Editorial Note: In the fourth instalment of ‘Air War Books,’ Dr Randall Wakelam 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.
Since joining the Air Force more than 45 years ago, I have found that professional education for those working with air power has not been a forte of Canada’s Air Force. Much of what I have learned, I have done so out of curiosity and by selecting graduate courses and by doing graduate research that allowed me to satisfy my curiosity and develop a better understanding of air power. While I am critical of this circumstance in Canada I do not think it is unique; there are too many editorials, op-eds and notes from chiefs of service that attempt to get aviators to read if not write.
Having taught air power at the Canadian Forces College and now at an undergraduate and graduate level to officer cadets and civilian students, I continue to learn. In this teaching, I think I am comfortable with the notion that air power concepts introduced a century ago have now reached maturity regarding what air power effects can be applied and how. What is constantly in flux is the larger Geopolitical context of why and when one wants to apply air power effects.
The one other factor that I would want to bring into the formulation of this list is my desire to get inside the thinking processes of those who have developed air power concepts and then applied them. Thus, several the titles that you will see below are either biographies or studies of the human condition. In the case of biographies, I fully recognise that looking at the life stories of some of these actors comes with risks. Case studies of human and personnel questions are perhaps less risky but not without risk.
And now to the list, which is most certainly too short to do justice to the many other works that I have found important to me.
Philip Meilinger (ed.), The Paths of Heaven: The Evolution of Airpower Theory (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1997). This volume is without question the one work that I keep going back to. Admittedly written from a United States Air Force (USAF) perspective I have found the work balanced and useful in seeing the ‘long duree’ of air power thought and its application. I first read the book just after it came out but even now, twenty years later, do not find it particularly dated. Of great value is I.B. Holley’s summary and commentary. His criticism that the work ignores naval aviation serves as a caution to readers that while highly valuable the volume does have its limitations.
John Andreas Olsen (ed.), A History of Air Warfare (Washington D.C.: Potomac, 2010). This work fills the void of the last two decades since Paths of Heaven was published and provides readers with a different treatment of many of the same ideas and events presented in the former. For that reason, I think it provides a solid bookend to balance the USAF compendium. Also, the reader gets a good dose, perhaps too good of the air campaigns of the post-Cold War decades and three useful studies of current and future themes, most importantly small wars and space. The penultimate chapter, by Martin van Creveld, balances Holley’s commentary and leaves the reader with the ultimate question: has the age of air power come and gone?
Allan D. English, Understanding Military Culture: A Canadian Perspective (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004). When I reviewed English’s book about a decade ago, I wrote that it was, for me at least, a volume that captured essential ideas about military culture, ideas that I might have benefited from even from my first days in uniform. In a relatively short but well-focused study, English laid out the elements of culture, looked at them through the lens of the USAF and then from the perspective of the Canadian air arm. At that time there was no the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), as there had been up to the 1960s and as there is again today. The absences of that organisational title and the emotional trappings of an independent air service were all the more reason to read English’s book at the time. The comings and goings of organisations, from squadron to air forces that continue in all nations made and makes this work incredibly insightful.
Henry Probert, Bomber Harris: His Life & Times (Aylesbury: Greenhill Books, 2001). For a long time, I wanted to attempt to understand the thinking of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris. Was he the wanton killer of German civilians that he was accused of being? How did he apparently hold the loyalty of his aviators? Probert’s study of the man gave me the answers that others did not. Bullheaded to the point of obstinacy – certainly more than not – but he did set out to apply the concepts and technology available to him to accomplish the task set for Bomber Command. Moreover, in this, we see not bombast alone but also a sharp intellect and a degree of flexibility and accommodation (that I would not have expected) and above all a desire to save the lives of his crews, or at least make their sacrifices count. Probert showed me Harris’ strengths and weaknesses, giving me a good picture of what any operational level leader might look like, warts and all.
Denis Richards, Portal of Hungerford (Tintern, MON: William Heinemann, 1977). If Harris is a good case study in operational level leadership, then Denis Richards biography of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Viscount Portal makes a good companion. Few of us will ever get to work at or even observe the work of senior air force leaders or to have exposure to the sorts of institutional level challenges they face, both within their service and across governments and coalitions. This book gives us that access, and it allows us to put the better-known struggles of the Royal Air Force (RAF) in its formative years into a more personal context where, as in the case of Harris, personal strengths and weaknesses – the human factor – contribute to success or precipitates failure.
Dewitt S. Copp, A Few Great Captains: The Men and Events That Shaped the Development of U.S. Air Power (McLean, VA: EPM Publications, 1989). This work has been my only deep dive into the USAF, and as I began to think more about culture, doctrines and effects, it seemed to be important to study not just one man or a few, but rather the birth and evolution of an air power community. I believe I found that in this work. It looks at the people and their professional growth, ideas, experiences, small ‘P’ politics and larger organisational conflicts.
John J. Zentner, The Art of Wing Leadership and Aircrew Morale in Combat, CADRE Paper no. 11 (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2001). This set of case studies looks at leadership in a flying organisation, arguably one of the hardest notions to explain to army and naval officers who generally lead within plain sight of their followers. Moreover, to be honest, how one leads in the air is often hard to describe, or at least it was before the recent decades of air operations, to aviators. Effective leadership should promote high morale, and Zentner posited that that strong morale is linked to aircrew control over the tactics they are to use in the air. During a period of relative global calm, he set out to test his concept in three case studies. He looked at two fighter leaders, one German and one American in the Second World War, and for a third case flows the leadership of a B-52 Wing Commander during the Vietnam War.
Allan D. English, The Cream of the Crop: Canadian Aircrew, 1939-1945 (Montreal: McGill Queen’s University Press, 1996). This work is focused on the personnel issues of the RAF and the RCAF, and thus we find an investigation into an aspect of air warfare every bit as important as technologies. English sets out to explore and comment on the impact of what today we recognise as post-traumatic stress disorder on Bomber Command aircrew. To do this he looks at the Royal Flying Corps experiences of recruiting and training during the First World War and how these, and societal cultural norms were adopted by the RAF and to a lesser extent the RCAF in the Second World War. He shows the significant difference in the policy adopted by the RCAF and how rehabilitation of stress casualties rather than their banishment could safeguard critical human resources.
Robin Higham and Steven J. Harris (eds.), Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat (Lexington, KT: The University Press of Kentucky, 2006). Not every air campaign is a success and not every air service ensures the security of its home nation. In studying failures Higham and Harris edited volume expose us to valuable experiences of things gone wrong. More important than the various well researched and presented case studies is the introduction where the editors lay down a simple truth: ‘other things being equal’ the better air power ‘should’ prevail. They then go on to look at the range of ‘other things’ and here is the true value of the collection: the reader soon realises, or should, that there are almost countless factors in play that can cripple an air force, often long before a conflict begins. To codify these factors, Higham adapts Mahan’s characteristics of a maritime nation to identify where and how air power nations can and have failed.
Robert Grattan, The Origins of Air War: The Development of Military Air Strategy in World War I (London: IB Tauris, 2009). Grattan, an RAF navigator, turned business professor in his later years, presents a study of air arms in the First World War. He argues that the leaders, flyers and even politicians and industrialists had nothing to go on and so national air arms were sort of a ‘design build’ enterprise with rapid advancement through trial and error. He looks at aircraft, weapons, personnel and tactics studying the advancements of each in relation to the others. The use of the word ‘strategy’ in his title is a bit misleading; ‘air power concepts’ would more accurately describe his focus in my view.
Dr Randall Wakelam teaches military and air power history at the Royal Military College of Canada. After graduating from RMC in 1975 he flew helicopters for the Army, becoming CO of 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron in 1991. Along the way, he also had staff appointments in aircraft procurement and language training policy. Since 1993 he has been an educator, first in uniform at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto and now at RMC. His research and publishing focus on air power and military education.
Header Image: A group of pilots of No. 1 Squadron RCAF, gather around one of their Hawker Hurricane Mark Is at Prestwick, Scotland, c. October 1940. The squadron’s commander, Squadron Leader E.A. McNab, stands fifth from the right, wearing a forage cap. (Source: © IWM (CH 1733))