Editorial Note: From Balloons to Drones is pleased to announce our new podcast series. Led by our Editor Dr Mike Hankins, the series builds on the success of From Balloons to Drones, and provides an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and provides a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here.
In this episode, we interview Katherine Sharp Landdeck, who is here to tell us all about the WASPs, the Women Airforce Service Pilots in the United States during the Second World War. She is the author of The Women with Silver Wings: The Inspiring True Story of the Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II. She goes beyond some of the familiar figures like Jackie Cochran and Nancy Love to tell us about other, lesser-known women in the program. Furthermore, of course, we will talk about Walt Disney because Brian Laslie always finds a way!
Dr Katherine Sharp Landdeck is an associate professor of history at Texas Woman’s University, the home of the WASP archives. A Guggenheim Fellow at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and a graduate of the University of Tennessee, where she earned her PhD, Landdeck has received numerous awards for her work on the WASP and has appeared as an expert on NPR’s Morning Edition, PBS, and the History channel. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and HuffPost, as well as in numerous academic and aviation publications. Landdeck is a licensed pilot who flies whenever she can.
Header Image: WASPs on the flight line at Laredo AAF, Texas, 22 January 1944. (Source: Wikimedia)
As an air power historian, I sometimes wonder what histories and stories have been over told and which have not been told enough. There are times where I feel like certain aspects of air force or air power history which have been given enough treatment, and then there are those stories that are clearly due more attention. This book falls decidedly into the latter category.
Not every member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) has had their story told, but every one of them is worthy of a telling. Nadine Ramsay was one of over 1,000 women who answered America’s call to serve their country as pilots during the Second World War, whose history was virtually ignored until the early 2000s when memoirs, biographies and original research into their story began to appear more heavily in print. It took from the end of the war until the 1970s for these women to even be accorded the status of a veteran. Taking Flight is the story of Nadine Ramsey and, more broadly, her family during the Second World War.
In general, women who learned to fly before America entered into the Second World War had certain advantages. Most were middle or upper-middle-class with access to enough spare funds in the 1930s to learn how to fly. These women were lucky enough to stand on the shoulders of the giants of women in aviation, including Amelia Earhart and Jackie Cochran. Thus, when America entered the war, and it became apparent that more pilots were needed, it was not entirely out of the question that women could be called upon to serve and fly. It took likes of Jackie Cochran and Nancy Love to turn this dream into a reality.
Still, the programs created to bring women into their countries service was not met with enthusiastic support, ‘The public had mixed reaction to women pilots. From the beginning they were under intense scrutiny’ (p. 84). The women who chose to fly faced sexism and discrimination, but through every adversity, they proved beyond a conclusive doubt that they were not only capable of delivering aircraft but that often the ‘women pilots could do the job, usually faster and more safely than the men’ (p. 83).
However, this is Nadine’s story rather than that of the WASPs more generally. It becomes clear throughout these pages that Ramsey was a ‘bright, glamorous comet’ (p. 178) and not just during her time in service. Of course, her time as a WASP serves as the linchpin of the book. Ramsey, like so many others of her generation, was inexplicably drawn towards aviation. Hers was not the most direct route to becoming a pilot, but Ramsey’s ‘ready for anything personality’ found her learning to fly in the sky of Wichita, Kansas, in the mid-1030s (p. 28). By the start of the war, she was a reasonably well-known aviatrix and, although again not through a direct route; she joined the women flyers of the Second World War. During her training, Ramsey lost a close friend, Helen Jo Severson, which is deftly demonstrated in these pages and is an incredibly moving passage as Ramsey struggles with this loss. Severson became one of 38 WASPs to lose their lives in service to their country (p. 87, 92).
Ramsey ferried aircraft, learned to fly fighters, and moved these aircraft, including P-51s and P-38s from their factories to their ports of embarkation. After the war, Ramsey, unlike so many of the other WASPs did not give up on flying, going so far as to purchase her own P-38, but I will leave those details for the reader to enjoy.
Taking Flight is an incredibly personal and poignant account of one family’s successes and sacrifices during the Second World War. This book should find a home on the shelves of air power scholars, but a much wider audience will also enjoy it. Ramsey’s story might be hers alone, but it is indicative of all the women whose service to the US and broader Allied war effort should not be overlooked. Instead, it should be embraced by a grateful nation. While writing a book review, I try to attempt to convey what makes the subject matter appealing or why the reader might want to purchase this book. In reading Taking Flight, I was continually struck by one thought, I wish I had known Ramsey.
If you are interested in further reading about the WASPs after reading Ramsey’s story, then the following books are a great place to start. The most recent being Katherine Sharp Landdeck’s superb The Women with Silver Wings (2020) (you can also catch Lanndeck in a future From Balloons to Drones podcast). There is also Molly Merryman’s Clipped Wings: The Rise and Fall of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS) of World War II (1998). Everything by Sarah Byrn Rickman is worth reading, but perhaps the best is WASP of the Ferry Command: Women Pilots, Uncommon Deeds, The Originals: The Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron of World War II (2016), and Nancy Love and the WASP Ferry Pilots of World War II (2019). The University of Florida Press also has an excellent (and balanced) biography of the famous aviatrix Jackie Cochran: Pilot in the Fastest Lane by Doris Rich (2007). For a more general history, there is Deborah G. Douglas’ American Women and Flight since 1940 (2004).
Dr Brian Laslie is an Editor at From Balloons to Drones and an US Air Force Historian. He is 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 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 and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists. He is also the author of Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force. He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie and at www.brianlaslie.com.
Header Image: WASPs on the flight line at Laredo AAF, Texas, 22 January 1944. (Source: Wikimedia)
Most military historians take a narrative approach in their works. Even when they seek to prove a specific thesis, they offer the evidence to the reader in chronological order. There are, of course, exceptions – and Ben Kite is a notable one. In 2014, he produced Stout Hearts: The British and Canadians in Normandy 1944, a work that focused not on the narrative of the battles in Normandy, but rather how British and Canadian armies (and air forces) operated there. The result was an outstanding reference work for historians, history buffs, and especially those seeking to understand what it was like for their Commonwealth ancestors who fought there.
In Through Adversity: Britain and the Commonwealth’s War in the Air 1939-1945 Kite has turned his focus to the skies. His primary aim is ‘to capture the main themes and strands of the war in the air as fought by the British Commonwealth’ (p. xiii). Volume 1 includes 20 chapters spread over four parts, each containing one of these themes or strands. These are usually mission types performed by the air force. In each part, Kite takes particular care to explain changes in the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) tactics and operational techniques along with the advancement of technology. He is more interested in how airmen planned and executed missions than in the role of senior commanders and overarching narratives. As such, this book is not a repeat of John Terraine’s The Right of the Line. Consequently, the experiences of aircrew fighting a deadly war in skies across the globe stand out.
In part one, Kite offers readers a background on pre-war RAF policy and preparations for war. He notes that although the 1920s were lean years, the RAF did receive significant investments in the late 1930s due to fears of the growing Luftwaffe in Nazi Germany. Ironically, although RAF doctrine focused on the bomber, the British bomber fleet was ill-prepared to strike at the German war industry. Much would have to change if the force were to have a chance of inflicting the knock-out blow advocated by influential interwar air power theorists Giulio Douhet and the RAF’s own Hugh Trenchard.
The second chapter of part one examines how the RAF mobilized and trained its manpower. Some readers will find this section a little disappointing since it offers a pretty standard focus on the path of pilots (and observers) through the Empire Air Training Scheme. There is comparatively little about the training regimes of other aircrew positions or the ground crew.
As the prerequisite for successful air operations of all types, Kite begins his examination of air combat with air superiority. The author takes a campaign-centric approach after beginning with the pre-war development of RAF Fighter Command. In northwest Europe, he examines the Battle of Britain, the uneconomical Fighter Command air offensive over Fortress Europe, and defence against German night raiders and V-weapons. Kite samples the battles for air superiority in the Mediterranean through the siege of Malta. Finally, he concludes the section with a pair of chapters featuring the rapid loss of air superiority in the Far East and the effort to turn the tide.
The chapter that stands out in part two takes the reader through a Fighter Command mission during the Battle of Britain. Kite takes an end-to-end approach here. He begins with how pilots began their mornings at airfields across Britain and finishes with sortie debriefings by intelligence officers. It was their job to understand what had happened in the air, including the difficult task of sorting victory claims. Kite affords the relatively unsung role of the fighter controller prominent attention, reminding readers the might of the many backed ‘the Few’ at the sharp end. This effectively illustrates the importance of ‘a good early warning capability and an efficient command and control system’ (p. 193) for effective air defence.
From air superiority, the book moves on to discuss Bomber Command’s role in striking back at Nazi Germany. Kite organizes this section into four chapters. The first offers the reader a general overview of how the offensive developed from unescorted, anti-shipping raids suffering unsustainable losses to night bomber raids of growing strength and sophistication. The chapter focuses on Bomber Command strategy and policy, including the creation of No. 6 Group Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in early 1943.
No. 6 Group owed its existence to a desire for a highly visible Canadian air effort in the war. Kite outlines the many unintended disadvantages of forming a separate national group within Bomber Command. Unfortunately, this is where Kite ends the story of 6 Group. Although the group faltered in 1943, 1944 was a much better year. New leadership, the shift from targets deep inside Germany to support the Normandy landings, and the arrival of better aircraft ‘enabled No. 6 Group to exceed the performance of comparable bomber groups in the air and on the ground.’ In fact, according to the RCAF official history, from September 1944 until May 1945 ‘the Canadian group could claim as good an operational record as any.’
Despite Kite’s treatment of No. 6 Group, he does well by Bomber Command as a whole. Kite takes the reader through an end-to-end Bomber Command mission in two chapters. The first chapter covers the route to the target, beginning with the role of armourers in loading the aircraft while the aircrew underwent specialized and team briefings. Crew roles, navigation equipment, the aircraft, and German defences all receive attention. The second chapter takes the reader from the run into the target and through the return leg. Except for memoirists explaining their personal slide of the air war, few resources so comprehensively relate the bomber crew experience.
The concluding strike chapter outlines the development of a precision bombing capability within Bomber Command and No. 2 Group, which operated light and medium bombers over Nazi-occupied Europe.
The final part of volume one covers the war at sea fought by RAF Coastal Command and the Royal Navy’s (RN) Fleet Air Arm (FAA). The first two chapters examine anti-submarine operations during the Battle of the Atlantic. Kite highlights the importance of cooperation between the RN and Coastal Command in intelligence sharing and winning the battle of improving tactics and technology. He concludes that while the Allies heavily reduced the U-boat threat by 1943, the RAF senior leadership’s failure to afford a greater priority to Coastal Command ‘nearly cost the Allies the war.’ (p. 321) This criticism mainly revolves around the delay in giving Coastal Command priority for Very Long-Range aircraft. These aircraft could patrol the mid-Atlantic gap, where U-boats operated beyond the range of most land-based aircraft.
Kite concludes the RAF’s role in the volume with two chapters on anti-shipping operations. He begins with early operations from the United Kingdom, especially those focused on the Dutch and Norwegian coasts. In the war’s early years, strikes were effective against enemy merchant shipping. Coastal Command needed better aircraft, tactics, and armour-piercing bombs to achieve success against the German surface fleet. RAF anti-shipping operations matured over time and in parallel with developments in the Mediterranean and the Far East. Missing from Kite’s history of the RAF’s war at sea are the anti-submarine and anti-shipping efforts that went into supporting the Normandy landings in June 1944. It is unclear whether these elements will appear in Volume 2, which promises to cover air support for the army in detail.
Many readers will be pleased that Kite wrote two chapters on the Fleet Air Arm. Some authors would have left the role of naval aviation out of scope, and it is commendable that Kite has included their experiences.
One general critique is the author’s tendency to rely on lengthy quotations from memoirs and diaries. Letting the veterans speak for themselves is a noble effort, but it also means relying on the quality of another’s writing to tell the story. Kite’s retelling of a harrowing anti-submarine patrol by a Sunderland flying boat crew over the Bay of Biscay was outstanding (p. 309-314). I sometimes found myself wishing that Kite had taken this approach more often rather than relying on lengthy and raw veteran’s accounts.
Through Adversity is a treasure trove of information for its readers. Twenty-five appendices or annexes (with source attributions) offer the reader great quick-reference material. The book is exceptionally well illustrated with thoughtful captions. These captions often include the identity and fate of both the aircraft and its crew, closing an otherwise open loop. Finally, Kite’s use of squadron mottos for most of the chapter titles is a nice touch that adds character to the book.
Overall, Volume 1 of Ben Kite’s work on the British Commonwealth’s war in the air is a great achievement. In the 1980s, John Terraine’s The Right of the Line afforded readers an excellent top-down narrative study of the RAF in the Second World War. Kite’s contribution is to capture the airman’s experience within that broader context. Through Adversity is the first half of an excellent reference work for historians, history buffs, and especially those seeking to understand what the air war was like for their Commonwealth ancestors in skies and at airfields across the world. The military aviation community anxiously awaits the publication of Undaunted: Britain and the Commonwealth’s War in the Air – Volume 2.
Header Image: In the shadow of their Handley Page Halifax, ‘Pride of the Porcupines’ aircrew and groundcrew members of No. 433 ‘Porcupine’ Squadron, No. 6 Group RCAF gang up on the miniature English automobile owned by one of the aircrew members. (Source: DND / LAC / PL-29380)
 Greenhous et al., The Crucible of War, 1939-1945: The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force Volume III (University of Toronto Press, 1994), pp. 526-7.
Editorial Note: From Balloons to Drones is pleased to announce our new podcast series. Led by Assistant Editor Dr Mike Hankins, the series builds on the success of From Balloons to Drones, and it provides an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and provides a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here.
In our latest podcast, we interview Dr Tyler Morton to discuss his new book From Kites to Cold War: The Evolution of Manned Airborne Reconnaissance. Not only do we get some incredible stories about aerial surveillance (especially from the WW2-era), but we have a blast talking about our biggest “nerd moments” from the archives, and why that type of work is so powerful and exciting!
Header Image: A U-2C painted in a gray camouflage pattern called the ‘Sabre’ scheme in 1975. The camouflage replaced the usual black finish to ease British concerns about ‘spy planes’ operating from the UK. In Europe, this U-2 tested equipment to locate and suppress enemy surface-to-air missiles. (Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force)
What is air power? How do we study it? How do we use it? Do previous characterisations sufficiently capture the concept? Perhaps. This article contends that prior attempts to put meat on the bone towards a framework to study air power scholarship are insufficient.
Moreover, we must appreciate the richness of our inquiries if we – scholars and professionals, such as political scientists, historians, policymakers, practitioners and users – want to understand better the concept of air power to help answer important questions. These questions may be: how do civilian airline pilots and training schools contribute to a nation’s ‘air power?’ Can peacetime control of airspace access constitute a form of air power? To what extent does air information, such as weather, the electromagnetic environment, knowledge of space weather, constitute a form of air power? Furthermore, more, importantly, how do these questions and related concepts orient to each other. As such, this article argues that air power is the domain-agnostic admixture of personalities, outcomes, organisations, technologies, ideas and events to do or, that do, something in or for, the air.
This definition is unique in that it explicitly and parsimoniously joins together the breadth of military and civilian endeavours. It highlights the ‘stickiness’ of related topics and contends that air power is not an inherently military pursuit, though its application almost always manifests as such. The definition provides more form to the general, varied ideas of military thinkers about essential elements of air power. This article begins the discussion on the topic of how we structure air power studies across various academic fields and cordons a more robust dissection of the topic in future publications. Furthermore, this article details the constituent components of air power to clarify meaning. Then, it uses this perception of air power to explain its evolution throughout history. Finally, briefly, it discusses our current air power disposition to make sense of what component will drive innovation in the coming decades — organisations. So, how have we come to envisage this elusive thing we call air power?
Definition and Components of Air Power
In the Age of Airpower, Martin Van Creveld explored about 250 years of the concept. Among others, he highlighted the work of people with simple, yet elegant definitions of air power, such as that of Brigadier General William ‘Billy’ Mitchell who viewed it as doing ‘something in the air.’ Other writers such as Mark Clodfelter provided more angles: breaking the concept of air power into direct and indirect applications. For Clodfelter, direct air power generally involves kinetic outcomes such as bombing and indirect presumes more non-kinetic capabilities, such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).
Meanwhile, organisations such as the US Air Force (USAF) define air power based on its organisational experience and conceptual refinement. The latest iteration of USAF Basic Doctrine defines the concept as ‘the ability to project military power or influence through the control and exploitation of air, space, and cyberspace to achieve strategic, operational, or tactical objectives.’ So, how do we break air power down for study?
While Mitchell’s definition is more parsimonious, adding a little complexity provides the explanatory muscle to how we think about air power and thus how we can consider the concept’s change over time. Foundationally, one should recognise that to do something in the air does not necessarily mean that the activity must originate in or from the air. For instance, a ballistic missile launch originates from the land, traverses through the air and maybe space, and then strikes somewhere on land. This example demonstrates the potential of the agnosticism of the air domain. Furthermore, a more robust definition allows for careful, coordinated forecasting of future air power applications using clear and structured links within and across the subject’s elements. For instance, air power researchers studying C-17 humanitarian assistance capabilities may be linked to those studying procedurally based command and control organisations as well as those studying the political effects of humanitarian assistance to optimise future disaster response towards national priorities.
Conceiving of air power as an admixture of component concepts: each noteworthy, though not equal, in characterising the ability to do something in the air is vital for several reasons. One benefit is to have more structured research programs that allow thinkers to situate their contribution to the subject area. Another is to generalise debates on air power concepts that link military and civilian theory and application. A generalisation can help guard against what seems to be a tendency to overly militarise air power thought, evoking the coercive and persuasive elements of the concept. The benefits are similar to those of academic fields like history or political science though air power studies can best be described as an interdisciplinary subfield or topical field.
Importantly, to be useful, the components must be defined. First, personalities may be individuals or groups that have a profound impact on the development of the notion. For instance, Mitchell vocally and publicly advanced the idea of a separate US military service despite the misgivings of more senior leaders, including President Calvin Coolidge. In part, the general’s 1925 court-martial resulted from agitation for a separate US air service. However, the spectacle thrust air power into America’s national dialogue. He challenged the US Army – then overseeing land-based air forces – stating that their leaders were negligent for not building an air service capable of national defence. Mitchell is credited by many as being the original maverick in pursuing an idea of independent military air power that was largely sidelined at the time. Mitchell’s persona, in part, catalysed the existence of organisations critical to the development of air power.
Mitchell’s calls for an independent air service bring us to the second component — organisations, which are administrative and operational systems that foster ideas, leverage people and exploit technologies towards some outcome. An exemplar is the USAF’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) under Major-General Curtis LeMay’s tutelage. SAC pursued the idea of ‘strategic’ air power, discussed later, towards its outcome of long-range conventional and nuclear bombing. SAC oversaw most of the US nuclear deterrent and development of bomber capabilities for the USAF. The organisation came to personify air power in the US and for much of the world during the Cold War. Albeit an unfair approximation, civilians and military personnel alike were lent the idea of air power’s ability to render an outcome of total enemy devastation embodied by SAC’s long-range bombers and, later, ballistic missiles.
In our context, outcomes are the effects, assessments and results by which military and civilian leaders come to associate air power. For instance, after the Second World War, both military and civilian leaders came to associate air power with the unconditional surrender of the enemy evoked by the use of nuclear weapons. This idea created problems during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, where expectations outpaced the new reality of limited, non-nuclear warfare. Limited warfare lends itself to more technical means — leaving technology to be the more tangible, driving component of air power.
As a component, technology includes all the capabilities, research, design, development and testing that allow practitioners to do things in the air. For instance, a significant component of the US’ advancements in stealth technology originated with the Skunk Works team under Kelly Johnson’s orchestration, among others. The team’s research and design techniques led to advances like the SR-71 Blackbird and the F-117 Nighthawk. These technologies, along with other capabilities-related advances, influenced expectations such as those discussed above: enabling the limited, non-nuclear warfare that became characteristic of vast swaths of America’s recent history. However, while technology is sometimes the easiest to translate as an air power component, though not always easy to grasp, it is ideas that sometimes generate change.
Doctrine, strategy, theories, policies and politics combine to form air power’s conceptual component. These ideas embody how personalities can use other components. Reciprocally, all the other components can help thinkers conceive of new ways to conceptualise air power. To demonstrate, during Operation EL DORADO CANYON, President Reagan and his national security team viewed air power as a punitive instrument of national security policy. Existent technologies in the 1980s allowed Reagan’s response to state-sponsored terrorism with a long-range, airstrike on targets tailored to the perceived offence. Reagan’s team shepherded the technology component in a way that had not yet been explored to its fullest. They updated strategic attack doctrine; tested theories of international relations; set new international policies; and ignited the politics of air-driven limited, military interventions.
Events like Op EL DORADO CANYON also constitutes the last element of air power. Our understanding of past campaigns, battles and historical milestones enables a fuller appreciation of air power and the possibility of modifying its future use. Unfortunately, these so-called understandings can sometimes lead to misapplications of history and, ultimately, to disaster. For instance, the counterinsurgency in Iraq that began almost immediately after the invasion in 2003 required a different application of air power than previously practised, but it would take multiple Secretaries of Defense to enforce this understanding upon the military, as evidenced by the explosion of unmanned technologies among others. The components of air power – personalities, organisations, outcomes, technologies, ideas and events – provide the critical infrastructure for the study of air power. We can use this infrastructure to help us understand various aspects of the topic, like what elements may be more important at various times in history. This understanding can help us orient ourselves in history relative to the seemingly dominant feature of our time so that those who study, and practice air power can best allocate resources, whether academically or practically.
Epochs of Air Power
In this section, this article now considers the prominence of the above elements as determinants of historical periods in air power’s evolution. A short walkthrough of air power’s epochal changes rooted in the above-defined elements illuminates current and the future application of air power. Geoffrey Barraclough, in An Introduction to Contemporary History, provided an idea about ‘spots and jumps’ that define historical periods and transitions. He used the timeframe 1880-1960 to discuss the shift between modern and contemporary history based primarily on economic and geopolitical factors. Using a similar conception of eras punctuated by ‘spots and jumps,’ rooted in the components of air power to characterise the shifts, this section divides the evolution of air power into five timeframes. Importantly, during shifts between the timeframes, changes in predominant component concepts of air power led to changes in our concept of air power.
Before 1783 – The Age of Imagination
Air power before 1783 can be viewed as an ‘Age of Imagination’ or ideas. There were no bounds except those imposed by humanity’s evolving understanding of terrestrial physics. Some of the earliest human records depict mystical flying or lobbing objects through the air as weapons. In their way, our ancestors from around the world gave us our first concept of air power. They conceived of divinity by drawing and storytelling of gods that could defy gravity unassisted, a fruitless pursuit for mere mortals that dates to Greek, Roman and Chinese mythology. While ancient and pre-industrial humans did not themselves defy gravity, humankind created things to help defend themselves, such as arrows and trebuchet missiles. These weapons are essential to the study of air power because the idea of projectiles travelling large distances to destroy an enemy finds its roots here. These weapons emerged over thousands of years, sometimes a crowning achievement of empires such as Persia and the Mongols. Nonetheless, the wild-eyed dreams of fantasy came to a relatively abrupt end in 1783 when the Montgolfiers floated their first balloon. The brothers’ flights began the period of the ‘Origins of Air Power.’
1783 to 1903 – The Origins of Air Power
Between 1783 and 1903, changes in the concept of air power resulted from slow changes in technologies. For instance, a new class of ‘aeronauts’ proliferated workable ballooning technologies that ended up in the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte, though his use is not the first use on the battlefield. He used available technologies when and where he could to enhance reconnaissance and direct artillery strikes. In 1798 Bonaparte used balloons to try to overawe the Egyptians in a campaign to subdue the Middle East and North Africa. After an unsuccessful display, Napoleon ordered the balloon unit’s disbandment. Undoubtedly a balloon would have come in handy in 1815 when Napoleon looked for Grouchy to spot and crush Blucher’s flanking movement at Waterloo. Nearly a half-century later, professionals continued to struggle with the concept of air power: conceiving of it as an unproven, unpredictable and unusable conglomeration of technologies and techniques, such as gas-producing machines for balloons, telegraphs and airborne mapmaking. Such was Thaddeus Lowe’s disposition in bringing air power to fruition during the American Civil War. Thus, it would be until the turn of the twentieth century.
1903 to 1945 – The Douhetian Epoch
From 1903 to 1945, ‘strategic’ air power and its offshoots was the idea that drove changes in the conception of air power as something more than an observational or auxiliary tool for ground forces. The idea of independent air power came to full fruition in August 1945 with the dropping of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan. To begin, in December 1903 the Wright Brothers brought heavier-than-air flight to reality. Driving the science of aeronautics were ideas like those refined by Giulio Douhet in the early part of the 20th century. Theorists like Douhet opined that wars could be won by striking at city centres from the air to break the will of a people, forcing them to surrender. Douhet’s original Italian publication in 1921 would not get immediately translated into English; however, people like Hugh Trenchard, the first Royal Air Force commander, articulated similar thoughts and organised, trained and equipped his military forces towards those ends. Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris would make use of Trenchard’s advancements during the Second World War over German cities such as Hamburg, Dresden and Berlin. Though it would take the American military time to adopt the British model of indiscriminate bombing, this idea came to epitomise air power for the period.
Importantly, this was also the timeframe during which commercial air travel in lighter- and heavier-than-air vessels took root. Though the ‘golden’ age of commercial air travel would come later, concepts like air routes, navigating via beacons, airports and other ideas began to solidify. These concepts had both military and civilian applications and technologies that enabled further development of the idea of air assets used over long distances. However, the military would continue to dominate ideas about air power as a ‘strategic’ concept even as these ideas came into contact with a significant theoretical challenge: limited warfare in an age of potentially unlimited destruction from thermonuclear weapons.
1945 to 2001 – The Era of Immaculate Effects
The next era, roughly spanning 1945 to 2001 is the maturation of strategic bombing extremes enabled by high technology. Militarily, the era is marked by the rise of a more immaculate, precise warfare with limited aims to mitigate aircrew losses, fulfil more specific international obligations and for operational efficiency among other goals. There was a change in the concept of air power because of what it was perceived to have achieved during the Second World War and the idea that the same outcome could be realised even in the face of more limited warfare. By the beginning of this timeframe, the USAF sidelined more tactically-minded airmen like Pete Quesada to ensure adoption of strategic bombing as a vehicle to solidify the association with air power. In part because of his prestige as a tactical aviation adherent, the ‘bomber generals’ defanged Quesada and the organisation he led, Tactical Air Command, after WWII. There was no room for anyone but true believers in the strategic attack mindset, but this would change after the experiences of Korea and Vietnam in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Only later in the period would Quesada’s tactical aviation and more precise attack legacy permeate military circles.
In civilian aviation, technology-fueled huge leaps in air power. National airspace, global navigation capabilities and air-containerised freight were concepts that would hold vast military and civilian applications. It is during this time that military and civilian aircraft started to compete for airspace for things like training, exercises and navigating various corridors. Another critical advance was the widespread implementation of the instrument landing system that allowed commercial aircraft to land in increasing levels of degraded atmospheric conditions. Again, precision enabled by technology characterised this era.
2000 and Beyond – Flexible Niche
The most recent period begins at around the turn of the millennium. This is the epoch as ‘Flexible Niche’ because it involved the use of existing or new technologies for a variety of activities dependent on how organisations are positioned to leverage them. Beginning in the late 1980s, formalisation of the contemporary Air Operations Center (AOC) is an early indicator of the present epoch. This organisation enabled the focused air campaign during Operations INSTANT THUNDER and DESERT STORM that, in part, led to ultimate victory for coalition forces in 1991. It was no longer enough to think of air power as just a capability or bringing about the strategic defeat of an enemy via the limits of destructive power or achieving national objectives with as few civilian casualties as possible. The organisation became the template for how to leverage air power across a wide area and from multiple sources. A contemporary view of air power considers the construct of how and which organisations best leverage technologies, ideas and people towards a given outcome, which may be a military one. There are a variety of concepts that the United States military is exploring, including the Multi-Domain Operations Center and Defense Innovation Unit, in addition to the standup of a Space Force among other initiatives.
Civil aviation is undergoing a similar bout with organisations, especially in the United States, as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grapples with how best to control airspace with the rise of unmanned technologies, especially in congested metropolitan areas. Should the FAA continue to hold all the cards or is the organisation in need of decentralisation of authorities to states and localities? Technologies may forestall the organisational decision, but this era’s solutions seem to be organisationally related rather than technically.
For the new century and beyond, it will not necessarily be which countries and industries have the best technologies or smartest people or best ideas that define the development of air power: it will be the organisations that can best leverage the other components that will determine how we conceive of air power. To summarise, again, air power is the domain-agnostic ability to do something in the air resulting from an admixture of personalities, outcomes, organisations, technologies, ideas and events. These components, at various times, represent reasons why our concept of air power changes over time.
The use of epochs allows us to generally discuss how components of air power drive thinking and successful pursuits of the concept over time, which is why it is useful to develop a unified framework for their study. Moreover, as opposed to the more traditional commentary of air power, linking military and civilian advancements in the same epoch demonstrates that air power is not an inherently military concept. This article serves as an overview of the start of a more robust discussion about the development of air power and a characterisation of what will likely temper that development for the 21st century — organisations. Future topics will involve civilian efforts to deal with drones and swarms, the importance of civil aviation and commercial space efforts in air power development, and the exploration of the idea that organisations will be the defining issue of this era.
Given all of this, air power is the domain-agnostic admixture of personalities, outcomes, organisations, technologies, ideas and events to do or, that do, something in or for, the air. Moreover, these components at various times have influenced significant shifts in our conception of air power over at least five critical epochs. Scholars and professionals must acknowledge the military and civilian dimensions of air power to live up to the concept’s full potential. Hence, to conclude, there is a need for a unified framework for the study of air power to promote the integration of military and civilian issues with the field.
Major Jaylan M. Haley is a career USAF Intelligence Officer. Currently, he is a student at the USAF School of Advanced Air and Space Power Studies at Air University. Over 14 years, he served in a variety of intelligence-related positions from the strategic to the tactical levels. During Operations ENDURING FREEDOM and INHERENT RESOLVE, he served as an Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Liaison Officer to multiple US Army Divisions and US Marine Expeditionary Forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Most recently he was an Air University Fellow, serving as an Instructor in the Department of International Security at the USAF Air Command and Staff College. He is a PhD Candidate in the Kansas State University Security Studies program with research focused on leverage air power as a tool of national policy.
Header Image: A US Navy Grumman F-14A Tomcat intercepts a Soviet Tupolev Tu-95 ‘Bear D’ reconnaissance-bomber over the Pacific Ocean on 21 November 1984. The F-14 was assigned to fighter squadron VF-51 aboard the USS Carl Vinson and was deployed to the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean from 18 October 1984 to 24 May 1985. (Source: Wikimedia)
 Domains include air, space, cyberspace (or electromagnetic), land and sea. Domain agnosticism disregards a specific domain towards the application of a specific concept. For instance, intelligence collection is domain agnostic. This means that intelligence collection can come from any of the domains-air, space, cyberspace, land or sea.
 ‘Strategic Implications for the Aerospace Nation’ in Philip Meilinger (ed.), Air War: Essays on Its Theory and Practice (Abingdon: Franck Cass, 2003), pp. 217-30.
 Martin Van Creveld, Martin, The Age of Airpower (New York: PublicAffairs, 2011), p. 71; William Mitchell, Winged Defense: The Development and Possibilities of Modern Air Power (New York: Dover Publications, 1988), p. xii.
 Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), p. 213.
 United States Air Force, Core Doctrine, Volume 1 – Basic Doctrine (Maxwell AFB, LeMay Doctrine Center, 2015).
 Robert Smith, ‘Maneuver at Lightspeed: Electromagnetic Spectrum as a Domain,’Over the Horizon: Multi-Domain Operations & Strategy, 5 November 2018. Importantly, the so-called warfighting domains of air, space, land, navy and now cyber – or perhaps more aptly electromagnetic – all interface with the air domain and provide a medium through which something can happen in the air.
 Douglas Waller, A Question of Loyalty (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2004), pp. 21-2.
 Donald Mrozek, Air Power & the Ground War in Vietnam (Virginia, VA: Pergamon-Brassey’s International Defense Publishers, 1989), pp. 14-5.
 Conrad Crane, American Airpower Strategy in Korea: 1950-1953 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2000), pp. 16-22.
Hindsight tends to make the contingent seem predestined. This is why reading history is essential for those responsible for planning for the future. When military professionals engage with history to try and understand how decisions, events, and circumstances – many of which lie beyond their control – shaped the present, they better appreciate that future planning is not about prediction; it is about preparing for adaptation. This is the lesson I took from Lieutenant Colonel Dr Tyler Morton’s book From Kites to Cold War, published by the United States Naval Institute Press in 2019.
This may not have been the insight that Morton intended for his readers. The book is the published version of Morton’s 2016 USAF Air University PhD thesis, which aimed to educate airmen on how airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) evolved rapidly from novelty to necessity. Although Morton claimed that the book ‘is a unique account spanning two millennia of manned airborne reconnaissance history’ (p. 9), the book’s six chapters cover less than 200 years: from the Montgolfier brothers’ hot-air-balloon demonstration in 1783 to the Linebacker air campaign over North Vietnam in 1972. This is not a criticism of Morton; his treatment of those 200 years is detailed and engaging and lives up to the promise of providing a unique insight into the development of a capability that is now a cornerstone of modern military operations. Morton’s 200-year story of airborne reconnaissance is one of vision, innovation, hype, misstep, and adaptation. This is a story whose beginning and early evolution has interesting parallels to what is occurring today with a range of emerging technologies.
Most histories of air power begin at the turn of the 20th century with the development of dirigibles and heavier-than-air flight. Those seeking to establish a longer pedigree for military aviation may refer to the French use of balloons at the Battle of Fleurus in 1794. Morton’s first chapter covering the Montgolfier’s 1783 balloon demonstration through to the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, therefore, fills a gap in air power’s historical narrative.
As Morton describes it, the 19th century was a period of civilian-led experimentation that enjoyed ambivalent support from militaries in Europe and the United States. Though contemporary militaries saw the potential for balloons to contribute to their armies’ situational awareness, many believed resources were better spent on more established capabilities. Using examples from the French Revolutionary period and the American Civil War, Morton shows how the tension between inventors, scientists, and entrepreneurs who demonstrated, but also oversold, the possibilities of airborne reconnaissance, and military leaders who needed to balance innovation with operational necessities shaped initial development efforts. The opportunity cost of an experimental technology versus tried-and-tested during a time of war hindered the military employment of balloons until the end of the 19th century.
It was during the first 15 years of the 20th century, the focus of chapter two, that the perceived benefits of military air power began to exceed the cost. Practical and operational demonstrations of airships and heavier-than-air machines sparked interest in militaries in Europe and the United States, leading to a growing acceptance of aviation’s future military role. Morton’s analysis of this period draws attention to the increasingly important role of empowered officers who drove progress in airborne reconnaissance. Officers such as then-Lieutenant Benjamin Foulois who envisaged the development of airborne reconnaissance as a system requiring the development of new technology and skill-sets beyond those associated with the aircraft itself, and who were empowered to drive the capability forward. Foulois’ career – on operations, as a member of the critical aeronautical boards before and after the First World War, and as Chief of the Air Corps – provided him with the opportunities within the military establishment to translate his vision into reality. His demonstrations of air-to-ground communications and aerial photography in support of US operations during the Mexican Revolution established the utility of airborne reconnaissance for key US Army leadership. In Foulois’ own words (p. 67), the Mexican operations ‘had proven beyond dispute […] that aviation was no longer experimental or freakish.’
Growing awareness in Europe and the United States of the military utility of airborne reconnaissance opened the door for the capability advocates when war came. It would not take long for the capability to prove its worth. Airborne reconnaissance enabled operational success on both sides of the First World War from the earliest stages of the war. It provided Allied commanders with intelligence on German manoeuvres that enabled the so-called ‘Miracle of the Marne.’ On the Eastern Front, German air reconnaissance of Russian force dispositions played a vital role in the German victory at Tannenberg; according to Field Marshal Hindenburg (p. 85): ‘Without the airplane there is no Tannenberg.’ Morton’s discussion of developments during the war in chapter three provides the reader with an appreciation of how the capability developed as a system comprising the air platform, cameras, communications, and the processing, exploitation, and dissemination (PED) of information. This was a logical progression of the pre-war developments, but, as Morton highlights, it was the character of First World War trench warfare (p. 86) that ‘gave aviation the chance it needed to solidify further its value as a force enhancer.’ The reduced mobility of ground forces created an intelligence gap which air power advocates and innovators ably filled. It was the development under real-world operational conditions that made airborne reconnaissance effective as it ensured the system evolved to meet requirements. This also had the effect of removing any lingering doubt about whether the capability had a place in future force structure. With its future assured, the next challenge was determining the exact form and function of that future capability. As the final three chapters highlight, this was not easy.
In chapter four, Morton covers the interwar period and the Second World War – a 26-year period during which there were significant advances in technology, concepts, and operational experience – in one page more than he covers the five years of the First World War. Surprisingly, this does not reduce the quality of the insights he provides. Morton focuses on two main areas during this period: the relative neglect of airborne reconnaissance into the 1930s as air power’s advocates struggled to define its role; and the wartime expansion of the reconnaissance role from imagery intelligence (IMINT) into signals intelligence (SIGINT). Opportunity cost remerged as a significant factor driving air power development during the interwar period. Ironically, as militaries and air power advocates struggled to clarify the role of air power, the tried-and-tested capability of airborne reconnaissance was neglected as investment flowed into more experimental and conceptual areas such as strategic bombing, a reversal of situation Morton describes in chapter one. However, new technologies and the character of operations during the Second World War created opportunities for innovative airmen and their adaptable organisations to consolidate and expand the role of airborne reconnaissance. The ubiquity of radar and radios increased the opportunities and requirement for collection against new sources; Morton does an excellent job describing the resulting emergence of SIGINT across all theatres. By 1945 the major disciplines of modern airborne reconnaissance were firmly established, but the challenge of prioritisation would continue to shape its development well into the Cold War.
Morton takes a different approach to deal with the Cold War. Rather than dividing the period arbitrarily into different time periods, he opts for a thematic approach. Chapter five explores ‘airborne reconnaissance as a strategic political instrument’. While chapter six, the book’s final chapter, examines airborne reconnaissance in the ‘hot wars’ in Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam. Of note, unlike previous chapters that have examined the developments internationally, the final two chapters focus solely on airborne reconnaissance in the United States. The unstated premise is that whereas previously the ideas and experiences of the other great powers had exerted an influence on the evolution of the capability this ceased to be the case after the end of the Second World War. Whether or not this is true is open for debate, but Morton’s discussion of the period does make a compelling, though implied, case.
In chapter five, Morton describes a period of consistent investment in and development of ‘strategic aerial reconnaissance’. The need to maintain awareness of Soviet capabilities to strike the United States and develop intelligence for targeting of US strategic strikes against the Soviet Union drove these developments. Soviet responses also played a role. As superpower competition grew and the Soviet’s began actively targeting US collection assets, political concerns began to impact the requirement for US reconnaissance capabilities directly. Morton describes how this interplay between collection requirements and political considerations drove improvements to sensor capabilities, giving rise to the Big Safari program, and the survivability of the collection platforms, leading to the A-12 Oxcart/SR-71 Blackbird, and the U-2. These were strategically significant capability improvements that were vital to the success of the US deterrence strategy.
While the United States focused its reconnaissance efforts on strategic requirements, the ability to meet tactical the demands for reconnaissance was neglected. In the book’s final chapter Morton describes how the United States adapted its strategic reconnaissance capabilities, and rapidly developed and implemented new tactical systems to meet the requirements of Korea, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War. The most interesting aspect of this final chapter is not the technology, but the processes that were developed. In Korea, Colonel Karl Polifka implemented a tactical reconnaissance management system that deconflicted the multitude of requests coming into the 5th Air Force and tracked the status of the product; a process that sounds remarkably similar to today’s collection management process. During Vietnam, the integration of technology and process as part of the Teaball project – a system that enabled highly-classified SIGINT to provide near-real-time intelligence into USAF fighter cockpits over North Vietnam – contributed to an increase in the USAF’s kill ratio from 0.47:1 to 4:1. In the words of General John Vogt, then-Commander of the 7th Air Force (p. 204):
During Linebacker we were shooting down the enemy at a rate of four to one […] Same airplane, same environment, same tactics; largely [the] difference [was] Teaball.
Teaball is an appropriate way for Morton to end his history of airborne reconnaissance. The progress made technologically, organizationally, and procedurally from 1783 to 1972 is impressive; when you shift timescale from 1914 to 1972, that progress is even more spectacular. As Morton reflects when discussing the 1965 introduction of the communication-intelligence-equipped EC-121D Warning Star into the Vietnam conflict (p. 200):
In scarcely fifty years, airmen went from using smoke signals and dropped messages to a fully integrated communications capability delivering near-real-time SIGINT data directly to air and ground warfighters.
This progress was not smooth, nor was it predestined, it was the result of the creativity, vision, and perseverance of inventors, engineers, airmen, and military commanders who were able to adapt emerging capabilities to meet operational and strategic requirements.
From Kites to Cold War is an essential read for anyone involved in the present or future of airborne ISR. Morton’s well-written history of the first 200 years of airborne reconnaissance provides an appreciation of how the capability evolved into its modern form, particularly how the vision and adaptability of airborne reconnaissance advocates were crucial to progress. For the same reason, this book is also a useful read for those in the innovation game or involved in future force design. Although Morton’s aim was not to write a book on military innovation, this is essentially what it is. It is an instructive tale of vision, hype, experimentation, and adaptation that provides useful points of discussion and debate for those charged with integrating experimental technologies and ideas into future force structure.
Wing Commander Travis Hallen is a Royal Australian Air Force officer with a background in maritime patrol operations, and a co-editor of The Central Blue. He has had a long-term interest in the development and improvement of airborne ISR having conducted multiple operational deployments in that role. He is a graduate of the USAF School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. Wing Commander Hallen is currently in Washington, DC.
Header Image: After Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union during a CIA spy flight on May 1. 1960, NASA issued a press release with a cover story about a U-2 conducting weather research that may have strayed off course after the pilot reported difficulties with his oxygen equipment. To bolster the cover-up, a U-2 was quickly painted in NASA markings, with a fictitious NASA serial number, and put on display for the news media at the NASA Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base on May 6, 1960. The U-2 cover story in 1956 was that it was a NASA plane to conduct high-altitude weather research. But various observers doubted this story from the beginning. Certainly the Soviets did not believe it once the aircraft began overflying their territory. The NASA cover story quickly blew up in the agency’s face when both Gary Powers and aircraft wreckage were displayed by the Soviet Union, proving that it was a reconnaissance aircraft. This caused embarrassment for several top NASA officials. (Source: Wikimedia)
Editorial Note: From Balloons to Drones is pleased to announce our new podcast series. Led by Assistant Editor Dr Mike Hankins, the series builds on the success of From Balloons to Drones, and it provides an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and provides a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here.
In our latest podcast, we interview Dr Stephen Bourque, author of Beyond the Beach: The Allied War Against France, to talk about the allied bombing of occupied France in 1944. Through a detailed look at local French sources, combined with official US sources, Bourque provides as thorough – and possibly controversial – assessment of General Dwight Eisenhower’s use of air power.
Dr Stephen A. Bourque served in the US Army for 20 years after which he obtained his PhD at Georgia State University. He has taught history at several military and civilian schools and universities, including the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies, and Command and General Staff College, where he is professor emeritus.
The Fairey Swordfish flew just above the sea waves at about 30 feet while anti-aircraft artillery shells exploded around it, the sea waters splashing high due to the impact. The pilot, Lieutenant M.R. Maund, struggled to keep his plane steady to release his torpedo at an Italian battleship. Maund flew a Swordfish biplane: one of the 20 Swordfish aircraft from HMS Illustrious that took part in the air attack on the Italian Navy’s (Regia Marina) battleship fleet in the harbour of Taranto on the night of 11-12 November 1940. The Italians had six battleships, 14 cruisers and 27 destroyers at Taranto. During this night attack, the Swordfish aircraft dropped torpedoes and bombs and managed to sink a battleship (Conte di Cavour) while severely damaging two more (Caio Duilio and Littorio). Only two Swordfish aircraft were shot down. As a result of the attack, half of the Regia Marina’s capital ship fleet was disabled, giving the Royal Navy (RN) some tactical space and time to conduct its maritime operations in the Mediterranean.
More importantly, the Battle of Taranto signalled a change in naval power and the use of air power. It demonstrated the value of using aircraft to destroy an enemy’s fleet. The lessons of the Battle of Taranto were not lost on those who observed the effects of the operation. The Japanese Assistant Naval Attaché in Berlin visited Taranto and studied the raid. His findings then fed into the planning process for the massive surprise air raid against the US Navy at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. The use of precision airstrikes against naval targets rendered the fleet-in-being strategy as a highly risky practice, and subsequent Second World War naval battles with air power serve to highlight this point.
The Swordfish aircraft, which was successfully used in the attack against Taranto, was an obsolete aircraft when the Second World War started. It was a fabric wire biplane first flown in 1934 and became operational in July 1936 with the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) of the Royal Air Force, which was later transferred to the control of the Royal Navy. It had a top speed of just 138 mph; a service ceiling of 10,890 feet; a range of 1,028 miles; and it could carry either a 1,600 lb torpedo or a 1,500 lb load of depth charges, mines or bombs. For self-defence, it was armed with a .303 Vickers machine gun above its engine and another .303 Vickers machine gun operated by the rear gunner. It had a crew of three – a pilot, a navigator-observer, and a radioman-rear gunner – flying in an open cockpit. Due to its fabric skin-cover holding the aircraft together, it was nicknamed the ‘Stringbag.’
By the time of the outbreak of the Second World War, the Swordfish was slow and vulnerable to faster and more agile monoplane fighters. Nevertheless, the FAA used it as its primary torpedo and reconnaissance aircraft on the RN’s aircraft carriers during the war. However, its slow speed and crude design allowed it to fly slow and manoeuvre at low altitude. These qualities were crucial to victory at Taranto, when the Swordfish aircraft flew low, almost at sea wave height, enabling them to avoid Italian anti-aircraft artillery. The slow speed also allowed the Swordfish aircraft to fly around some barrage balloons and unleash their ordnance with accuracy. The fabric skin construction of the Swordfish also saved it from light cannon shells armed with contact fuses as the shells shot through the soft fabric.
The anti-battleship feat of the Swordfish was repeated when they took part in the hunt for the German Navy’s (Kriegsmarine) battleship, Bismarck. Swordfish aircraft from HMS Ark Royal launched a torpedo attack against Bismarck on 26 May 1941 and managed to destroy its port-side rudder. This caused the Bismarck to turn in circles. The RN’s surface fleet eventually caught up with the Bismarck and sank it the next day. Ironically, the HMS Prince of Wales, which took part in the sinking of Bismarck, was sunk by Japanese air power on 10 December 1941 off the coast of eastern Malaya.
The Swordfish continued to be manufactured (2,391 were built) and used by the FAA until the end of the Second World War. Despite its obsolescence at the start of the war, it doggedly flew on and even outlived some of its more modern contemporary aircraft. The Swordfish gained a solid reputation as the most successful British naval aircraft with the highest score of Axis ships sunk during the Second World War. The rugged biplane was finally retired from active service in 1946.
The tactical lessons drawn from the experience of the Swordfish in the Second World War should not be lost on modern observers. Many modern countries are looking to procure the latest technologically superior combat aircraft to equip their air forces, at very expensive prices. For example, there are continued debates today on the viability for some air forces to acquire either the F-35 Lightning II or modernised versions of the F/A-18 Super Hornet or the F-16V Viper. Perhaps it might be prudent to understand that sometimes older platforms if used smartly and asymmetrically to offset their disadvantages, can yield some strategic utility as the humble Fairey Swordfish did during the Second World War. After all, it is not the machines that count, but the tactical effects yielding strategic utility that matter.
Dr Adam Leong Kok Wey is an Associate Professor in Strategic Studies, and the Deputy Director of Research in the Centre for Defence and International Security Studies (CDiSS) at the National Defence University of Malaysia. He has a PhD in Strategic Studies from the University of Reading and is the author of two books on military strategy and history, including Killing the Enemy! Assassination operations during World War II published by I.B. Tauris.
It is evil to approach war with fixed ideas; that is, without an open and flexible mind, but it is certain to lead to disaster to approach it with the inapplicable formulas of the past.
To the U.S. Army’s Air Corps Tactical School’s (ACTS) Class of 1936, Major Harold George proclaimed, ‘[W]e are not concerned in fighting the past war;–that was done 18 years ago.’ Having dismissed much of the value of studying the First World War for insights into air power, George emphatically returned to this theme a few minutes later, reminding his students that they sought to ‘peer down the path of future warfare. We are not discussing the past.’ Similarly, Major Muir Fairchild emphasised the problems caused by the ‘lack of well established principles, developed from past experience, to guide the air force commander.’ Suggesting that little of value could be derived from a study of the First World War, it is no wonder that one monograph focusing on the impetus for the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Forces’ strategic bombardment campaign of the Second World War highlighted the inter-war period as a source of problematic thinking. Tami Davis Biddle’s Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare has stressed the ACTS motto as fittingly emblematic of its institutional culture: ‘we progress unhindered by tradition.’
Paradoxically, however, ACTS instructors struggled not to mine the First World War for historical lessons. Fairchild spent almost one-tenth of his lecture reading from the British official history of the First World War in the air, The War in the Air. Similarly, George identified one historical lesson as central to future warfare: Germany had been defeated in the First World War not because its army had surrendered but because its people had crumbled. As Lieutenant Colonel Donald Wilson explained, it was the ‘collapse of the German nation as a unit’ – largely because the people constituted the ‘weak link’ – that explained the war’s end (emphasis in original). As a result, ACTS ought to focus primarily on targeting civilian morale, albeit indirectly.
Their vision can be modelled in order to depict how ACTS conceived of strategic bombardment and how these ideas changed as they began contemplating how to apply these ideas against Germany in the Second World War. Air War Plans Division (AWPD)-1 and AWPD-42, drafted in July of 1941 and August 1942, respectively, demonstrated important shifts in thinking about air power’s application. Moreover, they presaged a far more tactically minded employment of American air power in the Combined Bomber Offensive than has been recognised generally.
This model draws on a modern interpretation of Carl von Clausewitz’s famous triangle, which is often thought of today as consisting of the following three legs: the government, the people’s passions, and the military. The ACTS model could be depicted as follows: air power is best used at the strategic level to bend the enemy’s will; thus it should focus on affecting an opponent’s government and people because this approach provides the most direct path to achieving one’s desired political ends. A tactical focus on fielded forces, by contrast, is far less desirable because it is fundamentally inefficient. On occasion, however, a focus on the military might have a significant strategic effect. In other cases, an effect on electricity, for example, might have a strategic effect on the government and people as well as a more tactical effect on the military.
This thinking went beyond ideas of an ‘industrial web,’ which continue to dominate many scholars’ discussions of ACTS thinking. By zeroing in on the concept of a national structure, ACTS worked to link kinetic effects on industrial targets to the military as well as to the population, thus helping to refresh some aspects of strategic thinking in the wake of the Industrial Revolution – albeit with critical flaws. This thinking can be seen in ten recently published lectures of ACTS edited by and commented upon by Phil Haun. Of the more than 60 lectures presented at ACTS, Haun has identified these ten as representing the school’s ‘most mature thinking’ while reaching the greatest number of officers.
A kind of national structure potentially could make room for a wider array of effects than an industrial web theory could, even if it struggled to make causal links between effects and political ends. By 1936, for example, ACTS envisioned a strategy that targeted the ‘vulnerabilities’ of ‘modern industrial nations’ aimed primarily at one point of the triangle: the people, as reflected in two lectures by George and Captain Haywood Hansell. These lecturers advocated the destruction of carefully selected points in societies to cause ‘moral collapse’ – or effects on the population – as the immediate effect of strategic bombardment. The nation’s ‘will to resist’ was ‘centered in the mass of the people,’ as Hansell explained. Attacks on ‘vital elements upon which modern social life is dependent’ allowed for a focus on an opponent’s will rather than the more circuitous and inefficient focus on its means. Hansell struggled to connect the effect on the people to any ‘express[ion] through political government.’ In effect, he wished away the government leg of the triangle. George further reasoned that even if strategic bombardment failed to have the desired effect on the population, it could have a positive effect on the military leg of the triangle due to the abundant material requirements of industrialised warfare.
As such, George’s lecture anticipated a more mature 1939 lecture by Fairchild, which better integrated the effects of selected industrial attacks on two legs: people and the military, with the hope of simultaneously:
[r]educing the capacity for war of the hostile nation, and of applying pressure to the population both at the same time and with equal efficiency and effectiveness.
Fairchild’s carefully parsed assumption about equal effect is dubious; after all, airpower thinkers have been infamous for their promises to be able to quantify the effect. Moreover, again, the government leg of the triangle remains absent. His point that the enablers of industry such as electricity and oil are ‘joined at many vital points’ places these critical aspects within the triangle, thereby potentially affecting each point, at least in theory. Fairchild reasoned regarding the importance of preventing one’s opponent from acquiring key materials, such as petroleum, as well as the transportation system and electricity. Today it is common to describe ACTS as efficiently identifying key industrial bottlenecks, but such a characterisation falls short of Fairchild’s greater vision. He did not seek to attack industry so much as ‘national structure,’ as he described it.
For Fairchild, this vision appealingly provided a convenient shortcut to waging war so common to advocates of strategic attack. The ‘resulting shock effect’ and the ‘degree of facility with which these installations may be destroyed’ lured airmen with the perennial promise of being home by Christmas. In doing so, Fairchild made assumptions emblematic of ACTS thinking by envisioning a kind of paralysis complemented by efficient destruction. These effects allowed the ‘maximum contribution toward the Allied aim in the war at that time,’ unlike what he regarded as a more ineffective and tactical focus on the fielded forces, which airmen viewed as synonymous with slow attrition.
This theory came to life in AWPD-1, hurriedly envisioned over nine days in July of 1941 by former ACTS instructors such as Lieutenant Colonel Harold George, Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Walker, Lieutenant Colonel Orvil Anderson, Major Haywood Hansell, Major Laurence Kuter, Major Hoyt Vandenberg, and Major Samuel Anderson. All but one of these officers had attended and/or taught at ACTS. The plan posited 154 targets of strategic attack to be destroyed in six months in the following priority:
Air support in joint operations.
In compiling this list, air planners claimed to adhere to the strategic vision of the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy’s War Plans ABC-1 and Rainbow 5, which in Europe required an air offensive designed to reduce German air and naval assets and material while preparing for a ground offensive. However, the planners did not set out a traditional air superiority campaign with an array of targets, including airdromes, aeroplanes, and factories. Rather, they adhered to Fairchild’s emphasis on national structure, relegating aeroplane assembly plants – the first hint of an air superiority campaign – to the fourth priority.
The emphasis of ACTS continuing into AWPD-1 is modelled below, showing the split emphasis on the military and the people as two legs of the triangle, with the people receiving the primacy of focus. A plan focused on enablers such as electricity and oil doctrinally targeting national structure represented the most matured form of ACTS thinking, albeit with a problematic hope in the efficacy of strategic attack.
By September of 1942, however, this vision underwent a substantial change in focus, as the emphasis shifted down the spectrum toward more tactical means. AWPD-42 prioritised the destruction of the Luftwaffe, albeit still attained primarily through industrial means in the form of attacks against aeroplane and engine factories. Regardless, such a change represented a significant change in thinking away from more general enablers such as electricity to war material itself that had a less immediate effect on society as a whole. Second, the US Army Air Forces needed to concentrate on submarine building yards, before finally turning its attention to transportation in order to sever the ‘vital link in the Germany military and industrial structure.’ Electricity, the epitome of a structural target, had dropped from first to fourth place. In effect, AWPD-42 represented a more traditional and tactical focus, designed as it was to interdict material, though admittedly at its source, before seeking to paralyse the economy. The model below reflects this distribution with more emphasis placed on the military rather than the people, as the general trend in thinking shifted toward destroying a military’s ability to meet its material requirements. Production to strike at the enemy’s fielded forces – rather than the dual enablers of the people’s will and military means – received the greatest focus in AWPD-42.
The notion of a quick and easy path to victory through strategic attack proved a chimaera, as it has so often in history. Germany responded to attacks against its aircraft factories, for example, by dispersing them. It also fully mobilised its economy in 1944, although it could do only so much to make up for poor strategic choices. Germany had a price to pay in reduced efficiency; but so too did the Allies in terms of the very kind of attrition that they sought to avoid in the first place. It was not enough to wage an air superiority campaign against factories. German fighters and American fighters and bombers battled each other well into 1945, especially during the Battle of the Bulge.
Modelling and parsing out how ACTS envisioned strategic bombardment provides a historical case study in conceptualising strategic attack and changes in thinking over time. Doctrinally, the US Air Force continues to insist that air power used in strategic attack has the ‘potential to achieve decisive effects more directly without the need to engage enemy fielded forces.’ It cited several operations over the last 50 years in which the Air Force denied its opponents
[a]ccess to critical resources and infrastructure, defeat[ed] enemy strategies, and decisively influence[d] the enemy to end hostilities on terms favorable to US interests.
Amidst the U.S. military’s reemphasis on great power conflict, it is useful to return to the fundamentals to consider how, exactly, a strategic attack might help to achieve its desired ends through a focus on the military, the people, and the government.
Header Image: A Boeing Y1B-17A in flight near Mount Rainier in Washington state, c. 1938. (Wikimedia)
 Quoted in Lieutenant Colonel Donald Wilson, ‘Principles of War’ in Phil Haun (ed. and commentator), Lectures of the Air Corps Tactical School and American Strategic Bombing in World War II (Lexington, KT: University Press of Kentucky, 2019), p. 71.
 Major Harold George, ‘An Inquiry into the Subject ‘War” in Haun, Lectures, p. 35.
 Fairchild, ‘Air Power and Air Warfare’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 48. For another similar lecture opening, see Captain Haywood Hansell, ‘The Aim in War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 73. This same tension between rejecting history yet almost immediately jumping to a discussion of historical examples can be seen in Major Frederick Hopkins, ‘Tactical Offense and Tactical Defense’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 100-8. Hopkins also sought relevant lessons from the Spanish Civil War, for which Biddle has argued some airmen were too dogmatic to do. See Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 171.
 Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare, p. 138.
 Fairchild, ‘Air Power and Air Warfare’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 52-4.
 George, ‘Inquiry’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 40-1. George even concluded his lecture by returning to this theme. Ibid., p. 44. Also see Lieutenant Colonel Donald Wilson, ‘Principles of War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 62 and Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 144. Also see Haun, ‘Introduction’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 8.
 Major Muir Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 140. Of course, one’s intent can differ from one’s effects, as occurred in the Second World War due to bad weather and the challenges of precision bombing. For this ethical discussion, see Douglas P. Lackey, ‘The Bombing Campaign: The USAAF’ in Igor Primoratz (ed.), The Bombing of German Cities in World War II (New York: Berghan Books, 2010), pp. 39-59. Even with precision, indirect effects on civilians can be highly problematic. See Daniel T. Kuehl, ‘Airpower vs. Electricity: Electric Power as a Target for Strategic Air Operations,’ Journal of Strategic Studies, 18:1 (1995), pp. 237-266.
 For this characterisation of an ‘industrial web theory,’ for example, see Scott D. West, ‘Warden and the Air Corps Tactical School: Déjà Vu’ (Thesis, School of Advanced Airpower Studies, 1999), p. v and 1.
 George, ‘An Inquiry’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 43.
 Hansell, ‘Aim in War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 78, 81 and 84. Even as Hansell insisted this was the ‘primary strategic objective’ of Air Forces, he did not make this link for navies’ ability to blockade, instead taking the more Mahanian view that the primary role of the Navy was to destroy other navies. In this way, he highlighted his bias for air power as offering unique shortcuts. Ibid., p. 84.
 Hansell, ‘Aim in War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 77.
 George, ‘An Inquiry’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 43. Fairchild similarly highlighted the importance of this military capacity. See Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 188-9.
 Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 143.
 Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 189.
 Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 152-7.
 Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 182.
 Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 166.
 Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 166. For the very rare recognition that ground operations occasionally could be decisive, see Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces,’ p. 186.
 ‘Appendix 2: AWPD-1’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 232-3.
 ‘Appendix 3: AWPD-42’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 258.
 ‘Appendix 1 – Trenchard Memo,’ p. 232 and ‘Appendix 3: AWPD-42,’ p. 258 in Haun, Lectures.
 While highlighting the more overt focus on supporting an invasion, Robert Futrell argued that the ‘strategic philosophy of the two studies was virtually the same.’ See Robert Futrell, Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine: Basic Thinking in the United States Air Force (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 1989), p. 131. For a discussion of strategic interdiction as compared to operational interdiction, see Robert Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), p. 75.
The Royal Air Force (RAF) has used various ‘wings’ brevets as identifying symbols for aircrew since its formation, with hotly-contested political debates within the service over their symbolic value dating back to the time of their introduction by the Royal Flying Corps. However, it was during the Second World War that – thanks to the RAF’s actions and resulting fame – the recognition of the insignia was catapulted beyond military circles into the wider public. Much of this recognition is either evidenced in the products, or due to the efforts, of Britain’s propagandists, who frequently included the ‘wings’ brevets in their material. Although an intrinsic component of RAF aviators’ uniforms, ‘wings’ brevets were frequently depicted independently from their associated clothing sets. Indeed, their recognition often transcended the uniforms to which they were irrevocably attached in reality — virtually every piece of uniform, insignia, and flying equipment featured in aviators’ propaganda representations. However, the ‘wings’ brevets were foremost among these symbols, coming to represent not just individual aviators, but the service as a whole.
Following the traditions of the RFC, the RAF recognised individual aircrew roles through brevet patches worn on the service dress and war service dress jackets’ left breast. These took the form of either two outstretched bird’s wings for a pilot or a single wing denoting non-pilot roles in multi-person aircraft. Both forms of brevet were embroidered in white silk for the wings, and bronze silk for the laurels from which they emanated. Contained within these laurels were white letters indicating the wearer’s service in the case of pilots or their role in acronym form for non-pilots. Named for their shape, ‘wings’ brevets received a modicum of public recognition before the Second World War, evidenced by their appearances in popular culture, including Thomas Somerfield likening them to RAF officers’ moustaches in Punch, August 1918. Depicting two aviators, one with a full handlebar moustache and the other with similar facial hair on only the left half of his top lip, Somerfield quipped that:
The growth of decorations, badges and honorific chevrons makes it advisable that fresh space should be found for them. Mr. Punch recommends the above method of distinguishing between an observer and a pilot.
Although this reference to the brevet’s form indicated public knowledge of the insignia, it was during the Second World War that the brevet became truly famous within the British public consciousness.
During the Second World War, a wider variety of ‘wings’ brevets specific to aircrew roles were produced, and their symbolic value increased exponentially, thanks in part to their promotion by the Air Ministry. With the increasing size of bombers, the typical aircrew was no longer simply a pilot and his observer. The new heavy four-engined bombers required a large and diverse range of crewmembers, each with their specially trained skillset and therefore deserving of recognition through their unique brevet. The new ‘wings’, modelled on the earlier observer’s brevet, were individually introduced throughout the war, beginning with the Air Gunner’s in December 1939 and ending with Meteorological Officer, signified by an ‘M’, in April 1945. In many cases, their introduction was announced to the public in newspaper articles, with The Times publishing an article on the Air Gunner brevet’s introduction, complete with information on the wearers’ qualifications, the brevet’s construction, and accompanying photograph.
The ‘wings’ brevets’ promotion was highly effective, leading to them gaining widespread public recognition. Roald Dahl, at this time an RAF fighter pilot, recalled two incidents in his memoir Going Solo in which the ‘wings’ on his jacket acted as ‘a great passport’ in London during 1941, both occurring during the same night. The first instance was impressing a hotel owner into using her telephone; the second was deterring a group of ‘drunken soldiers […] searching for an officer to beat up.’ Dahl attributed this recognition to the publicising of fighter and bomber pilots’ activities, and the brevity of his short explanation implies that the brevet’s significance was indeed common knowledge in wartime Britain. By contrast, Flying Officer James Storrar, a Hawker Hurricane pilot during the Battle of Britain, wrote to his mother about the amusement he felt at the reactions he received from non-RAF personnel while on leave in London. Upon his appearance at the Euston Hotel, Storrar wrote that ‘Army Captains look upon my dirty tunic & hat […] with disgust and two waiters titter about something in my dress.’ However, it was ‘honestly amusing to meet people and be introduced as a fighter pilot, the different reactions are amazing.’ Accordingly, the appearance of RAF aviators’ uniforms and the visibility of their ‘wings’ brevet significantly influenced their reception by the British public. While smartly dressed pilots with visible ‘wings’ brevets, such as Dahl, received positive reactions from the public, those whose dress was too untidy for identification as pilots received derision and scorn.
Popular recognition of the pilot’s ‘wings’ brevet is reflected in a variety of propaganda media. These include one of the Air Ministry’s ‘Fly with the RAF’ advertisements published in February 1941, in which it is claimed that ‘you [the reader] know’ RAF pilots ‘by “The Wings” on their tunics.’ Further evidence can be found in two posters from the Ministry of Information’s series ‘Keep Mum, She’s Not so dumb!’ In one, an RAF Sergeant is plied for information by his female companion, with the ‘AG’ on his half-brevet delicately legible despite the rough brushstrokes used throughout the remainder of the artwork. In the second poster, officers of the three services crowd around an elegant woman, the only feature distinguishing the RAF officer from his compatriots being his uniform’s colour and ‘wings’. In both of these instances, great care was taken by the artists to ensure that the ‘wings’ brevets were included in their work, clearly indicating the insignia’s symbolic value, both to Britain’s propagandists and within popular culture.
The ‘wings’ brevet also appeared frequently in commercial advertisements. Two Cardinals Luxury Coffee included the brevet in their poster featuring a smiling RAF pilot wearing service dress with visible ‘wings’ brevet. By associating the brand with the heroic defenders of the realm, whose ambassador is identified only by his insignia, the audience is assured of the product’s quality. A similar use of the brevet for ‘authenticating’ a product can be found in newspaper advertisements for Fighter Pilot, Paul Richey’s anonymous Battle of France memoir. First editions of Richey’s book also sported the fêted insignia on its otherwise-image-deprived cover. Other book covers utilising the brevet include Leslie Kark’s novels The Fire Was Bright and Red Rain, both of which used the ‘wings’ as a method of clearly identifying their topics to potential readers. Similarly, the Ministry of Information’s internationally-distributed children’s picture book Britain’s Royal Air Force began beneath a large colour illustration of a pilot’s brevet.
Cinema, however, presented the most prominent recognition of the ‘wings’ brevet’s symbolic power. Although aviation films produced in the war’s formative years merely included the brevet as a part of their actors’ costumes, later films came to place great emphasis on the brevet as a symbol of the characters’ occupation. Exemplifying this is Jack Watling’s character Buster, the RAF fighter pilot briefly included in Carol Reed’s 1944 film The Way Ahead as a token emblem of his service. In every shot depicting the character, his ‘wings’ are clearly visible, continually reminding the audience of his coveted role within his already-glorified service. This careful inclusion is echoed in a brief shot from the Sergeant’s Mess scene in Michael Powell, and Emeric Pressburger’s 1942 Oscar-nominated One of Our Aircraft is Missing wherein the ‘wings’ of the Sergeant pilot leaning against the radio is clearly, but unnecessarily, visible at the bottom of the image. Joseph Lee also utilised this careful framing in his cartoon ‘Smiling Through: Point of View’, published in the Evening News in July 1942. Although the central character’s left arm is raised casually, it is angled just low enough for the artist to include his ‘wings’ in the image. In each of these examples, the characters’ ‘wings’ brevets need not have been included, and their presence; therefore, merely proves their symbolic value to both creators and audience.
A similar reverence is placed upon the ‘wings’ brevet in Anthony Asquith’s 1945 work The Way to the Stars, with the film’s characters wordlessly acknowledging their symbolic value. When encountering John Mills’ character, RAF bomber pilot-turned-controller Peter Penrose, American bomber crewmember Joe Friselli, played by Bonar Colleano, initially took him for a non-flying officer. This assumption is based on Penrose not wearing his War Service Dress jacket and his introducing himself as a controller and “not a flier.” Friselli proceeded to loudly elucidate on his untested expertise in bombing and the qualities of his aircraft. Penrose, meanwhile, took his coat down from the hook on which it was hanging, and Friselli stopped short as he noticed the ‘wings’ brevet just visible to the audience on the jacket’s left breast. Friselli’s tone changed immediately to one of apologetic respect, and humble, yet faintly-dumbfoundedly enquired into Penrose’s experience as a pilot. The brief interaction between Friselli and Penrose was aimed to bring a form of Schadenfreude to the British public, playing on their widespread irritation with the ‘over-paid, over-sexed and over here’ American servicemen based in their country. However, the scene also proves the brevet’s power as a symbol independent of the RAF’s uniform, for unlike Buster’s The Way Ahead, Penrose’s ‘wings’ remain either out-of-focus or partially obscured throughout the scene. Regardless, instant audience recognition is expected of Friselli’s wordless indication to the brevet’s location, just as the brevet’s significance goes unexplained yet remains pivotal to the dialogue.
While incidental inclusions such as these in both film and print were common, the Royal Air Force Film Production Unit went one step further. Under the direction of John Boulting, the Unit’s 1945 film Journey Together dug into the perceived elitism of pilots and dedicated the entire film to promoting the value of non-pilot aircrew, with particular emphasis on the role of navigator. The film tells the story of two fictional RAF trainees, David Wilton and John Ayneswoth played by Richard Attenborough and Jack Watling respectively, both hoping to become pilots. Wilton failed in his endeavour and instead became a navigator, while Ayneswoth achieved his goal, much to the envy of Wilton, until both came to cooperate and accept the equal importance of navigator and pilot. Wilton’s initial envy is communicated most effectively in a mostly non-verbal scene in a Canadian hotel bar, where Aynesorth took off his greatcoat to expose the new ‘wings’ on his service dress. After a moment of tense silence, Wilton showed his support for Aynesworth’s achievement by offering to brush his wings to reduce their dazzle. Throughout this brief but tense scene, the brevet dominated as the object of conversation, both spoken and unspoken, with great emphasis placed on its coveted status and symbolism.
From their repeated use in multiple media formats to identify and promote aviators, the RAF’s ‘wings’ brevets held significant symbolic value within British Second World War society. Be it through intimation of their elite status in cinema, or their inclusion as a service-identifying emblem in printed material, brevets were repeatedly used without accompanying explanation of their meaning, with audiences expected to both recognise them and appreciate the qualifications and accompanying heroic traits they represented. There is limited evidence to support any claim that the insignia was indeed widely-recognised by the British public, and any claim that recognition of ‘wings’ brevets was universal would be almost impossible to prove. However, the material examined in this article indicates that the Air Ministry and Ministry of Information believed public recognition of ‘wings’ brevets to be sufficient to make explanation unnecessary. If their assumptions were correct, which could be argued based on these agencies’ access to public opinion polling, this would indicate that the brevets’ fame was deeply embedded in the British public consciousness, well beyond its earlier and later boundaries within the service. This fame, founded in the propagandised efforts of the RAF, merely exacerbated the ministries’ ability to use them as a propaganda tool to further promote the service. Therefore, RAF ‘wings’ brevets exemplified not only the power of the symbols in wartime propaganda but the reciprocal interaction between propaganda and public opinion, each of which influences the other. Public knowledge of the brevets was due to its use in propaganda, and its use in propaganda was based on expected public knowledge. Regardless of the origins of their fame, the innumerable representations of RAF ‘wings’ brevets in British Second World War propaganda indicated their popularity among the contemporary British public.
Liam Barnsdale has recently completed his Master of Arts thesis at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. His thesis, titled ‘‘The sort of man’: Politics, Clothing and Characteristics in British Propaganda depictions of Royal Air Force Aviators, 1939-1945′, examines depictions of RAF personnel in multiple media during the Second World War, identifying and analysing the symbols and characteristics systematically used in these depictions.
 For further discussion of this historical debate, see C.G. Jefford, Observers and Navigators: And Other Non-Pilot Aircrew Roles in the RFC, RNAS and RAF, Revised Edition (London: Grub Street, 2014), pp. 61, 81, 257.
 Thomas Somerfield, ‘The Growth of Decorations…’, Punch, 21 August 1918, p. 124.
 Andrew Cormack, The Royal Air Force 1939-45 (London: Osprey Publishing, 1990), p. 7.
 ‘New Badge for Air Gunners,’ The Times, 1940, p. 8.
 Roald Dahl, Going Solo (London: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 207.
 Leslie Kark, The Fire was Bright (London: Macmillan, 1943), cover; Leslie Kark, Red Rain (London: Macmillan, 1945), cover.
 Anonymous, Britain’s Royal Air Force (London: Ministry of Information, 1943), p. 1.
 See Michael Powell, Brian Desmond Hurst & Adrian Brunel, The Lion Has Wings (London Films, 1939) as an example of early-war aviation propaganda, in which little to no emphasis is placed upon the pilot’s ‘wings’ on the two lead actors’ uniforms.
 Carol Reed, The Way Ahead (Two Cities Films, 1944).
 Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, One of Our Aircraft is Missing (The Archers, 1942).
 Joseph Lee, ‘Smiling Through: Point of View,’ Evening News, 14 July 1942.
 Anthony Asquith, The Way to the Stars (Two Cities Films, 1945).