Editorial Note: In the next instalment of our Air War Books series, Ashleigh Brown discusses the ten books that have influenced and shaped her writing as an air power historian.
Our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney asked me to contribute my top ten air war books – those that have influenced and shaped my own approach to the topic. Catching me in the midst of PhD research, this list clearly shows that my interest primarily centres on the First World War.
Michael Molkentin, Fire in the Sky: The Australian Flying Corps in the First World War (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2010). Michael Molkentin’s Fire in the Sky was the first military aviation book I ever read. In many ways, this book is responsible for moving my interest from the ground war to the air war, which ultimately led to my PhD research. In the first effort to revise Cutlack’s official history volume on the AFC, Molkentin presents a thoroughly researched and highly readable account of the efforts of Australians in the air during the First World War. Importantly, in doing so, Molkentin places the AFC in its rightful context within wider British air operations. This book, along with his centenary history volume, Australia and the War in the Air, is the authoritative account of the AFC
James Streckfuss, Eyes All Over: Aerial Reconnaissance in the First World War (Oxford: Casemate Publishers, 2016). Before the outbreak of the First World War, the predicted purpose of military aviation was reconnaissance. Accordingly, the focus in the opening years of war was reconnaissance, aerial combat being seen as necessary to ensure that this could be carried out uninhibited. Even with the creation of dedicated fighter squadrons, reconnaissance remained a core task for the air services throughout the war. James Streckfuss captures the importance of reconnaissance and details its progression by explaining early developments in Britain and the American perspective. This book expertly describes the intricacies and difficulties of carrying out aerial reconnaissance.
James Pugh, The Royal Flying Corps, the Western Front and the Control of the Air, 1914-1918 (New York: Routledge, 2017). The advantage found in having control of the air was recognised early in the First World War. The primary purpose of the RFC was to support ground forces through reconnaissance, photography, bombing missions, and artillery assistance; achieving superiority in the air was considered necessary to provide this support. James Pugh’s authoritative work discusses the development and application of air power over the Western Front, demonstrating the approach to obtaining and retaining aerial superiority (or control of the air). In doing so, Pugh rationally and expertly analyses the offensive policy (too often attributed solely to Hugh Trenchard), explaining how it was devised in conjunction with the French air services.
Malcolm Cooper, The Birth of Independent Air Power: British Air Policy in the First World War (London: Allen & Unwin, 1986). The high command of the RFC and RAF, and the political context of the air war, is complex, to say the least. Malcolm Cooper explains the various changes that took place at this level and details the development of the air war from this perspective. Cooper provides important context for understanding the execution of the air war, importantly contributing to the historiographical movement away from the view of First World War air power being exclusively a tactical concern.
Dennis Haslop, Early Naval Air Power: British and German Approaches (New York: Routledge, 2018). Dennis Haslop presents a comparative study of the Royal Naval Air Service and the Imperial German Naval Air Service, highlighting many striking similarities in the experiences of the two. This includes discussions of inter-service rivalry experienced by both the British and German air services and movements towards unification to create a single air service in each military. In other instances, discussions about the creation of the RAF from a naval perspective tend to present it as a hostile takeover of the RNAS rather than the amalgamation and unification of the two air services. Haslop avoids this, instead he presents a measured and factual account of this important part of Britain’s air power history. (N.B. You can read Ashleigh’s review of Haslop’s book here)
Richard Overy, RAF: The Birth of the World’s First Air Force (New York: Norton & Company, 2018). Richard Overy’s RAF provides an overview of Britain’s air war leading up to 1918, the events that led to the creation of the RAF, the process of achieving this, and the post-war struggle to keep it as a separate service. Although Overy does not engage with all the complexities of the air war in this relatively short book, he presents an excellent overview in the form of a very readable narrative.
Arthur Henry ‘Harry’ Cobby, High Adventure (Melbourne: Robertson & Mullens, 1943). In the years following the First World War, many pilots wrote memoirs detailing their war experience. Among those to do so was Australian pilot Arthur Henry – or Harry – Cobby. Cobby was the leading fighter ace of the AFC, boasting 29 victories during his time with No. 4 Squadron. In High Adventure, he presents a captivating account of his war in the air that I would recommend to anyone interested in how the AFC’s pilots fought the air war on a day-to-day basis.
Charles Rumney Samson, Fights and Flights: A Memoir of the Royal Naval Air Service in World War I (Nashville: The Battery Press, 1990). Continuing with the theme of memoirs, Air Commodore Charles Rumney Samson’s Fights and Flights details his experiences in positions of command in the RNAS. Among these was his involvement in the Gallipoli campaign, in which he led No. 3 Squadron RNAS which was responsible for reconnaissance over the Gallipoli peninsula and Dardanelles straits. Samson’s squadron operated over Gallipoli in the months leading up to the landing of ground forces, remained in support of the land campaign, and supported the eventual evacuation. Although only a portion of the book, this is an important account of the Gallipoli campaign from the air and captures the early contribution of the RNAS in the First World War.
Frederick Sykes, Aviation in Peace and War (London: E. Arnold & Co., 1922). Aviation in Peace and War details Frederick Sykes’ thoughts on the development and use of air power before, during, and after the First World War. Sykes discusses his pre-war thoughts on the potential use of aviation, the Military and Naval Wings of the RFC, technology and tactics, the offensive policy, and how he saw air power progressing after the war. Sykes is somewhat of a controversial character in the wartime RFC, particularly due to his strained relationship with David Henderson and Hugh Trenchard, and this book provides a valuable insight into his involvement in early British air power.
Peter Dye, The Bridge to Airpower: Logistic Support for Royal Flying Corps Operations on the Western Front, 1914-18 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015). Peter Dye’s The Bridge to Airpower considers the evolution of First World War air power through a study of logistics on the Western Front. This thoroughly researched account allows for a greater understanding of the difficulties encountered in waging the air war, specifically due to problems sourcing airframes and aero-engines, both in sufficient amounts and of a high quality. Dye also discusses the changing logistic requirements in line with the changing nature of the air war and presents an impressive collection of statistics to show the evolution of British air power during the war.
Ashleigh Brown is the Social Media Editor at From Balloons to Drones and a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales, Canberra. Her thesis focuses on aviation command in the British air arms during the First World War. It considers developments across the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of command, extending the learning curve theory to the air war. Ashleigh is a researcher for the Official History of Australian Operations in Iraq & Afghanistan and Australian Peacekeeping Operations in East Timor, where her focus is Australia’s commitment to Afghanistan between 2005 and 2010. Her research interests include the First World War, recent conflicts, air power, and military command. Ashleigh can be found on Twitter at: @ash__brown.
Header image: A group of pilots of No. 32 Squadron RFC at Beauval in 1916. Behind them is an Airco DH.2 biplane. (Source: Wikimedia)