By Tyler Morton
James Streckfuss, Eyes All Over the Sky: Aerial Reconnaissance in the First World War. Oxford, UK: Casemate Publishers, 2016. Maps. Bibliography. Notes. Index. 239pp.
Aviation historian after aviation historian has fallen into the trap of overlooking the important role played by airborne intelligence collection platforms during the First World War. Mystified with the glamorous images of Baron von Richthofen and Eddie Rickenbacker, the historical narrative has primarily focused on the exploits of the fighter pilot. This narrative has been fueled by a general lack of scholarly writing about the important role played by airborne-derived intelligence. In Eyes All Over the Sky: Aerial Reconnaissance in the First World War, James Streckfuss seeks to remedy the oversight.
From the dawn of war, military commanders have sought enhanced intelligence to assist decision making. For much of history, the quest for better information was limited to the use of spies or, at best, the ability to obtain improved vantage points from high terrain or even trees. Almost immediately after man achieved flight, military thinkers put the air platform to intelligence use and in June 1794 the French conducted the world’s first military airborne reconnaissance sortie when they used balloons to reconnoitre Austrian forces near the town of Maubeuge on the border with Belgium. Military use of the air asset proliferated and by the start of World War I, the balloon and the aeroplane were firmly entrenched in militaries around the world. In every case, the air assets were reconnaissance platforms. This point, more than any other, drives Streckfuss’ subsequent analysis of the importance of airborne reconnaissance in the war.
After briefly outlining the early days of the balloon – and aeroplane – based reconnaissance, Streckfuss dives right into the tactical fight of the First War. Choosing first to highlight the little-known importance of balloon reconnaissance, Streckfuss thoroughly examines all the major combatants’ use of balloons comparing the challenges faced by each as they tried to maximise the impact of this still unfamiliar capability. Of note in this section is the advanced progress which the Germans had made as compared to that of the Allies. Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s determination to make Germany the air power envy of the world had resulted in considerable pride and dedication to balloons. When the war began, they were significantly ahead of the Allies. Unfortunately for the Germans, their commanders on the Western Front had not been convinced of the veracity of the intelligence their airborne reconnaissance platforms provided. Thus, German commanders ignored the information provided by their airmen and instead made disastrous moves that eventually resulted in the famous German retreat to the Aisne River and the subsequent stalemate that characterised much of the war.
Over the next several chapters, Streckfuss lays out a well-told story of aviation’s wartime missions of artillery spotting, infantry liaison, and photographic interpretation. These chapters magnificently describe the primary missions conducted by the various air forces during the war. As the war was, by any estimation, a war of the ‘big guns,’ the importance of aviation to the artillery mission cannot be overstated. Due to air power, the artillery could now hit targets all over the battlefield – even deep behind enemy lines – with previously unheard of accuracy. As Streckfuss writes, airborne intelligence ‘held the key to making the artillery more deadly than it had been in any previous war’ (p.84).
The book’s final chapter examines the reasons why the success of airborne reconnaissance was downplayed after the war. Thoroughly convinced that air power would be the dominant force in all future wars, airmen of the major victorious powers sought to free – or in the case of the British, keep free – their air arms from the control of the British Army and the Royal Navy. According to Streckfuss, this dogged drive for independence caused airmen to highlight the ‘power’ part of air power and to minimise the primarily ‘service’ role air power had played in the war. The ability to singlehandedly win a war was a far more compelling argument than the contributions the air forces had made in their support of the Army and Navy.
Streckfuss’ argument is compelling. Airborne reconnaissance was the primary purpose of air forces going into the First World War and, contrary to some beliefs, it contributed significantly to both victory and defeat. This new book is a welcome addition and helps fill a historiographical gap in the literature about the war and our general understanding of the importance of airborne reconnaissance. I highly recommend it for the air power expert and novice alike.
Header Image: An RAF aerial photograph showing how the enemy attempted to conceal gun positions by artificial smoke screens, which were defeated by the use of the camera. (Source: © IWM (Q 12224))
 Eric Dorn Brose, The Kaiser’s Army: The Politics of Military Technology in Germany During the Machine Age, 1870-1918 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001), 191.