#AirWarBooks – Ashleigh Brown

#AirWarBooks – Ashleigh Brown

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.

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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)

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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.

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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)

#BookReview – The Royal Flying Corps, the Western Front and the Control of the Air, 1914-1918

#BookReview – The Royal Flying Corps, the Western Front and the Control of the Air, 1914-1918

James Pugh, The Royal Flying Corps, the Western Front and the Control of the Air, 1914-1918. Abingdon: Routledge, 2017. Figures. Charts. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. xviii + 190 pp.

Reviewed by Dr Heather Venable

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The so-called Father of the Royal Air Force Lord Hugh Trenchard looms large in the historiography of air power, perhaps most infamously for his assertion – seemingly wrought out of thin air – that the moral effect of air power outweighed the material by a factor of twenty to one. To many students of air power, this statement epitomises how much the interwar pursuit of strategic bombardment rested on flights of fancy more than carefully reasoned analysis of the lessons of the First World War because airmen like Trenchard intended to have a moral effect on civilian populations in future wars.

By contrast, James Pugh’s The Royal Flying Corps, the Western Front and the Control of the Air, 1914-1918 pushes back at a significant portion of the historiography of First World War air power concerning the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). Unlike many other scholars, Pugh insists that before the First World War, British airmen anticipated how to use air power effectively and demonstrated creativity and flexibility in applying it during the war. Pugh’s revisionist approach depends on the compelling claim that historians have teleologically read aspects of the interwar period into the First World War experience. Pugh thus wants to rescue some airmen from unfair and overwrought reputations for dogmatism (p. 52). Perhaps most importantly, Pugh seeks to validate the RFC’s overwhelmingly offensive approach as fundamentally sound while showing change over time during the war concerning offensive air strategy. Pugh argues that the offensive approach taken by airmen primarily echoed that of the ground war. Moreover, airmen shifted from seeking decisiveness to pursuing attrition and pursued more sophisticated approaches to achieving control of the air during the First World War.

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Prime Minister Herbert Asquith watches a squadron of aeroplanes returning to RFC Headquarters at Frevillers. With him is Major-General Hugh Trenchard, commander of the Royal Flying Corps. (Source: © IWM Q 4192)

Pugh’s first chapter establishes convincingly that airmen properly appreciated the importance of air superiority before the First World War. He also shows how vital missions, such as fostering battlefield communication and observing artillery fire, were anticipated before the First World War. However, limited technology and other factors impeded greater experimentation with these roles before the war (p. 33). These roles, moreover, reflected how aviators considered themselves to be part of the British Army. Their embrace of offensive thinking particularly reflected the powerful influence of British Army culture on the RFC. Pugh offers this helpful corrective in response to his belief that historians have traced the origins of airmen’s offensive proclivities too unilaterally to Trenchard (p. 14). Indeed, Pugh generally stresses the extent to which other airmen deserve more credit for developing air power thinking, continually deemphasising Trenchard (p. 51). In a similar vein, Pugh not only challenges widely held views on Trenchard’s emphasis on morale but also offers competing explanations for why the RFC stressed it so much. According to the author, the emphasis on diminishing an opponent’s morale owes much to the ‘fragility of aircraft’ (p. 24, 52). This point is not entirely convincing.

Still, Pugh argues that the RFC did not acquire ‘effective’ fighters until 1916, which were increasingly sent to the Western Front organised in squadrons responsible for different roles (p. 49). While awaiting improved aircraft, the RFC revised doctrine and improved organisational practices. When updated in 1915, RFC doctrine denoted reconnaissance as air power’s primary purpose, although it also increasingly recognised the requirement for ‘fight[ing]’ to obtain that information (p. 46), thereby placing more emphasis on controlling the air. Still, the RFC Training Manual diminished its emphasis on reconnaissance from 75 to 36% of the manual while increasing its coverage of artillery support most dramatically (p. 47).

‘Rules of the air – meeting another machine’. An air technical diagram of a Sopwith Dolphin and two Sopwith Camel biplanes meeting in the air and turn to the right. (Source: © IWM Q 67829)

The RFC’s views on how to control the air grew increasingly expansive, especially after learning valuable lessons about airpower employment at Verdun. Thus, the British now stressed seeking control of the air ‘far away’ from those aircraft providing direct support to the battlefield (p. 52) as well as reaffirming the importance of ‘maintaining an offensive posture’ (p. 56), which resulted in a theatre-wide emphasis as airmen sought to control the air in ‘breadth and depth’ (p. 81).

Pugh’s revisionist account largely depends on assuming the best about many of the airmen he describes, resulting in a somewhat Whiggish and rosy account of the RFC’s achievements in the First World War. Pugh valuably attempts to explode accepted thought in multiple areas. This approach is the work’s greatest benefit and failing. Regarding the extent to which airmen embraced an attrition-based strategy over the course of the war, for example, Pugh never fully makes an argument. Describing the phrase ‘relentless and incessant offensive’ as the ‘most profound evidence’ of this strategic shift ultimately falls short of proving one of the work’s key themes (p. 62). In a related vein, Pugh’s argument depends on separating out the rhetoric of airmen like Trenchard, who he claims made much of offensive air power for political reasons, meanwhile arguing that in actuality, airmen pursued an ‘increasingly nuanced and sophisticated approach to controlling the air’ (p. 71), such as using ‘concentrated and coordinated’ groups of fighters (p. 82). These contrasting interpretations cause the reader to wonder how Pugh determines when to accept evidence as rhetoric and when to accept it as representing airmen’s authentic thinking. These potential problems epitomise how Pugh is trying to do too much, such as when he mentions studies of First World War land power being importantly focused more systematically on ‘learning, transformation, or adaption’ yet preserves that approach for future airpower researchers (p. 91, 71). Using the methodology from some studies more systematically to explore British thinking about air control could offer more value.

Despite these critiques, all students of air power should read Pugh’s work for its argument-driven and revisionist analysis of the Royal Flying Corps. While adding significant complexity to widely accepted views of First World War airpower, Pugh ultimately concludes that the RFC’s offensive mindset represented the ‘most sensible course of action’ to pursue (p. 163). Even for those not necessarily interested in the RFC, his discussion of how to best employ air power will provide much of value to ponder for readers interested in any era of air power.

Dr Heather Venable is an Associate Professor in the Department of Airpower at the United States Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College. She received her PhD in Military History from Duke University. Venable’s first book, How the Few Became the Proud: Crafting the Marine Corps Mystique, 1874-1918, was published by Naval Institute Press in 2019.

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)