By Dr Michael Molkentin
Editorial Note: In the third instalment of ‘Air War Books,’ Dr Michael Molkentin discusses the ten books that have influenced and shaped his writing as an air power historian. If you are interested in contributing to this series or From Balloons to Drones more generally, find out how here.
After I wrote to Dr Ross Mahoney enthusiastically agreeing with several of his choices (always a bad idea!) and suggesting a few others, he promptly invited me to contribute my own ‘Top 10’. I had been saying I would write something for Balloons to Drones for a while and so now he had me cornered. What follows is a list of titles that have had a significant impact on the way I research and write aviation and air power history. As these titles clearly indicate, my area of interest primarily concerns the pre-Second World War period (military and civil) and the people and ideas, rather than the technology, of aviation.
Denis Winter, The First of the Few: Fighter Pilots of the First World War (London: Allen Lane, 1982). Denis, unfortunately, went on to write a scandalously bad book on Haig that damaged his reputation as a historian. But before that, he produced a couple of genuinely very good ‘face of battle’ type histories of British servicemen in the Great War (the other being Death’s Men). I found The First of the Few in my high school library and later used it as a model for writing my honours thesis on Australian airmen in the Great War. It is a bit dated, relies almost entirely on published accounts and some of Winter’s statistics do not stand up to scrutiny. But it is what got me interested in the subject and stands as the best personal experience study of British airmen in the Great War. I had the pleasure of meeting Denis in Canberra in 2004. He was a kind and gracious man and, when I showed him my work, he encouraged me to keep writing.
Richard P. Hallion, Taking Flight: Inventing the Aerial Age, from Antiquity Through the First World War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). I might have included any of Richard’s numerous books on air power (Strike from the Sky, his history of ground attack is a close second) but this has probably been most useful and influential in my work. It is a model of highly readable, yet meticulously researched history. It is international in scope and provides some valuable analysis of the complex ways in which aviation emerged as a practical reality, in various parts of the world, before 1914.
S.F. Wise, The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Volume 1: Canadian Airmen and the First World War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980). Wise’s first volume of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s official history is, in my view, the best single volume history of British air power in the Great War. The ubiquity of Canadians in the British flying services (over 20,000 served) means that Wise needed to cover all aspects of air power in the conflict – maritime aviation, strategic bombing and home defence, army cooperation and even some brief surveys of the RFC/RAF in secondary theatres. While some of his conclusions about the conduct of the war on the Western Front have dated, in the main his conclusions stand and are thoroughly grounded in archival sources. My PhD thesis and the book that followed it used Wise’s book as a model to examine Australia’s part in the air war from political, strategic, operational and tactical perspectives.
E.R. Hooton, War over the Trenches: Air Power and the Western Front Campaigns 1916-1918 (Hersham: Midland Publishing, 2010). I have mixed feelings about his book. On the one hand, it makes a significant contribution to our understanding of air power on the Western Front by conducting a multi-force (French, German and British) analysis at the operational level- something nobody had previously attempted. Whereas previous studies of the subject have focused on the tactical level, Hooton uses a mass of statistical data (sorties flown, ordnance expended, losses, serviceability, etc.) to provide a much broader picture of how air power influenced the conflict and how its use evolved between 1916 and 1918. Unfortunately, the book is poorly written and (in the first edition at least) so badly type set that some of the data tables are almost unreadable. It is such an important contribution to the field: I only hope the publisher has the good sense to reissue a revised edition or that an aspiring PhD candidate will take his approach further.
John Buckley, Air Power in the Age of Total War (London: UCL Press, 1999). I am going to go with Ross here and say that, among the many air power surveys out there, this one is the best. It is clear, concise and, essentially for a book like this, gets the balance right between ideas and details. Giving his narrative cohesion is a compelling, convincing and delightfully ironic thesis: that total war first enabled air power but then, following the onset of the nuclear age, limited its functions.
Philip S. Meilinger, The Paths of Heaven: The Evolution of Airpower Theory (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1977). Besides Buckley, the other book I recommend students starting out in the field is Meilinger’s survey of air power thinking. It is a straightforward, textbook approach devoting a chapter to each of the twentieth century’s most influential air power theorists. It is not exactly a page turner but is absolutely essential reading for students of air power and a useful reference work to have within arm’s reach when writing.
Malcolm Cooper, The Birth of Independent Air Power: British Air Policy in the First World War (London: Allen and Unwin, 1986). Malcolm was one of the first scholars to use the Air Ministry’s declassified files after their transfer to the British National Archives (then the PRO) during his PhD candidature during the 1970s. Whereas accounts of British air power’s early days had, until then, been overwhelmingly focused at the tactical level (individual pilots, squadrons, Biggles, etc.), The Birth of Independent Air Power focuses on the topic at the political and policy-making levels. I do not agree with Malcolm’s conclusion that the Army’s use of air power was wasteful and unimaginative (neither does James Pugh in his excellent new book which provides a good update on aspects of Cooper) but much of what he says was vital in adding political context to the operational history of British air power from 1914 to 1918.
Alfred Gollin, The Impact of Air Power on the British People and their Government (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989). I would give this to students not even interested in air power as a somewhat rare example of an academic historian writing in a clear, engaging style. Honestly, it reads like a novel but still manages to seamlessly incorporate excellent analysis. Gollin was an enormously talented historian and a shining example to those of us who actually want our work to have a readership beyond the academy and services.
John A. Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2003). Lynn does not really deal with aviation or air power explicitly, but his approach to explaining warfare through the prism of culture is both novel and enlightening. In case study chapters ranging from Ancient Greek warfare to modern Islamic terrorism, Lynn demonstrates convincingly that we cannot properly understand military operations without considering the cultures that conceive and wage them.
Ian Mackersey, Smithy: The Life of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith (London: Little Brown, 1998). This is not only the best of the many biographies of Kingsford Smith; it is the best example of historical biography I have come across. Through impressively dogged detective work, Mackersey managed to track down a number of people who had known Kingsford Smith before his death six decades earlier. From them, he got oral history and private papers that shed light on hitherto unknown or mythologised aspects of his subject’s life. Ian wrote a page turner too: it is engaging, absorbing history. Ian, who sadly died a couple of years ago, was also a gentleman. When I was writing my book on the 1928 trans-Pacific flight, he generously shared manuscript material he had gathered from private collections in the US when researching his book.
Dr Michael Molkentin is an adjunct lecturer at the University of New South Wales and a teacher at Shellharbour Anglican College. He has a first-class Honours degree from the University of Wollongong and a PhD in History from the University of New South Wales. In 2014, the Australian War Memorial awarded Michael’s doctoral research the Bryan Gandevia Prize for Australian Military History. He specialises in the history of armed conflict with an emphasis on warfare in the British world and the development of air power. Michael has written three books, the most recent being Australia and the War in the Air (OUP, 2014).
Header Image: An RE8 of No 69 (later No 3) Squadron, Australian Flying Corps preparing to set out on a night bombing operation from Savy near Arras, 22 October 1917. (Source: © IWM (E(AUS) 1178))
5 thoughts on “#AirWarBooks – Dr Michael Molkentin”
I’m disappointed to see Denis Winter’s book cited. It was undoubtedly influential in its day but it is poorly researched and full of errors. The ‘problem’ with his statistics cannot be explained as a simple oversight – it reflects Winter’s ambivalent attitude to his sources and, dare I say, the truth. An author dosn’t change his spots and the well-documented issues over Haig’s Command were firmly trailed in The First of the Few. Winter’s thesis was not challenged at the time – possibly because it played into a fashionable narrative about the First World War (pioneered by Alan Clarke). Unfortunately, it has been referenced by other historians (such as Brian Bond and Joshua Levine) and also documentary makers, including the BBC (although the RAF Museum played its part in taking them down this particular garden path). If there ever was a book that has corrupted a generation of scholarship, this is it.
Peter, why would it disappoint you to see any book included on someone else’s list of books that influenced them? In any case, as I indicated the book was the first I read on the subject (in high school!) and is certainly not without its faults. Given more space I may have listed other books of questionable scholarly worth such as ‘Biggles: Pioneer Air Fighter’, ‘Reach for the Skies’ or some of Len Deighton’s popular histories, which also, nevertheless, encouraged me to pursue a profession writing and teaching history.
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Peter, thank you for taking the time to reply and hear your thoughts. As Michael mentioned, the series is really about the books that have influenced and shaped us as historians rather than there scholarly standing. Indeed, knowing there are issues with Winter’s book meant that I left Winter’s off our ‘Air Power Reading List’ (https://balloonstodrones.com/air-power-reading-list/).
We would be interested in seeing your list of ten books if we were able to coerce you into writing something for the site?
Rather than provide a reading list, I’d be very happy to offer an article on The First of The Few, focussing on its scholarship, its influence on other historians and its continuing impact on the public’s understanding of the First War in The Air.
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That sounds like an excellent idea. I think both Michael and I fully accept that Winter’s scholarship was far from perfect. However, as you note, and Michael admits, it has had a long influence on the field.