#BookReview – Korean Air War: Sabres, Migs and Meteors, 1950-53

#BookReview – Korean Air War: Sabres, Migs and Meteors, 1950-53

Michael Napier, Korean Air War: Sabres, Migs and Meteors, 1950-53. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2021. Images. Notes. Bibliography. Glossary. Appendices. Index. Hbk. 320pp.

Reviewed by Dr Ross Mahoney

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In the western world, the Korean War is often thought of as the forgotten war of the early Cold War. This was, at least from an American perspective, because ‘[l]ike the proverbial shrimp caught between two whales, the Korean War [was] trapped between World War II and the Vietnam War.’[1] Furthermore, from a British and French perspective, the war does not easily fit into national narratives surrounding their ‘retreat’ from empires in Southeast Asia, namely the Malayan Emergency and the French-Indochina War. The Korean War did, however, significantly impact the Cold War’s early course, particularly strengthening the recently established North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

From the perspective of the application and development of air power, the Korean War was also significant. Specifically, it was the first time jet fighters met in combat. Furthermore, the war also saw a wide range of air power capabilities deployed over Korea, including discussions throughout the conflict about the potential delivery of nuclear weapons.[2] This has meant that, despite the unfortunate epithet of being a forgotten war, several important works, such as Conrad Crane’s American Airpower Strategy in Korea (2000), have appeared and examined the use of air power over the Korean peninsula.

Michael Napier, a retired Royal Air Force fast-jet pilot and author, comes into this mix with his 2021 volume, Korean Air War. In just over 300 pages, Napier systematically describes the course of the air war over Korea. The book, chronologically laid out, deals with the air war in seven chapters plus a retrospective to finish the volume. There are also two appendices included. The chapters follow the broad course of the main phases of the Korean War. For example, Chapter Three deals with the period of the offensive by United Nations (UN) forces between August and October 1950 (pp. 72-113). This is then followed up by a chapter that looks at the period of the Chinese offensives (pp. 114-55) against UN forces that forced them back to roughly the 38th Parallel. Within these chapters, Napier details the various uses of air power by both sides during the war. This includes the use of tactical and strategic air power as well as naval air power. Napier also does a good job of describing the coalition character of the air war for both sides. However, his attempt to highlight the British contribution can sometimes be overstated.

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US Marines of the First Marine Division Reconnaissance Company make the first helicopter invasion on Hill 812, to relieve the Republic of Korea 8th Division, during the renewed fighting in Korea, 20 September 1951. (Source: Wikimedia)

While the book comprehensively deals with the air war over Korea, readers should not expect an academic examination of the use of air power between 1950 and 1953. That is not what this book is. However, this is not a criticism per se. Instead, the book has been written with a specific audience in mind – the general reader looking for an introduction to the subject. This is highlighted by Napier’s choice to examine the war chronologically (p. 6). This is a choice that makes it easier for the lay reader to understand what was a complex and contested operating environment. Ultimately, therefore, we end up with a very useful narrative of the course of the air war that introduces readers to the subject matter.

One area, however, where the book does fall down is in its use of sources. Regarding primary sources, Napier has overwhelmingly relied on files in British archival institutions, notably The National Archives and the Royal Air Force Museum. While perhaps a pragmatic decision given the author’s location and the character of this book as a popular account of the air war, it does, nonetheless, skew the author’s interpretation. Furthermore, at least from the perspective of UN forces deployed, most of the air power deployed in support of the war effort came from the US. As such, one would expect more attention to be given to the records produced by those forces involved. Finally, given the above issue, Napier relies on secondary sources to fill in the gaps despite arguing that published accounts of the air war over Korea were less than ‘objective’ (p. 6) in their analysis. However, it appears from the notes and bibliography that Napier did not consult important, more ‘objective’ works such as Crane’s noted above and others.[3] The use of such works would have further enriched Napier’s narrative

Overall, despite the above criticism, Napier has done an excellent job of writing a comprehensive introductory narrative to the air war over Korea. In particular, Napier does a good job of weaving together a narrative that tells the story of both sides of the air war over Korea. The book is lavishly supported by high-quality imagery and maps that help support the text.

Dr Ross Mahoney is the Editor-in-Chief of From Balloons to Drones and is an independent scholar specialising in air power and the history of air warfare. He is currently the Senior Historian within the City Architecture and Heritage Team at Brisbane City Council in Australia. He has over 15 years of experience within the heritage and education sectors in Australia and the United Kingdom. He was the inaugural Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum in the UK. In Australia, he has worked as a Historian for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and taught at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at The Australian National University based at the Australian War College. His research interests are focused on military history, with a specific focus on the history of air warfare, transport history, and urban history. He has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He has a website here and can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.

Header image: Four US Air Force North American F-86E Sabre fighters over Korea in November 1952. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Allan Millett, The War for Korea, 1945-1950: A House Burning (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2005), p. 1.

[2] Daniel Calingaert, ‘Nuclear weapons and the Korean War,’ Journal of Strategic Studies 11, no. 2 (1988), pp. 177-202.

[3] Other works of note not cited include: Eduard Mark, Aerial Interdiction: Air Power and the Land Battle in Three American Wars (Washington DC: Office of Air Force History, 1994); John Sherwood, Officers in Flight Suits: The Story of American Air Force Fighter Pilots in the Korean War (New York, NY: New York University Press, 1998); Jacob Neufeld, Coalition Air Warfare in the Korean War 1950–1953 (Washington DC: U.S. Air Force History and Museums Program, 2005); Roger Horky, ‘Clipping the Eagle’s Wings: The Limiting of the Korean Air War, 1950-1953’ (PhD Thesis, Texas A&M University, 2013).

#BookReview – An Officer, Not a Gentleman: The Inspirational Journey of a Pioneering Female Fighter Pilot

#BookReview – An Officer, Not a Gentleman: The Inspirational Journey of a Pioneering Female Fighter Pilot

Mandy Hickson, An Officer, Not a Gentleman: The Inspirational Journey of a Pioneering Female Fighter Pilot. London: Mandy Hickson, 2020. Images. Pbk. 294pp.

Reviewed by Mark Russell

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Women have long served in the Royal Air Force (RAF). Female service in the RAF began during the First World War when up to 25,000 women served until the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF), disbanded in 1918. Approximately 180,000 then served in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) during the Second World War, followed by those who served in the re-formed WRAF, an administrative entity within the RAF from 1949. Finally, in 1994, the WRAF was merged into the RAF.  

Although 166 women flew during the Second World War as delivery and ferry pilots in the Air Transport Auxiliary, it was not until 1991 that women began to serve as pilots, a decision approved in 1989. The first female pilot was Flight Lieutenant Julie Ann Gibson, who re-trained from her existing career as an RAF engineer before flying Andovers with No. 32 Squadron from RAF Northolt in 1991. However, the issue of allowing women to fly fast jets still raised questions. Nonetheless, in December 1991, it was announced that women were cleared to fly in combat roles. However, it was not until August 1994 that Flight Lieutenant Jo Salter breached the ‘holy of holies,’ the fast jet pilot role, when she joined No. 617 Squadron at RAF Lossiemouth to fly the Tornado GR1B. She became the RAF’s first female fast jet pilot. As of 1 April 2019, there were 30 female fixed-wing pilots in the RAF, while as of July 2021, 15.1% of the RAF regulars were female. 

Mandy Hickson’s An Officer, Not a Gentleman, is the autobiography of only the second woman to fly the Tornado in the RAF. It documents her experience flying the Tornado and becoming an operational fast jet pilot. Some of what Hickson writes will also resonate with those working within large organisations that continue to grapple with issues of inclusion and equality. It must, however, be noted that the RAF of the 1990s comes out of Hickson’s recollections well – perhaps not as an organisation, but certainly in the attitudes of some of those individuals Hickson encountered during her service.

Hickson has said she did not feel like a pioneer: ‘no different to anyone else for being a woman’ (p. 161). The book describes Hickson’s life and her RAF career. Hickson’s description of her feelings. For example, Hickson describes her isolation on her first deployment to the Gulf in 2000 as the only female aircrew on the squadron (pp. 187-90). This type of insight sets this book apart from some of the more ‘traditional’ aircrew memoirs written by male aircrew. Indeed, to this reviewer’s knowledge; this is the first memoir written by a female RAF pilot.

Hickson’s story opens with her joining the Air Training Corps in 1986 before winning a Flying Scholarship and receiving her Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL) in August 1991 at 18. As one of the first female pilots in the RAF, Hickson inevitably faced challenges. For instance, being six feet tall at 16, she was too tall for the RAF height to weight charts and was told she needed to lose weight to obtain the Flying Scholarship, although her doctor noted that she was a healthy weight. Having cleared that hurdle and obtained her PPL, she went to the University of Birmingham, where she joined the University of Birmingham Air Squadron (UBAS) in late 1991. During this period, Hickson appears to have had no problem fitting into the flying and social life of the University Air Squadron (UAS), and she does not describe any times when she felt that being a woman created additional challenges for her or saw her discriminated against in any way. This may have been because she was, as she describes, ‘a bit of a tomboy’ (p. 1) and ‘a sports-mad teenager’ (p. 2). 

The next hurdle Hickson faced was at the start of her third year at university, when, to remain in the UAS, she needed to demonstrate a more concrete commitment to an RAF career. In December 1992, the UAS was told women could train as fast jet pilots, which triggered Hickson’s application to become aircrew. Having attended Officer and Aircrew Selection Centre, she failed the pilot aptitude tests despite having flown over 100 hours with the UAS. Instead, she was offered a career as an air traffic controller. The Officer Commanding of her UAS, Squadron Leader Karl Bufton, allowed her to continue flying with UBAS and arranged two separate check rides with instructors from the RAF’s Central Flying School both of whom rated her as above average as a pilot. He believed ‘the tests are wrong. I have a feeling they are not designed for women’ (p. 13). Hickson had the support she needed to continue. 

Hickson joined the RAF, and in November 1994, a month into her initial training at RAF College Cranwell, she was told that her request to transfer to the General Duties branch had been approved so that she could train as a pilot. ‘My grin stretched from ear to ear’ (p. 26). Later Hickson discovered that she ‘had been taken on as a test case to see how far I would get before I failed’ (p. 27). Discovering this when qualified as a fast jet pilot can only have made the achievement all the sweeter, but at the time, her feeling was: ‘They’d opened the door. I was ready to barge through it’ (p. 27). 

However, she soon came up against some of the less enlightened aspects of the RAF’s expectations of women. Most notably, Hickson describes her first performance appraisal with ‘Flight Lieutenant Beige’ as she nicknamed him. Hickson was told she should ‘be more feminine’ (p. x) and not buy two half pints of beer in the Mess at a time so she could drink pints – despite, as she puts it, having ‘spent three years at university doing exactly that’ (p. x). Hickson describes this experience as being ‘the first of many encounters with more senior officers who had a problem with women taking on new roles in the RAF’ (p. 38). Being six feet tall, extroverted, and athletic, one suspects that Hickson may have struggled to meet the RAF’s definition of ‘femininity’ (as being described as ‘Amazonian’ by Flight Lieutenant Beige indicates). However, it would be interesting to know more about the experience of other female officer candidates through this period, who may have been more ‘feminine’ and to understand the extent to which the culture at Cranwell has changed since the mid-1990s.    

There is evidence throughout the book of just how male-centric the RAF was at this point in its history. In addition to the requests that she be more ‘feminine’, there were also comments which she believes were ‘undoubtedly […] all meant in humour’ (p. 88) from instructors along the lines of ‘Off to apply your lippy, are you’ which Hickson says she had not noticed until fellow male course mates raised them with her, saying they felt it was wrong. Her coursemates raised these comments with the squadron commander, who immediately resolved this and apologised to her. The instructors who had been making these comments also apologised. Hickson reflects on this: ‘It’s shocking how I had normalized this behaviour to simply ‘get through’’’. This is another insight into how far the RAF had to go to make the most of female talent and invite work on where it is now in terms of its culture and ethos. 

A more positive story is how Hickson’s coursemates rallied around to teach her the mechanics of ‘battle turns’, leading to her instructor saying he had ‘never heard of a course coming together like that’ (p. 97). This is interesting on two levels: firstly, the willingness to help a female coursemate, suggesting) that the new generation was rather more enlightened than the organisation, and, secondly, with fast jet seats likely at a premium, one might have expected a more ‘dog eat dog’ attitude from Hickson’s fellow students – one person failing means more chance of a fast jet seat for the remaining students. The collegiate attitude is a tribute to her coursemates and, perhaps, to the supportive ethos that the training had inculcated to date. 

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Mandy Hickson stood in front of a Panavia Tornado.

Her lowest point career-wise came on her first two-month operational tour in Kuwait in 2000. She says, ‘I don’t think they had any empathy for how hard it was being the only woman’ (p. 187). During this tour, Hickson had issues with more senior squadron members, although when she later discussed it with one specific individual, he was unaware of the stress he had placed her under with his attitude (p. 196). ‘I was their first female pilot, and they weren’t used to it’ (p. 187), and they either consciously or unconsciously were not including her in squadron life, to the point that she felt ‘bullied’ and ‘marginalised’ to the point where she was confused about ‘who – and what – I was trying to be’ (p. 187) and considered handing in her resignation (p. 190). ‘Do I try to fit in […] or do I stand out?’ – another conundrum that, 20 years later, minorities continue to face despite inclusion programmes in many workplaces. ‘I was just trying to fit into the mould of junior fast jet pilot, regardless of gender’ (p.188) without the benefit of role models or (understandably) feeling able, as the most junior pilot on the squadron, to have any real impact on the definition of what a junior fast jet pilot was expected to be.

Hickson also got used to being assigned rooms on postings whose walls were covered in porn. She was not sure if this was how all rooms were or whether they had been prepared as a special welcome for her. However, Hisckon recalls that she took this in her stride, ripping the pictures down and throwing them into the corridor with a shout of ‘Porn’s up, boys’ (p. 175). While such interior decoration was considered acceptable, concerns over the impact women would have on the RAF’s prevailing culture are highlighted by Air-Vice Marshal Roger Austin, the Director-General Aircraft. In March 1989, a mere five years before Hickson arrived at Cranwell, Austin lamented on the coming day when the RAF would be ‘powdering its nose as it admire[d] Robert Redford and Tom Jones on the Flight Safety calendar.’[1]  Austin went on to become Commandant, RAF College Cranwell later in 1989. Culture continues to be a challenge for women in the military in the UK.

Being six feet tall, Hickson did not have some of the practical problems documented by other early female aircrews in terms of flying clothing not fitting and simply being the right size and shape for the aircraft. This had been a critical part of the debate about opening up fast jet cockpits for women, and it was a genuine issue. However, Hickson does document the consequences of the RAF not having thought through how to allow female aircrew to urinate while strapped into an ejector seat. The options available meant unstrapping from the seat, which was not an option when Hickson was policing the no-fly zone over Iraq, for example (p.194-195). Hickson being grounded due to a kidney infection that resulted from being unable to urinate in the air shows the need to think through these things. The solution on offer – a form of nappy – was described by Hickson as ‘awful’. Other female aircrew concurred, recalling that ‘they tried to avoid using them.’[2]  

Hickson left the RAF in 2009, having had two children in 2003 and 2004. She left in part because she was unable to be promoted under the RAF rules of the time, which required her to take another flying job to be promoted to Squadron Leader. In addition, she felt this was incompatible with having two children and a husband who was an airline pilot. ‘If you’re on a flying squadron, you’re on a flying squadron’ is how she puts it, and ‘You can’t just say “Oh sorry, I can’t do this bit today”’ (p.275). 

One recent reviewer of Hickson’ book in The Journal of the Royal Air Force Historical Society has suggested that it ‘is not a major work of moment.’ While one day we might view memoirs of female aircrew as being ‘seen as nothing remarkable’ as there no longer anything unusual about that experience, that day has still yet to be fully realised. Indeed, this book is a work of the moment because it is a pioneer’s story. While it has many elements of what one might call the ‘standard aircrew memoir’ that chronicles the path from air cadet to operational flying, it also provides many insights into the culture and ethos RAF of the time – the early post-Cold War period – and how the Service adapted to the introduction of female fast jet aircrew. In doing so, both Hickson and the RAF emerge well from the telling. A highly recommended book on many levels that may provide valuable insights to future historians, especially those interested in the RAF, military culture, and the role of gender in the military.

Mark Russell graduated with a 2:1 in History in 1985 and has worked in professional services ever since. He returned to academia in 2015 and graduated with an MA in Air Power: History, Theory and Evolution from the University of Birmingham in December 2017. Since then, while working in professional services, he has published articles and reviews in various publications, including the RAF’s Air and Space Power Review, the Journal of the Royal Air Force Historical Society, The Aviation Historian and From Balloons to Drones. Longer term, he is interested in organisational culture and how the coming of unmanned aircraft might impact on the culture of air forces. He is currently researching a possible article on Squadron Leader Freddy Lammer DFC and Bar.

Header image: A Panavia Tornado GR4 in grey colour scheme and special markings for the 95th anniversary of No. 2 Squadron in 2007. This was the type flown by Hickson with No. 2 Squadron. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Kathleen Sherit, Flying Roles for Women in the RAF, Journal of the Royal Air Force Historical Society 63 (2016), p. 63.

[2] Kathleen Sherit, ‘The Integration of Women in the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force Post-World War II to the Mid 1990s’ (PhD Thesis, King’s College London, 2013), p. 235.

#BookReview – British Imperial Air Power: The Royal Air Forces and the Defense of Australia and New Zealand Between the World Wars

#BookReview – British Imperial Air Power: The Royal Air Forces and the Defense of Australia and New Zealand Between the World Wars

Alex M. Spencer, British Imperial Air Power: The Royal Air Forces and the Defense of Australia and New Zealand Between the World Wars. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2020. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Pbk. 307 pp.

Reviewed by Ashleigh Brown

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The First World War was a catalyst for the development of aviation. At the outbreak of war in 1914, the British Army and Royal Navy air arms, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), acted purely as auxiliaries to the British Army and Royal Navy. By 1918, although still predominantly considered a support function for the other services, aviation had taken on an increased level of importance, as illustrated by establishing the independent Royal Air Force (RAF) on 1 April 1918. The importance of aviation and air power was not lost on the self-governing Dominions of the British Empire. Inspired by the experience of the Australian Flying Corps and the creation of the RAF, Australia began looking toward an independent air force during the closing stages of the First World War. This vision was soon realised with the creation of the Australian Air Force (RAAF) on 31 March 1921 (the ‘Royal’ prefix was added in May). New Zealand, the smaller dominion, was understandably slower during the interwar period. The New Zealand Permanent Air Force came into being on 14 June 1923 and grew slowly, much to the frustration of the United Kingdom (pp. 70-1). It is the experience of these two forces that Alex Spencer, a Curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in the United States, discusses in his new book, British Imperial Air Power.

Focussing on the Australian and New Zealand experience, British Imperial Air Power, derived from Spencer’s 2009 PhD thesis from Auburn University, offers one of the few contributions about military aviation developments in the Pacific dominions during the interwar period. Although the Australian and New Zealand experience of air power during has been examined, the interwar period is decidedly less studied. This is unfortunate; a far more comprehensive understanding of the air war during the Second World War can be gained by understanding the many steps taken between the wars. The immense technological, tactical, and organisational developments made during this period, as a direct result of First World War experiences, undeniably affected how air power was used in the next war. As such, as well as being an essential contribution to the discussion over the development of air power in Australia and New Zealand specifically, Spencer’s work is more generally a vital contribution to air power history of the interwar period. Spencer takes a thematic approach to the topic, beginning with the imperial air defence schemes of 1918 and 1919, which leveraged the progress made in military aviation during the war (pp. 11-36). Other themes investigated include the Empire’s air defence, post-war air transport, airships, disarmament and eventual rearmament, and the final preparations for war.

Looking at the development of the air forces of Australia and New Zealand through the imperial lens, Spencer places the dominions within the context of the British Empire. This includes a discussion of the RAF’s own struggles, namely, its fight to remain an independent service and its battle for resources throughout the interwar period. Wider economic and political issues are also discussed, including the Great Depression and the Geneva disarmament discussions, which had the potential to make building and modernising air forces more difficult (pp. 173-94). Spencer’s analysis of the broader economic, political, and imperial context is valuable. The dominions’ air forces were not created and developed in a vacuum; external factors inevitably influenced them. Additionally, Australia and New Zealand faced problems in developing their air forces – including interservice rivalry, difficulty obtaining resources, and economic restrictions – which were not unique to these dominions. Rather, they were problems faced worldwide, not least in Britain itself. Therefore, the RAF’s imperial context and experience are valuable inclusions in Spencer’s work.

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Two unidentified Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) aircrew wearing flying clothing and standing in front of an Airco (de Havilland) DH9 two-seat light bomber. This is one of 29 DH9 models that the British government gave to the fledgling RAAF as an Imperial Gift to Australia in 1920. (Source: Asutalian War Memorial)

In addition to these broader considerations, Spencer discusses the emergence of a more immediate threat to Australia and New Zealand: Japan (p. 38). Given the dislocation of the Pacific dominions from Britain, it is not surprising that fears of attacks by Japan influenced their plans for local air defence (p. 149). Spencer also discusses the renewal of Britain’s alliance with Japan (the Anglo-Japanese Alliance), which occurred to the consternation of Australia and New Zealand (p. 52). This demonstrated some cracks that were beginning to form between Britain and the Pacific dominions. Britain appeared less interested in the Japanese threat, in some instances appearing to completely disregard it as a threat despite the concerns of the dominions. Spencer adds to this issue by discussing the movement away from complete dependence on Britain and forging a closer relationship with the United States as an ally. Under the assumption that the United States had a greater interest in the Pacific area than Britain, Australia increasingly aligned itself with America. Additionally, with supply issues in Britain inhibiting the RAAF’s ability to acquire aircraft, Australia turned to the United States for new aircraft (p. 207). Spencer’s discussion of this provides essential context for the close relationship between the United States and Australia, which was apparent from the Second World War.

Spencer takes his work a step further by incorporating civil aviation’s development in Britain and the dominions, albeit on a much smaller scale. Importantly, he links this to the concurrent development of military aviation (p. 86). This is rare; military and civil aviation are usually treated quite separately. As Spencer points out, however, they were not entirely separate efforts. In addition to proving the value of aircraft in a military capacity, the First World War also opened the door for the possibility of civil aviation. For Australia, both veterans of the air war propelled spheres of aviation. While some Australians – such as Richard Williams and Stanley Goble – continued in the military and were instrumental in the RAAF’s early years, others – including Hudson Fysh, Paul McGinness, and Charles Kingsford Smith – pursued careers in civil aviation upon returning home. Fysh and McGinness, along with Fergus McMaster, founded the Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services (QANTAS), while Smith completed a series of daring long-distance flights. With developments in military and civil aviation taking place parallel to one another during the interwar period, it is entirely appropriate to discuss the latter in Spencer’s work. Spencer explains that civil aviation of the era included mapping routes to connect Britain and the dominions, which was undoubtedly an important effort in terms of aerial defence (p. 249-50).

Spencer’s work is not without its problems. On a surface level, an unfortunate typographical error (Jan Smuts is incorrectly referred to as ‘Ian Smuts’) within the first 15 pages leaps out at the reader (p. 15). Additionally, large block quotes are frequently used, often becoming a distraction from the main text. In many cases, the author could have effectively summarised these and added little to no value by being quoted in full. More significantly, there is an uneven focus throughout the book: the bulk of Spencer’s analysis is dedicated to Australia, with New Zealand’s experience receiving less attention. This is understandable given the disparity in the size of the air forces and the advancements each made. However, Spencer should have explained this in the introduction to avoid the reader expecting to see an even comparative study of the two.

With these minor issues aside, Spencer presents a thoroughly researched and well-reasoned account of the formation of Australia and New Zealand’s air forces and the developments and challenges they faced during the lead-up to the Second World War. This includes archival research in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, focusing on air ministry and air department records and political decisions. Importantly, this is placed within the context of the Empire and international events, providing a broader view of the various difficulties faced during the interwar period. As such, Spencer’s work is an important contribution to this underserved period in military history.

N.B. You can listen to an interview with Dr Alex Spencer about his book here.

Ashleigh Brown is a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales, Canberra. Her thesis focuses on the creation and interwar development of the Royal Australian Air Force. Ashleigh is a researcher for the Official History of Australian Operations in Iraq & Afghanistan and Australian Peacekeeping Operations in East Timor, where her focus is Australia’s commitment to Afghanistan between 2005 and 2010. She is also an editor at From Balloons to Drones. Her research interests include the First World War, the interwar period, recent conflicts, air power, and military command. Ashleigh can be found on Twitter at @ash__brown.

Header Image: A Line up of two Vickers Vildebeests of the Royal New Zealand Air Force at RNZAF Station Wigram in the late-1930s. Vildebeest NZ108 is in the foreground. The flashes on the fuselage and wheel spats are blue. (Source: Air Force Museum of New Zealand)

#BookReview – The Leadership, Direction and Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive from Inception to 1945

#BookReview – The Leadership, Direction and Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive from Inception to 1945

Peter Gray, The Leadership, Direction and Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive from Inception to 1945. London: Continuum, 2012. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. xv + 346pp.

Reviewed by Dr Ross Mahoney

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The British Strategic Air Offensive against Germany (SAOG) and the Allied Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO) remain contentious and divisive areas of debate within the historiography of the Second World War and the development of air power, respectively. Essentially the central debate on the bomber offensive has been polarised between discussing the exigencies of military effectiveness – the contribution the campaign made to the overall war effort – and the philosophical view that it was a morally reprehensible act.[1] More recently, the historiographical trend has shifted towards understanding the impact that bombing had upon civilian populations.[2] Into this field in 2012 came a new and important work by Peter Gray that examined the conduct of the SAOG innovatively, namely through a deep understanding of the role of strategic leadership in war and its relationship with the legality and legitimacy of the bombing campaign against Germany.

Gray’s book focuses on strategic leadership and the interface between key senior leaders involved in the direction of the bomber offensive against Germany. Leadership remains an often discussed but little understood area of study within military history. As a result, books are replete with inadequate or ineffective leadership claims without understanding the factors underpinning it and how it interacts with operations. Nevertheless, effective leadership remains the key to understanding military performance at all levels of war.

Gray’s professional experience both as a senior officer in the RAF – he retired as an Air Commodore – and in academia meant that he was well equipped to write this book and the PhD on which it is based. While at the time of writing, Gray is a Professor of Air Power Studies at the University of Wolverhampton; he was previously the Royal Aeronautical Society’s Senior Research Fellow in Air Power Studies at the University of Birmingham and is an acknowledged expert in air power studies and leadership. Before he retired from the RAF, Gray served in several important positions, including Director of Defence Studies (RAF) at the Joint Services Command and Staff College and as Director of the Defence Leadership and Management Centre. However, that Gray is a retired officer does not affect his objectivity towards the subject he studies. Indeed, while it can be easy to suggest that retired senior officers often suffer from what might be described as cultural blindness towards the subjects they write on, this is not the case with Gray, as evidenced by his analysis of the role of Marshal of the Royal Air Force (MRAF) Sir Arthur Harris noted below.

Gray’s work used an interdisciplinary approach grounded in an understanding of leadership theory to examine the direction of the bomber offensive. Utilising his extensive background in the military and his teaching and writing about the subject, Gray explored some of the theoretical aspects of leadership while making it clear that leadership is both complex and ambiguous at the senior/strategic level. For example, in examining the interface between the relationship of the Air Officer Commander-in-C of RAF Bomber Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, and the RAF’s Air Staff, in particular Harris’ relationship with the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), MRAF Sir Charles Portal, it is evident that numerous factors related to the complexity of ambiguity of senior leadership influenced the conduct of SOAG. These factors included relationships with allies, operational commanders, inter-service rivalry, and moral and ethical considerations. Harris does not emerge from this analysis well, with, for example, Gray describing him as ‘naïve’ to expect the lion’s share of the national resources for the bomber offensive. In addition, Harris struggled to ‘accept the vicissitudes of coalition warfare’. Nevertheless, Gray does admit that Harris operated within a problematic area where the ‘operational and strategic levels’ overlapped (p. 291).

There are numerous reasons why Harris arguably struggled in looking up and outside of his operational silo. However, as Gray lamented, Portal probably regretted that Harris never went to the RAF Staff College at Andover and instead attended the British Army’s Staff College at Camberley (p. 43). This is an important cultural point that still requires further examination. Nevertheless, while Harris has often been portrayed as the archetypal advocate of the RAF’s perceived singular focus on bombing in his development as a leader, he lacked the intellectual underpinnings that most future senior RAF commanders shared: attendance at Andover. It should, however, be noted that his attendance at Camberley also illustrated that he was well regarded in the RAF as students attending the other service Staff College’s also acted as representatives of their parent services and sought to inform fellow students about their work. Also, unlike many of his contemporaries operating at the senior level, including Portal, Harris never attended the Imperial Defence College (IDC), where he would have learned to speak the language of a combined military.

Another example of Harris’ inability to look up and out of his silo concerns the debates over relations with the other services. While Harris issued directives and loyally carried out orders, he often soured relations with a poor choice of language for a senior leader. The use of terms such ‘oily boys’ did not aid him or the Air Staff’s ability to explain complicated arguments over the effectiveness of air power to both colleagues within other services and politicians and allies (pp. 255-7). These leadership challenges were a key issue throughout 1944, especially in the lead up to Operation OVERLORD (pp. 215-28). Nevertheless, a vital problem for senior leaders is the maintenance of vision and purpose for an organisation in the face of the leadership challenges that faced both Harris and the Air Staff. Maintaining this vision and purpose had implications for the direction of the bomber offensive.

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The Quebec Conference, 23 August 1943. Left to right round table: Lord Louis Mountbatten, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound, General Sir Alan Brooke, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, Air Marshal L.S. Breadner, Field Marshal Sir John Dill, Lieutenant General Sir Hastings Ismay, Brigadier H. Redman, Commodore R. Coleridge, RN, Brigadier General J.R. Deane, General H.H. Arnold, General G.C. Marshal, Admiral W.D. Leahy, Admiral E.J. King, and Captain Forrest B. Royal (Source: © IWM A 18825)

In comparison to Harris, the RAF was fortunate that, in Portal, they had a CAS who had the vision and ability to see the organisation’s central purpose through to fruition. Portal managed the shift to area bombing, and he was able to work well with both politicians and allies alike. However, Portal was perhaps aided in his work given that his key ally, the United States Army Air Force, placed as much importance as the RAF did on the bomber. However, the decision by the Combined Chiefs of Staff to place Portal in charge of the strategic direction of the Combined Bomber Offensive at the Casablanca Conference of January 1943 (p. 211) highlighted not only an indication of his abilities as a senior leader but also his standing amongst his peers. Unlike Harris, Portal was able to look up and out of his silo and interface with ‘the various organizations that contribute[d] to the greater enterprise […] across the range of Whitehall and into international arenas’ (p. 291).

Gray’s discussion of legitimacy is useful as it helps set the context for the conduct and direction of the bomber offensive and the challenges that confronted the RAF’s senior leadership during the Second World War. The interwar period saw significant discussions over air power in modern warfare. It also saw attempts to codify and limit its role through international law. While the Hague Conference of 1923 produced a report on the Rules of Aerial Warfare with genuine humanitarian intentions, it was not ratified by the nations involved. The attempt to codify laws relating to the use of air power failed most significantly at the Geneva Disarmament Conference, 1932-33. Nevertheless, this failure to agree did not mean that the RAF ignored the implications of the ethics of air power when formulating doctrine and strategy. However, beyond legal discussions, there was, as Gray argued, little in the way of contemporary philosophical debate over war in general. Indeed, the historiography concerning anti-war movements in the interwar period is ‘muddled at best’, thus raising significant questions over interpretations, such as Grayling’s (p. 48).

For Gray, the most influential writer in this period regarding issues surrounding legitimacy and international law was the jurist J.M Spaight (pp. 54-7). The reason for Spaight’s importance stems from his relationship with MRAF Sir Hugh Trenchard during his tenure as CAS, his standing within the Air Ministry and perhaps most importantly, the simple fact that his voluminous works appeared on the reading list for Andover, where future leaders would have been exposed to his writings. Although Gray does not make this point, Spaight wrote for the Royal Air Force Quarterly in the 1930s. This would have seen a broader audience in the RAF exposed his work, though the question remains how much journals such as the Quarterly were read beyond those attending Staff College.[3]

The failure to gain effective international agreement over the use of air power in war led Spaight to note that inevitably ‘cities would be bombed’ (p. 57). Similar ideas pervaded the development of air power doctrine but did not mean that other areas of operations were ignored. The focus on bombing was the logical development of an inherently offensive weapons system. When applied in the strategic sense, the application of bombing was going to raise moral issues. However, the British had a tradition of utilising its other strategic arm, the Royal Navy, to bombard and blockade so that the use of the British Army in continental warfare could be ‘sidestepped’ (p. 59). This, coupled with ineffective international control concerning the laws of war, allowed for the development of an offensively minded doctrine.

Moreover, this did not mean, as Spaight’s own writings indicated, that there was no desire to fight the war as humanely as possible. However, there was a realisation amongst the Air Staff that, as Gray has written elsewhere, ‘The Gloves Will Have to Come Off’ (p. 57).[4] This had clear operational implications for the conduct of the bomber offensive when the decision was taken to shift to both night attacks and area bombing. However, it should be seen as an incremental shift and not the obvious solution as traditionally portrayed. Nonetheless, questions over the humane use of strategic air power became acutely apparent in 1945 when the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, began to distance himself from the campaign after the raid on Dresden. Concerning this episode, Grey argues it had a degree of logic to it but must be placed within the context of being aware of the growing resilience of Germany’s military in the face of allied advances, and that the Air Staff argued that an early end to the bomber offensive might cause the loss of more lives in the long-term (p. 228).

Overall, this excellent book adds a fresh perspective to a well-trodden path in the historiography of the Second World War. Gray makes clear that before any evaluation can be made on the key areas that have occupied historians of the bomber offensive, namely the issues of effectiveness and morality; we must understand the challenges that confronted those responsible for its conduct and how they sought to deal with the ambiguities and complexities of senior leadership under the stress and strain of global conflict. It also illustrates that historians should not be afraid to learn from allied disciplines. In understanding alternative methodologies, we can bring new light to old subjects.

Dr Ross Mahoney is the Editor-in-Chief of From Balloons to Drones and is an independent scholar specialising in air power and the history of air warfare. He is currently the Senior Historian within the City Architecture and Heritage Team at Brisbane City Council in Australia. He has over 15 years of experience within the heritage and education sectors in Australia and the United Kingdom. He was the inaugural Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum in the UK. In Australia, he has worked as a Historian for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and taught at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at The Australian National University based at the Australian War College. His research interests are focussed on military history, with a specific focus on the history of air warfare, transport history, and urban history. He has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He has a book review website here and can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.

Header image: Air Marshal A.T. Harris, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, RAF Bomber Command points to a location on a map of Germany hanging in his office at Bomber Command Headquarters, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. On the left stands Air Vice-Marshal R. Graham (left) the Air Officer Administration at BCHQ, and on the right Air Vice-Marshal R.R.M.S. Saundby, Harris’s Senior Air Staff Officer. (Source: © IWM CH 5490)

[1] The view that bombing was morally reprehensible can be summarised by the work of A.C. Grayling. However, this work should be treated with care given the author’s clear lack of understanding of how both the SAOG and CBO were conducted. See A.C. Grayling, Among the Dead Cities: Is the Targeting of Civilians in War ever Justified?, Paperback Edition (London: Bloomsbury, 2007). Within the debate over the effectiveness of the CBO there are several continuing debates on themes such as the question of the bombing techniques employed by the RAF and the USAAF as well as the contribution made by the campaign in achieving air superiority over Europe before Operation OVERLORD. A key work on the debate over precision versus area bombing remains W. Hays Park, “Precision’ and ‘Area’ Bombing: Who did which, and when?,’ Journal of Strategic Studies 18, no. 1 (1995), pp. 145-74. For an examination of the role played in achieving air superiority over Europe, see: Stephen McFarland and Wesley Phillips Newton, To Command the Sky: The Battle for Air Superiority Over Germany, 1942-1944 (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991). For a discussion of how RAF Bomber Command sought to overcome some of the challenges it faced with reference to the use of operational research techniques, see: Randall Wakelam, The Science of Bombing: Operational Research in RAF Bomber Command (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009).

[2] Important in this shift was the work undertaken by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project on ‘Bombing, States and Peoples in Western Europe, 1940-1945.’ For some of the work that emerged from this project, see: Claudia Baldoli, Andrew Knapp, and Richard Overy (eds.) Bombing, States and Peoples in Western Europe 1940-1945 (London: Continuum, 2011); Andrew Knapp and Claudia Baldoli, Forgotten Blitzes: France and Italy under Allied Air Attack, 1940-1945 (London: Continuum, 2012).

[3] For example, see: J.M Spaight, ‘An International Air Force: Part I – Fantasy,’ Royal Air Force Quarterly 1, no. 4 (1930); J.M. Spaight, ‘An International Air Force: Part II – Reality ‘, Royal Air Force Quarterly 2, no. 1 (1931).

[4] Peter Gray, ‘The Gloves Will Have to Come Off: A Reappraisal of the Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive Against Germany’, RAF Air Power Review 13, no. 3 (2010) pp. 9-40.

#NavalAir22 #BookReview – TOPGUN – The Legacy: The Complete History of TOPGUN and Its Impact on Tactical Aviation

#NavalAir22 #BookReview – TOPGUN – The Legacy: The Complete History of TOPGUN and Its Impact on Tactical Aviation

Editorial note: During 2022, From Balloons to Droneswill be running a series of articles, including book reviews and podcasts, that focus on the development and use of air power in the naval and maritime spheres of operations. In this book review, Dr Michael Hankins reviews Brad Elward’s recent history of the US Navy Fighter Weapons School, which was created during the Vietnam War to help improve fighter capabilities within the Navy.

The call for submissions for our Naval and Maritime Air Power Revisited series can be found here.

Brad Elward, TOPGUN – The Legacy: The Complete History of TOPGUN and Its Impact on Tactical Aviation. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military, 2021. Notes. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. 688 pp.

Reviewed by Dr Michael W. Hankins

topgun

The United States Navy Fighter Weapons School, also known as TOPGUN, is one of the most popular aspects of the history of US military aviation. The 1986 eponymous film about the program launched the school into the public consciousness, and the topic has remained popular enough to prompt a much-anticipated sequel set to release in 2022. It is somewhat surprising then that there has yet to be a solid monograph about the history of TOPGUN. Some useful books exist, such as Robert Wilcox’s Scream of Eagles (2005), based on a series of oral histories, or the memoir of co-founder Dan Pedersen, Topgun: An American Story (2019). However, these are primarily the accounts of participants rather than a deeper analysis of TOPGUN’s development. Aviation author Brad Elward attempts to fill this gap with Topgun: The Legacy, a massive tome covering the school in extreme detail. This book is undoubtedly the definitive guide to the TOPGUN programme, and it is difficult to imagine a more authoritative work on the subject. However, while a few missed opportunities result in the book being a bit less than the sum of its parts, those parts present are very strong and offer significant value to the reader.

The first thing readers will notice about this book is how massive it is. It’s huge, heavy, and hard to hold. It’s packed with small print spread over 688 pages—over 130 of which are reserved for footnotes. Although perhaps difficult for a casual read, the book’s size reveals just how rich it is in detail and research. Elward conducted over 450 interviews and had more access to the archived records of TOPGUN than any other researcher. This allows Elward to present unprecedented intricacy levels about what happened at TOPGUN over its history. Minute details are revealed, including the changes to the curriculum over the years, precisely who participated and in what capacities, the partnerships with other services, the school’s relationship to the rest of the US Navy, and far more. All this detail is bolstered by frank personal accounts of pilots, instructors, and other participants and eyewitnesses, which adds a fascinating layer to the narrative that is a great read.

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Just two months after the Ault Report was published, TOPGUN was up and running in an old trailer at NAS Miramar. The first class graduated later that year, c. 1969. (Source: US Naval Institute)

One element that jumped out was how often the curriculum changed and how quickly the instructors adapted to a changing environment. The courses were constantly revised and kept up to date, even in the face of significant challenges to the concept of TOPGUN. For example, introducing the F/A-18 Hornet prompted the instructors to incorporate more ground attack elements into their classes, overturning their previous exclusive focus on air-to-air combat. Tension remained, however, between the TOPGUN participants and the attack community, particularly those involved in the STRIKE U (Naval Strike Warfare Center) program. At times, the rivalry and posturing between these groups approached levels of drama associated with reality television. The level of cooperation between TOPGUN and other services was significant as well. Close coordination with the US Marines and the US Air Force helped create a more joint approach to training and the sharing of information. This had a noticeable effect on the combat operations of the 1990s and beyond, as aircrews could work together in a more joint-minded way than in previous conflicts.

Elward also brings a much welcome look into this more recent history of the school. Previous work on TOPGUN tends to focus on its early years and its influence on air combat in the Vietnam War. Elward brings an intricate amount of detail to the later years of TOPGUN in chapters arranged by decade. In this analysis, the 1990s emerge as the period of the most major transition in curriculum, approach, and aircraft. The school adopted new aircraft and teaching foci during that period and moved from Naval Air Station Miramar in California to Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada. The programme also took major organizational steps to change its relationship with the rest of the fleet, becoming more integrated and able to spread expertise throughout the force much more effectively. It was during this period, in 1996, when TOPGUN and STRIKE U merged along with the Carrier Airborne Early Warning Weapons School to form what is now known as Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center. Other significant changes to teaching in the 2000s as the global war on terror entailed a much heavier emphasis on ground attack as near-peer threats emerged in the air. Elward’s analysis is so detailed that it includes lengthy discussions of how the school switched to using email or other more mundane aspects of running the program brought about by changes in personal computing.

The book does have a few weaknesses, however. These mostly stem from the author’s enthusiasm for TOPGUN, which at times moves into advocacy for the program. This is evident in Elward’s main thesis, which is that in the major conflicts of the 20th Century, the US military forgot and had to re-learn the fundamentals of air combat, and only the formation of the US Navy’s TOPGUN program ended this cycle. This argument is similar to previous works (such as Wilcox and Pedersen). This thesis is unconvincing. Elward rightly points out that air combat knowledge was passed from pilots with experience in one conflict to those of the next, and the US Air Force’s Fighter Weapons School was active and successful throughout the early Cold War. The alleged habitual forgetting is not evident except in the case of the early 1960s, in which air-to-air combat training was severely reduced (or even eliminated) in the US Air Force and US Navy. The first several chapters are a useful synthesis of other works on the topic of air-to-air combat, but the book might be stronger without them.

In the attempt to portray TOPGUN as the solution to major problems, there are a few noticeable omissions of issues that might reflect less positively on the program. For example, the discussion of the Tailhook sexual assault incidents is dismissive and defensive, and Elward omits the tragic death of pilot Art Scholl while filming the Top Gun movie. Racial disparity is not mentioned, and the book does not address that TOPGUN has been overwhelmingly white and gives no recognition to the few African Americans who participated in and contributed to the program.

These flaws, however, do not change the fact that this book is incredibly well-researched, deeply detailed, and remains an engaging read even given its length. There will always be more room to ask new historical questions about TOPGUN, but this book has cemented its place as a definitive source on the topic. Elward’s work is sure to please enthusiasts and many general readers. Aviation scholars will find this a very useful source as well.

Dr Michael Hankins is the Curator for US Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps post-World War II Aviation at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and the author of Flying Camelot: The F-15, the F-16, and the Weaponisation of Fighter Pilot Nostalgia (2021). He is also the Podcast Editor at From Balloons to Drones. He is a former Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and former Instructor of Military History at the US Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD in history from Kansas State University in 2018 and his master’s in history from the University of North Texas in 2013. He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header image: The adversary instructor program was one of TOPGUN’s early contributions. When the US Navy established fleet adversary squadrons in the 1970s, it was important that adversary pilots provide standardized threat presentations in aircraft such as F-5s (top and middle) and A-4s (bottom). (Source: US Naval Institute)

#BookReview – Lavi: The United States, Israel and the Controversial Fighter Jet

#BookReview – Lavi: The United States, Israel and the Controversial Fighter Jet

John W. Golan, Lavi: The United States, Israel and the Controversial Fighter Jet. Lincoln NE: Potomac Books, 2016. Index. Maps. Figures. Tables. Images. Appendices. HBK. 416 pp.

Reviewed by Richard Shimooka

lavi

John Golan’s Lavi is a unique and welcome contribution to the field as the history of defence procurement, in general, remains a somewhat esoteric research area. Golan’s work focuses on the Israeli designed Lavi, a purpose-built close air support aircraft designed to replace the venerable Douglas A-4 Skyhawk in the Israeli Armed Forces (IAF) service. It had a short, bright life before the project reached an ignominious conclusion with a high stakes Israeli government cabinet meeting. Golan’s book chronicles the project’s history, drawing from a wide variety of primary sources, including documentation, interviews, and secondary sources. He effectively conveys Israel’s unique security environment and the need for a strong indigenous industrial base, which helped guide the programme’s development.

Golan’s unique background as an aviation engineer infuses his work with a different perspective than other accounts. He sews together many of the programme’s technical aspects with the project’s political, diplomatic, programme management, and doctrinal dimensions. That synthesis is rare in many accounts, which examine one or two areas and only make perfunctory acknowledgements of other areas. Lavi avoids that trap and is one of the most comprehensive treatments of a recent procurement project. The book starts by exploring the strategic and doctrinal history of the IAF that led to the project and the development of the country’s aviation industry that enabled its creation. A crucial part of these sections is how Golan highlights the experiences of various personnel, such as Benjamin Peled (p. 24) and Ezer Weizman (p. 37), who both played important roles during the Lavi’s gestation. The book then moves onto the programme’s project management, political, and technical dimensions, tracing its development until its demise. The book’s last third covers some of the post-cancellation fallout and effects.

One part of the book bears special mention: the appendixes. While most authors use them to elucidate topics not adequately addressed in the text, Golan adds nearly 100 pages covering various aspects of fighter design, performance, construction, and industrial considerations. No such comparable study exists that collects all these considerations in one place. It is the icing on top of the author’s already excellent book.

However, the account has a few shortcomings. The most apparent is how Golan addresses the factors and decision-making that led to the programme’s collapse. The book catalogues the wide array of factors that led to its cancellation, such as the desperate state of Israeli public finances in the late 1980s. However, the book largely relegates them as contributing factors throughout its narrative. Golan reserves much of the blame surrounding the programme’s collapse to US Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger. In particular, the secretary’s anti-Israeli perspective and dogged bureaucratic approach are noted as being particularly effective at convincing already reticent Israeli authorities to cancel the programme.  Golan prioritises Weinberger’s agency over all other actors and seems to give his role the preponderance of blame for the outcome.

While Weinberger undoubtedly played an obstructionist role, the Israeli government was not the only one to encounter his department’s intransigence towards multinational fighter projects. For example, the development of the Japanese Mitsubishi F-2 programme experienced similar levels of strife. Thus, any multinational programme would encounter political hurdles within the United States.

Nevertheless, Golan’s focus on the political and diplomatic aspects of the programme’s cancellation slightly underplays some of the other dynamics that affected the outcome. One is the economic and industrial trends that affected all western fighter development programmes during the latter half of the Cold War. The number of Western fighter manufacturers started to decline between the 1960s to 1980s, largely due to the rising cost of developing and producing fighters, which far outpaced normal inflation.

In isolation, Israel might have been able to absorb these cost increases. However, the fiscal realities of the state were dire, as Golan described:

At the time that Israel’s National Unity Government took office, the nation was undergoing an economic earthquake. Decades of extended defense budgets had taken their toll. Defense expenditures had always been a leading element in Israel’s national budget. In the aftermath of the 1973 war, however, Israeli defense expenditures had skyrocketed – consuming an average of 24 percent of Israel’s gross domestic product during the decade that followed. In comparison, the United States – even at the height of the war in Vietnam – devoted less than 10 percent of its GDP toward defense. The burden on Israel’s economy was unbearable, driving budget deficits and inflation to unprecedented levels. (p. 101)

Golan’s characterises the factors pertaining to the Lavi’s demise as chess pieces employed by Weinberger and his staff to cancel the fighter. However, given these desperate economic realities, it is difficult to see how the programme would continue even after the fateful cancellation of the fighter on August 31, 1987. Already there was significant support for either cancelling or curtailing Lavi purchases within the Israeli cabinet. If purchases were reduced, this would create a phenomenon known as a death spiral, where decreasing lot purchases result in higher unit costs, often leading to further reductions.

Another significant dynamic unexplored in the book is the major, ongoing doctrinal shift in the close-air support mission. Golan’s work is effusive in its praise for the Israeli fighter, often pointing out its ability to undertake this mission. However, the book fails to cover the changing threat landscape, which would pose significant challenges for the aircraft’s viability in its assigned mission.

It should be noted that these are relatively minor issues in an otherwise excellent book. Very few accounts have synthesised such a disparate but relevant array of facts to create an authoritative account of the programme. Golan’s weighting of these factors may invite some critique and debate, but that should by no means discourage anyone from reading this outstanding work.

Richard Shimooka is a Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa, Canada. He was a Senior Fellow at the Defence Management Studies Programme at Queen’s University from 2007–2012, and a Research Fellow at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute from 2012-2017. Richard works’ cover a diverse array of topics, including Canadian and American foreign and defence policy, modern air power and defence procurement.

Header image: IAI Lavi B-2 prototype at Muzeyon Heyl ha-Avir, Hatzerim, Israel. 2006. (Source: Wikimedia)

#BookReview – CIA Station D: Area 51 – The Complete Illustrated History of the CIA’s Station D at Area 51

#BookReview – CIA Station D: Area 51 – The Complete Illustrated History of the CIA’s Station D at Area 51

T.D. Barnes, CIA Station D: Area 51 – The Complete Illustrated History of the CIA’s Station D at Area 51. Danbury, CT: Begell House, 2021. Photographs. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. 590 pp. HBK.

Reviewed by Dr Michael W. Hankins

cia-station-d-area-51

Area 51 has long been a source of fascination, intrigue, and conspiracy theories. It has also inspired popular culture from television and film to 2019’s widely publicised (but barely attended) Facebook-based attempt to ‘storm the site. However, those familiar with the military aviation world have long known that Area 51 is little more than a US Air Force (USAF) (formerly Central Intelligence Agency, CIA) facility where experimental aircraft are tested. This includes everything from the U-2 spy plane to the F-117 stealth fighter. T.D. Barnes, who worked with the CIA during its formative years at Area 51, attempts to set the record straight with this new book covering the CIA’s activities in the Nevada desert during the early and mid-Cold War. The result is a profoundly informative work that reveals new stories and will please enthusiasts. Still, the size of the book and its challenging organisation might be overwhelming for casual readers.

From the early origins of Station D, which only much later became known as Area 51, Barnes traces the major CIA aviation programs based there. These include the U-2, the A-12 (and associated Blackbird ‘family’ aircraft of the YF-12, SR-71, and M-21), and the MiG exploitation programs that evaluated and flew captured Soviet aircraft. Some side projects associated with these significant programs are explored as well, most notably Project PALLADIUM, which provided valuable intelligence on Soviet radar capabilities. The details of these programs will already be known to many readers. For example, the Blackbird family programs are well documented by works such as Paul Crickmore’s Lockheed Blackbird: Beyond the Secret Missions (revised edition, 2016) or Richard Graham’s The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird (2015). However, Barnes’ work reveals fascinating new details about even these well-covered topics. Barnes presents both familiar and new stories from the perspective of the CIA rather than from the USAF or industry contractors. The Palladium program is particularly interesting, involving complicated, world-ranging plots to send fake signals in the direction of the Soviet Union to see what their radars could detect. Barnes does a good job of tracing the story from field teams collecting information to how information was analysed and used in technological and strategic decision-making at the highest levels.

A12radartesting
A scale model of an A-12 prepared for radar cross section measurements at ‘Area 51,’ c. 1959. (Source: Wikimedia)

This fresh perspective is also wide-ranging. At times, Barnes zooms out to discuss broad historical topics and focuses on minute details of a particular program. As a result, readers will find a wealth of immense detail, as well as many photographs, some of which have not been published before (although some of the photos are of low resolution and appear pixelated on the page). Although technology is often at the centre of these stories, Barnes also sheds interesting light on the institutional histories; seeing the organisational evolution and institutional rivalries from the CIA’s perspective is an interesting and welcome lens on this material. For example, Barnes traces the various tensions between the CIA and the USAF, from high command to individual personnel.

The individual level is where the book really shines. Barnes gives a true, ‘on the ground’ account of many of these programs, not only showing how the CIA’s efforts affected the Cold War, but depicting what it felt like to live there, to work there, and the realities of day-to-day life inside a top-secret facility working on advanced, world-changing programs. The Blackbirds may have been top-of-the-line, sleek, space-age aircraft. Still, Barnes contrasts that with stories about the trouble getting clearances and badges, the type of housing available on the station, the type of bars that employees frequented, and the games with which personnel and pilots amused themselves. Whether he is telling a detailed technological history or something personal, the focus is on the details of these stories – there is no large historical analysis, nor a broad historical argument made in this book.

4477th_Test_and_Evaluation_Squadron_MiG-21_in_flight
A MiG-21F-13 flown by United States Navy and Air Force Systems Command during HAVE DOUGHNUT in 1968. (Source: Wikimedia).

As interesting as the material is, some readers have a few barriers to entry. The first is the whopping price tag of US$149. Although this cost might be too high for some readers, it is worth noting the amount of material one gets for the price. The book is heavy and massive, almost unwieldy. It contains nearly 600 oversized, double-columned pages, each of which is almost twice the dimensions of a typical print book. In terms of word count, this is probably about three typical books’ worth of material, which might help to justify the cost for some readers.Historians looking for a thesis will not find one, as the work does not seek to make a historical argument. Instead, it is focused on detailed accounts of individual stories. Furthermore, although the book is packed with detail, the immense amount of material might be difficult for some readers to navigate. In addition, it is written in a meandering style, which is sometimes charming, but at other times leads to repetition. In some cases, stories are told and retold, sometimes more than once. Usually, the retellings of stories contain slightly different emphases, but periodically sentences are repeated verbatim, and in some cases, photographs are reused. There are no footnotes and only a brief bibliography. Except for a few instances where a document is referenced directly in the text, readers may have trouble finding sources for information or quotes.

In conclusion, enthusiasts of the U-2, A-12/SR-71, and captured MiG programs will likely find much to like about this book, including newly discovered details and fresh images from a new perspective. Although it is a bit less accessible to casual readers, researchers will find plenty to pore over here.

Dr Michael Hankins is the Curator for US Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps post-World War II Aviation at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and the author of Flying Camelot: The F-15, the F-16, and the Weaponisation of Fighter Pilot Nostalgia (2021). He is also the Podcast Editor at From Balloons to Drones. He is a former Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and former Instructor of Military History at the US Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD in history from Kansas State University in 2018 and his master’s in history from the University of North Texas in 2013. He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header image: A Lockheed M-21 carrying Lockheed D-21 drone in flight. (Source: Wikimedia)

#BookReview – Drone War Vietnam

#BookReview – Drone War Vietnam

David Axe, Drone War Vietnam. Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2021. Illustrations. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. viii + 166 pp.

Reviewed by Dr Roger Connor

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The rapidly expanded use of military drones for surveillance and targeted strikes has generated greater interest in 20th Century military drone development and use over the past two decades. The most prolific antecedent to the General Atomics Predator was the US Air Force’s (USAF) Vietnam-era employment of Ryan 147 ‘Lightning Bug,’ a variant of the Firebee turbine-powered target drone developed in the late 1940s. In all, 3,435 Lightning Bug combat missions were flown over the South-East Asia combat by 1,106 of what today would be regarded as ‘attritable’ drones. Launched from a DC-130 mothership and recovered in flight after popping a parachute by CH-3 helicopters, these unconventional reconnaissance remotely piloted aircraft fit the traditional rationale for drones – the D’s: Dull, Dirty (nuclear), or Dangerous operations. Over North Vietnam, Lightning Bug flights freed RF-101 and other reconnaissance crews from particularly hazardous or politically sensitive missions, such as documenting air defence sites, especially S-75 (NATO designated SA-2) surface-to-air missile complexes. Some even performed propaganda leaflet drops. While the 147s flew unarmed in operations, considerable development occurred in equipping them with precision-guided ordnance, but the war ended before they were suitable for deployment.

David Axe, a self-described journalist, filmmaker, and blogger, has produced a slick-looking, if somewhat anemic, study of the Ryan Lightning Bugs. Organized into sixteen short chapters of roughly four-to-eight pages, each separated by photographic spreads, the first three chapters address the early history of the Lightning Bugs, framing them as a response to the challenge of the Soviet S-75 (SA-2) surface-to-air missile. Chapters four to fifteen document various episodes of operations of operations over North Vietnam with an emphasis on Ryan’s response to the challenges encountered. The final chapter documents Ryan’s next generation Model 154 drone.

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A US Air Force Lockheed DC-130A Hercules taking off on a mission in Southeast Asia, carrying two Ryan AQM-34 Firebee drones, c. 1969. Firebees flew reconnaissance missions using a pre-programmed guidance system or by remote control from the DC-130 crew. (Source: Wikimedia)

Drone War Vietnam attempts a survey of Lightning Bug operations while linking them with post-war strategic applications of remotely piloted aircraft and the broader narrative of drone development. The primary attraction for Axe’s narrative is that it is well-illustrated with images that do not appear in other works on the topic. Many of these photos originated with the Ryan archives, now in possession of the San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives. These include multiple perspectives of drone operators in DC-130 motherships and a Marine Corps CH-37 helicopter used in drone recovery operations that crashed in just such an attempt. As a visual record of this technological niche, Axe’s monograph is the best available in print.

Unfortunately, Axe’s narrative is disappointing. A significant factual error in the first two sentences of the introduction sets the tone (incorrectly describing the well-documented 2001 first strike made from an MQ-1). Casual errors such as Mutually Assured Destruction being described as having existed in 1950 also crop up. While these contextual errors are frustrating, fundamental errors on the topic are less forgivable. For instance, Axe notes, ‘[B]etween 1966 and the end of the Vietnam War, Army helicopters attempted 2,745 drone recoveries and completed 2,655 of them: a 96.7 per cent success rate’ (p. 90). This is a nice recitation of facts, except that almost exclusively USAF helicopters of the 350th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron performed the duty – a critical fact that does not appear in the text. Axe’s writing style is accessible, but sometimes overly so with the use of incomplete sentences, for example, ‘[N]o opportunity to bait an S-75 battery’ (p. 80).

Axe’s understanding of the sweep of drone history is poor. He takes an American-centric focus, but even then, has ignored the broader historiography of remotely piloted aircraft development. Instead, he describes drone history as Kettering Bug begets Denny Radioplane begets Firebee. A quick look at H.R. Everett’s Unmanned Systems of World War II (2015) should have been enough to avoid such a flawed chronology. Meanwhile, the technical aspects inherent in the Lightning Bug’s achievements receive little attention, particularly concerning the challenges and limitations of operating and recovering the drones. Likewise, the incredible advances in inertial navigation that made autonomous flight in contested airspace possible pass with only a couple of sentences.

The text is not footnoted, and tellingly, neither Axe nor his editor understood the difference between primary and secondary sources as they are delineated in his bibliography, though almost nothing he includes there would be considered a primary source. Even obvious sources, like the Project CHECO report on Buffalo Hunter (the late war phase of Lightning Bug operations), easily obtainable online, are missing.

Most of Axe’s narrative is a retelling of William Wagner’s Lightning Bugs and other Reconnaissance Drones (1982). Wagner’s forty-year-old effort is the historian’s more thorough and polished option. Axe at least credits Wagner, a former Ryan Aeronautical executive, with much of his content, but this effort is a poor imitation of the original. Where Axe does improve on Wagner is in the contextual frame of drone operations, for which he adds a geopolitical frame of the various events and geographical operations. These are often over-simplistic, but they do succeed in making the book more accessible for an enthusiast audience interested in the hardware but with less understanding of the history and establishing a more well-rounded narrative. However, this contextual frame is often awkwardly executed in a way that does little to inform the application of drones, for example, a three-page chapter on the Gulf of Tonkin incident. The flip side is that Axe spends less than a third of the monograph on Lightning Bug operations in the Vietnam War. Instead, with Wagner as his primary source, he spends as much time on China overflights and ELINT (electronic intelligence) variants used to monitor North Korea as the far more substantive deployments over North Vietnam. Axe’s supposedly operational history thus primarily reflects a contractor perspective with very little of the service experience one might expect from this type of study.

These shortcomings become very apparent when examining a campaign like Linebacker II. As Wagner himself noted, Lightning Bug operations reached their peak during the operation. Axe’s telling of the story is almost exclusively in the frame of B-52 experience, which is a nice contextual detail, but adds nothing to the understanding of how or why remotely piloted aircraft were significant to the campaign.

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A QH-50 DASH anti-submarine drone on board the destroyer USS Allen M. Sumner during a deployment to Vietnam. The photo was taken between April and June 1967. (Source: Wikimedia)

Axe pays some attention to remotely piloted adjuncts to the Lightning Bugs such as the Lockheed D-21 and Ryan 154 Compass Arrow, both focused on the Chinese nuclear program. The decision to include these is somewhat odd as they are outside of his Southeast Asian narrative. While the Compass Arrow has at least a corporate family tree associated with the Lightning Bugs, the D-21 has no operational or technical overlap. Meanwhile, Axe makes no mention of the other prominent drone programs employed in South-East Asia such as the QU-22 and the QH-50 drone helicopter. The QU-22 were droned Beechcraft Bonanzas used as communication relay platforms for the Igloo White ‘electronic fence’ of ground sensors on the Ho Chi Minh trail. The QH-50s were used primarily to spot naval gunfire. The QU-22 and QH-50 provide a useful frame for understanding the broader requirement for drone aircraft and the inherent limitations of the technology. It is this sort of assessment and analysis that is most notably absent. Instead, Axe is content to conclude that the legacy of the Lightning Bugs was to show that the Predator’s milestones weren’t new (p. 150). Nuanced quibbles about what was new with Predator aside (quite a lot, in fact), this rather obvious point could have also been made about drone aircraft in World War II. The 147 (along with QU-22s and QH-50s) demonstrated an emergent association between remotely piloted remotely piloted aircraft and the goal of risk reduction in limited war, which was something revolutionary, but the author did is not well versed enough in the topic to see it.

Besides Wagner, there is another useful study, which Axe neglected entirely, specifically Steve Miller’s nearly 700-page self-published The 99th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron: The Air Force’s Story of Unmanned Reconnaissance in the Vietnam War (2017). Though Miller would have benefited greatly from an editor, it is a useful expansion on Wagner’s dated history, written by a Lightning Bug veteran and introduces a trove of primary source documentation, as well as a much-needed USAF operational perspective. He also brings in the QU-22 story. If Axe had focused more on veterans’ experiences like Miller, Drone War Vietnam might have been worth recommending. Instead, it is a pale shadow of Wagner’s better publication.

With the disappointments inherent in Axe’s monograph, one wonders what an effective revision of Wagner’s solid work might look like. However, Kevin Wright’s We Were Never There: CIA U-2 Operations Over Europe, the USSR and the Middle East, 1956-1960 (2021) gives an idea of what might be possible. Linking mission reports, operational context, supported by high-quality maps and graphics, he has developed a glossy enthusiast-style publication that meets scholarly standards of documentation while proving attractive and accessible for the aviation general-interest audience. A similar work on the Lightning Bugs would help both the scholarly study and enthusiast appreciation of remotely piloted and autonomous aircraft operations.

Dr Roger Connor curates several collections at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, including remotely piloted and autonomous aircraft, vertical flight, Army ground force aviation, cockpit equipment, and aviation infrastructure. He earned his PhD from George Mason University in 2020 with his dissertation, ‘Rooftops to Rice Paddies: Helicopters, Aerial Utopianism, and the Creation of the National Security State.’

Header image: The US Air Force Ryan AQM-34L Firebee drone ‘Tom Cat’ of the 556th Reconnaissance Squadron flew 68 missions over North Vietnam before being shot down by anti-aircraft fire over Hanoi. (Source: Wikimedia)

#HistoricBookReview – The Air War, 1930-1945

#HistoricBookReview – The Air War, 1930-1945

Richard J. Overy, The Air War, 1930-1945. Potomac Edition. Washington DC: Potomac Books, 2005. Appendices. Tables. Photographs. Notes. Bibliographic Note. Bibliography. Index. vii + 267 pp.

Reviewed by Ryan Clauser

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Few historical works have altered the course of a field of study in the way Richard Overy’s The Air War, 1939-1945 did when it was first published in 1980. When the book was published initially, air power history, as a field of academic study, was in its infancy and had been mainly regarded as the ‘Cinderella’ of military history (p. 240). However, Overy’s work transformed the historiography of air power history with his comparative study of the most important air forces of the Second World War.

The importance of Overy’s The Air War is hard to overstate, especially as the book has been reprinted twice in 1987 and 2005. In the most recent edition, that under reviewe here, Overy, now an Honorary Professor at the University of Exeter in the UK, provided the reader with new additions in the form of new statistical figures, updated research, and notes from the author. These new additions illustrate Overy’s dedication to his work and has helped keep The Air War an essential source for historians and remains one of the premier air power history texts. Since the publication of the first edition of The Air War, Overy has continued to write extensively about air power history and the history of the Second World War, including works such as Why the Allies Won (1995), The Battle of Britain: Myth and the Reality (2001), Interrogations: The Nazi Elite in the Allied Hands, 1945 (2001), The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 (2013) and most recently Blood and Ruins: The Great Imperial War, 1931-1945 (2021). Potomac Books published the latest edition of The Air War as part of their Cornerstones of Military History collection.

Overy starts his work by proclaiming that ‘this is not a ‘blood and guts’ book about the air war’ (p. xiii), but rather a study that aims to compare and contrast the air forces of the warring nations along with their preparations, strategies, leadership, economics, and development. The Air War sought to provide a greater overview and understanding of the discrepancies between Allied and Axis air forces and fully explain air power’s role throughout the war.

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Three Avro Lancaster BMkIs of No. 44 Squadron, Royal Air Force based at Waddington in Lincolnshire, flying above the clouds, 29 September 1942. Left to right: W4125, ‘KM-W,’ being flown by Sergeant Colin Watt, Royal Australian Air Force; W4162, ‘KM-Y,’ flown by Pilot Officer T.G. Hackney (later killed while serving with No. 83 Squadron); and W4187, ‘KM-S,’ flown by Pilot Officer J.D.V.S. Stephens DFM, who was killed with his crew two nights later during a raid on Wismar. (Source: © IWM TR 197)

The Air War begins with an overview of each combatant nation’s preparations for war and their overall use of air power. Overy wrote that air power theory and doctrine had matured in the years leading up to and throughout the Second World War. These new ideas stated that air power could be used in many ways, such as: protecting naval power, close air support, strategic bombing, and air defence. For example, naval aviation was invaluable for Japan as the Imperial Japanese Navy used it to develop carrier strike forces. The development of Japanese naval air power sought to offset the advantages that western navies, such as the United States and Great Britain, held over Japan. However, for other Axis nations, naval air power was non-existent as Germany and Italy saw no merit in committing resources to build aircraft carriers. Instead, Germany and Italy subscribed to the theory that air power was best suited for a role in supporting their armies. However, the Allies crafted their air power doctrine more holistically to encompass all aspects of military aviation, including naval support, support of armies, strategic bombing, and aerial defence, all of which played critical roles in the Allied air war.

Overy breaks down the Second World War by year and the theatre of operation beginning with the early War in Europe spanning from 1939 to 1941. This section discusses Germany’s and the Axis’ initial success with close air support and air interdiction. However, Germany’s victories were quickly halted following the fall of France and the beginning of the Battle of Britain. Left as the only attacking force capable of striking the United Kingdom from occupied France, the Luftwaffe found itself in a role for which it was wholly unprepared. In contrast, the British utilised a far more general strategy to successfully defend their nation and launch a strategic bombing campaign of their own. Overy stated that, ‘the German rejection of a more general air strategy coincided with shifts in the war itself that made such a strategy more rather than less necessary’ (p. 37). While the air war was still an essential facet of the Second World War in its first two years, it had yet to fully mature on the battlefield.

For the rest of the war in Europe, 1941 to 1945, Overy explains how the allies’ general air strategy put them at a far more significant advantage in the air war compared to their Axis counterparts. As described by Overy, this generalist strategy allowed the allies to combine the many facets of air power, including aerial defence, ground and naval support, and strategic bombing, into one encompassing approach to the war in the air. This perspective also helped mature the Allies use of air power throughout the war. Further, the economics of the air war is also stressed. As Overy pointed out, the United States alone had seen a steady increase in aircraft production every year since 1942, and by 1944 they were outproducing Germany at a rate of nearly three to one in aircraft. Additionally, the Americans suffered less than half the losses of the Germans in the air throughout the war. These factors combined led the allies to victory in the air war and the war in general.

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An Imperial Japanese Navy Mitsubishi A6M2 ‘Zero’ fighter takes off from the aircraft carrier ‘Akagi,’ on its way to attack Pearl Harbor during the morning of 7 December 1941. The aircraft was flown by PO2c Sakae Mori, 1st koku kantai, 1st koku sentai, and flew with the second wave. (Source: Wikimedia)

The war in the Pacific was strategically a much different conflict than the one in Europe. Japan’s approach to air power was to use it mainly as a supporting arm of its navy to create a multi-faceted naval strike force. Japan used their war with China to hone this strategy and their aviation technology. This early period of war for Japan allowed them to create a superior fighter aircraft in the Mitsubishi A6M Zero and allowed them to hold the upper hand for a time in their war against the United States and Great Britain following the attack on Pearl Harbor. As the war in the Pacific persisted, the Allies again found multiple roles for airpower and again committed to a generalist strategy in the east. Continuously, like the war in Europe, economics played an essential role in the Pacific, as even by 1941, Japan had begun realising that their economy was in short supply of the raw materials needed to fight a war. This hampered the Japanese war effort and nearly crippled its ability to produce aircraft. By the end of the war, Japan’s aircraft industry could barely replace what was being lost in combat, while the Americans kept producing increasingly better aircraft at staggeringly higher rates. Again, Overy emphasises that the Allied generalist strategies and superior economies were able to win the air war in the east.

While strategy and economics are at the heart of Overy’s work, he also delved into other aspects of the air war, including leadership, training, organisation, science, and research of each nation’s air force, all of which played a crucial role in the air war at large. Each of these additional factors was eventually influenced at some juncture in the war by the strategy and economics of each nation and how they chose to operate their air forces. Nonetheless, each of these additional factors played a significant role in the air war of the Second World War.

Throughout the course of Overy’s research, he relied heavily on official documents, public records, and memoirs of pilots, military commanders, and government officials. Overy was also fortunate to have access to various German records housed with the Imperial War Museum in London while researching the book in the 1970s. That said, while access to some sources was abundant, others, specifically those dealing with the Soviet Air Force, were scant at best and were limited to what the Soviet government saw fit to publish. Another issue in researching this project was the state of air power scholarship, which was in its infancy. Due to this, Overy was forced to depend on more general studies of aircraft, economics, and World War II for secondary sources. A problem that the publication of the book itself began to rectify. Overy also admits that he utilised fictional and popular publications to get a well-rounded perspective of the air war but did not include these works among his cited sources.

In this new edition, Overy has added a new preface in which he claims to have changed very little of his original text, but instead focused his edits on updating the charts and statistics. These illustrations show how economics influenced the air war and exhibit the discrepancies in how Allied and Axis powers produced aircraft. Also, in this newest edition, Overy included a valuable bibliographic note in which he evaluated the development of the historiography of air power and provided the authors and titles of works that have extrapolated further on the ideas laid out in the original Air War text such as tactics and leaderships and economics. Notably, among these works are Richard Davis’s Carl A. Spaatz and the Air War in Europe (1992), John Gooch’s collection of essays Airpower: Theory and Practice (1995), and John Buckley’s Air Power in the Age of Total War (1999). This section was not meant for Overy to vaunt his own influence on the field, but rather to provide readers with a greater historiographic picture of Second World War air power scholarship and show how the field has grown since 1980.

To describe The Air War as notable would be an understatement, as Overy took on the monumental task of comparing and contrasting the primary air forces of the Axis and Allied powers of the Second World War. Even from the outset of this book Overy admitted that he only spent paragraphs on what could be volumes worth of work, yet he was still somehow able to distil mass amounts of information and statistics into only 211 pages of content. From these pages, Overy concluded that the allies were able to gain the upper hand and win the air war largely because of their generalist strategic approach and superior economies. In totality, Overy’s The Air War is still among the preeminent air power works and should continue to be heralded for ushering air power history into the mainstream of academic study.

Ryan Clauser is an Adjunct Professor of History at DeSales University. He received his MA from East Stroudsburg University where he wrote his master’s thesis on restored airworthy Second World War aircraft as important pieces of historical memory that should be preserved as living monuments. He specialises in air power history and memory of the Second World War.

Header image: The Boeing B-29 Superfortress was the long range strategic bomber used be the United Sates to bomb Japan. It was the largest aircraft to have a significant operational role in the war, and remains the only aircraft in history to have ever used a nuclear weapon in combat. (Source: Wikimedia)

#BookReview – Picturing the Space Shuttle: The Early Years

#BookReview – Picturing the Space Shuttle: The Early Years

J.L. Pickering and John Bisney, Picturing the Space Shuttle: The Early Years. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2021. Hbk. 240 pp.

Reviewed by Dr Brian Laslie

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A couple of years ago, in a book review for From Balloons to Drones, I started by saying:

A different type of book necessitates a different type of book review. Herein you will not find an author’s argument or a critique thereof since the book being discussed today is a collection of photographs and an extremely fine one at that.

That book review was for J.L. Pickering and John Bisney’s Picturing Apollo 11: Rare Views and Undiscovered Moments. The same authors have followed up that superb effort with the recently released Picturing the Space Shuttle: The Early Years.

As the title suggests, the authors undertake to produce a pictorial history of – and to look at the development of – the reusable Shuttle Transportation System (STS), the Approach and Landing Tests (ALT), the astronaut class of 1978 (the ‘Thirty-Five New Guys,’ or TFNGs) and the first four STS missions that made up the test program for the new shuttle. Pickering and Bisney have again accomplished just that and produced a unique look at the early days of the space shuttle program, using rare, never-before-published photographs from the late 1970s and early 1980s. The book opens with a forward from STS-1 pilot Robert L. Crippen, who stated that he hoped the book ‘will increase your appreciation for what a remarkable accomplishment the Space Shuttle was.’ Crippen need not worry; the book does precisely that.

Although ostensibly a book of photographs, there is also enough background here to keep the layman and the historian happy with the development of the program. However, it is the photos that stand out. From Maxime Faget’s original model of a reusable space shuttle to the numerous designs, concepts, and artists’ renderings as they developed into the recognizable shuttle design that went into production, there are enough photographs in the first chapter alone to make the book worth the purchase.

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This is a montage of the individual portraits of the 35-member 1978 class of astronaut candidates. The Astronaut Class of 1978, otherwise known as the ‘Thirty-Five New Guys,’ was NASA’s first new group of astronauts since 1969. This class was notable for many reasons, including having the first African-American and first Asian-American astronauts and the first women. From left to right are Guion S. Bluford, Daniel C. Brandenstein, James F. Buchli, Michael L. Coats, Richard O. Covey, John O. Creighton, John M. Fabian, Anna L. Fisher, Dale A. Gardner, Robert L. Gibson, Frederick D. Gregory, S. David Griggs, Terry J. Hart, Frederick H. (Rick) Hauck, Steven A. Hawley, Jeffrey A. Hoffman, Shannon W. Lucid, Jon A. McBride, Ronald E. McNair, Richard M. (Mike) Mullane, Steven R. Nagel, George D. Nelson, Ellison S. Onizuka, Judith A. Resnik, Sally K. Ride, Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, Rhea Seddon, Brewster H. Shaw Jr., Loren J. Shriver, Robert L. Stewart, Kathryn D. Sullivan, Norman E. Thagard, James D. Van Hoften, David M. Walker and Donald E. Williams. (Source: NASA)

Some of the great gems are the photos that show the transition from the Apollo era to the shuttle era. Nowhere is this more clearly displayed than the chapter detailing the Shuttle Enterprise’s Approach and Landing Tests. Here, Apollo mission veteran Fred Haise (Apollo 13) is joined by Gordon Fullerton, Joe Engle, and Richard Truly to test the flying characteristics of the new shuttle. Dave Scott and Deke Slayton in very late-1970s garb also make appearances in these pages (pp. 38-9). This transition is completed in the next chapter with the introduction of NASA’s next astronaut class, the ‘TFNGs,’ which introduced America and the world to the names of Guion Bluford, Anna Fisher, Robert Gibson, Steven Hawley, Sally Ride, and many others. The book includes a complete montage of the 35 Group 8 astronauts, the TFNGs (p. 71). Many of them are also pictured testing out Apollo-era spacesuits, marking the transition from old to new. If you had a favourite shuttle-era astronaut, there is a good chance they were represented in this class, and I was pleased to see photos of some of my heroes herein: Rhea Seddon, Frederick Gregory, and Shannon Lucid (65-71).

Obviously, the book really takes off (pun completely intended) with a section devoted to the first four shuttle missions, all of them aboard the Columbia. After that, the book moves from construction at Palmdale to delivery to Kennedy. The woes of Columbia’s heat-ablative tiles are adequately covered and, although the shuttle is a brand-new ship, it looks the worse for wear in several photographs (pp. 104-5). However, these problems overcome, there are some truly terrific ‘behind the scenes’ shots as Columbia is mated to the stack and rolled out to the pad. Here, there are some iconic photographs of the shuttle sitting on the pad with the setting sun turning the clouds a stunning orange and lifting into bright clear-blue Florida skies, but also some great shots ‘on orbit’ and the crews returning safely to Earth along the tanned lakebed of Edwards Air Force Base in California.

The Space Shuttle Columbia touches down on lakebed runway 23 at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., to conclude the first orbital shuttle mission
The Space Shuttle Columbia touches down on lakebed runway 23 at Edwards Air Force Base to conclude the first orbital shuttle mission, 14 April 1981. (Source: NASA)

Picturing the Space Shuttle is another masterwork. It is truly a tour de force and a compelling collection of photographs that should be on the bookshelf of everyone who considers themselves a shuttle aficionado. One hopes that Pickering and Bisney continue to comb through the photographic archives of later shuttle missions. It has been 40 years since Columbia lifted into the sky for the first time and, perhaps even more amazing, a decade since the last shuttle returned safely to earth. As time marches on and the shuttle program recedes into memory, Pickering and Bisney have given us a reason to remember what Astronaut John Young called the ‘world’s greatest flying machine,’ the Space Shuttle.

Dr Brian Laslie is a US Air Force Historian and is the Command Historian at the United States Air Force Academy. Formerly he was the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). He is the Book Reviews Editor for From Balloons to Drones. A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his Masters’ from Auburn University Montgomery in 2006 and his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. He is the author of Air Power’s Lost Cause: The American Air Wars of Vietnam (2021),  Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force (2017) and The Air Force Way of War (2015). The latter book was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s 2016 professional reading list and the 2017 RAF Chief of the Air Staff’s reading list. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header image:  The Space Shuttle Columbia glides down over Rogers Dry Lake as it heads for a landing at Edwards Air Force Base at the conclusion of its first orbital mission on 14 April 1981. (Source: NASA)