Alex M. Spencer, British Imperial Air Power: The Royal Air Forces and the Defense of Australia and New Zealand Between the World Wars. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2020. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Pbk. 307 pp.
Reviewed by Ashleigh Brown
The First World War was a catalyst for the development of aviation. At the outbreak of war in 1914, the British Army and Royal Navy air arms, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), acted purely as auxiliaries to the British Army and Royal Navy. By 1918, although still predominantly considered a support function for the other services, aviation had taken on an increased level of importance, as illustrated by establishing the independent Royal Air Force (RAF) on 1 April 1918. The importance of aviation and air power was not lost on the self-governing Dominions of the British Empire. Inspired by the experience of the Australian Flying Corps and the creation of the RAF, Australia began looking toward an independent air force during the closing stages of the First World War. This vision was soon realised with the creation of the Australian Air Force (RAAF) on 31 March 1921 (the ‘Royal’ prefix was added in May). New Zealand, the smaller dominion, was understandably slower during the interwar period. The New Zealand Permanent Air Force came into being on 14 June 1923 and grew slowly, much to the frustration of the United Kingdom (pp. 70-1). It is the experience of these two forces that Alex Spencer, a Curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in the United States, discusses in his new book, British Imperial Air Power.
Focussing on the Australian and New Zealand experience, British Imperial Air Power, derived from Spencer’s 2009 PhD thesis from Auburn University, offers one of the few contributions about military aviation developments in the Pacific dominions during the interwar period. Although the Australian and New Zealand experience of air power during has been examined, the interwar period is decidedly less studied. This is unfortunate; a far more comprehensive understanding of the air war during the Second World War can be gained by understanding the many steps taken between the wars. The immense technological, tactical, and organisational developments made during this period, as a direct result of First World War experiences, undeniably affected how air power was used in the next war. As such, as well as being an essential contribution to the discussion over the development of air power in Australia and New Zealand specifically, Spencer’s work is more generally a vital contribution to air power history of the interwar period. Spencer takes a thematic approach to the topic, beginning with the imperial air defence schemes of 1918 and 1919, which leveraged the progress made in military aviation during the war (pp. 11-36). Other themes investigated include the Empire’s air defence, post-war air transport, airships, disarmament and eventual rearmament, and the final preparations for war.
Looking at the development of the air forces of Australia and New Zealand through the imperial lens, Spencer places the dominions within the context of the British Empire. This includes a discussion of the RAF’s own struggles, namely, its fight to remain an independent service and its battle for resources throughout the interwar period. Wider economic and political issues are also discussed, including the Great Depression and the Geneva disarmament discussions, which had the potential to make building and modernising air forces more difficult (pp. 173-94). Spencer’s analysis of the broader economic, political, and imperial context is valuable. The dominions’ air forces were not created and developed in a vacuum; external factors inevitably influenced them. Additionally, Australia and New Zealand faced problems in developing their air forces – including interservice rivalry, difficulty obtaining resources, and economic restrictions – which were not unique to these dominions. Rather, they were problems faced worldwide, not least in Britain itself. Therefore, the RAF’s imperial context and experience are valuable inclusions in Spencer’s work.
In addition to these broader considerations, Spencer discusses the emergence of a more immediate threat to Australia and New Zealand: Japan (p. 38). Given the dislocation of the Pacific dominions from Britain, it is not surprising that fears of attacks by Japan influenced their plans for local air defence (p. 149). Spencer also discusses the renewal of Britain’s alliance with Japan (the Anglo-Japanese Alliance), which occurred to the consternation of Australia and New Zealand (p. 52). This demonstrated some cracks that were beginning to form between Britain and the Pacific dominions. Britain appeared less interested in the Japanese threat, in some instances appearing to completely disregard it as a threat despite the concerns of the dominions. Spencer adds to this issue by discussing the movement away from complete dependence on Britain and forging a closer relationship with the United States as an ally. Under the assumption that the United States had a greater interest in the Pacific area than Britain, Australia increasingly aligned itself with America. Additionally, with supply issues in Britain inhibiting the RAAF’s ability to acquire aircraft, Australia turned to the United States for new aircraft (p. 207). Spencer’s discussion of this provides essential context for the close relationship between the United States and Australia, which was apparent from the Second World War.
Spencer takes his work a step further by incorporating civil aviation’s development in Britain and the dominions, albeit on a much smaller scale. Importantly, he links this to the concurrent development of military aviation (p. 86). This is rare; military and civil aviation are usually treated quite separately. As Spencer points out, however, they were not entirely separate efforts. In addition to proving the value of aircraft in a military capacity, the First World War also opened the door for the possibility of civil aviation. For Australia, both veterans of the air war propelled spheres of aviation. While some Australians – such as Richard Williams and Stanley Goble – continued in the military and were instrumental in the RAAF’s early years, others – including Hudson Fysh, Paul McGinness, and Charles Kingsford Smith – pursued careers in civil aviation upon returning home. Fysh and McGinness, along with Fergus McMaster, founded the Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services (QANTAS), while Smith completed a series of daring long-distance flights. With developments in military and civil aviation taking place parallel to one another during the interwar period, it is entirely appropriate to discuss the latter in Spencer’s work. Spencer explains that civil aviation of the era included mapping routes to connect Britain and the dominions, which was undoubtedly an important effort in terms of aerial defence (p. 249-50).
Spencer’s work is not without its problems. On a surface level, an unfortunate typographical error (Jan Smuts is incorrectly referred to as ‘Ian Smuts’) within the first 15 pages leaps out at the reader (p. 15). Additionally, large block quotes are frequently used, often becoming a distraction from the main text. In many cases, the author could have effectively summarised these and added little to no value by being quoted in full. More significantly, there is an uneven focus throughout the book: the bulk of Spencer’s analysis is dedicated to Australia, with New Zealand’s experience receiving less attention. This is understandable given the disparity in the size of the air forces and the advancements each made. However, Spencer should have explained this in the introduction to avoid the reader expecting to see an even comparative study of the two.
With these minor issues aside, Spencer presents a thoroughly researched and well-reasoned account of the formation of Australia and New Zealand’s air forces and the developments and challenges they faced during the lead-up to the Second World War. This includes archival research in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, focusing on air ministry and air department records and political decisions. Importantly, this is placed within the context of the Empire and international events, providing a broader view of the various difficulties faced during the interwar period. As such, Spencer’s work is an important contribution to this underserved period in military history.
N.B. You can listen to an interview with Dr Alex Spencer about his book here.
Ashleigh Brown is a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales, Canberra. Her thesis focuses on the creation and interwar development of the Royal Australian Air Force. 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. She is also an editor at From Balloons to Drones. Her research interests include the First World War, the interwar period, recent conflicts, air power, and military command. Ashleigh can be found on Twitter at @ash__brown.
Header Image: A Line up of two Vickers Vildebeests of the Royal New Zealand Air Force at RNZAF Station Wigram in the late-1930s. Vildebeest NZ108 is in the foreground. The flashes on the fuselage and wheel spats are blue. (Source: Air Force Museum of New Zealand)