Review Article – Air Power in Technicolour

Review Article – Air Power in Technicolour

By Dr Ross Mahoney

John Dibbs and Tony Holmes, Spitfire: The Legend Lives On. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2016. Foreword. Images. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. pp. 224.

John Dibbs, Tony Holmes and Gordon Riley, Hurricane: Hawker’s Fighter Legend. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2017. Foreword. Images. Appendix. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. pp. 256.

John Dibbs, Kent Ramsey and Lieutenant Colonel Robert Renner, Storm of Eagles: The Greatest Aviation Photographs of World War II. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2017. Foreword. Images. Index. Hbk. pp. 248.

Spitfire

We have all been there have we not? You are standing in the bookshop looking at ‘serious’ history books, and then it happens, your eyes are drawn to a big shiny book, usually on the bottom shelf. You cannot help yourself; you are drawn to it and pick it up and fawn at the pictures, usually glossy. Whether you buy it is irrelevant; there is something that always draws you to such books. Whether it is the subject matter or the high-quality photography, it happens. This is what coffee table books are designed to do. They are designed to bring you ‘in’ with description and dazzling images.

Hurricane

These three books from Osprey Publishing are very well-produced examples of the coffee table book genre that will tempt you with their wares. Two of the books, Spitfire and Hurricane complement each other as their subject matter is the two fighters that exemplify the Royal Air Force’s contribution to the Second World War. The third book, Storm of Eagles, is a collection of period photographs from the Second World War that has been produced with the support of the National Museum of World War II Aviation in Colorado Springs. Both Spitfire and Hurricane follow a similar layout and provide descriptions of different versions of their respective aircraft or a campaign in which they were involved. For example, in Spitfire, there is a chapter on the Rolls-Royce Griffon engined Spitfire (pp. 113-44) while Hurricane includes a section on the Malta campaign (pp. 142-55). Each chapter also includes a discussion of relevant restored examples of the aircraft, which provide a framework for the narrative. This narrative is ably supported by a mix of John Dibbs’ high-quality modern images of restored aircraft alongside some great archive pictures. A valuable addition to these books are their respective forewords written by veterans who flew the aircraft, and in Hurricane, this is provided by Wing Commander Tom Neil while Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum provided the introduction for Spitfire. This helps round the books off by offering some useful personal views of the aircraft and associated issues such as motivation. As Neil reflected:

Flight is wonderful, flight in a machine you love is simply magical, and these photographs offer a sense of that (p. 14).

Sorm of Eagles

Unlike the first two books, Storm of Eagles is broader in scope and not focused on a single aircraft type. Rather, split geographically into theatres of operations with images used to illustrate air power in these geographic areas, this book presents an excellent mix of pictures not just of aircraft but also of the experience of air warfare and service with air forces. While images of the American experience predominate, there are photographs included from all the major combatants of the Second World War, thus, highlighting the transnational experience of air warfare during this conflict. Indeed, from my perspective, this book and the selection of photographs used, highlights how under utilised images can be as a source when it comes to understanding the experience of war. For example, the image of Major Robert S. Johnson (p. 81), a United States Army Air Force (USAAF) ace with 27 victories on the P-47 Thunderbolt, at the Republic factory at Farmingdale, Long Island illustrates several salient themes concerning the Second World War. First, this image highlights the role of propaganda in war as Johnson had been ordered home for a War Bond tour. Such tours put the USAAF in as positive a light as possible and helped explain the necessity for war production. Second, in being an act of propaganda, it highlights the relationship between the home front and front-line and the need to ensure workers understood the impact their work had on the war effort by creating a bond between ‘workers’ and ‘fighters’. In short, such propaganda activities were an important aspect of civil-military relations and images such as this further our understanding of these deeds. Third, the photo also shows the celebrity of the pilot as a fundamental aspect of air force ethos. Ultimately, understanding factors such as those noted above are critical to our understanding of the Second World War and photographs are a source that historians should not ignore.

To conclude, and to come back to my rather flippant introduction, these are lovely looking books; however, do they add anything to how we think about war generally and air power in particular? For me, the simple answer is yes. First, at one level, there is information that can be garnered from such books in particular through sections such as the forewords, which typically tend to be written by veterans. These give a useful insight into how those who operated and flew these aircraft think and feel about them. Also, as already noted with Storm of Eagles, some of the images presented are relevant sources in themselves and need to be utilised more fully where possible concerning what they add to our corpus of knowledge on the experience of war. Second, and simply put, books such as those under review here, are a popular genre as any visit to a major bookshop chain will attest. If, as historians, we are to understand the phenomenon of war, then we have to not only comprehend either the cultural resonance of conflict, or the physical act itself, but also the linkages between these two ends of the same lens. It is clear that such books, which tend to focus on the conduct of war, provide a means through which to appreciate the cultural resonance of conflict and as such provide a broader understanding of the phenomenon of war. This, ultimately, will further enrich our knowledge of the past.

Header Image: An airman of the 654th Bombardment Squadron, 25th Bombardment Group, USAAF, poses with de Havilland DH98 Mosquito PR Mk XVI “H” MM388. (Source: © IWM (UPL 6940))

Book Review – Air Power in UN Operations: Wings for Peace

Book Review – Air Power in UN Operations: Wings for Peace

By Dr Ross Mahoney

A. Walter Dorn (ed.), Air Power in UN Operations: Wings for Peace. Farnham: Ashgate, 2014. Figures. Tables. Notes. Index. Pbk. £28. pp. xxxv + 350.

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The use of air power as a tool by state actors is a regular theme examined by historians and policy specialists alike. However, the use of air power by non-state actors, in particular, intergovernmental organisations, is a different matter, though depending on one’s perspective, the United Nations (UN) – the subject of this volume – can be viewed as either a state or non-state actor. In this volume, A. Walter Dorn, Professor of Defence Studies at the Royal Military College of Canada, has brought together an impressive line-up of scholars and practitioners to consider how the UN has used both kinetic and non-kinetic air power as a tool for peacekeeping operations. Indeed, the narrative of UN peacekeeping operations generates images of soldiers in blue helmets on the ground. However, as this book ably demonstrates, air power has been a vital element of UN operations since the creation of its first ‘Air Force’ in 1960.

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A partial view of Luluabourg airport, showing some of the Swedish Saab J-29 jet planes which were placed at the disposition of the UN Force in the Congo (ONUC), c. 1961. Called ‘flying barrels’, the jets were manned by members of the Swedish Air Force, numbering some 40 pilots and maintenance officers.(Source: United Nations)

The book examines the use of air power by the UN since 1960 through to Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR – the air operations over Libya by NATO in 2011, which enforced UN Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973. The book consists of 17 chapters split over six thematic areas: The UN’s First ‘Air Force’; Airlift; Aerial Surveillance; No-Fly Zones; Combat and evolving capabilities. The latter aspect looks at some of the challenges for the UN in the future. Indeed, by splitting the analysis into the themes mentioned above, Dorn et al. illustrate that UN air operations cover the broad spectrum of roles readily identifiable in modern air power doctrine: control of the air; attack; situational awareness and air mobility. It also ably illustrates the challenges and potential contradictions of ‘Ends’, ‘Ways’ and ‘Means’ in UN strategy and peacekeeping operations. As Dorn notes in his preface, ‘While peacekeeping is meant to de-escalate violence, it is sometimes necessary to use force to stop force.’ (p. xxvi). As such, to meet the ends desired by the UN – the cessation of violence between, states, groups or organisations – it is often necessary to utilise air power’s various capabilities to moderate and influence the behaviour of the parties involved. Therefore, air power offers a toolkit to try to support the enforcement of UN Resolutions. Indeed, as Robert C. Owen’s chapter on Operation DELIBERATE FORCE in 1995 (pp. 231-40) and Christian Anrig’s piece of Libya in 2011 (pp. 255-82) illustrate air power can be a useful tool in shaping behaviour. DELIBERATE FORCE ensured that the Bosnian Serbs complied with UN Resolutions and put the UN in a position to shape the Dayton Accords (p. 236). However, this, in itself, was only possible due to the technological changes, such as the emergence of Precision Guided Munitions, which allowed the multinational air forces involved in DELIBERATE FORCE to conduct a humanitarian war. Had the air forces involved been equipped with ‘dumb’ weapons then the diplomatic fallout from collateral damage would have, potentially, hindered the ends sought by the UN. Similarly, in 2011, air power offered the UN the means to apply military force to level ‘the playing field’ (p. 280) in defence of civilians during the Libyan Civil War. Furthermore, unlike in DELIBERATE FORCE, air power – as the means of applying military force – was the essential tool for both the UN and NATO because UN Security Council Resolution 1973 forbade the use of occupying forces in Libya. However, it should also be remembered that air power was not used in isolation and that it worked with naval forces and special operations teams to achieve the ends desired by the UN.

Importantly, this volume does not avoid discussing some of the challenges inherent in the application of air power by the UN. As with any forces it deploys, the UN is reliant on the support of its member nations to provide the ways and means to achieve its ends. At the time of publication (2014), the UN deployed around 200 to 300 aircraft to provide air support for peacekeeping missions (p. 283). Not only is relying on member states to willingly supply forces a risky strategy – but states tend only to support those missions viewed to be in its own interest – it is also costly as the UN pays for the use of lease of both military and civilian aviation assets to achieve its ends. Some of these challenges are considered in the final section of the book on ‘Evolving Capabilities’ (pp. 283-316).

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A United Nations unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) at Bunia airport in the Democratic Republic of Congo. UAVs are used for surveillance purposes by the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Source: United Nations)

This fascinating book highlights the many challenges concerning the application of air power in the context of peacekeeping operations. It considers both some of the practical challenges of deploying air power into the theatre to the many diplomatic considerations that affect the use of air power as a policy tool for the UN. Clearly, air power is not always the answer; however, as part of a toolbox of political, diplomatic, economic and military means, air power can provide the ways to achieve the ends sought by the UN if applied correctly. Finally, it is worth reflecting that many of the lessons found in this book should not be considered as unique to the UN, but can also be applied to peace support operations undertaken by individual sovereign nations. Indeed, David Neil’s chapter of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (pp. 147-64) highlights some of the regulatory challenges concerning their use, which are just as important to national air forces as they are for the UN.

This post first appeared at Thoughts on Military History.

Header Image: A Mil Mi-8 helicopter of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan in Juba, c. 2013. (Source: United Nations)

From Balloons to Drones – One Year On

From Balloons to Drones – One Year On

By Dr Ross Mahoney

It has just been over a year since From Balloons to Drones was established as a platform for the discussion of air power broadly defined. Since our first post, we have published 40 pieces on a variety of subjects ranging from the historical to the contemporary. We have had articles dealing with issues related to the efficacy of air power, the topic of military education and the future of air power. We have also recently started a new series, Air War Books, that explores the books that have influenced air power writers. Contributors have come from around the globe including contributions from Finland and Australia. I am grateful to those who have contributed to the site. Without them, there would not be much here. However, most of all, we have received regular traffic from people interested in reading what we have written, and for that we are grateful.

Just as a bit of fun, here are the top five posts by views:

  1. ‘Changing the USAF’s Aerial ‘Kill’ Criteria’ by Major Tyson Wetzel;
  2. ‘Arrows from the Ground – Or how an incident on 17 March 2017 may change the relationship between ground and air forces’ by Dr Jacob Stoil and Lieutenant Colonel Kyle C. Burley;
  3. ‘Commentary – The RAF and the F-117’ by Dr Ross Mahoney;
  4. ‘Supporting the Secret War: T-28s over Laos, 1964-1973 – Part 1: Training’ by Jeff Schultz;
  5. ‘‘Integrating’ the Italian Air Force after the Armistice’ by Dr Ross Mahoney.

These are just a selection of the articles that have appeared over the past year, and we look forward to adding regular content as we continue to develop. To do this, we need to expand our list of contributors continually and if you are interested in writing about air power issues – both historical and contemporary – then you can find out how here. If you have any questions, then please leave a comment here or emails us at airpowerstudies@gmail.com.

Header Image: English Electric Lightnings of No. 56 Squadron RAF during an Armament Practice Camp at Akrotiri, c.1963. In the foreground, a technician is preparing a Firestreak missile for loading. (Source: Defence Imagery MoD)

Book Review – Flying to Victory: Raymond Collishaw and the Western Desert Campaign, 1940-1941

Book Review – Flying to Victory: Raymond Collishaw and the Western Desert Campaign, 1940-1941

By Alexander Fitzgerald-Black

Mike Bechthold, Flying to Victory: Raymond Collishaw and the Western Desert Campaign, 1940-1941. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017. Illustrations. Maps. Notes. Bibliography. Hbk. 296 pp. $34.95.

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The Second World War saw the formation of many famous Allied air forces. The Flying Tigers, the Cactus Air Force, The Mighty Eighth, RAF Bomber Command, and RAF Fighter Command are among the best known. In the Mediterranean, perhaps none was more famous than the Western Desert Air Force (WDAF). This is the tactical air force that helped Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery’s British Eighth Army defeat Field Marshal Erwin Rommel at El Alamein in 1942. The victory was the result of an effective combination of air and land power according to an air support doctrine developed by Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Coningham.

Coningham owes more to his predecessor, Air Vice-Marshal Raymond Collishaw than historians have realised. Collishaw commanded No. 202 Group – and later No. 204 Group, which would later become the WDAF – between the opening of the war in the desert and November 1941. In that time, Collishaw’s command achieved much success, demonstrating the features of tactical air doctrine later associated with his successor. Mike Bechthold’s new monograph, Flying to Victory, offers us a new layer for understanding the development of Allied air support during the Second World War.

Raymond Collishaw was a native of Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada. During the First World War, Collishaw became one of the Empire’s leading flying aces, destroying 61 enemy aircraft and eight observation balloons with Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Air Force squadrons. Authors often celebrate his air-fighting prowess. In fact, some historians have gone as far as to say that his aggressive spirit made him ill-suited for commanding air forces at the end of tenuous supply lines. In Flying to Victory, Bechthold defuses these arguments.

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Squadron Commander Raymond Collishaw in Sopwith F1 Camel aircraft, Allonville, France, 1918. (Source: Wikimedia)

Collishaw’s experience with close army support missions during the 100 Days campaign at the end of the First World War taught him how wasteful these operations could be. He came out of the war believing that only emergencies – such as the Kaiser’s spring offensive in 1918 – warranted a heavy close air support focus. This and his experiences commanding various air units during Britain’s interwar conflicts served to prepare Collishaw for command in the Western Desert. He was well-suited to command operations at the end of a tenuous supply line while working jointly with army and naval commanders.

Collishaw first demonstrated the difference that an effective air support doctrine could make during early fighting in the desert and Operation COMPASS. In 1940-41, No. 202 Group faced an Italian Royal Air Force (IRAF) with superior numbers and quality of aircraft. Collishaw’s command achieved air superiority despite these disadvantages. While the IRAF squandered its superior resources by focusing on providing defensive screens for the Italian Army, Collishaw directed his forces to focus on disrupting and destroying IRAF aircraft and infrastructure. With air superiority secured, Collishaw’s forces focused on impeding the Italian logistical network and applying close-support attacks at the army’s request in special circumstances. Alongside Lieutenant-General Richard O’Conner’s Western Desert Force, the British offensive drove the Italians out of Egypt and Cyrenaica, completely destroying the Italian Tenth Army in the process.

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Air Commodore Raymond Collishaw, the Air Officer Commanding No. 202 Group, surveys the ruined buildings on the airfield at El Adem, Libya, following its capture on 5 January 1941 during the advance on Tobruk. (Source: © IWM (CM 399))

Although Operation COMPASS was a model of cooperation between the army and air force, this model would soon be forgotten amid British retreats in the Western Desert, Greece, and Crete in spring 1941. The Germans had joined their Italian allies in the Mediterranean war. During Operation BREVITY, an attempt to relieve the besieged garrison at Tobruk, Collishaw commanded No. 204 Group (which had absorbed No. 202 Group in April 1941). He once again proved the usefulness of interdiction operations, though army commanders were disappointed that the RAF considered attacks on tanks on the battlefield to be impracticable. His forces immobilised counterattacking German units at critical junctures that saved army units, though the overall operation failed to relieve Tobruk.

The overall failures of BREVITY and Crete put the air force in a tough position. The Royal Navy had lost many ships to Axis air attacks during the evacuation of Crete. During Operation BATTLEAXE, another attempt to relieve Tobruk, the army demanded that the RAF establish an air umbrella over the battlefield. Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, Collishaw’s immediate superior, made a calculated move. With Air Chief Marshal Charles Portal’s blessing, he ordered Collishaw to accede to the army’s requests. This way, the RAF could avoid blame for failing to cooperate with the army even though this was a misemployment of resources that ultimately contributed to BATTLEAXE’s failure.

BATTLEAXE effectively settled the debate over tactical air power raging between the RAF and army early in the war. Before BATTLEAXE, Prime Minister Winston Churchill endorsed the army’s view of air support. After BATTLEAXE, he fully endorsed the RAF’s view. Churchill accepted that attacks on enemy airbases, ports, and lines of communication were more effective even though the army would not be afforded the comforting sight of friendly aircraft overhead. The result was “The Middle East (Army and RAF) Directive on Direct Air Support”, a document that marked the beginning of designing the war-winning air support system the Allies would continue to develop in 1942. This document reflected the operations and exercises that Raymond Collishaw commanded. Tedder and Coningham went on to refine and improve this system.

Air Marshal Tedder, the conduit for Collishaw’s early application of winning air support doctrine to Portal and Churchill, replaced Collishaw with Coningham in November 1941. Promoted from air commodore to air vice-marshal, Collishaw commanded No. 14 Group defending Scapa Flow, Scotland until July 1943, when the RAF involuntarily retired him. Bechthold’s evidence suggests that Tedder held a bias against Collishaw. Largely ignoring the results he achieved in the desert, Tedder and historians since have assessed Collishaw as incapable of running a larger command organisation and delegating responsibility to his staff. Bechthold encourages us to avoid this speculative analysis of potential and instead focus on his war record. The result is an excellent profile of a man and – as it turns out – a largely misunderstood air campaign in the first year of warfare in the Western Desert.

This post first appeared at Fighter-Bomber’s Blog.

Header Image: Pilots of No. 3 Squadron RAAF study a map on the tailplane of one of their Gloster Gladiators at their landing ground near Sollum, Egypt, before an operation over Bardia during the closing stages of Operation COMPASS. Left to right: Flying Officers J.R. Perrin, J. McD Davidson (squatting), W.S. Arthur and P. St G. Turnbull, Flight Lieutenants G.H. Steege and A.C. Rawlinson, Flying Officer V. East, (unknown), Squadron Leader I.D. McLachlan (Commanding Officer) and Flying Officer A.H. Boyd. (Source: © IWM (CM 355))

Book Review – Air and Sea Power in World War I

Book Review – Air and Sea Power in World War I

By Ross Mahoney

Maryam Philpott, Air and Sea Power in World War I: Combat and Experience in the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. London: I.B. Tauris, 2013. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. 258 pp. £59.50.

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This book is something of a curate’s egg. Overlooked in favour of the experience of the British Army, Philpott suggested that the contributions of the Royal Navy and Royal Flying Corps (RFC) ‘have never been explored.’ (p. 1) However, while containing a grain of truth, this hyperbolic overstatement illustrates the first of several issues extent in this work. Primarily, these problems are its methodology and historiographical underpinnings. Furthermore, split into chapters examining training, motivation, technology, the home front, and representations of war, this book attempts too much in the space provided.

First, the comparative approach utilised has led to a light touch on both organisations considered and this choice is questionable itself. Philpott compared one service, the Royal Navy, to a branch of another, the RFC of the British Army. Technology is utilised to justify their selection; however, this alone does not provide an adequate framework for understanding experience within these organisations. While technology certainly provided an important context for their operations, they were not the sole basis of their respective cultures and any acceptance of this represents a deterministic understanding of history. Further exacerbated by the fact that Philpott attempted to compare two different organisations, the key problem here is one of cultural understanding. Philpott never really understood the cultures underpinning the organisations she is examined. The Royal Navy had a distinct culture with norms quite separate from that of the British Army. Conversely, though Philpott dismissed the importance of this (p. 2), the RFC was, to borrow a phrase from cultural analysis, a sub-culture of its larger parent organisation, the British Army. A reading of David French’s excellent study, Military Identities (2005) would have enlightened Philpott as to the British Army’s cultural idiosyncrasies. While there certainly was an attempt by RFC officers to create an organisational identity, it still owed much to its parent organisation, as does the Royal Air Force, which was a complex cultural amalgam of both the British Army and Royal Navy.

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Officers and S.E.5a Scouts of No. 1 Squadron, RAF at Clairmarais aerodrome near Ypres. (Source: © IWM (Q 12063))

Second, at a historiographical level, Philpott did not adequately recognise the differences generated by the above distortion and made mistakes that illustrate a lack of understanding of the literature surrounding the Royal Navy and RFC. For example, Philpott described Arthur Marder as the Royal Navy’s official historian (p. 48). While the later Royal Navy may have liked to have Marder as their official historian – though he is not active until at least a decade after the production of the official history – the authors of the Service’s official history of the First World War were Sir Julian Corbett and Sir Henry Newbolt. Similarly, Philpott described the RAF’s official history as written by ‘veteran pilots’ (p. 14). While H.A. Jones served during the war and received the Military Cross, this oversimplification ignored the complicated selection process involved in choosing an official historian. Never a pilot, Sir Walter Raleigh, the RAF’s first official historian, was selected based on his literary ability and after his death, there was a long drawn out selection process to find his replacement, Jones. Philpott also ignored much of the literature concerning the Royal Navy and RFC. For example, the chapter on training as it pertains to the RFC (pp. 27-40) would have benefitted from a reading of David Jordan’s 1997 University of Birmingham PhD thesis that contained a useful section on this very subject. This spills over into the archival evidence deployed to support Philpott’s analysis. While drawing on some useful contemporary material, Philpott ignored an often overlooked source, reflective essay’s written by former RFC officers who attended the RAF Staff College at Andover during the inter-war period. These are an underused source written by the professional officers who stayed in the post-war RAF, served during the First World War, and were an attempt to by the service to develop a body of reflective knowledge concerning relevant personal experiences in numerous areas. Utilising this source would have enriched this work.

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The Royal Navy battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth of the 5th Battle Squadron of the Grand Fleet. (Source: © IWM (Q 68600))

These are just some of the challenges that distort what should have been a useful addition to the growing historiography of both the Royal Navy and RFC in the First World War. Grounded in a socio-cultural framework inspired by Joanna Bourke’s An Intimate History of Killing (1999), who supervised the thesis that this book is based on, Philpott did at times offers some interesting insights. For example, the chapter on the home front (pp. 134-162) illustrated the shared experience of service personnel and civilians. However, again, in this chapter, Philpott introduced the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) to the story that adds a further complication regarding the comparative approach utilised. Perhaps, the comparison utilised should have been one between the RFC and the RNAS. Alternatively, while elements of the discussion provided may be useful to readers, this work might have benefitted from focussing on just one of the services considered. Moreover, if Philpott’s assertion quoted at the start of this review is correct, then it begs the question of why this was not undertaken. A gap remains for a study of either the Royal Navy or RFC from the perspective of experience and motivation that would add much to our understanding of the First World War. Once these are undertaken, a more thorough comparative approach can then be considered. This gap remains to be filled.

This post first appeared at Thoughts on Military History.

Headers Image: Group of pilots of No. 32 Squadron RFC, Beauval, 1916 (Fourth Army aircraft park). Behind them is an Airco DH.2 (De Havilland Scout) biplane with Monosoupape Rotary Engine. (Source: © IWM (Q 11874))

Book Review – Eyes All Over the Sky: Aerial Reconnaissance in the First World War

Book Review – Eyes All Over the Sky: Aerial Reconnaissance in the First World War

By Tyler Morton

James Streckfuss, Eyes All Over the Sky: Aerial Reconnaissance in the First World War. Oxford, UK: Casemate Publishers, 2016. Maps. Bibliography. Notes. Index. 239pp.

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Aviation historian after aviation historian has fallen into the trap of overlooking the important role played by airborne intelligence collection platforms during the First World War. Mystified with the glamorous images of Baron von Richthofen and Eddie Rickenbacker, the historical narrative has primarily focused on the exploits of the fighter pilot. This narrative has been fueled by a general lack of scholarly writing about the important role played by airborne-derived intelligence. In Eyes All Over the Sky: Aerial Reconnaissance in the First World War, James Streckfuss seeks to remedy the oversight.

From the dawn of war, military commanders have sought enhanced intelligence to assist decision making. For much of history, the quest for better information was limited to the use of spies or, at best, the ability to obtain improved vantage points from high terrain or even trees. Almost immediately after man achieved flight, military thinkers put the air platform to intelligence use and in June 1794 the French conducted the world’s first military airborne reconnaissance sortie when they used balloons to reconnoitre Austrian forces near the town of Maubeuge on the border with Belgium. Military use of the air asset proliferated and by the start of World War I, the balloon and the aeroplane were firmly entrenched in militaries around the world. In every case, the air assets were reconnaissance platforms. This point, more than any other, drives Streckfuss’ subsequent analysis of the importance of airborne reconnaissance in the war.

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A German balloon section mooring an observation balloon to a new position. (Source: © IWM (Q 54462))

After briefly outlining the early days of the balloon – and aeroplane – based reconnaissance, Streckfuss dives right into the tactical fight of the First War. Choosing first to highlight the little-known importance of balloon reconnaissance, Streckfuss thoroughly examines all the major combatants’ use of balloons comparing the challenges faced by each as they tried to maximise the impact of this still unfamiliar capability. Of note in this section is the advanced progress which the Germans had made as compared to that of the Allies. Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s determination to make Germany the air power envy of the world had resulted in considerable pride and dedication to balloons. When the war began, they were significantly ahead of the Allies. Unfortunately for the Germans, their commanders on the Western Front had not been convinced of the veracity of the intelligence their airborne reconnaissance platforms provided.[1] Thus, German commanders ignored the information provided by their airmen and instead made disastrous moves that eventually resulted in the famous German retreat to the Aisne River and the subsequent stalemate that characterised much of the war.

Over the next several chapters, Streckfuss lays out a well-told story of aviation’s wartime missions of artillery spotting, infantry liaison, and photographic interpretation. These chapters magnificently describe the primary missions conducted by the various air forces during the war. As the war was, by any estimation, a war of the ‘big guns,’ the importance of aviation to the artillery mission cannot be overstated. Due to air power, the artillery could now hit targets all over the battlefield – even deep behind enemy lines – with previously unheard of accuracy. As Streckfuss writes, airborne intelligence ‘held the key to making the artillery more deadly than it had been in any previous war’ (p.84).

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Air Mechanic Cecil Haliday of the Royal Flying Corps demonstrates a ‘C’ type aerial reconnaissance camera fixed to the fuselage of a BE2c aircraft. (Source: © IWM (Q 33850))

The book’s final chapter examines the reasons why the success of airborne reconnaissance was downplayed after the war. Thoroughly convinced that air power would be the dominant force in all future wars, airmen of the major victorious powers sought to free – or in the case of the British, keep free – their air arms from the control of the British Army and the Royal Navy. According to Streckfuss, this dogged drive for independence caused airmen to highlight the ‘power’ part of air power and to minimise the primarily ‘service’ role air power had played in the war. The ability to singlehandedly win a war was a far more compelling argument than the contributions the air forces had made in their support of the Army and Navy.

Streckfuss’ argument is compelling. Airborne reconnaissance was the primary purpose of air forces going into the First World War and, contrary to some beliefs, it contributed significantly to both victory and defeat. This new book is a welcome addition and helps fill a historiographical gap in the literature about the war and our general understanding of the importance of airborne reconnaissance. I highly recommend it for the air power expert and novice alike.

Header Image: An RAF aerial photograph showing how the enemy attempted to conceal gun positions by artificial smoke screens, which were defeated by the use of the camera. (Source: © IWM (Q 12224))

[1] Eric Dorn Brose, The Kaiser’s Army: The Politics of Military Technology in Germany During the Machine Age, 1870-1918 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001), 191.

Book Review – A Thunder Bird in Bomber Command

Book Review – A Thunder Bird in Bomber Command

By Ross Mahoney

Sean Feast, A Thunder Bird in Bomber Command: The Wartime Letters and Story of Lionel Anderson, the Man who Inspired a Legend. London: Fighting High Publishing, 2015. Foreword. Appendices. Sources. Index. xiii + 169pp.

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Thunderbirds are go! It is not often that you get to write those immortal words at the start of a review to do with a book on Bomber Command; however, this is no ordinary book. Indeed, it is a book that will be of interest to two distinct groups of people. First, there are those with an interest in the experience of Bomber Command operations during the Second World War. Second, there are those with a passion for the 1960s TV show Thunderbirds and other production that came from Gerry Anderson’s fertile imagination. This, of course, begs the question of how these two seemingly disparate interests are linked. Well, as Shane Rimmer, who provided the voice to Scott Tracey, recollected in the foreword to the book, the inspiration was ‘direct and personal – from his elder brother Lionel who had given up his life as a pilot during the Second World War’ (p.ix).

This biography, therefore, tells the story of Lionel Anderson, Gerry Anderson’s older brother through the letters that he sent home while also considering the impact of his death on his younger brother. The book details Lionel Anderson’s early interest in flying and his decision to volunteer as aircrew in the RAF (p.3). The book then follows a chronological order following Lionel Anderson’s experience of flying training to through to undertaking operations as part of No. 515 Squadron, which formed part of Bomber Command’s No. 100 (Bomber Support) Group. The unit had been established in October 1942 from the so-called Defiant Flight at RAF Northolt and at that time formed part of Fighter Command. The unit was then equipped with the Bristol Beaufighter and then the de Havilland Mosquito. Lionel Anderson joined No. 515 Squadron in early 1943 (p.77). The squadron was involved in operating Moonshine, Mandrel, and Serrate electronic warfare systems that had emerged as part of the pantheon of homing and jamming systems that developed during the Second World War. These were designed to provide support in an ongoing battle to defeat German equipment, such as the Freya radar net as well as defeat German night fighters. In this, Sean Feast provides a good overview of No. 515 Squadron’s role in this area.

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Hawker Hurricane Mark X, AG111 ‘HK-G’, of No. 59 Operational Training Unit, on the ground at Milfield, Northumberland. Although bearing the unit codes of the Fighter Leaders School (based at Charmy Down, Wiltshire), AG111 does not appear to have been officially transferred to them. It was passed later to No. 57 OTU at Eshott, Northumberland, and crashed after colliding with a Supermarine Spitfire over Wooler on 5 May 1943. (Source: © IWM (CH 9222))

The section dealing with Lionel Anderson’s time with No. 59 Operational Training Unit is, however, problematic. Feast suggests that in late 1942, Anderson’s course transferred to Brunton, which was No. 59 OTU’s satellite airfield and that while there they became known as No. 559 Squadron.  Additionally, Feast suggests that, as No. 559 Squadron, the unit could be called on to intercept incoming aircraft as part of ‘Saracen scheme’ (p.76). This is where it becomes murky as there does not appear to be a No. 559 Squadron. There is no Operations Record Book for No. 559 Squadron and C.G. Jefford’s work on RAF squadrons does not list the unit.[1] However, No. 559 Squadron was a numberplate reserved for No. 59 OTU if activated as part of Plan BANQUET. Additionally, Ray Sturtivant’s work on flying training units does suggest that, in March 1943, the squadron number above was used.[2] So what is to be made of this? First, Plan BANQUET, which originated in 1940, had been revised in May 1942. Part A of the Fighter Command element of the revised plan – BANQUET FIGHTER – called for aircraft and crews from OTUs to form squadrons as reinforcements, as such; they would have received a numberplate. This process was activated by a codeword ‘APPLE’.[3] Nevertheless, as Jefford noted, the squadron numberplates allocated to fighter OTUs were not used as the units were not mobilised.[4] Second, it is reasonable that crews at OTU’s were aware of this plan, and their designation if activated. It is probably this that is being recollected rather than an official designation. This of course raises the question of whether matters, which is clearly subjective. I would suggest that the pilots being trained by No. 59 OTU were aware of their reserve role and the details of the unit’s designation. It highlights the tension between the operational record and memory and how it can be distorted.

The earlier sections of the book that detail Lionel Anderson’s decision to volunteer, his training in America and time at an Advanced Flying Unit are, for me, the real gem of this book as it is here where the letters home find their place. Indeed, the reason for this appears to be that the last letter kept by Lionel Anderson’s mother, Deborah comes from this period. As Feast explains, Deborah Anderson had reproduced the letters into a pair of hard-backed exercise books, and this is all that was left of Lionel Anderson’s correspondence (pp.69-70). This helps explain why the book’s subtitle is ‘The Wartime Letters and Story’ as the latter period has been reconstructed from other sources. Nevertheless, the use of letters in the earlier part of the book help us explore what it was like to serve in the RAF during the war and the experience of training in America. In one letter, Lionel Anderson described the planned graduation dance they held at the end of his training in America. ‘We invite our instructors and friends we have made during our stay here and, of course, we have plenty of girls.’ This recollection (p.55) both highlights the friendly relations between American and Britain but also one recurring theme in the letters, girls.

Overall, as with many books of this type, this is a fascinating insight into life in the RAF. It is made all the more interesting given the links between Lionel Anderson and his younger brother’s later work.

This book review originally appeared at Thoughts on Military History.

Header Image: The prototype Boulton Paul Defiant fighter, which first flew in August 1937. This aircraft type equipped the so-called Defiant Flight at RAF Northolt, which eventually became No. 515 Squadron. (Source: © IWM (MH 5507))

[1] Wing Commander C.G. Jefford, RAF Squadrons: A Comprehensive Record of the Movement and Equipment of all RAF Squadrons and their Antecedents since 1912, 2nd Edition, (Shrewsbury: Airlife, 2001).

[2] Ray Sturtivant, Flying Training and Support Units since 1912 (Staplefield: Air-Britain, 2007), p.242.

[3] Anon, The Air Defence of Great Britain – Volume V: The Struggle for Air Supremacy, January 1942-May 1945, (Air Historical Branch Narrative), pp.10-1.

[4] Jefford, RAF Squadrons, p.188.