#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.

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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)

#BookReview – Eyes All Over the Sky: Aerial Reconnaissance in the First World War

#BookReview – Eyes All Over the Sky: Aerial Reconnaissance in the First World War

By Dr Tyler Morton

James Streckfuss, Eyes All Over the Sky: Aerial Reconnaissance in the First World War. Oxford, UK: Casemate Publishers, 2016. Maps. Bibliography. Notes. Index. Hbk. 239 pp.

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Aviation historian after aviation historian has fallen into the trap of overlooking the important role played by airborne intelligence collection platforms during the First World War. Mystified with the glamorous images of Baron von Richthofen and Eddie Rickenbacker, the historical narrative has primarily focused on the exploits of the fighter pilot. This narrative has been fueled by a general lack of scholarly writing about the important role played by airborne-derived intelligence. In Eyes All Over the Sky: Aerial Reconnaissance in the First World War, James Streckfuss seeks to remedy the oversight.

From the dawn of war, military commanders have sought enhanced intelligence to assist decision making. For much of history, the quest for better information was limited to the use of spies or, at best, the ability to obtain improved vantage points from high terrain or even trees. Almost immediately after man achieved flight, military thinkers put the air platform to intelligence use and in June 1794 the French conducted the world’s first military airborne reconnaissance sortie when they used balloons to reconnoitre Austrian forces near the town of Maubeuge on the border with Belgium. Military use of the air asset proliferated and by the start of World War I, the balloon and the aeroplane were firmly entrenched in militaries around the world. In every case, the air assets were reconnaissance platforms. This point, more than any other, drives Streckfuss’ subsequent analysis of the importance of airborne reconnaissance in the war.

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A German balloon section mooring an observation balloon to a new position. (Source: © IWM (Q 54462))

After briefly outlining the early days of the balloon – and aeroplane – based reconnaissance, Streckfuss dives right into the tactical fight of the First War. Choosing first to highlight the little-known importance of balloon reconnaissance, Streckfuss thoroughly examines all the major combatants’ use of balloons comparing the challenges faced by each as they tried to maximise the impact of this still unfamiliar capability. Of note in this section is the advanced progress which the Germans had made as compared to that of the Allies. Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s determination to make Germany the air power envy of the world had resulted in considerable pride and dedication to balloons. When the war began, they were significantly ahead of the Allies. Unfortunately for the Germans, their commanders on the Western Front had not been convinced of the veracity of the intelligence their airborne reconnaissance platforms provided.[1] Thus, German commanders ignored the information provided by their airmen and instead made disastrous moves that eventually resulted in the famous German retreat to the Aisne River and the subsequent stalemate that characterised much of the war.

Over the next several chapters, Streckfuss lays out a well-told story of aviation’s wartime missions of artillery spotting, infantry liaison, and photographic interpretation. These chapters magnificently describe the primary missions conducted by the various air forces during the war. As the war was, by any estimation, a war of the ‘big guns,’ the importance of aviation to the artillery mission cannot be overstated. Due to air power, the artillery could now hit targets all over the battlefield – even deep behind enemy lines – with previously unheard of accuracy. As Streckfuss writes, airborne intelligence ‘held the key to making the artillery more deadly than it had been in any previous war’ (p.84).

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Air Mechanic Cecil Haliday of the Royal Flying Corps demonstrates a ‘C’ type aerial reconnaissance camera fixed to the fuselage of a BE2c aircraft. (Source: © IWM (Q 33850))

The book’s final chapter examines the reasons why the success of airborne reconnaissance was downplayed after the war. Thoroughly convinced that air power would be the dominant force in all future wars, airmen of the major victorious powers sought to free – or in the case of the British, keep free – their air arms from the control of the British Army and the Royal Navy. According to Streckfuss, this dogged drive for independence caused airmen to highlight the ‘power’ part of air power and to minimise the primarily ‘service’ role air power had played in the war. The ability to singlehandedly win a war was a far more compelling argument than the contributions the air forces had made in their support of the Army and Navy.

Streckfuss’ argument is compelling. Airborne reconnaissance was the primary purpose of air forces going into the First World War and, contrary to some beliefs, it contributed significantly to both victory and defeat. This new book is a welcome addition and helps fill a historiographical gap in the literature about the war and our general understanding of the importance of airborne reconnaissance. I highly recommend it for the air power expert and novice alike.

Dr Tyler Morton is a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force (USAF) and holds a PhD in Military Strategy from Air University. A graduate of the USAF’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS), he is currently converting his dissertation on the evolution of manned airborne intelligence collection into a book which he hopes to publish in 2017. His research interests include the history of airborne reconnaissance with a focus on airborne linguists, the role of intelligence in the formulation of grand strategy, and the importance of innovation to the next era of military capability.

Header Image: An RAF aerial photograph showing how the enemy attempted to conceal gun positions by artificial smoke screens, which were defeated by the use of the camera. (Source: © IWM (Q 12224))

[1] Eric Dorn Brose, The Kaiser’s Army: The Politics of Military Technology in Germany During the Machine Age, 1870-1918 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 191.