Book Review – The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory

Book Review – The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory

By Eamon Hamilton

Craig F. Morris, The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2017. Notes. Bibliography. Index. 272 pp.

Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory

The strategic bomber has stood as one pillar of American military strength since the Second World War, and even today, the deployment of B-1s, B-2s and B-52s to forward bases across the globe sends a strong message to potential adversaries. Serving as a true ‘Book of Genesis’ chapter to this capability, The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory by Craig F. Morris covers the period of 1916 to 1942 and explores the growth of an idea within the United States Army, rather than deal primarily in technology or personalities. By recounting how air power theory matured (and was withheld) within the United States Army, he also delivers an excellent case study on how an organisation reacts to disruptive technology.

There is a stark comparison in air power capability that comes early from Morris. The book’s introduction begins with the arrival of United States Army Air Force B-17s in England in 1942. Operationally untested, their existence still spoke of the maturity of America’s investment in technology, organisation, and air power doctrine during the interwar period. Contrast that scene with the experience of the United States Army’s 1st Aero Squadron in Mexico in 1916, which Morris covers in his first chapter. There is obviously no suggestion that the 1st Aero Squadron’s Curtis JN-3 biplanes were to be used as bombers against Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa; what Morris does is illustrate the lack of intellectual depth the United States Army had with its heavier-than-air aviation capability. While the technology was relatively new, that lack of innovation remains surprising considering how the First World War had quickly illustrated the utility of aviation.

The Mexican adventure serves another purpose – it introduces several personalities from the 1st Aero Squadron who were sent to Europe when the United States entered the First World War. The most significant focus of The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory falls on 1917 to 1919, which stands to reason – it is here that the Aviation Section of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) first encountered the idea of strategic bombing from the Allied (and Central) powers. This transfer of ideas is explored mainly through the experiences of Edgar S. Gorrell, a veteran of the 1st Aero Squadron in Mexico who was sent to Europe to study how the United States would grow its aviation forces in the First World War. The AEF ground commanders wanted aviation to provide the battlefield reconnaissance and air defence, but Gorrell’s exposure to Allied air power theory led him to become a proponent of using bombers to open a ‘new front’ on an enemy’s warfighting infrastructure, effectively bypassing the war in the trenches on the Western Front.

Gorrell-Edgar-S (Harris & Ewing)
Lieutenant Edgar S. Gorrell studied aeronautical engineering at MIT following the Mexican campaign of 1916. (Source: US Air Force Historical Research Agency)

Gorrell is the personality most consistently covered in The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory, which is arguably a testament to the aviator’s recordkeeping and his early advocacy of strategic bombing. The First World War ended before Gorrell could successfully argue the case for an American strategic bomber force, but the Armistice allowed him to leave two critical legacies to the future of air power development. Gorrell was tasked with organising the official history of the AEF, an assignment which allowed him to draw together air power lessons from the AEF and Allied into an official post-War record. On top of this, he drove a post-war bombing survey that examined what impact Allied bombing made on Germany’s warfighting effort.

When dealing with the events of 1919 to 1942, The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory does not enjoy the singular narrative focus that Gorrell’s experiences during the First World War afforded it (Gorrell left the military as a Colonel in 1920 at the age of 28, worked in the motoring industry, and died in March 1945). In Morris’ defence, strategic bombing theory in the interwar period was driven by complex variables, from personalities such as Billy Mitchell and rapidly growing aviation technology; through to economic resources (like the Great Depression), along with shifting strategic and foreign policy. The main conflict affecting strategic bombing theory (and the introduction of a supporting capability) was between the US Army’s General Staff, and aviation proponents within the Air Corps, as the Air Service had become in 1926. As aviation technology grew and the Air Corps Tactical School developed its ideas for air power, the Army General Staff were justifiably worried that a strategic bombing capability would lead to an independent Air Force, and a competitor for government funding.

Air Corps Tactical School
The Air Corps Tactical School (created as the Air Service Field Officers School in 1920) went beyond its mandate of training officers to also become an engine for air power theory development in the interwar period. (Source: US Air Force Air University)

The examination of this conflict makes The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory an excellent study in how organisations react to disruptive technology (both positively and negatively). The parallels to modern disruptive technologies (for example, autonomous systems, or space-based systems) do not feel completely analogous, given the purely historical lens of this book. That being said, it gives numerous examples of both innovative and misguided thinking at different levels within the United States Army in dealing with aviation. While history arguably vindicated the strategic bomber concept, Morris does well explain Army’s reservations with this new field.

One of the most significant qualities of The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory is also the chief criticism – by covering 25 years in 207 pages, it is very concise. The narrative is clear, comprehensive, and does not feel like any essential facts have been left out. However, the quality of Morris’ writing would comfortably permit this to be a longer work, and the narrative could afford to provide further exposition to selected events, technologies and personalities (beyond Gorrell), that shaped and developed air power theory. On several occasions, this reviewer found himself looking for other resources to further his appreciation of the events in this book – especially about the limited performance of bomber aircraft during the First World War.

While remaining engaging to read, Morris’ work is academically well-presented. It both recounts history as well as briefly discussing the views of academics and historians on the subject matter where relevant. There is considerable inertia when it comes to people’s understanding of events from a century ago, and Morris is clear when he debates, debunks or reaffirms the established narratives of other authors. The introduction specifically accounts for early air power studies into strategic bombing by historians/academics including Mark Clodfelter, Stephen McFarland, I.B. Holley, and Maurer Maurer.

Martin_B-10B_during_exercises (National Museum of USAF)
First flown in 1932, the Martin B-10 was a revolutionary bomber not only for the United States Army Air Corps, but for the world. Design features such as all-metal construction, enclosed cockpit with rotating gun turrets, full engine cowlings and retractable landing gear would be standard design features for bombers over the next decade.  (Source: National Museum of United States Air Force)

Overall, The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory is clear and well-sourced and can be easily approached by anyone with no depth of knowledge of the central subject matter. This reader found it to be enjoyable and informative, providing a good account of early strategic bombing theory and American air power development. While being a self-contained work, it is likely to whet the reader’s appetite for reading works covering related subject matters.

Eamon Hamilton graduated from the University of Western Sydney with a Bachelor of Communications (Journalism). He works as a Public Affairs Officer for the Royal Australian Air Force. He lives in Sydney. He runs the Rubber-Band Powered Blog and can be found on Twitter @eamonhamilton.

Header Image: A Boeing Y1B-17 in flight. This aircraft would eventually be developed B-17 Flying Fortress. (Source: Wikimedia)

Call for Contributions – High-Intensity Warfare in the 21st Century

Call for Contributions – High-Intensity Warfare in the 21st Century

Since the end of the Cold War, the West’s militaries have been engaged in a series of protracted and persistent low-intensity counterinsurgency campaigns. For air forces, this has broadly meant involvement in campaigns where there have been few serious challenges to control of the air and air dominance was assumed. However, as we move further into the twenty-first century, that scenario is likely to change with the likelihood of peer-on-peer high-intensity conflict increasing. In such conflicts, air dominance will have to be fought for, and maintained, to utilise the full spectrum of capabilities afforded by the exploitation of the air domain.


The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones seeks to commission a series of articles that examine critical themes related to the challenge of preparing modern air forces for the possibility of high-intensity conflict as they transform into 5th generation forces. As well as informing broader discussions on the future of conflict, these articles will provide the intellectual underpinnings for a Williams Foundation seminar on the subject of the requirement of high-intensity conflict to be held in Canberra, Australia in March 2018.


The editors seek contributions that provide a variety of perspectives on the following key themes:

Strategy and Theory | Future Roles | Emerging Threats | Air Force Culture

Force Structure | Technology and Capabilities | Ethical and Moral Challenges

Doctrinal Trends | Education | Training

Articles can range from historical discussions of the above themes through to contemporary perspectives. Perspectives can also come from a number of related disciplines including history, strategic studies, international relations, law, and ethics.

Submission Guidelines

Articles framed around one of the above themes should be c. 2,000 words. Submissions should be submitted in Word format and emailed to the addresses below with ‘SUBMISSION – HIGH-INTENSITY WARFARE’ in the subject line. Also, please include a 50-100-word biography with your submission. Please be careful to explain any jargon. Publication will be entirely at the discretion of the editors. These articles will appear on the websites of The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones simultaneously. We will be publishing articles from the middle of February 2018 onwards.

Keen to write but need some guidance? Email us, and we can link you up with a mentor-editor who can assist you before formal submission.

Contact Information

For more information, please contact Wing Commander Travis Hallen (Co-editor, The Central or Dr Ross Mahoney (Editor, From Balloons to

Header Image: An RAF Harrier waits in a hangar at Kandahar, Afghanistan prior to departure, c. June 2009. (Source: Defence Imagery MoD)

A Forgotten Revolution? RAF Army Co-operation Command and Artillery Co-operation

A Forgotten Revolution? RAF Army Co-operation Command and Artillery Co-operation

By Dr Matthew Powell[1]

Jonathan Bailey wrote that the First World War was the time of a true revolution in military affairs about the development of artillery firing.[2] One of the first significant developments that took place was the creation and refinement of the ‘clock code’ system.[3] Using this system, a pilot of the Royal Flying Corps, the forerunner to the Royal Air Force (RAF), was able to correct the fall of shot of the artillery by passing to the artillery battery commander details of how far from the target the guns were. The pilot would correct the shooting of the artillery by pointing out how far away and in what direction the shells of the guns had landed. The distance would be passed on using numbers and the direction using the picture of a clock face. The target was placed in the middle of the clock face and shells that fell beyond the target and on a straight line to the target would be corrected with a call of twelve, if it fell short on the same line the call would be six, at ninety degrees left of the target nine and ninety degrees right three. Any other direction would be corrected by using the hour on the clock with which it corresponded. This system would prove to function perfectly well throughout the whole of the First World War and was the system with which the RAF went to war in 1939.

The system of correcting artillery fire remained unchanged until 1938. The Air Council were against making alterations to the clock code system as they felt that it was adequate to meet the needs that the army would face in future conflicts. They felt that light aircraft could not be kept in action close to artillery units, as had been the case in the First World War.[4] The Air Council were also fearful of introducing a new, untried, and unfamiliar system with the growing tensions in Europe at this time. The War Office was unimpressed with the Air Councils attitude and pushed for more to be done. The Air Ministry agreed to trials between the Air Officer Commanding No. 22 (Army Co-operation) Group and the Commandant of the School of Artillery in December 1938.[5] The results of these trials and further trials conducted to test aircraft as well as procedure. The results were that light aircraft over the battlefield could observe fire with the ‘clock code’ system.[6] Spitfires conducted mock attacks on the aircraft and the Taylorcraft light aircraft observing the artillery fire had a good chance of dodging the fire of a modern fighter.[7] There was, however, no training for pilots in registering targets for the artillery. If an artillery officer required an appraisal of a prospective target, the request would have to be sent along the command chain via an air liaison officer. When the artillery battery received the information, it was usually out of date.[8] There was also pressure from within the War Office to establish a Flying Observation Post (Flying OP) and to begin plans to train Gunner Officers to fly. A Flying OP was to work in conjunction with Ground Observation Post (Ground OP) in establishing targets to be engaged and operating deep behind their lines to be afforded the protection of friendly anti-aircraft guns.

H 27983
A Taylorcraft Auster Mark III of No. 655 Squadron dropping a message bag to a Royal Artillery wireless truck on the airfield at Fowlmere, Cambridgeshire, during Exercise SPARTAN. (Source:  © IWM (H 27983))

The first of these Flying OPs was established in February 1940.[9] This force was established to:

[d]etermine in the light of practical experience obtained under war conditions the possibilities and limitations of the Flying OP, the most suitable type of aircraft and the most suitable organization [sic].[10]

The tests were to be conducted in three parts. The first was an initial training period. The second a practical training with the French, and a final test in the French Army area in conditions of actual warfare including shoots against German targets it was at this time that the term Air Observation Post (Air OP) was adopted.[11] The flight was sent to France on 19 April 1940.[12] The first of the three tests were conducted after the flight had moved to the continent. The final of the three tests was due to be carried out in early May, and the forces were established ready to conduct the tests on 9 May 1940.[13] The following day the Germans began to implement Fall Gelb (Case Yellow): the invasion of France and the Low Countries.[14] The artillery designated for the tests were forced to move back to their formations leaving the Air OP Flight (D Flight) waiting for the campaign to stabilise when it was clear that this would not happen D Flight was recalled to England.[15]

One of the first official moves at changing artillery co-operation policy was a letter regarding the subject sent from the Director of Military Co-operation Air Commodore Victor Goddard to Barratt at Army Co-operation Command. In this letter, Goddard states that the Air Staff were against the formation of:

[s]pecial air units for artillery observation or reconnaissance, unless it can be clearly shown that there is an urgent requirement for such units which cannot be met by Army Co-operations squadrons.[16]

The School of Artillery recommended that a certain number of aircraft should specialise in artillery work and should be trained by the School of Artillery so that they had the same tactical knowledge and the same the understanding of gunnery as an artillery officer.[17] This was just one aspect of an idea by the School of Artillery to allow aircraft to have tactical control over the fire of artillery batteries. To facilitate this, the school further recommended that a multi-seater aircraft should be employed in this work to allow an artillery officer to conduct the shoot according to artillery methods without the need for the artillery officer learning to fly. Artillery officers were also to be seconded to army co-operation squadrons specifically for artillery work.[18] The co-operation between the School of Artillery and Army Co-operation Command is evident and is surprising given the general relations that existed between the army and RAF in the wake of the Battle of France and the fall out that it had caused between the two services.[19]

Barratt, in a letter to the Under-Secretary of State for Air, wrote that:

I consider that in order to get a true and undistorted picture of this problem, it is first desirable to set out the problem as the Army [sic] sees it, and to show in this picture what they conceive to be their requirements.[20]

Again the desire to see the problem from a view that would almost certainly be contradictory to the RAF shows that Barratt and his command were willing to adopt a different approach and attitude in co-operating with at least one part of the army. Barratt also voiced his concerns regarding the ability of the Air OP to operate in the face of enemy action. It was felt that ‘the Air OP must be entirely vulnerable to any enemy fighters which cares to shoot it down’.[21] Barratt’s concern over the safety of his pilots who may be conducting shoots using the Air OP system was to be a recurring issue in the development of artillery reconnaissance.

TR 242
Air Marshal Sir Arthur Barratt in battledress and flying gear beside a Hawker Hurricane. He often flew this aircraft when visiting airfields of RAF Army Co-operation Command, which he commanded at the time of this picture. (Source: © IWM (TR 242))

Barratt’s response to the trials was one of scepticism, and he considered ‘that body of experience gained in the late war and since has all pointed to the advantages of the ‘Clock Code’ system’.[22] Barratt’s belief in the ‘clock code’ system stemmed more from the fear of false conclusions being drawn from brief experiments than from any sense of conservatism about changing the system used for artillery reconnaissance.[23] This became a realisation when Barratt was forced to explain to the Under Secretary of State for Air about the lack of efficiency regarding artillery co-operation in Army Co-operation Squadrons. Barratt wrote that:

I feel that much of the falling off in efficiency in this part of the Army Co-operation Squadron task has been due to the propagation of rumour as to other and better methods than those shown in AP 1176.[24]

Further trials were conducted using the artillery method during April 1941, and the conclusions reached were similar to those seen previously. These were that the artillery methods of ranging by corrections to line and range are simpler, quicker, and more efficient than any method based on the ‘clock code’.

The failures of the ‘clock code’ system in France combined with further problems faced in the fighting in Libya led to a loss of confidence in the system in the army.[25] Barratt responded that the ‘clock code’ system was not at fault in these operations but that the aircraft employed in it were operating in the face of intense enemy opposition. He was concerned that the trials had been too few and were skewed in favour of a positive result by the School of Artillery.[26] While these concerns may be interpreted as merely blocking a new development that had been shown to work to preserve the autonomy of the RAF while conducting army co-operation work. The evidence of co-operation between Army Co-operation Command and the School of Artillery, shown above, leads more to the conclusion that Barratt felt that the procedure could not be successfully carried out, and wished to see more trials conducted before it would receive his approval.

The procedure for artillery reconnaissance first developed during the First World War was only suitable for the conditions of that war. The lack of fluidity and almost stable front lines allowed a system to develop, quickly, this system, however, was only suited to those conditions. This was very quickly discovered during the first major test of this procedure against the quicker and more mobile warfare of the German Wehrmacht in 1940. The attitudes of both the British Army and the RAF to co-operation during the inter-war period, in Britain at least, did little to improve the situation before the British Expeditionary Force was stationed in France. This left those charged with the responsibility of modifying the existing procedure with only the experience of the First World War to guide them and on which to base their expectations. Much co-operation between the School of Artillery and Nos. 70 and 71 Groups of Army Co-operation Command occurred, despite the general feeling of animosity still felt by both services in Britain.[27] This co-operation was the most that had been seen between the army and RAF since the formation of the RAF as an independent force in 1918. Barratt’s move to block the adoption of the new procedure that was being trialled during 1941 can be interpreted in several ways. His reasoning for doing so, however, appears to be that of confirming the results already achieved through more rigorous and testing trials to confirm the results. Through further testing at a higher level the procedure, as well as those responsible for carrying it out, would be exposed to more stress and so a greater degree of authenticity could be achieved. Trials of this nature would also confirm if the procedure could be implemented with ease by the majority of pilots whose responsibility would be increased from observing the fall of shot to conducting shoots, potentially in the face of enemy opposition. Barratt’s major concern with the new system appears to be its increased complexity, and he was rightly concerned after his experiences in France that pilots would be unable to conduct the shoot if they had to keep a lookout for enemy fighter activity continually.

Dr Matthew Powell is a Teaching Fellow at Portsmouth Business School at the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell. He holds a PhD in Modern History from the University of Birmingham. His thesis investigated the development of tactical air power in Britain during the Second World War through a study of the RAF’s Army Co-operation Command. His first book, based on the PhD, The Development of British Tactical Air Power, 1940-1943: A History of Army Co-operation Command was published in 2016 by Palgrave Macmillan. He has also published in Canadian Military History, Air Power Review and the British Journal for Military History. He is currently researching the relationship between the British aviation industry and the Air Ministry during the inter-war period. He can be found on Twitter at @tac_air_power.

Header Image: An Auster Mark IV of an Air Observation Post squadron undergoes servicing at its base after being damaged by anti-aircraft fire while flying over the 8th Army Front in northern Italy. (Source: © IWM (CNA 3341))

[1] A longer version of this article can be found in Canadian Military History, 23:1 (2014), pp. 71-88.

[2] Jonathan Bailey, ‘Deep Battle 1914-1941: The Birth of the Modern Style of War,’ Field Artillery Journal, (1998), pp. 21-7.

[3] Ralph Barker, A Brief History of the Royal Flying Corps in World War I (London: Constable & Co., 2002), p. 63.

[4] H.J. Parham and E.M.G. Belfield, Unarmed into Battle: The Story of the Air Observation Post, Second Edition (Chippenham: Picton Publishing, 1986), p.14.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid

[8] Darrell Knight, Artillery Flyers at War: A History of the 664, 665, and 666 ‘Air Observation Post’ Squadrons of the Royal Canadian Air Force (Bennington, VT: Merriam Press, 2010), p. 27.

[9] Parham and Belfield, Unarmed into Battle, p.15.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., p.16.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Karl-Heinz Freiser, The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2005), p. 79.

[15] Parham and Belfield, Unarmed into Battle, 16.

[16] The National Archives (TNA), AIR 39/47, Letter from Air Commodore Goddard, Director of Military Co-operation to Barratt regarding Artillery Co-operation Policy, 8 December 1940.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] For more information on the army’s reaction to the Battle of France, see: TNA, CAB 106/220, Bartholomew Committee Final Report.

[20] TNA, AIR 39/47, Letter from Barratt to Under-Secretary of State for Air regarding co-operation with the Royal Artillery, 29 January 1941.

[21] Ibid., Appendix A, 29 January 1941.

[22] Ibid., Letter from Headquarters Army Co-operation Command to Headquarters No. 70 Group, Artillery Reconnaissance Trials, 12 April 1941.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., Letter from Barratt to Under Secretary of State for Air, 14 April 1941.

[25] Ibid., Letter from CGS on Artillery Reconnaissance, 5 May 1941.

[26] Ibid., Letter from Barratt to Major-General Otto Lund, GHQ Home Forces, in response from letter from CGS on Artillery Reconnaissance, 10 May 1941.

[27] For example, see: David Ian Hall, Strategy for Victory: The Development of British Tactical Air Power, 1919-1943 (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008), pp. 89-103.


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.

Dr Michael Molkentin is an adjunct lecturer at the University of New South Wales and a teacher at Shellharbour Anglican College. He has a first-class Honours degree from the University of Wollongong and a PhD in History from the University of New South Wales. In 2014, the Australian War Memorial awarded Michael’s doctoral research the Bryan Gandevia Prize for Australian Military History. He specialises in the history of armed conflict with an emphasis on warfare in the British world and the development of air power. Michael has written three books, the most recent being Australia and the War in the Air (OUP, 2014).

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

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.

Dr Ross Mahoney is an independent historian and defence specialist based in Australia. Between 2013 and 2017, he was the resident Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum, and he is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (PGCE and BA). His research interests include the history of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, air power and the history of air warfare, and the social and cultural history of armed forces. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and is an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He blogs at Thoughts on Military History, and can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.

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: and

Dr Brian Laslie is an Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). 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. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s 2016 professional reading list. He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

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