Reviewed by Alexander Fitzgerald-Black
Ben Kite, Through Adversity: Britain and the Commonwealth’s War in the Air 1939-1945 – Volume 1. Warwick: Helion & Company Limited, 2019. Maps. Figures. Photographs. Annexes. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. 492 pp.
Most military historians take a narrative approach in their works. Even when they seek to prove a specific thesis, they offer the evidence to the reader in chronological order. There are, of course, exceptions – and Ben Kite is a notable one. In 2014, he produced Stout Hearts: The British and Canadians in Normandy 1944, a work that focused not on the narrative of the battles in Normandy, but rather how British and Canadian armies (and air forces) operated there. The result was an outstanding reference work for historians, history buffs, and especially those seeking to understand what it was like for their Commonwealth ancestors who fought there.
In Through Adversity: Britain and the Commonwealth’s War in the Air 1939-1945 Kite has turned his focus to the skies. His primary aim is ‘to capture the main themes and strands of the war in the air as fought by the British Commonwealth’ (p. xiii). Volume 1 includes 20 chapters spread over four parts, each containing one of these themes or strands. These are usually mission types performed by the air force. In each part, Kite takes particular care to explain changes in the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) tactics and operational techniques along with the advancement of technology. He is more interested in how airmen planned and executed missions than in the role of senior commanders and overarching narratives. As such, this book is not a repeat of John Terraine’s The Right of the Line. Consequently, the experiences of aircrew fighting a deadly war in skies across the globe stand out.
In part one, Kite offers readers a background on pre-war RAF policy and preparations for war. He notes that although the 1920s were lean years, the RAF did receive significant investments in the late 1930s due to fears of the growing Luftwaffe in Nazi Germany. Ironically, although RAF doctrine focused on the bomber, the British bomber fleet was ill-prepared to strike at the German war industry. Much would have to change if the force were to have a chance of inflicting the knock-out blow advocated by influential interwar air power theorists Giulio Douhet and the RAF’s own Hugh Trenchard.
The second chapter of part one examines how the RAF mobilized and trained its manpower. Some readers will find this section a little disappointing since it offers a pretty standard focus on the path of pilots (and observers) through the Empire Air Training Scheme. There is comparatively little about the training regimes of other aircrew positions or the ground crew.
As the prerequisite for successful air operations of all types, Kite begins his examination of air combat with air superiority. The author takes a campaign-centric approach after beginning with the pre-war development of RAF Fighter Command. In northwest Europe, he examines the Battle of Britain, the uneconomical Fighter Command air offensive over Fortress Europe, and defence against German night raiders and V-weapons. Kite samples the battles for air superiority in the Mediterranean through the siege of Malta. Finally, he concludes the section with a pair of chapters featuring the rapid loss of air superiority in the Far East and the effort to turn the tide.
The chapter that stands out in part two takes the reader through a Fighter Command mission during the Battle of Britain. Kite takes an end-to-end approach here. He begins with how pilots began their mornings at airfields across Britain and finishes with sortie debriefings by intelligence officers. It was their job to understand what had happened in the air, including the difficult task of sorting victory claims. Kite affords the relatively unsung role of the fighter controller prominent attention, reminding readers the might of the many backed ‘the Few’ at the sharp end. This effectively illustrates the importance of ‘a good early warning capability and an efficient command and control system’ (p. 193) for effective air defence.
From air superiority, the book moves on to discuss Bomber Command’s role in striking back at Nazi Germany. Kite organizes this section into four chapters. The first offers the reader a general overview of how the offensive developed from unescorted, anti-shipping raids suffering unsustainable losses to night bomber raids of growing strength and sophistication. The chapter focuses on Bomber Command strategy and policy, including the creation of No. 6 Group Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in early 1943.
No. 6 Group owed its existence to a desire for a highly visible Canadian air effort in the war. Kite outlines the many unintended disadvantages of forming a separate national group within Bomber Command. Unfortunately, this is where Kite ends the story of 6 Group. Although the group faltered in 1943, 1944 was a much better year. New leadership, the shift from targets deep inside Germany to support the Normandy landings, and the arrival of better aircraft ‘enabled No. 6 Group to exceed the performance of comparable bomber groups in the air and on the ground.’ In fact, according to the RCAF official history, from September 1944 until May 1945 ‘the Canadian group could claim as good an operational record as any.’
Despite Kite’s treatment of No. 6 Group, he does well by Bomber Command as a whole. Kite takes the reader through an end-to-end Bomber Command mission in two chapters. The first chapter covers the route to the target, beginning with the role of armourers in loading the aircraft while the aircrew underwent specialized and team briefings. Crew roles, navigation equipment, the aircraft, and German defences all receive attention. The second chapter takes the reader from the run into the target and through the return leg. Except for memoirists explaining their personal slide of the air war, few resources so comprehensively relate the bomber crew experience.
The concluding strike chapter outlines the development of a precision bombing capability within Bomber Command and No. 2 Group, which operated light and medium bombers over Nazi-occupied Europe.
The final part of volume one covers the war at sea fought by RAF Coastal Command and the Royal Navy’s (RN) Fleet Air Arm (FAA). The first two chapters examine anti-submarine operations during the Battle of the Atlantic. Kite highlights the importance of cooperation between the RN and Coastal Command in intelligence sharing and winning the battle of improving tactics and technology. He concludes that while the Allies heavily reduced the U-boat threat by 1943, the RAF senior leadership’s failure to afford a greater priority to Coastal Command ‘nearly cost the Allies the war.’ (p. 321) This criticism mainly revolves around the delay in giving Coastal Command priority for Very Long-Range aircraft. These aircraft could patrol the mid-Atlantic gap, where U-boats operated beyond the range of most land-based aircraft.
Kite concludes the RAF’s role in the volume with two chapters on anti-shipping operations. He begins with early operations from the United Kingdom, especially those focused on the Dutch and Norwegian coasts. In the war’s early years, strikes were effective against enemy merchant shipping. Coastal Command needed better aircraft, tactics, and armour-piercing bombs to achieve success against the German surface fleet. RAF anti-shipping operations matured over time and in parallel with developments in the Mediterranean and the Far East. Missing from Kite’s history of the RAF’s war at sea are the anti-submarine and anti-shipping efforts that went into supporting the Normandy landings in June 1944. It is unclear whether these elements will appear in Volume 2, which promises to cover air support for the army in detail.
Many readers will be pleased that Kite wrote two chapters on the Fleet Air Arm. Some authors would have left the role of naval aviation out of scope, and it is commendable that Kite has included their experiences.
One general critique is the author’s tendency to rely on lengthy quotations from memoirs and diaries. Letting the veterans speak for themselves is a noble effort, but it also means relying on the quality of another’s writing to tell the story. Kite’s retelling of a harrowing anti-submarine patrol by a Sunderland flying boat crew over the Bay of Biscay was outstanding (p. 309-314). I sometimes found myself wishing that Kite had taken this approach more often rather than relying on lengthy and raw veteran’s accounts.
Through Adversity is a treasure trove of information for its readers. Twenty-five appendices or annexes (with source attributions) offer the reader great quick-reference material. The book is exceptionally well illustrated with thoughtful captions. These captions often include the identity and fate of both the aircraft and its crew, closing an otherwise open loop. Finally, Kite’s use of squadron mottos for most of the chapter titles is a nice touch that adds character to the book.
Overall, Volume 1 of Ben Kite’s work on the British Commonwealth’s war in the air is a great achievement. In the 1980s, John Terraine’s The Right of the Line afforded readers an excellent top-down narrative study of the RAF in the Second World War. Kite’s contribution is to capture the airman’s experience within that broader context. Through Adversity is the first half of an excellent reference work for historians, history buffs, and especially those seeking to understand what the air war was like for their Commonwealth ancestors in skies and at airfields across the world. The military aviation community anxiously awaits the publication of Undaunted: Britain and the Commonwealth’s War in the Air – Volume 2.
Alex Fitzgerald-Black has a Master of Arts in Military History from the University of New Brunswick and a Master of Arts in Public History from the University of Western Ontario. Alex’s research interests include air power in the Second World War, with a particular focus on the Mediterranean, and Canadian military history. He is the author of Eagles over Husky: The Allied Air Forces and the Sicilian Campaign, 14 May to 17 August 1943. Alex operates his blog at alexfitzblack.wordpress.com and can be reached on Twitter @AlexFitzBlack.
Header Image: In the shadow of their Handley Page Halifax, ‘Pride of the Porcupines’ aircrew and groundcrew members of No. 433 ‘Porcupine’ Squadron, No. 6 Group RCAF gang up on the miniature English automobile owned by one of the aircrew members. (Source: DND / LAC / PL-29380)
 Greenhous et al., The Crucible of War, 1939-1945: The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force Volume III (University of Toronto Press, 1994), pp. 526-7.