Air War Books – Dr Michael Molkentin

Air War Books – Dr Michael Molkentin

By Dr Michael Molkentin

Editorial Note: In the third instalment of ‘Air War Books,’ Dr Michael Molkentin discusses the ten books that have influenced and shaped his writing as an air power historian. If you are interested in contributing to this series or From Balloons to Drones more generally, find out how here.

After I wrote to Dr Ross Mahoney enthusiastically agreeing with several of his choices (always a bad idea!) and suggesting a few others, he promptly invited me to contribute my own ‘Top 10’. I had been saying I would write something for Balloons to Drones for a while and so now he had me cornered. What follows is a list of titles that have had a significant impact on the way I research and write aviation and air power history. As these titles clearly indicate, my area of interest primarily concerns the pre-Second World War period (military and civil) and the people and ideas, rather than the technology, of aviation. 

Denis Winter, The First of the Few: Fighter Pilots of the First World War (London: Allen Lane, 1982). Denis, unfortunately, went on to write a scandalously bad book on Haig that damaged his reputation as a historian. But before that, he produced a couple of genuinely very good ‘face of battle’ type histories of British servicemen in the Great War (the other being Death’s Men). I found The First of the Few in my high school library and later used it as a model for writing my honours thesis on Australian airmen in the Great War. It is a bit dated, relies almost entirely on published accounts and some of Winter’s statistics do not stand up to scrutiny. But it is what got me interested in the subject and stands as the best personal experience study of British airmen in the Great War. I had the pleasure of meeting Denis in Canberra in 2004. He was a kind and gracious man and, when I showed him my work, he encouraged me to keep writing.

Richard P. Hallion, Taking Flight: Inventing the Aerial Age, from Antiquity Through the First World War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). I might have included any of Richard’s numerous books on air power (Strike from the Sky, his history of ground attack is a close second) but this has probably been most useful and influential in my work. It is a model of highly readable, yet meticulously researched history. It is international in scope and provides some valuable analysis of the complex ways in which aviation emerged as a practical reality, in various parts of the world, before 1914.

S.F. Wise, The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Volume 1: Canadian Airmen and the First World War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980). Wise’s first volume of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s official history is, in my view, the best single volume history of British air power in the Great War. The ubiquity of Canadians in the British flying services (over 20,000 served) means that Wise needed to cover all aspects of air power in the conflict – maritime aviation, strategic bombing and home defence, army cooperation and even some brief surveys of the RFC/RAF in secondary theatres. While some of his conclusions about the conduct of the war on the Western Front have dated, in the main his conclusions stand and are thoroughly grounded in archival sources. My PhD thesis and the book that followed it used Wise’s book as a model to examine Australia’s part in the air war from political, strategic, operational and tactical perspectives.

E.R. Hooton, War over the Trenches: Air Power and the Western Front Campaigns 1916-1918 (Hersham: Midland Publishing, 2010). I have mixed feelings about his book. On the one hand, it makes a significant contribution to our understanding of air power on the Western Front by conducting a multi-force (French, German and British) analysis at the operational level- something nobody had previously attempted. Whereas previous studies of the subject have focused on the tactical level, Hooton uses a mass of statistical data (sorties flown, ordnance expended, losses, serviceability, etc.) to provide a much broader picture of how air power influenced the conflict and how its use evolved between 1916 and 1918. Unfortunately, the book is poorly written and (in the first edition at least) so badly type set that some of the data tables are almost unreadable. It is such an important contribution to the field: I only hope the publisher has the good sense to reissue a revised edition or that an aspiring PhD candidate will take his approach further.

John Buckley, Air Power in the Age of Total War (London: UCL Press, 1999). I am going to go with Ross here and say that, among the many air power surveys out there, this one is the best. It is clear, concise and, essentially for a book like this, gets the balance right between ideas and details. Giving his narrative cohesion is a compelling, convincing and delightfully ironic thesis: that total war first enabled air power but then, following the onset of the nuclear age, limited its functions.

Philip S. Meilinger, The Paths of Heaven: The Evolution of Airpower Theory (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1977). Besides Buckley, the other book I recommend students starting out in the field is Meilinger’s survey of air power thinking. It is a straightforward, textbook approach devoting a chapter to each of the twentieth century’s most influential air power theorists. It is not exactly a page turner but is absolutely essential reading for students of air power and a useful reference work to have within arm’s reach when writing.

Malcolm Cooper, The Birth of Independent Air Power: British Air Policy in the First World War (London: Allen and Unwin, 1986). Malcolm was one of the first scholars to use the Air Ministry’s declassified files after their transfer to the British National Archives (then the PRO) during his PhD candidature during the 1970s. Whereas accounts of British air power’s early days had, until then, been overwhelmingly focused at the tactical level (individual pilots, squadrons, Biggles, etc.), The Birth of Independent Air Power focuses on the topic at the political and policy-making levels. I do not agree with Malcolm’s conclusion that the Army’s use of air power was wasteful and unimaginative (neither does James Pugh in his excellent new book which provides a good update on aspects of Cooper) but much of what he says was vital in adding political context to the operational history of British air power from 1914 to 1918.

Alfred Gollin, The Impact of Air Power on the British People and their Government (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989). I would give this to students not even interested in air power as a somewhat rare example of an academic historian writing in a clear, engaging style. Honestly, it reads like a novel but still manages to seamlessly incorporate excellent analysis. Gollin was an enormously talented historian and a shining example to those of us who actually want our work to have a readership beyond the academy and services.

John A. Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2003). Lynn does not really deal with aviation or air power explicitly, but his approach to explaining warfare through the prism of culture is both novel and enlightening. In case study chapters ranging from Ancient Greek warfare to modern Islamic terrorism, Lynn demonstrates convincingly that we cannot properly understand military operations without considering the cultures that conceive and wage them.

Ian Mackersey, Smithy: The Life of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith (London: Little Brown, 1998). This is not only the best of the many biographies of Kingsford Smith; it is the best example of historical biography I have come across. Through impressively dogged detective work, Mackersey managed to track down a number of people who had known Kingsford Smith before his death six decades earlier. From them, he got oral history and private papers that shed light on hitherto unknown or mythologised aspects of his subject’s life. Ian wrote a page turner too: it is engaging, absorbing history. Ian, who sadly died a couple of years ago, was also a gentleman. When I was writing my book on the 1928 trans-Pacific flight, he generously shared manuscript material he had gathered from private collections in the US when researching his book.

Header Image: An RE8 of No 69 (later No 3) Squadron, Australian Flying Corps preparing to set out on a night bombing operation from Savy near Arras, 22 October 1917. (Source: © IWM (E(AUS) 1178))

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)

Air War Books – Dr Ross Mahoney

Air War Books – Dr Ross Mahoney

By Dr Ross Mahoney

Editorial Note: In the second instalment of ‘Air War Books,’ the editor of From Balloons to Drones, Dr Ross Mahoney discusses the ten books that have influenced and shaped his writing as an air power historian.

As editor of From Balloons to Drones, I thought I should reflect on what are probably the ten key books that have influenced me in my study of air power. However, I make three provisos. First, I attacked this from the perspective of key authors rather than the books themselves per se. As such, I have selected titles that I have enjoyed to illustrate the importance of these writers. Second, I have left out official histories and narratives though these have been just as influential on my writing as other works. Finally, I have included some non-air power texts in here. At the end of the day, I am a historian and an interdisciplinary one at that, and it is only natural that non-air power specific books have influenced how I approach what and how I write.

John Buckley, Air Power in the Age of Total War (London: UCL Press, 1999). Ok, this, and Peter Gray’s book below has as much to do with these individuals real influence on me as well as the importance of their books. John was my undergraduate tutor many years ago, and his influence was to start me on the track to where I am today. However, added to that, Air Power in the Age of Total War is an excellent examination of the rise of air power in the first half of the twentieth century and vital reading for anyone wanting an introduction to the subject.

Peter Gray, The Leadership, Direction and Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive from Inception to 1945 (London: Continuum, 2012). Peter’s influence was as my PhD supervisor, and I will forever be grateful for his guidance. In my opinion, Peter is currently the leading air power specialist in the UK and one of the foremost experts in the world. That expertise is clearly evident in this book. The strategic air offensive against Germany is well-trodden ground, but Peter found a fresh way to assess its conduct. It is required reading not just for people wanting to understand the bombing offensive during the Second World War but also issues such as the challenge of senior leadership and matters such as legitimacy and international law.

Tony Mason, History of the Royal Air Force Staff College, 1922-1972 (Bracknell, RAF Staff College, 1972). I could have chosen any of Mason’s work, but this one has specific resonance for my research. This was written before Mason became the RAF’s first Director of Defence Studies (DDefS) in 1977 and is not widely available as the RAF Staff College published it. Nevertheless, Mason was not wide of the mark with many of his comments about the Staff College, though it does need to be brought up to date.

Allan English, Understanding Military Culture: A Canadian Perspective (Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004). English, a retired RCAF officer, is a noted historian of air power and has written an influential article on the RAF Staff College in the inter-war years. However, for me, his most important work is his study of Canadian military culture. As someone who specialises in the culture of air forces, this work is an essential primer on the subject of culture and its influence on the Canadian military.

John Slessor, Air Power and Armies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936). I think everyone needs to have a contemporary air power thinker on his or hers list and Slessor certainly fits that bill. He is, perhaps, the closest the RAF came to having their own Clausewitz, though I remain to be convinced that the Service wanted a singular air power thinker. Rather I think the RAF collegiately developed officers with a broad view of air power, but that is another discussion. The importance of Air Power and Armies is that it really should put to rest the argument that the RAF was solely focused on strategic bombing. Yes, Slessor used a strategic conception of air power to inform his work, but he sought to understand how military aviation could influence the land battle. An important piece of work and the recent 2009 edition by the University of Alabama Press contains an introduction by Philip Meilinger.

Arthur Gould Lee, No Parachute (London: Jarrolds, 1968). Everyone needs a memoir in his or hers top ten, and there are a number of good works by air force personnel. Most are written by pilots, which says much about the culture of air forces as much as anything else. Lee wrote several books dealing with various aspects of his service life and each could find their way into this list. No Parachute is particularly useful for its appendices though the one on parachutes does need to be revised.

John Andreas Olsen, John Warden and the Renaissance of American Air Power (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2007). As Brian Laslie mentioned in the first instalment of ‘Air War Books,’ I think we do need to include a work by Olsen. He is one of the key writers on air power currently, particularly about modern conflicts. His biography of Warden is fascinating and gives an excellent insight into this complex character. Perhaps what is more impressive, is that this was written while Warden is alive, which is never an easy task.

David French, Military Identities: The Regimental System, the British Army, and the British People c.1870-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). French is one Britain’s leading military historians, and I wonder how he would do if he turned his interests towards the RAF. However, for me, his analysis of the British Army’s regimental system is fascinating and one of those works that all should read to develop an understanding of how military organisations operate. There is much to take away from this study, and for me, it has raised significant questions about issues such as identity with regards to squadrons in air forces.

Richard Overy, The Air War, 1939-1945 (London: Europa Publications, 1980). Overy remains not only one of the leading air power historians in the UK but also globally. The Air War continues to be one of the most influential titles concerning the role of air power during the Second World War. I could have quite easily has listed The Bombing War here, which is Overy’s most recent air power work. However, The Air War continues to be important, and while Overy’s views have developed over the years – like those of all historians – this work was written when air power history was a ‘Cinderella’ discipline. Thankfully, this is no longer the case, and the new edition of The Air War is useful for Overy’s overview of the field of air power history up to 2003.

John James, The Paladins: The Story of the RAF up to the Outbreak of World War II (London: Macdonald and Company, 1990). Given my focus on the culture and ethos of air forces, this was again, one of those works that I could not ignore reading as it is one of the few social histories of the RAF before the Second World War. James worked in operational research sections in various RAF Commands and brought that experience to the writing of the book. It is good but does need bringing up to date, and I dispute some of his views on how the RAF branch system evolved. Nevertheless, a work to read.

Well, that is my top ten; however, it would be easy to add more to the list. As noted, when Overy wrote The Air War, and Mason served as DDefS, the academic study of air power, certainly in the UK, was a Cinderella subject. Thankfully, that is no longer the case and the last ten years have seen a number of significant studies published, which point the way forward for the subject but that will be a post for another time.

Header Image: A Tornado GR.1 in flight banks away from the camera and displays its underwing stores during the First Gulf War. Top to bottom the stores are a BOZ 107 chaff/flare dispenser, 500 gal fuel tanks, AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile and Marconi Sky Shadow ECM pod. (Source: © Crown copyright. IWM (GLF 707))

Air War Books – Dr Brian Laslie

Air War Books – Dr Brian Laslie

By Dr Brian Laslie

Editorial Note: In the first of a new series, Dr Brian Laslie, author of The Air Force Way of War, discusses the ten books that have influenced and shaped his writing as an air power historian.

The Editor of From Balloons to Drones, Dr Ross Mahoney, has been pestering those of us who contribute to this blog to put together a list of the most influential books we have read on the study of air power. I have always been of the opinion that I only have so many words I am capable of writing in a single day and have thus, avoided acquiescing to Ross’s request. Seriously, I am never going to get these two manuscripts done at this rate, but I finally decided that Ross is right (we were on a break) and that it is high time those of us who study air power history discuss the most influential books we’ve read on the history/study of air power (two words not one). So here is my top ten:

Bert Frandsen, Hat in the Ring: The Birth of American Air Power in the Great War (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2003). I read this book shortly before leaving active duty and heading to Kansas State for grad school, and it had a profound impact on what I wanted to study. Frandsen weaves together history, technology, and narrative into one of the finest works on the creation of America’s air service and air power.

Alexander P. de Seversky, Victory through Air Power (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1942). Let us get something out of the way. Seversky and Hap Arnold hated each other, and I am not being hyperbolic. The two could not stand to be in the same room with each other, and when they were, it usually ended in a shouting match. Seversky’s book was Second World War aerial propaganda, but when Walt Disney read the book and decided to produce it as a feature film, Arnold was forced to stay mute on the subject. Seversky went on to write other air power books, but none as influential and long-lasting as this one.

Thomas E. Griffith, Jr, MacArthur’s Airman: General George C. Kenney and the War in the Southwest Pacific (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998). In the age of the bomber mafia, Kenny marched to the tune of his own drum. Surely as Quesada and Chennault followed pursuit aviation, Kenny favoured attack. He was, perhaps, the most innovative airman of his generation and Griffith’s book demonstrates just how important Kenney was to MacArthur.

Thomas A. Hughes, Over Lord: General Pete Quesada and the Triumph of Tactical Air Power in World War II (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1995). I really have no doubt, and I doubt many would argue with me, that strategic bombardment garnered the lion’s share of attention both during and after the war. It would take Tactical Air Command until after the Vietnam war to rise to prominence over Strategic Air Command, but those seeds were planted in the Second World War by Pete Quesada and his tactical airmen in the European theatre.

Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1989). The single most important book on air power to be published in the post-Vietnam era. It defined air power historians of a generation. More than a critique of strategic bombardment in Vietnam, it is a book that teaches you how to think about air power, what it can and what it cannot do.

Donald Miller, Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys who Fought the Air War against Nazi Germany (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2006). It is rare that I cannot put a book down, but the was the case with Miller’s work. The narrative is exceptional, the research superb, and the flow masterful. I consider it the single best book on air power in the Second World War.

Donald J. Mrozek, Air Power and the Ground War in Vietnam: Ideas and Actions (Maxwell, AL: Air University Press, 1988) and idem, The US Air Force after Vietnam: Postwar Challenges and Potential for Responses (Maxwell, AL: Air University Press, 1988). Yes, I am cheating by putting two books here, but they deserve to be here. Mrozek is an air power historian, but also a cultural and intellectual historian as well. He is difficult to read, but only because every sentence is crafted beautifully and is important. Mrozek conveys in a sentence, what others struggle to get out in several pages, myself included.

Steve Davies, Red Eagles: America’s Secret MiGs (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2008). A popular history, but this book is flat-out fun. Secret units, secret locations, and American fighter pilots learning how to outperform their Soviet counterparts in their own aircraft.

John Andreas Olsen (ed.), A History of Air Warfare (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2010). Actually any of Olsen’s work could make this list; however, if you were going to use one book in the classroom to discuss the history of power, then this is the one. There is a reason; the Air Force Academy has every freshman read in their introduction to military history. From the First World War to the present and large scale combat to air power in smaller conflicts, Olsen’s edited work covers it all.

Diane Putney, Airpower Advantage: Planning the Gulf War Air Campaign (Washington D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 2004). This book is what made me decide to write about Desert Storm. This book taught me that air power is so much richer than 1 v. 1 dogfights, that true command of the air comes from logistics, planning and execution.

To this list of ten, I could add hundreds more, but as I looked at my bookshelf these jumped out at me as having the most impact on my thinking during my time in grad school or shortly thereafter and helped solidify my thinking on what air power is and what it does (spoiler alert: it’s the ability to do something in the air. Thanks, Billy Mitchell!)

By the way, several of these books you can order or download for free from either the Air University Press of the Air Force Historical Studies Office. FREE BOOKS: http://www.au.af.mil/au/aupress/ and http://www.afhistory.af.mil/Books/Titles/

Header Image: McDonnell Douglas F-15A (S/N 71-0280, the first F-15A prototype). Note the square wingtips and unnotched stabilator. (Source: Wikimedia)

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.