiral William Adger Moffett—sought to reject the validity of the tests by emphasizing Mitchell’s consistent flouting of the rules. From the navy’s perspective, sinking a dilapidated, obsolescent battleship swinging at anchor without escort or antiaircraft guns offered little conclusive evidence as to the efficacy of airpower against naval vessels. Additional tests in the following years, however, further revealed Mitchell to be intellectually shallow and unwilling or unable to fully operationalize many of the ideas he championed. Mitchell’s willingness to ignore convention finally caught up to him in 1925 when his damning criticism of aviation policy in the wake of the crash of the airship Shenandoah led to his court-martial even as the Morrow Board finally provided the institutional support—but not Mitchell’s goal of air service independence—to further encourage aviation development.

Mitchell’s removal from the scene proved personally disastrous as he could no longer use his position to create stunts to attract public attention, but it also failed to completely quell the rivalry between the army and navy over coast defense responsibilities. Apart from a few notable exceptions, such as the interception of the Italian liner Rex by B-17s in 1938, many of these debates between army and navy leaders largely occurred outside the public’s view. An agreement between General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral William Pratt in 1931 only temporarily resolved the boundaries between the services. Although the Army Air Corps expended considerable effort and resources to carve out a role in coast defense, Wildenberg uses the total failure of Army Air Force B-17s to sink any Japanese shipping during the Battle of Midway to demonstrate that the army’s assumptions about the efficacy of heavy bombers in coast defense were fatally flawed.

Billy Mitchell’s War with the Navy showcases strengths common to Wildenberg’s work, including a keen insight for analyzing how military organizations operationalize new concepts. In this book, however, Wildenberg has shown how the Army Air Corps failed to transform their ideas into a workable concept. He also has a knack for finding hitherto unknown or unseen sources. This is especially important when the historical subject matter is as well-trod as Billy Mitchell. To that end, Wildenberg also thoughtfully includes two appendices based on his thorough research, one of which is a thorough analysis by Captain Alfred W. Johnson of a Mitchell article published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1925, and also a detailed historiographical analysis of the previous published works covering Mitchell’s life and career.

While Wildenberg fills in many of the gaps and offers a fresh perspective on a seemingly well-worn topic, the many subjects that Billy Mitchell’s War with the Navy covers do not always mesh well together. Wildenberg clearly lays out the progression of Mitchell’s ideas and actions, but the book is not, strictly speaking, a full biography of Mitchell. Similarly, it is not entirely satisfying as a history of the question of coast defense because of the strong emphasis placed upon Mitchell. In fact, Wildenberg strains to tie much of the pre-1925 rivalry to Mitchell even when the links appear tangential at best, such as in his strong but disconnected analysis of army and navy participation in air races during the early 1920s. Mitchell’s court-martial signals a radical change in the book’s tone and focus in its final chapters, which are more reflective of the subtitle, The Interwar Rivalry over Air Power. Had Wildenberg given readers a better sense of how many of Mitchell’s peers shared his views or linked Mitchell’s advocacy to debates over airpower occurring in professional forums, such as The Coast Artillery Journal, the book would feel more cohesive.[1]

In spite of the structural discord, the book has much to offer both lay readers and scholars interested in interservice relations and the development of military and naval aviation. It also has a much broader value as a case study for military professionals wishing to examine organizational disputes over the control of new domains, an important topic as can be seen with the current debates over operations in space and cyberspace. Thankfully, Billy Mitchell’s War with the Navy can inform these debates by providing a much-needed fresh perspective on a familiar topic.


[1]. For an example of recent debates on the uses of airpower in coast defense, see Brian McAllister Linn, The Echo of Battle: The Army’s Way of War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 122-123, 127-128.

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=41697

Citation: Ryan Wadle. Review of Wildenberg, Thomas, Billy Mitchell's War with the Navy: The Interwar Rivalry over Air Power. H-War, H-Net Reviews. August, 2015. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=41697

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