U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission home page

Explosion on the Alabama

Mitchell's bombardiers conducted a demonstration in September 1921, hitting the battleship Alabama with phosphorus, tear gas, and other bombs.

Ostfriedland under attack

The Ostfriesland under attack in 1921 Army-Navy bombing test. Mining effects of hits like this sank her.

Martin bomber attacks a battleship

A Martin bomber attacks and sinks a battleship during exercises in 1921.

The Alabama

Martin aircraft carrying explosives.

Martin planes before dropping bombs

The battleship Alabama before being hit with bombs.

Billy Mitchell Sinks the Ships

After World War I ended, military budgets were reduced and armies were decreased in size by international disarmament treaties. In the United States, the services rallied to compete for the limited funds available to keep their individual branches powerful. Aviation, which was part of the U.S. Army, would have been forgotten if the assistant chief of the air service, William "Billy" Mitchell, had not made fighting for the future of aviation in the U.S. military his top personal mission.


Instead of concentrating on aviation, defense budgets focused on building super dreadnoughts for the navy. A super dreadnought was an enormous steam-propelled battleship, considered unbeatable if it was the biggest one. Mitchell considered the dreadnought his enemy. Based on the evidence of the war, he felt that no naval fleet could survive a battle if a land-based air force could reach it. Mitchell spoke out against this funding often, angering the navy. And the press, sensing readership in stories of inter-service rivalries, encouraged Mitchell by printing his speeches and articles.


Finally, in February 1921, the navy could not ignore Mitchell anymore. Testifying before the House subcommittee on aviation, Mitchell stated that 1000 bomber aircraft could be built and operated for the cost of one dreadnought and that his airplanes could sink a battleship. He volunteered to demonstrate this if the navy would provide him with some battleships, which were already due to be demolished. The navy reluctantly agreed to the demonstrations.


The navy did not support the demonstrations because it felt that success would weaken its position in the upcoming World Naval Disarmament Conference. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels volunteered to stand bareheaded on the deck of any ship Mitchell was going to bomb. Once it was decided the tests would be performed under navy rules, it set strict guidelines that it felt would ensure failure for Mitchell. One was that the bombings be conducted slowly, stopping often to permit inspections of the damage by construction inspectors. This would allow a scientific appraisal of the capacity of different types of ships to withstand aerial attack. Also, the number and size of the bombs were to be limited. The navy also ordered that there be a news blackout during preparations and that only official reports of the tests be allowed afterward. They were aware that Mitchell knew how to manipulate the press and they wanted to ensure that his story was not the one told to the public.


Once the test was agreed to, Mitchell formed the First Provisional Air Brigade, drawing 150 airplanes and 1,000 people from air bases around the country. Because none of the pilots knew how to sink ships, extensive training was required at Langley Field in Virginia, where practice missions against mock ships were performed. Among the officers attending the practices was Alexander de Seversky, who had served with Russia during the war, dropping bombs on German ships. He taught the pilots that the best way to sink a ship was to drop the bomb near, not on, the ship.


The tests began in July off the coast of Virginia. The navy had provided Mitchell with three decommissioned U.S. battleships and three ships obtained from the Germans in the peace agreement--a destroyer, an armored light cruiser, and a dreadnought. All were successfully sunk. The climax of the demonstrations took place on July 21, when the navy brought out the German ship Ostfriedland, a great ship that had been the pride of the German fleet during the war. The vessel was considered unsinkable, and it probably would have been if Mitchell had adhered to the rules. But instead, he had personally overseen the design of a number of 2,000-pound (907-kilogram) bombs, knowing that smaller bombs would not be successful. Martin twin-engine MB-2 bombers dropped six of these bombs in rapid succession. Two scored direct hits and the others landed close enough for the ship’s hull plates to rip open from the force of the explosion. Twenty-one minutes after the test began, the Ostfriedland plunged to the bottom of the ocean. The final plane dropped its bombs into the foam rising from the sinking ship.


The navy was horrified and declared the tests void since Mitchell had violated the guidelines. But it also began to focus more on aviation. The Bureau of Aeronautics, which had been established in 1921 as a defense against Mitchell’s actions under the leadership of William Moffat, increased its development of the aircraft carriers that would eventually help win the Pacific campaign in World War II.


For the Air Corps, the results were different. Mitchell was able to use the tests for more publicity and to push the agenda of the air force to the nation. He wanted an air force modeled after the Royal Air Force in England, which commanded all military aviation--from land to sea operations. But Mitchell’s public condemnations of the military eventually led to his court martial and early retirement. Soon after the tests, Secretary of the Air Corps Major General Charles Menoher was forced to resign and was replaced by General Mason Patrick. General Patrick understood the importance of aviation, but he also understood the politics of the military. He spent the next decade quietly working to establish a mission and vision for an independent air force. In 1948, the Air Force was founded. But Mitchell’s tests had encouraged the navy to become air-minded. By 1948, naval aviation was an established division of the navy with no desire to become separate. As a result, the air force does not include naval aviation.


--Pamela Feltus



Hurley, Alfred F. Billy Mitchell: Crusader for Air Power. New York: Franklin Watts, Inc., 1964.

Rose, Elihu. "The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell." MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, Air Power Issue 1996.


On-Line Sources:

Boyne, Walter. "The Spirit of Billy Mitchell." Air Force Magazine, June 1996. http://www.afa.org/magazine/June1996/0696mitchell.html

Glines, C.V. "Billy Mitchell: Air Power Visionary." Aviation History at www.thehistorynet.com/AviationHistory/articles/1997/0997_cover.htm

General Billy Mitchell, Milwaukee Native and Air Force Pioneer http://www.uwm.edu/Library/arch/mitchell/intro.htm

Ivy, Lt.Col. Jack M. "The Paradoxical Paradigm: Aviation Leadership, 1918-1926: How William Moffett Changed the Navy and How Billy Mitchell Prevented the Formation of a Separate Air Force" from the Air University Student Research Papers Database at http://www.au.af.mil/au/database/research/ay1997/awc/97-090.htm.


Additional Reading:

Burlingame, Roger. General Billy Mitchell, Champion of Air Defense. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978.

Davis, Burke. The Billy Mitchell Affair. New York: Random House, 1987.

Levine, Isaac Don. Mitchell: Pioneer of Air Power. New York: Arno Press, 1972.



Educational Organization

Standard Designation (where applicable)

Content of Standard

International Technology Education Association

Standard 4

Students will develop an understanding of the economic and political effects of technology.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 10

Students will develop an understanding of the role of research and development, invention and innovation, and experimentation in problem solving.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 6

Students will develop an understanding of the role of society in the develop and use of technology.