#BookReview – Harnessing the Airplane: American and British Cavalry Responses to a New Technology, 1903–1939

#BookReview – Harnessing the Airplane: American and British Cavalry Responses to a New Technology, 1903–1939

Reviewed by Dr Tyler Morton

Lori Henning, Harnessing the Airplane: American and British Cavalry Responses to a New Technology, 1903–1939. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019. Figures. Tables. Appendices. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. xi + 224pp.


The advent of flying craft was, without doubt, a threat to the long-established roles of ground forces. Most historians are familiar with the intra- and inter-service battles that raged during the early days of aviation, but rare are the works that dive into specific details within the various army branches. Seeking to fill that historiographical gap, Lori Henning’s meticulously researched book does just that.

Harnessing the Airplane tells the story of how cavalrymen in the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK) dealt with the integration of aircraft – and to a lesser degree, the tank – into their branch. Analysing the first four decades following the aircraft’s invention, Henning shows that cavalrymen generally accepted the new technology, but were cautious about relinquishing the cavalry’s reconnaissance mission too hastily. Instead, the cavalry sought to experiment with aircraft to find ways to improve the reconnaissance service they provided to ground commanders.

Chapter one, ‘State of Affairs,’ sets the stage for the following analysis. In this chapter, Henning provides brief histories of the US and British cavalries. This baseline helps explain why both services saw the integration of the aircraft differently. The US cavalry embraced a wide range of missions and used the horse primarily for mobility purposes. This view of how to use horses led to strong resistance against aircraft as the US Cavalry viewed ground reconnaissance as one of its most essential functions. The British used the cavalry primarily for mounted combat and the pursuit of retreating enemy forces and this view allowed the British cavalry to be somewhat more accepting of aircraft.

Chapter two, ‘Early Response to Heavier-Than-Air-Flight,’ highlights the natural connection between aircraft and the cavalry. With reconnaissance being the first purpose of aircraft, cavalry reconnaissance was not surprisingly one of the first missions the aircraft sought to assume. In the earliest days, both nations’ cavalries acknowledged the potential of aircraft, but concluded that the technology was not sufficient; as Henning stated (p. 32):

The general consensus was that aviation would support the cavalry in the field as an auxiliary service and not replace mounted forces.

Chapter three, ‘Developing a Relationship in the 1920s,’ explores how both nations’ evaluated the First World War and the effectiveness of the new technologies that were introduced in that conflict. In the First World War, aircraft played a significant role while both cavalries were effectively absent. The public sentiment that the cavalry had become obsolete increased and cavalrymen in both nations had to defend their branch and find ways to justify its continued existence.

Chapter four, ‘National Economy,’ looks at the factor that may have been more damning to the cavalry than its poor performance in the First World War. In examining the financial arguments favouring aircraft over the cavalry, Henning provides a glimpse into reality. This was that the US and UK sought ways to decrease military expenditures and the aircraft’s proponents were more vociferous and persuasive in making this case than the proponents of cavalry.

Chapter five, ‘Autogiros and Mechanization,’ examines how cavalrymen continued to seek ways to work with the air forces to maximise both services’ effectiveness. By the 1930s, the relationship between air forces and cavalry had stabilised, but as time passed, airmen sought independence and increasingly focused on the strategic vice tactical use of aircraft. Both the British and American cavalry branches realised the need for its own air support, and as such, they turned to a new type of aircraft – the autogiro – to provide the airborne reconnaissance they needed.

Henning’s concluding chapter reminds us of the folly of abandoning functioning capabilities without first providing suitable replacements. Cavalrymen instantly recognised the potential of aircraft and tanks but approached their integration into the army from a cautious view. Despite being labelled as ‘backwards,’ the cavalrymen prudently sought ways to integrate the aircraft as its capabilities increased slowly. In telling this story, Harnessing the Airplane captures the essence of how organisations incorporate new technologies. Henning’s expert analysis highlights the challenge leaders face when presented with the next ‘game-changing technology.’ As she demonstrates, often, many are eager to go all-in without first ensuring that the ‘new’ can replace the ‘old.’ As we now stand at another technological crossroads with continual talk of replacing soldiers with robots, manned aircraft with drones, and analysts with artificial intelligence, this work highlights the rational approach of the early 20th century cavalrymen and provides a case study for today’s military thinkers to consider.

Dr Tyler Morton is currently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He is an active duty US Air Force officer who holds a PhD in Military Strategy from the Air University. He is the author of From Kites to Cold War: The Evolution of Manned Airborne Reconnaissance (2019). He can be found on Twitter at @ty_morto.

Header Image: Dayton-Wright DH-4s of the US 12th Aero Squadron flying liaison with US Army cavalry on patrol on the United States/Mexico border, c. 1920. (Source: Wikimedia)

#ResearchNote – The RAF Staff College and ‘Learning’ from the French

#ResearchNote – The RAF Staff College and ‘Learning’ from the French

By Dr Ross Mahoney

Editorial note: Defence-in-Depth, the blog of King’s College London’s Defence Studies Department based at the Joint Services Command and Staff College and The Wavell Room have been running a series of interesting articles about military education. The author has read these articles with some interest given his interest in the education of air forces. This research note covers an interesting episode in the process of the establishment of the Royal Air Force (RAF) Staff College in the early 1920s.

The opening of the RAF Staff College at Andover in 1922 marked a crucial step in the early development of the RAF. Andover gave the RAF its own institution that provided higher education tailored towards the needs of the Service. However, many historians have been critical of Andover. For example, Tony Mason, the RAF’s first Director of Defence Studies, suggested that Andover ‘lamentably failed’ in providing a developed air power theory for the RAF while Vincent Orange argued that the Staff College served, ‘as a disseminating station for approved doctrine, seasoned by essays on riding, hunting and how to cope with the bazaars of Baghdad.’[1]

However, one aspect not often considered is how the RAF went about preparing for the Staff College’s formation. Key to this is the role played by its first Commandant, Air Commodore Robert Brooke-Popham who was adamant that the RAF should learn from the teaching methods used by both the British Army and Royal Navy at their Staff Colleges at Camberley and Greenwich.[2] Brooke-Popham was a pre-First World War graduate of Camberley, and it is clear that this educational experience played a role in how he approached his position as Commandant. More broadly, before the opening of Andover, it was to the Army and Royal Navy that the RAF looked to provide a staff college education for nurtured officers. Indeed, it is significant that, apart from Group Captain Robert Clark-Hall, the initial Directing Staff – Wing Commanders Philip Joubert de la Ferte, Wilfrid Freeman and C.H.K. Edmonds and Squadron Leader Bertine Sutton – were all graduates of Camberley or Greenwich. However, while the British experience of higher military education was a significant influence, it was not the only source of information.

LD 764
A half-length portrait of Air Marshal Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferté in uniform by James Gunn, c. 1940 (Source: © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 764))

More interesting is that Brooke-Popham also considered whether anything could be learnt from the methods utilised by the French Army at the Écoles Supérieures de Guerre in Paris, which in the early 1920s was commanded by General Marie Debeney.[3] Before the opening of Andover, Brooke-Popham and Joubert visited Paris to examine French pedagogical methods, and the critical source concerning this visit comes in the latter’s 1952 autobiography The Fated Sky.[4] Joubert’s recollections provide an insight into the teaching methods at the Écoles Supérieures de Guerre. However, it is clear that he was not impressed with the quality of education present although, as he recalled, the Écoles Supérieures de Guerre was considered, ‘the centre of all military knowledge.’[5]

Joubert’s criticisms fell broadly into three categories. First, Joubert was critical of the lack of cooperation with the French Navy and their equivalent school for higher education. Second, instructors lacked familiarity with the students they were teaching. Finally, Joubert was not impressed with the formality of the lectures and lack of what in modern teaching is often referred to as ‘white space’ in the timetable to allow for reflections and questions.[6]

Joubert’s criticisms raise several interesting observations about the differences between the British and French militaries in this period. Notably, the lack of co-operation between the French Army and Navy at the staff college level maps to many of the problems that plagued the French military in the interwar period. Joubert recalled Debeney’s ‘look of blank amazement’ when asked about co-operation with his naval counterpart.[7] Conversely, while there were definite problems at the strategic level, the British military regularly co-operated via combined operations exercises at the staff colleges that Joubert himself described as ‘one of the most pleasant periods’ of his time at Camberley, which he attended in 1920.[8] This perhaps suggests something about Britain’s pragmatic military culture in this period. Individual service cultures certainly existed, but when co-operation was required, the British military appeared to be able to do this.

Furthermore, Joubert recalled of his time at Camberley that while heated discussions between students occurred, ‘it was always possible to come to an agreement over a round of pink gins in the Mess’ thus highlighting the importance of socialisation between the services as means of breeding understanding between them.[9] It also seems clear that Joubert’s perception of the lack of formality in British Staff Colleges bred a willingness to question accepted views while the French military maintained a ‘Maginot’ mentality for much of this period. However, even this must be understood within the context of differing service cultures. Joubert himself reflected on these differences when he wrote that:

Naval officers would discuss Naval affairs freely amongst themselves and before members of another service and would unhesitatingly attack any ideas which they thought themselves were wrong. But let an outsider in the audience offer a criticism and Naval ranks closed up solidly. The Army seldom, if ever, discussed their problems in the open. If they were asked for a statement of policy Field Service Regulations and Army Council Instructions were solemnly quoted. As for the Air Force, they would fight amongst themselves in private and in the open, and would quite ruthlessly disagree with their instructors before a mixed audience. Nothing was sacrosanct.[10]

The final criticism of the lack of ‘white space’ in the timetable is significant as this is considered a crucial element of the pedagogical process and differentiates higher education from training. The lack of this ‘white space’ in the French Staff College system suggested an unwillingness to allow French officers to think more broadly about their place within the profession of arms and the conduct of war more generally. This raises fundamental questions concerning leadership development within the French Army such as whether the French system was developing senior leaders or staff officers. Moreover, it is clear that the French system differed from the British with the existence of the Centre des Hautes Études; a war college, which existed to educate senior Colonels and Brigadiers.[11] A ‘war college’ was something the RAF lacked, and as such an exact comparison between the two systems is fraught with challenges.

While Joubert’s recollection should, as with any autobiography, be treated with some care, from the perspective of the provision and development of military education in the RAF they are useful. This is primarily because of Joubert’s affiliation with education in the RAF. As noted, he attended Camberley and was Directing Staff at Andover. However, he would also go on to be the first RAF member of the Directing Staff at the Imperial Defence College as well as going on to being Commandant at Andover in the early 1930s. As such, he was well placed to comment on such issues.

In conclusion, this episode shows that the RAF was willing to move outside of national confines to learn lessons for what was the world’s first air force Staff College. However, that the methods examined in France were not adopted also highlights issues related to how militaries perceive themselves. As Joubert himself noted, ‘[i]n the event we did not adopt […] the French Staff College methods [and] [w]e went our own perfectly normal and unspectacular British Way.’[12] This reflection says as much about the RAF and its culture as it does the perceived failings of the French system of higher military education. The final important point is that in looking to other Staff Colleges, whether in Britain or France, the RAF were looking to similar institutions with similar objectives – the education and nurturing of future senior leaders – but axiomatically these educational establishments were not similar. Putting aside national proclivities, the critical difference was the military service these institutions served. The Écoles Supérieures de Guerre served the French Army, not an air force, though of course at this time, the French air service formed part of the army. Similarly, Camberley and Greenwich served the British Army and Royal Navy respectively. As such, while the RAF could, and did learn from their counterparts, it still had specific service challenges that it would have to solve on its terms. Indeed, the focus of Brooke-Popham and Joubert’s visit to Paris was more on ‘how’ to teach rather than ‘what.’

Dr Ross Mahoney is a contract Historian at the Departments of Veterans’ Affairs in Australia as well as the owner and Editor of From Balloons to Drones. He is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (PGCE and BA). His research interests include the history of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, air power and the history of air warfare, and the social and cultural history of armed forces. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and a Vice-President of the Second World War Research Group. He can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.

Header image: The modern day Ecole Militaire, which previously housed the Écoles Supérieures de Guerre (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Tony Mason, ‘British Air Power’ in John Andreas Olsen, Global Air Power (Washington D C: Potomac Books, 2011), pp. 26-27; Vincent Orange, Churchill and his Airmen: Relationships, Intrigue and Policy Making, 1914-1945 (London: Grub Street, 2013), p. 87.

[2] Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, ‘The Formation of The Royal Air Force Staff College,’ The Hawk, 12 (1950), p. 19.

[3] For a British overview of the Écoles Supérieures de Guerre, see: ‘The “Ecole Superieure De Guerre,” Paris,’ Journal of the Royal United Services Institution, 70:477 (1925), pp. 1-7.

[4] Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferte, The Fated Sky: An Autobiography (London: Hutchinson, 1952), pp. 87-88. Joubert also recollected that Brooke-Popham also considered ‘Madam Montessori’s ideas.

[5] Ibid., pp. 87

[6] Ibid., pp. 87-88

[7] Ibid., p. 87.

[8] Ibid., p. 84.

[9] Ibid., p. 83.

[10] Ibid., p. 88.

[11] ‘The “Ecole Superieure De Guerre,” Paris,’ p. 1.

[12] Joubert, The Fated Sky, p. 88.

#ResearchNote – The Royal Cyber Force

#ResearchNote – The Royal Cyber Force

By Luke

President Trump’s recent move to elevate the United States Cyber Command (CYBERCOM) to full ‘combatant’ status has given us in the United Kingdom an opportunity to refresh and revitalise our own cyber fielded forces. In the official statement launching CYBERCOM, Trump said:

[this] elevation will also help streamline command and control of time-sensitive cyberspace operations by consolidating them under a single commander.

At the moment UK cyber forces are not organised in a manner that enables us similar streamlined command and control and effective deployment of our cyber assets. Not helping the discussion is the lack of transparency around UK cyber capabilities. Former Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond made international headlines in 2013 by announcing that the UK was developing an offensive cyber capability. Other than this declaration, there is minimal public scrutiny or even awareness of our capabilities. The fact that this announcement was so note-worthy also highlights the dearth of public discussion on cyber warfare.


The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) has released a Joint Doctrine Publication known as the Cyber Primer, which provides an excellent high-level overview of cyber opportunities and vulnerabilities in the military context but no real substance as to the order of battle of UK forces. With the recognition of cyber as a separate but underpinning domain of warfare as shown in this excellent article, perhaps it is time to re-organise the UK’s forces in a similar way to our US allies. Taking a step further to create a ‘purple’ force of offensive and defensive specialists along with a re- invigorated electronic warfare cadre would demonstrate real innovation in an arena where competition is fierce, rules are unclear and technology advances at a breath taking pace.

Why do we need a separate cyber force? Modern platforms such as Typhoon, A400M, AJAX and the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers are highly dependent on the cyber domain to fulfil their basic functionalities as well as gain a technological edge on our adversaries. Where the air force provides control of the air and the navy provides control of the sea, so too we must have ‘cyber control’ delivered by a force of experts and specialists. The Cyber Primer states that we must be able to operate as freely in this domain as we do in the other physical ones; therefore we need to create a separate branch of the armed forces with the innate “cyber-mindedness” to exploit this new battlespace. For someone with Royal Air Force leadership experience, this feels like 1916-18 all over again. Back then we had discovered another new realm of warfare, the air, and argument was fierce as to who would be responsible for aerial battle.

The UK led the world in the creation of an independent air arm. Now, 100 years on, we are presented with another opportunity to lead and innovate.

What would an integrated Cyber Force look like? Currently, the bulk of UK Cyber capabilities fall under Joint Force Command, similar to how US cyber forces used to fall under Strategic Command. There are also discrete units within each of the single services, such as No. 591 Signals Unit, the Fleet Electronic Warfare Group and 14 Signals Regiment. We could break out these units as well as the Joint CEMA Group, the operators, and Information Systems and Services, responsible for enabling those capabilities, into a separate ‘Royal Cyber Force’ commanded by a 3 or 4 Star officer.

The challenges of this radical change would be significant. Trades with these specialisations are under manned and in high demand from civilian industry. Institutional inertia and the ‘old guard’ would be hard to win over. However, there exists a motivated and committed cadre of personnel with the UK MoD who, given this challenge, could and would rise to the occasion. In conclusion, our allies and adversaries are innovating at pace in the cyber domain. In order to keep up, the UK must make a significant change to the way it conducts cyber operations. A Royal Cyber Force would be a substantial first step.

This post first appeared at the Wavell Room.

Luke has Air Force leadership experience, in the UK and on Operations. He also has experience working in the Cyber environment at the joint level.