Robin Higham and Stephen J. Harris (eds.), Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat, Revised and Expanded Edition. Lexington, KT: University Press of Kentucky, 2016. Images. Footnotes. Bibliography. Index. 454 pp.
Editorial Note: In 2006, University Press of Kentucky published an edited volume that sought to examine the question of why air forces fail. Edited by the late Robin Higham and Stephen J. Harris, Why Air Forces Fail has become an essential volume as air power specialists seek to understand the reasons why some air forces are more successful than others. As one reviewer noted in the Journal of Military History regarding the first edition of this work, ‘one of the more interesting and better books on military aviation to appear in the last few years.’ As such, does this new edition add anything to the original volume?
When the first edition of Why Air Forces Fail was published in 2006, it immediately caught my attention. The title itself was intriguing for here was a work that was going to look not at why, or how, air forces succeed, but why air power at certain times and in certain places and circumstances has failed to deliver victory. Robin Higham was a greatly respected air power historian and had flown in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in the Second World War, and Stephen Harris was and is the Director of History and Heritage for the Canadian Forces and had authored the Bomber Command section of the official history of the RCAF. It seemed that there were many good reasons in this Canadian reviewer’s mind for looking at the collection they had assembled.
Higham’s introduction was particularly thought-provoking. He (1st Ed., p. 1) posited that ‘other things being equal’ it seemed that the best technology generally won. These other things included a series of complex factors which could however greatly impact the effectiveness of air power. Higham looked at and where necessary modified all of the factors upon which A.T. Mahan had conducted his analysis of sea power: national borders, a nation’s physical conformation, aircraft industry, size of the population, characteristics of the population, and nature of government. To these, he added: location and sufficiency of air bases, the terrain being overflown during operations, capabilities of the aircraft and air weapons, and management of war decisions – ends, ways and means. Once these factors were explained to readers, Higham (1st Ed., p. 5) asked two central questions:
Did the loss of air superiority, if it ever existed, cause the collapse of the nation’s defenses? And was that the sole cause [of the nation’s defeat]?
Higham drew his introduction to a close with an attempt to identify lessons or trends but did not attempt to present precise deductions. One had to turn to the conclusion of the collection for a summation of the editors’ thinking. There Higham and Harris posited that the simple presence of air assets does not, in fact, guarantee a victory. The last sentence (1st Ed., p. 354) of the book seems both appropriate and applicable to all nations and military services:
These [observations] suggest that the fall of an air force is the result of long-term failings, not an immediate failure ‘on the day’ by an air arm that is essentially ready for its allotted role.
Such was the first edition but what of this volume? Harris has related to me that Higham had negotiated the second edition, but that much of what he intended passed with him and as such there is little for those returning to the work to note that differs from the original. What the returning reader will find is two additional chapters, one by Harris dealing with RAF Bomber Command’s strategic operations against Germany. Harris focuses on the electronic warfare campaigns, including electronic countermeasures and electronic counter-countermeasures, waged by Bomber Command and by the Luftwaffe’s air defenders. This chapter shows that the RAF could not produce enough technicians to offset German capabilities. The second new chapter by Kenneth Werrell deals with the US services application of air power in the Vietnam conflict and how a range of factors prevented the American flying services from achieving the results sought by military and civilian leaders, particularly in the face of effective opposition. Other than these there is nothing new in the second edition other than two short commentaries on Harris’ and Werrell’s chapters. These remarks are added to the original conclusion along with two additional paragraphs commenting on the growing complexity of aircraft design and procurement in one case and the other the implicit failure of those involved in air power decisions to learn from history. Also, there is a very short, easily missed, dedication to Higham in the front piece of the volume. Why the publishers have taken this very understated approach to acknowledge Higham on the one hand, and the changes to the new edition on the other is baffling.
All this to say, I had hoped for more in this new edition. However, for those who have not read the first edition, this expanded version remains a valuable study of air power and of how and why it cannot guarantee success in conflict.
Dr Randall Wakelam teaches military and air power history at the Royal Military College of Canada. After graduating from RMC in 1975 he flew helicopters for the Army, becoming CO of 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron in 1991. Along the way, he also had staff appointments in aircraft procurement and language training policy. Since 1993 he has been an educator, first in uniform at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto and now at RMC. His research and publishing focus on air power and military education.
Header Image: F-100Ds of the 481st Tactical Fighter Squadron over South Vietnam in February 1966. Early F-100s were unpainted when they arrived in Southeast Asia like the foreground aircraft, but all eventually received camouflage paint like the aircraft in the back. (Source: National Museum of the US Air Force)
 Kenneth P. Werrell, ‘Book Review – Why Air Forces Fail,’ The Journal of Military History, 70:3 (2006), pp. 887-8.
Peter Lee, Reaper Force: Inside Britain’s Drone Wars. London: John Blake Publishing London, 2018. Index. Hbk.
In this book, Peter Lee sets out to describe the ‘unknown community’ that is the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) Reaper Force. In doing so, Lee focuses on the aircrew in the ‘cockpit’ of these remotely piloted aerial vehicles (RPAS) and their partners, rather than all the other personnel needed to operate Reaper. Lee originally proposed the work to the RAF as an attempt to answer some of the questions that readers in one hundred years’ time might ask about these individuals, as a way of ensuring that those future enquirers would know more than we do about the RAF aircrew of 1918. Given this genesis, the limitation of scope is understandable and an outline of Lee’s research approach can found in his submission to the UK All Party Parliamentary Group that was established in 2016 to ‘analyse the emerging technologies of drones [and] the ways in which the UK works with allies with regard to the use of armed drones.’ Moreover, this starting point is a pleasing historical touch as 2018 marks the centenary of the formation of the RAF. Indeed, it was during the First World War that we saw human-crewed flight come of age as a weapon of war, and one hundred years later, the success of the Reaper Force raises the question of what the future is for manned aviation in the RAF. However, Lee does not pursue this or many other intriguing avenues, for reasons of time and space. He does not engage in detail with the debate about whether drones are ‘fair’, quickly dismissing this by rightly arguing that war has always seen one side aiming to gain an ‘unfair’ advantage over another, and this is just another manifestation of this trend. So, this is not a book to read to understand more about the ethics of drones. A reader seeking this debate should look elsewhere, and indeed Lee has already little on this subject himself.
Lee aimed to record how the Reaper Force feels about their ‘experiences and day-to-day lives’, and the book does an excellent job fulfilling this aim. His interview-based approach provides a distinct perspective from books written by those operating drones, which lack the reflection and perspective on experiences that Lee provides through the questions he puts to the aircrew. The bulk of the book is made up of content taken from interviews Lee conducted with members of both No. 39 Squadron based at Creech AFB in Nevada, and No. XIII Squadron based at RAF Waddington and these provide genuine insights into the aircrew’s (and their partners’) feelings about what they do. One comes away with a sense that this is a highly trained, highly dedicated group of men and women, with a culture that among other things is focused on ‘zero CIVCAS,’ that is a ‘policy direction’ of no civilian casualties (p. 279). Lee (p. 279) describes this focus as ‘almost an obsession […] that has had a significant impact on how they operate and make decisions.’ He recounts a mission where the aircrew believed the target was valid, as did the Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) on the ground, but the Senior Mission Intelligence Coordinator, an acting sergeant outside the aircrew, objected to the strike. This was because they believed it was a child rather than a parcel on the back of the target and was proved right (pp. 284-8). This is an excellent illustration of the commitment to zero CIVCAS, given both the hesitation to launch the weapon and the freedom the most junior person in the process felt to halt it. This indicates a very healthy culture if one believes zero CIVCAS should be accorded that level of importance.
Lee discussed further a 2011 ‘CIVCAS incident’ in Chapter Five when an RAF strike killed four civilians riding in lorries transporting explosives. This attack occasioned many levels of review, and it is clear that there is a huge determination in the Reaper Force that this should not happen again – even though as Lee (p. 113) notes, ‘the crew’s actions were in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict and their procedures and directives.’ This message is one the RAF’s Air Staff would presumably be no means averse to having more widely understood. However, Lee also makes the point through his interviews with several of the aircrew’s partners that this care and skill should be more widely appreciated, to counter all those who claim drones have killed thousands of innocent civilians, including the Reaper Force in this blanket condemnation. Indeed, one is left with the evident understanding from the interviews that the Reaper Force does not operate in this way; Eye in the Sky (2015) was a good film but what is depicted would never have happened under the RAF’s Rules of Engagement (RoE), and the Reaper Force is not guilty of causing wanton civilian deaths. There are, however, hints in the book that at times those looking for support from the Reaper Force are frustrated by these RoEs, for example, when a British Army JTAC is frustrated that a Reaper crew will not launch a missile and calls for assistance from an Army Air Corps Apache instead (p. 282). These RoEs can also frustrate those in the Reaper Force, as described in Chapter Nine when on Boxing Day 2014 permission to destroy a suspected IS-controlled ex-Iraqi armoured vehicle was denied, with the result that the Reaper crew had to watch then the aftermath of a successful IS attack using it.
The above example affected the crew in question, and Lee uses this and other cases to explore the issue of how the high-tempo of Reaper operations, and how the nature of those operations, with the graphic and detailed images they see as part of launching strikes, may be impacting the mental health of the aircrew. His interviews provide illuminating examples, and those he interviewed have a range of ways of coping, dependent on the various ways what they do affects them. Some aircrew seems to be able to operate for several years without being adversely affected; others burn out much more quickly. This issue links to the RAF’s perception of bravery, and how this should be recognised. Historically, bravery has been defined by physical courage. Lee, however, makes a case for those who continually put their mental health at risk through flying Reaper operations as showing as much bravery as aircrew who get physically airborne. In reading this, about issue continuing to put oneself at risk, one is undoubtedly reminded in some ways of the courage Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris described seeing in his Bomber Command crews.
Chapter Eleven looks at the question of bravery in its most visible military form, namely the award of decorations to Reaper crews. This is a subject that has generated discussion more widely over recent years. Lee addresses it by reference to a particularly challenging strike, footage of which was used by the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) as part of the press release announcing the award of campaign medals to those involved in the campaign against IS. The irony was that since the Reaper crew executing the strike were not deemed to be ‘in theatre’, they did not qualify for the medal. However, as Lee points out both in the book and in his October 2017 lecture at the Royal Aeronautical Society, they were exposing themselves to not insignificant risks of mental injury, and certainly were knowingly taking greater risks with their health than those working in a mess at Akrotiri. This again reminds one of RAF Bomber Command, and Harris’ unsuccessful campaign to have his groundcrews awarded a campaign medal despite cooks and bottle-washers in other theatres being entitled to a campaign medal.
Lee, however, does note that the MoD announced on 18 July 2018 that the medal would be awarded to Reaper pilots (p. 249). There will always be those who wish to equate heroism with physical courage, and hence would never see Reaper crews as eligible for medals, but this decision feels appropriate given the increasing level of discussion in society around mental health and, in a military context, post-traumatic stress disorder in particular. To what extent these issues will impact Reaper Force aircrew in the future is a subject for a later book, but this volume makes it clear that they have seen sights, repeatedly, that no-one would ask to see given the choice.
This potential to see bravery redefined is one example of how Reaper and its successors could change the RAF, and this is an area where one feels the whole growth of the Reaper Force raises many interesting issues that Lee has probably rightly only touched on very briefly. What will it mean for the RAF’s culture when perhaps many attack missions do not require a human in the aircraft? Already aircrew are being trained solely to operate Reaper, and the RAF, while awarding them aircrew brevets, is making them subtly different from the ‘normal’ brevets given to those who get airborne – does this demonstrate a reluctance to admit that Reaper crews are as valuable as those who get airborne? Moreover, what will this mean for the RAF as RPAS aircrews undertake more missions? The Reaper Force from its inception was crewed mainly by aircrew who served on Harrier, Nimrod and Tornado aircraft who transferred to Reaper as these aircraft were taken out of service. The aircrews who operated on manned platforms brought with them the culture and attitude from those environments, and Lee describes several interesting stories from aircrew about the different operating styles. For example, Lee recounts how a former Tornado navigator said she could not get used to the amount of talking an ex-Nimrod pilot would do, which was a huge change from the fast jet where ‘a good cockpit’s a quiet cockpit’ ethos was one that she was used to (p. 132).
As such, even within the Reaper Force, there are still vestiges of the culture that the members brought from their previous aircraft types, and the force will need to evolve its own culture over time. One suspects it will not be as extrovertly self-confident as the fast jet one it is partially replacing. Indeed, Lee recounts that his initial inquiry about when it would be time to ‘kick the tyres and light the fires’ on his first day watching an aircrew was met with a swift ‘very funny’, clearly meant to shut him up (p. 31). The RAF’s public image is very much built around the image of the fighter pilot, from the aces of the First World War, through the pilots of Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain to today’s Typhoons on QRA, intercepting Russian Bears out over the ocean. Indeed, it is interesting that the RAF’s historic flight is called the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight when far more aircrew served and died in Bomber Command during the Second World War. Reaper and other automated weapons (such as standoff missiles) can already deliver many of the classic roles of air power (reconnaissance, strategic attack, close air support, for example), but without a human to build a corporate (self) image around, how will the RAF’s own picture of itself change, and what image will it use to engage broader public support?
In summary, this is a valuable book for the insights it provides into the pressures of serving in a critical element within Britain’s armed forces. The Reaper Force is an element of the British military that will only grow in importance given both the capabilities it offers and the low risk it presents of unfavourable press. Indeed, between January and August 2018, Reaper has accounted for around 45 per cent of all RAF strike over Iraq and Syria during Operation SHADER. The only reservation that can, I think, be expressed is that this book leaves the reader feeling there were so many other avenues that could have been explored as well. Had Lee examined them, though, we would not have had this book now – we would have been waiting several years longer. What would be interesting would be to see a similar book in ten years’ time, to see how the Reaper Force (or Protector Force as it will likely be known by then) has evolved.
Mark Russell graduated with a degree in History in 1985 and has worked in professional services ever since. He returned to academia in 2015 and graduated with an MA in Air Power from the University of Birmingham in 2017. His dissertation looked at whether the RAF was a learning organisation in the period 1925 – 1935, with particular reference to how the Air Exercises helped the RAF develop and test tactics and technology. He continues to work in professional services, but his current research interest is the RAF in the interwar years and how the organisation managed technological change. Since graduating from Birmingham, he has had two books reviews published by the RAF’s Centre for Air and Space Power Studies and is currently working on articles for both RAF Air Power Review and The Aviation Historian.
Header Image: A Royal Air Force Reaper RPAS at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, c. 2014. (Source: Defence Imagery, UK Ministry of Defence)
 Peter Lee, ‘Rights, Wrongs and Drones: Remote Warfare, Ethics and the Challenges of Just War Reasoning,’ RAF Air Power Review, 16:3 (2013), pp 30-50.
It is often challenging to name a single person who is a critical figure within any discipline, and as I reflected here, this is also the case with air power studies if such a discipline exists. Despite this, one individual who has made an indelible impact on air power studies over the past couple of decades is Colonel Professor John Andreas Olsen. As well as publishing several studies on Operation DESERT STORM and Colonel John Warden III, Olsen has successfully published a series of edited works that have focused on several aspects of air power. The importance of these works is that Olsen has been able to bring together leading scholars to write about critical themes concerning the use and development of air power. In this latest edited volume, Olsen has, once again, brought together a line-up of prominent scholars and military practitioners who are at the forefront of researching air power.
This book seeks to ‘improve knowledge of and insight into the phenomena of aerospace power.’ (p. 8) Indeed, as Olsen reflects, air power is more than just ‘aircraft, weapons systems and bombing.’ (p. 5) Recognising this, Olsen further notes that any analysis of air power must also encompass, though not limited to, issues such as ‘training, education, values, rules of engagement, leadership, adaptability, boldness in execution, and a range of other factors, tangible and non-tangible, that influence a military operation.’ (p. 5) It is around this broad definition that this book is designed. The book’s design reflects Sir Michael Howard’s sage words that military history, and by default military affairs in general, should be studied in breadth, depth, and context. As such, the book is split into five sections that in turn deal with themes related to Howard’s advice. In providing a coherent pedagogical purpose to the book, Olsen has at least tried to provide some form and flow to the volume, which can often be a challenging prospect with any edited book.
The first section deals with the essence of air power and provides the breadth aspect for this volume. The section consists of six chapters dealing with air power anatomy, theory, history, high command, science and technology and ethics and international law. Each author is well placed to write their respective chapters, and each provides a useful overview of his subject. For example, Peter Gray provides an excellent strategic overview of the critical trajectory of air power history (pp. 70-80) while Philip Meilinger (pp. 35-45) discusses some of the essential themes evident in one hundred years or so of air power theory.
The second and third sections provide the depth to this volume by exploring critical aspects related to the delivery and application of air power. It is in these sections where we see the greatest mix between academics and military practitioners in the volume. Of the 12 contributors to these sections, seven are currently serving officers ranging from a two-star officer, Air Vice-Marshal Richard Knighton of the Royal Air Force (RAF) through to two Wing Commanders from the Royal Australian Air Force, Travis Hallen and Chris McInnes. The first section on delivering air power focuses on issues such as control of the air, command and control and logistics. It is good to see the latter included as it is clear, as Knighton concludes, that the logistical requirements of air power are not ‘well understood.’ (p. 151) The section on applying air power deals with the integration of air power with the other domains including space and cyber and each provides a good overview of the issues related to these topics.
The final two sections provide the context to this volume by exploring issues related to the political-social-economic environment in which air power operates as well as a section on national case studies. The latter section includes some interesting selections including chapters on Indian, Pakistani, Brazilian and Japanese air power. Some might argue that chapters should have been included that dealt with, for example, the US, UK, and other European nations. However, this book needs to be read in conjunction with other edited volumes by Olsen, such as Global Air Power (2011) and European Air Power (2014) where you will find chapters dealing with these nations. As such, it makes a refreshing change to see other examples included in this volume. The section on the political-social-economic environment includes some exciting chapters dealing with the political effect of air power and coercive diplomacy. As Michael Clarke (p. 237) argues, air power is a potent weapon but needs to be used carefully to help achieve a political effect. This view is mirrored by Karl Mueller who notes that ‘aerial bombing was not a panacea for preventing wars.’ (p. 252) Indeed, perhaps the critical criticism of air power thinkers has been their overestimation of the capability available to them as well as the place of military aviation within the toolbox of national power.
While there is much to praise in this work, there are no doubt some gaps that require some reflection. The first is a comment on authors, and this is not so much a direct criticism of the book but rather a comment on the state of the discipline at this moment in time. The book has been authored entirely by male academics or serving officers who, as already noted, are eminently qualified to write their various contributions. However, the lack of female contributors is disappointing especially as there are female academics and serving personnel writing about air power. Indeed, the issue of male dominance of the discipline is one we are well aware of here at From Balloons to Drones – all the editors and assistant editors are men. Indeed, at From Balloons to Drones we hope to continue to offer opportunities for all to contribute to the discussion about air power. Building on the above reflection is also the fact that each of the authors in this volume has some form of relationship with the military. They are either serving or retired officers, teach, or have taught within the professional military education (PME) ecosystem, or work for a think-tank associated with the military, such as RAND. If this sample of authors in this volume is indicative of the discipline, then the study of air power still struggles from the problem identified 20 years ago by John Ferris who wrote that:
[those studying air power are either] the children of airmen, have been military personnel themselves, and have been employed at a historical office or service school in Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, or the United States.If this remains the case, there remains an open question as to how we broaden out the discipline to avoid accusations such as the weaponisation of the past. Linked to this, of course, is the question of what a broader and more diverse perspective on air power would bring to the discipline.
Regarding content, several areas could have further strengthened this volume. For example, it is curious that the quote above concerning what encompasses the study of air power begins with training and education; however, neither subject is present in this volume. Concerning education, its omission is even more curious given the focus on the so-called conceptual component in programmes such as the RAF’s Thinking to Win, Plan Jericho in Australia, and the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Airpower in Formation. Interestingly, and perhaps indicative of the perceived importance of this volume, there is a paperback version of this book that has been produced in conjunction with the RAF’s Centre for Air and Space Power Studies and includes the Thinking to Win logo. However, as Meilinger reflected in his chapter, ‘[N]eeded are airmen well grounded in all aspects of air warfare, including the theoretical.’ (p. 44) If this is the case, then it follows that the provision of high-quality air power education is critical, and a chapter on this subject would have been valuable. Other chapters that could have been included include the culture of air forces and leadership as opposed to Stephens’ (pp. 24-34) focus on high-command. Indeed, it is often remarked that air forces are somehow different to army and navies in their outlook. If this is the case, then an examination of the culture of air forces and issues such as leadership would have further enriched this volume.
Overall, despite my criticisms above, this is an excellent and essential contribution to our understanding of air power. As noted, the pedagogic layout of the book helps give the volume purpose that leads the reader through many critical issues related to air power. As such, while the book’s primary market will undoubtedly be serving air force personnel involved in PME and training activities, there is enough in this volume that other interested readers will gain much from this collection.
 John R. Ferris, ‘Review Article – The Air Force Brats’ View of History: Recent Writing and the Royal Air Force, 1918–1960,’ The International History Review, 20:1 (1998), p. 119
Dr Ross Mahoney is the Editor of From Balloons to Drones and is an independent historian and defence specialist based in Australia. Between 2013 and 2017, he was the resident Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum, and 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 an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.
Header Image: An RAF F-35B Lightning from No. 617 Squadron stationed at RAF Marham. This aircraft is performing a hover manoeuvre during the Royal International Air Tattoo in 2018. (Source: UK MoD Defence Imagery)
Editorial Note: On 19 September 2018, our editor, Dr Ross Mahoney delivered a paper on the subject of ‘The Role of History in Educating Air Power Strategists’ at a seminar organised by the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) Air Power Development Centre in Canberra. A precis of this paper was published in the Pathfinder bulletin issued by APDC, which can be found here. The Pathfinder series covers a range of issue from strategy, historical analyses, operations, administration, logistics, education and training, people, command and control, technology to name a few. Irrespective of the subject though, Pathfinders will always be focused on the relevance to air power; they are not intended to be just a narrative but deliver a measure of analysis. Apart from the addition of some minor changes to make this precis applicable to From Balloons to Drones as well as the inclusion of footnotes and further reading suggestions, this article appears as published in Pathfinder. We are grateful to APDC for permission to re-publish the piece, and the views in this article and the associated Pathfinder are not necessarily those of the RAAF.
‘[t]he study of military history lies at the foundation of all sound military conclusions and practice.’
Rear-Admiral A.T. Mahan, ‘The Naval War College,’ The North American Review, (1912)
‘The word history carries two meanings […] It refers both to what actually happened in the past and to the representation of that past in the work of historians.’
John Tosh, The Pursuit of History, Third Edition, (1999)
What is history? What is its relevance to an air power strategist? These are important questions; however, as Richard Muller, a senior member of the faculty at the US Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, reflected in 2016, ‘as a rule air forces have not embraced historical study to the same extent as have their army or navy counterparts.’ Nevertheless, in 1912, a year after an Italian aeroplane dropped the first ‘bomb’ over Libya, noted US naval historian and strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan reflected on the link between military history and ‘sound military conclusions.’ However, history does not provide clear lessons. Nevertheless, the study of the past does offer a lens through which to analyse, understand and reflect on the challenges currently faced by modern air forces.
This article considers some of the issues related to applied military history beginning with an outline of the purpose of history and the challenges of applying the past to the present. It also considers how air forces have used the study of the past as a tool for education while concluding with some tentative thoughts on how history can be used to educate strategists in the continuing challenge to achieve professional mastery.
To start with, the term ‘education’ is used in this narrative in a broad context and incorporates both formal and informal learning. Similarly, the term ‘strategist’ is used in a collegiate manner and assumes that modern air forces seek personnel who are professional masters, well-versed in the core knowledge that underpins the application of air power.
As the British historian John Tosh reflected, the term history is ambiguous at best. Is history a collection of facts related to what has happened or is it the scholarly discussion and representation of the past? If the latter statement is accepted as being correct, then it can also be assumed that the interpretation of the past is an argument without an end. While a hackneyed observation, history is a dynamic field of study, one where historians continually re-examine evidence and reinterpret the past. Linked to this is the extent of historical information available to historians and, by default, strategists who seek to apply lessons from the past to the present. The archival records and evidence that underpin the interpretation of the past are normally incomplete. For example, the National Archives of Australia only preserves a small amount of the material generated by the Australian Government.
Moving beyond the above understanding of history, the field of military history can be split into three subfields: popular, academic, and applied history. There is a degree of overlap between the latter two. The main criticism of applied military history is that it is a form of weaponising the past to cater for the present. Underpinning this criticism is a view that those writing such history do so without sufficient understanding of the context in seeking to deduce lessons learnt. Unfortunately, this criticism is currently directed at academics working at institutions delivering professional military education. These institutions use history to illuminate and provide context to the ambiguous challenges that officers attending them are likely to confront in the future.
Historically, the criticism of weaponising the past does carry some weight, and therefore air power strategists could be criticised for the poor use of history to support their arguments. Indeed, as Sir Michael Howard, a distinguished military historian, noted in his 1961 lecture on ‘The Use and Abuse of Military History’:
[W]hen great [interwar] pioneers of air war…advocated striking at the homeland and at the morale of the enemy people…they were basing their conclusions on their interpretation of past wars’. (emphasis added)
More recently, Colonel (retired) John Warden III’s book, The Air Campaign, has been criticised for his use of a selective reading of history to fit the theory being propounded in it. Admittedly, Warden is not a historian. However, such selective use of history becomes problematic to the broader task of delivering professional education when such texts appear in, for example, Staff College reading lists where they can reinforce a narrow, and at times wrong, understanding of some of the officers they are meant to educate. Despite this criticism, it is clear that many air power thinkers have recognised the value of a broad reading of history. For example, in a 1921 article on ‘Strategy and Air Strategy,’ Group Captain John Chamier of the Royal Air Force reflected on the challenge of deducing appropriate principles for the use of air power given the brief history of air warfare till then. Nevertheless, Chamier recognised that ‘strategic principles are derived from the study of history’, and he recognised that examples from ‘naval and military strategy’ could provide the necessary framework for a discussion of ‘air strategy.’
While history and the application of its lessons by air forces is fraught with challenges, its importance as a didactic tool for the military cannot be underestimated. Indeed, the study of history has been, and remains, an element of the curricula at educational establishments of most air forces. However, considered in a broad manner, the study of history has been unbalanced. For example, in the late-1940s and 1950s, history and related subjects featured little on the curriculum at the RAAF College. As Alan Stephens has noted, the RAAF of this period identified itself as a ‘narrow technocracy’ with knowledge of the Air Force’s core business to be deduced from its ‘technical components’ rather than a ‘study of its history and ideas.’
To conclude, there are several areas where the contemporary study of history plays a key role in the education of air power theorists and strategists. Perhaps most important is that a deep and contextual study of history provides an important understanding for military personnel seeking to gain professional mastery of the profession of arms. Indeed, if it is accepted that the aim of learning is to develop the cognitive ability to understand and deal with ambiguity, rather than to provide clear-cut answers to current problems, then the study of history has a role to play.
The skills associated with historical analysis refines human cognitive areas such as the ability to make considered judgements. An important contributor to the effectiveness of this learning process has been the increasing civilianisation of the academic delivery at institutions catering to professional military education. At a practical level, the use of Staff Rides as a learning tool could also ensure that history could be used as a means to explore ideas outside of the confines of the traditional education environment. However, this process also has its own challenges. In the final analysis, Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely’s remark that the study of history needs to form an essential part of a ‘balanced diet’ of education for the military professional in order for them to develop the knowledge to be effective, rings completely true.
Even though history may not provide clear lessons, the study of the past offers a lens through which to analyse, understand and reflect on the challenges currently faced by modern air forces;
History could be considered a rather dynamic field of study, one where historians continually re-examine evidence and re-interpret the past;
It is recognised that ‘strategic principles are derived from the study of history.’
Gray, Peter, ‘Why Study Military History?,’ Defence Studies, 5:1 (2005), pp. 151-64.
Murray, Williamson, and Sinnreich, Richard Hart (eds.), The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
Dr Ross Mahoney is the editor and owner of From Balloons to Drones as well as being an independent historian and defence specialist based in Australia. 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 an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.
 Rear-Admiral A.T. Mahan, ‘The Naval War College,’ The North American Review, 196:680 (1912), p. 78.
 John Tosh, The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods and New Directions in the Study of Modern History, Third Edition (Harlow: Pearson Education, 1999), p. viii.
 Richard R. Muller, ‘The Airpower Historian and the Education of Strategists’ in Richard J. Bailey Jr., James W. Forsyth Jr., and Mark O. Yeisley (eds.), Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016), p. 113.
 On professional mastery in air forces, see: Sanu Kainikara, ‘Professional Mastery and Air Power Education,’ Working Paper, 33 (Canberra: RAAF Air Power Development Centre, 2011).
 John A. Lynn III, ‘Breaching the Walls of Academe: The Purposes, Problems, and Prospects of Military History,’ Academic Questions, 21:1 (2008), p. 20.
 Kim Wagner, ‘Seeing Like a Soldier: The Amritsar Massacre and the Politics of Military History,’ in Martin Thomas and Gareth Curless (eds), Decolonization and Conflict: Colonial Comparisons and Conflicts (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), pp. 25-7.
 Michael Howard, ‘The Use and Abuse of Military History (lecture),’ Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, 107:625 (1962), p. 10.
 John Andreas Olsen, John Warden and the Renaissance of American Air Power (Washington DC: Potomac Books, 2007), pp. 78-9. In a similar vein to Warden, Colonel John Boyd’s work ‘cherry-picked’ history ‘to provide illustrations and empirical validation for patterns he observed in combat.’ However, it should be recognised that Boyd was an airman who was a general strategist rather than an air power thinker per se, though his ideas do have applicability to the air domain. See: Frans Osinga, ‘The Enemy as a Complex Adaptive System: John Boyd and Airpower in the Postmodern Era’ in John Andreas Olsen (ed.), Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015), pp. 53-4.
 Group Captain J.A. Chamier, ‘Strategy and Air Strategy,’ Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, 66 (1921), p. 641.
 Alan Stephens, The Australian Centenary History of Defence: Volume II – The Royal Australian Air Force (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 188.
 On the challenges associated with staff rides, see: Brigadier R.A.M.S. Melvin British Army, ‘Contemporary Battlefield Tours and Staff Rides: A Military Practitioner’s View,’ Defence Studies, 5:1 (2005), pp. 59-80,Nick Lloyd, ‘Battlefield Tours and Staff Rides: A Useful Learning Experience?,’ Teaching in Higher Education, 14:2 (2009), pp. 175-84.
 John P. Kiszely, ‘The Relevance of History to the Military Profession: A British View’ in Williamson Murray and Richard Hart Sinnreich (eds.), The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 32.
The Allied invasion of Sicily, Operation HUSKY, is often viewed as a logical progression from the North Africa campaign (TORCH) through Sicily and on into Italy. It is one of the ‘Big Four’ operations in the European and Mediterranean theatres of operations, which culminated in the invasion of Normandy. Sicily has often been either overlooked entirely or seen through a more ground-centric lens (think of the movie Patton). That being said, there has been some excellent historical work in recent years on the invasion and even some very good historical-fiction by, for example, Jeff Sharra. Perhaps overlooked is too strong a word. Overshadowed is perhaps apter and nowhere is the invasion of Sicily more overshadowed than in the realm of air power. True, there is Robert S. Ehlers excellent work The Mediterranean Air War (2015), which covers the entirety of the theatre, but a singular focus on the air war exclusively over Sicily has been missing.
Alexander Fitzgerald-Black seeks not only to bring HUSKY back into focus but seeks to delve into the often-overlooked role of air power in the Mediterranean theatre, particularly over the skies of Sicily and does so by linking the tactical to the strategic. Fitzgerald-Black (p. xxii) states that:
This work reconnects the role of the Allied air forces in the Battle for Sicily to the wider narrative of the air war and to the crucial Allied strategy for engaging Axis forces in the Mediterranean Theater during the Summer of 1943.
Air power itself has been viewed through various lenses, but the most notable narrative through HUSKY was that Allied air power did not live up to the promises it made – Fitzgerald-Black singles out Carlo D’Este for holding this interpretation. The author seeks to turn this traditional narrative on its head, and Fitzgerald-Black argues persuasively that some authors have focused too myopically on the tactical missteps and therefore, missed the greater strategic narrative. Fitzgerald-Black (p. xxiii) argues that ‘Allied strategic success in Sicily and the Mediterranean in mid-1943 mattered far more than the failure to prevent German forces on the island from escaping.’ Allied air power forced the Luftwaffe to pay a heavy toll for defending not an only island but the theatre writ large. Also, attacks against the Italian mainland helped drive Italy from the war entirely.
In the buildup to the landings, German and Italian air power was systematically, but not entirely, destroyed. Some authors have pointed this out as a failure of air power showing their preference for a Clausewitzian decisive battle that rarely appears. The Luftwaffe, under the direction Wolfram von Richthofen removed their bombers to the Italian mainland, believing Sicily to be untenable. Attacks on German and Italian bases gained enough air superiority that the invasion took place without prohibitive interference from the Luftwaffe or Regia Aeronautica. The simple fact was that Allied air power forced the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica to react in ways it did not want to. Some might say Allied leaders had got inside their enemy’s OODA loop (p. 54, 63).
Again, there exist critiques of Allied air power on the day of the landings, but as Fitzgerald-Black demonstrates, the Germans and the Italians seemed to be to some degree husbanding their resources. Even in doing so, it was difficult for the Luftwaffe to contest control of the skies seriously. Where engagements did occur, the author shows that ‘[E]ffectiveness cannot only be measured by casualties inflicted upon Axis aircraft.’ There were occasions (p. 83) where ‘USAAF and RAF fighters broke up enemy formations and/or forced the bombers to jettison their payloads prematurely […].’ Fitzgerald-Black does an excellent job of interweaving his analysis and engaging prose with numerous first-person accounts from both sides of the conflict. His use of Johannes Steinhoff’s remembrances adds a level of balance to the work, wherein the points and actions of both sides are brought forth. Looking at the battle in retrospect, ‘The success of the German tactical withdrawal pales in comparison to the strategic victory the Allies won in Sicily during the Summer of 1943.’ Italy was knocked out of the war and Germany was now forced to defend Europe on two fronts that soon turned into three with the invasion of Normandy in June of 1944 (p. 159).
One final point worth mentioning, and this is more a press decision than a note on the author’s work, but the use footnotes versus endnotes is a welcome change making it significantly easier to check the author’s sources at a quick glance. In the end, Fitzgerald-Black has done an outstanding job of refocusing attention on the air war over Sicily and has contributed to the study of air power history. His work resides alongside Chris Rein and Robert Ehlers in broadening our understanding of the Mediterranean theatre during the Second World War. His expert linking of tactical, operational, and strategic in a clear narrative allows all readers to understand that while one area of a campaign might be deemed a tactical misstep, the overarching importance of the strategic victory cannot be taken for granted.
Dr Brian Laslie is an Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). He is also an Assistant Editor at From Balloons to Drones. A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists. His recently published Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force. He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.
The weather was mild for early December as scattered showers, and high winds continued to visit RAF Gransden Lodge near Cambridge. It was a shade after 02:00 on the morning of 2 December 1942 when Flight Sergeant Edwin Paulton (Royal Canadian Air Force/RCAF) gently rotated the yoke causing the Vickers Wellington Mk1C of the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) No. 1474 (Special Duties) Flight to unstick from the runway and climb into the East Anglian night. Paulton’s sortie that autumnal evening was part of the RAF’s response to the growing intensity of the Luftwaffe’s defensive effort against Bomber Command’s attacks on targets in Germany.
With most of Western Europe’s occupation now complete, and the invasion of the UK postponed indefinitely by Adolf Hitler in September 1940 following the Battle of Britain, the German high command turned its attention towards bolstering the country’s defences against RAF Bomber Command. Even with the commencement of the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, which involved a significant effort by the Luftwaffe, this did not deprive Germany of fighter defences to resist the Command’s efforts. These fighters were able to exact heavy losses and between July 1942 when the RAF commenced recording aircraft loss and damage to separate causes, and December 1942 Bomber Command lost 305 aircraft to fighters during the day and night operations; 2.3 per cent of all sorties despatched.
It was imperative for Bomber Command to staunch the bleeding. By late August 1942 Bomber Command understood the workings of the Luftwaffe’s integrated air defence system. The initial detection of incoming bombers was performed by a chain of FuMG-80 Freya ground-based air surveillance radars. A defensive ‘belt’ known as the Kammhuber Line, named after Generalleutnant Josef Kammhuber, the head of the Luftwaffe’s XII Fliegerkorps, stretched from Kiel in northern Germany southwest past Luxembourg. Behind this line lay all of Germany’s major cities and industrial centres including Cologne, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Hanover, and Stuttgart. Quite simply it was almost impossible for bombers to approach their targets without crossing this line. The line was subdivided into separate ‘boxes’ each covering 247 square miles (640 square kilometres). Within each box were two FuMG-62D Würzburg ground-controlled interception radars. One of these radars would hold the fighter in its gaze while another would search the box for a bomber. A ground controller would coordinate the interception seeing the position of the fighter and bomber on his radar screens. He would then bring these two together. Once the fighter was just short of one nautical mile/nm (1.8 kilometres/km) from the bomber, the ground controller would hand over the interception to the fighter. The crew would activate their Lichtenstein-BC airborne interception radar to locate the bomber and then press home their attack. All the while the fighter and the ground controller would remain in radio contact.
The British Air Ministry issued a report in July 1942 which stated that Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) had revealed that from early 1942 the Luftwaffe’s night fighters had been using a device codenamed ‘Emil-Emil’. Little was known about this beyond the fact that it seemed to assist interceptions and may have used either radar or infrared technology to do so. Initially, this equipment appeared to be used exclusively by night fighters near Vlissingen on the Netherlands’ west coast. Further investigations revealed that by October 1942 Emil-Emil appeared to be in widespread service elsewhere in the night fighter force. Such was the discipline of Luftwaffe fighter crews and their ground controllers that the purpose of Emil-Emil was not betrayed in radio chatter.
Experts from the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE), tasked with developing and producing electronic countermeasures for the British armed forces, collected radio signals on the East Coast which revealed transmissions on a 491 megahertz/MHz frequency strongly suspected of being transmitted by Emil-Emil. This information was a breakthrough, but the relationship of these transmissions to Emil-Emil had to be confirmed. The only way to do so would be to fly one of the RAF’s SIGINT gathering aircraft from No. 1474 Flight into hostile airspace where there was a high chance that enemy fighters would be encountered. The rationale was to use the aircraft for two interrelated tasks. First, entice a night fighter into an attack and then record the characteristics of any hostile radio signals it transmitted. By doing this, it would be possible to determine whether Emil-Emil was an airborne interception radar. As always in electronic warfare, once it was discerned that the enemy was using a particular type of radar in a particular way, it would be possible to devise means to jam it.
Paulton and his crew were tasked with collecting SIGINT across an area stretching from the French north coast to Frankfurt in central Germany. The specifics of the mission called for the Wellington, which was equipped with a radio receiver, to lure a fighter into an interception. The aircraft would then record the radio signals transmitted by the fighter. So far No. 1474 Flight had performed 17 sorties, but none resulted in the desired interception. Finally, on the night of 2 December, the Luftwaffe would cooperate, although this would almost cost the Wellington’s crew their lives.
Against All Odds
At 04:31, two-and-a-half hours into the flight, the aircraft was northeast of the Luftwaffe airfield at Pferdsfeld in southeast Germany. Paulton set a course to fly north. As he turned Pilot Officer Harold Jordan, the aircraft’s ‘Special Operator’ tasked with the SIGINT collection, began receiving signals which seemed to match those the crew were tasked to investigate. As the Wellington flew north, the signals became stronger. Jordan warned the crew that a fighter attack was likely. As Jordan received signals, he was passing this information to wireless operator Flight Sergeant Bill Bigoray (RCAF) who coded and transmitted them back to the UK. Ten minutes later the aircraft turned west to head for home while the signals received by Jordan were getting stronger still. At that moment cannon fire from a Junkers Ju-88 fighter slammed into the Wellington. Paulton immediately put the aircraft into a violent corkscrew turn in a bid to shake off the fighter. Jordan was hit in the arm but realised that the signals he was receiving were correct with Bigoray relaying this information back to base. Despite Jordan’s injuries he continued to record the transmissions while Bigoray continued to send coded messages, having received no ‘R’ transmission from base to indicate their reception. Unbeknownst to Bigoray, they had been received at 05.05. Flight Sergeant Everitt Vachon (RCAF), the Wellington’s rear gunner, managed to fire almost 1000 rounds at the Ju-88 but his turret was hit and rendered unserviceable, with Vachon wounded in the shoulder.
The Ju-88 manoeuvred for another attack. This hit Jordan in the jaw but did not stop him operating his equipment and telling Paulton from which side the next attack would occur. Along with Jordan Flight Sergeant Grant, the front turret gunner was hit, as was Bigoray who was injured in both legs as he tried to free Grant from the turret. Grant was eventually being extricated by the navigator Pilot Officer Alexander Barry (RCAF). The third attack hit Jordan again, this time in the eye. Try as he might, he could no longer operate his radio receiver. Instead, he struggled forward to find Barry to show him how to operate the receiver so that the signals collection could continue. Nonetheless, now almost blinded this proved an impossible task.
While Jordan had been trying in vain to instruct Barry Vachon had managed to free himself from the rear turret. He went into the aircraft’s Astrodome to provide a running commentary on the Ju-88’s position. Vachon was hit once again, this time in the hand, and Barry took over. Throughout the engagement, those in the aircraft had been thrown around like ragdolls as Paulton’s evasive actions saw the aircraft descend from 14,000ft to a mere 500ft. The Wellington suffered twelve attacks in total; six of which may have been successful. The damage to the aircraft was extensive: The port and starboard engine throttles were jammed. The front and rear turrets were unserviceable along with the starboard ailerons and trim tabs. The starboard fuel tank was holed and the hydraulics useless, causing both engines to run erratically. The aircraft’s pitot heads were also damaged preventing the airspeed indicator showing the plane’s velocity.
Despite the Wellington’s near-mortal damage Paulton managed to reach 5,000ft altitude and crossed the coast ten miles northeast of Dunkirk at 06:45. Being mistaken for a hostile aircraft was an ever-present danger when RAF planes were returning from operations over the continent. Bigoray switched the aircraft’s IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) Mk.3 transmitter to squawk that the plane was friendly and sent out a mayday message. Deciding to ditch in daylight after realising that the Wellington’s landing light was insufficient to perform a safe water landing, Paulton asked the crew if anyone wanted to bail out. Bigoray asked to do so concerned that his leg would stiffen up so much that he would be unable to leave the aircraft once it was in the water. As he was about to jump, he realised he had not secured the transmission key of his radio to prevent it accidentally retransmitting. Moving back into the fuselage and in much pain, he secured the key and jumped landing near Ramsgate on the Kent coast. Paulton finally ditched the Wellington in the channel near Walmer beach, south of Deal. Even the aircraft’s dingy, packed for such eventualities, was a casualty and despite a valiant attempt by Jordan to plug some of the holes, it was unusable. Instead, the crew climbed on top of the Wellington, being rescued by a small boat some moments later.
The intelligence Paulton and his crew gathered on that fateful December night had implications for the rest of the war. Their actions enabled the TRE ‘boffins’ to not only confirm that the Emil-Emil device was the Lichtenstein-BC radar but also to divine the radar’s characteristics. Once these were known it was possible to develop an Electronic Countermeasure (ECM) in the form of the Ground Grocer jammer. This was installed at Dunwich on the Suffolk coast commencing operations on 26 April 1943. The jammer would blast electronic noise at the Lichtenstein-BC across a waveband of 486MHz to 501MHz. Even for Luftwaffe fighters flying 120nm (222 kilometres) distant from the transmitter could have their radar ranges reduced to 1500ft (457 metres) from their usual range of four nautical miles (eight kilometres). This forced the fighter to come closer to the bomber to detect it in darkness; greatly increasing the chances of the bomber crew hitting the fighter as it commenced its attack. Nonetheless, Ground Grocer was not bereft of imperfections: It tended to work best when a fighter was flying towards the transmitter and was generally used to protect bombers on their outward and return journeys. The official record notes that by the end of June 1943 Ground Grocer had caused six of the seven cases of radar interference reported by Luftwaffe fighter crews to their ground controllers.
Ground Grocer was not the only ECM developed because of the intelligence obtained by the Wellington. By gathering details on the Lichtenstein-BC’s characteristics, the TRE was able to develop several versions of Window, arguably the most famous countermeasure of the Second World War, capable of jamming this radar. Window consisted of millions of metal foil strips cut to precisely half the wavelength of the radar they were intended to jam. The TRE also developed a system known as Serrate based on the same intelligence. This was one of the RAF’s most successful electronic systems of the war. Serrate was installed on De Havilland Mosquito fighters, entering service in September 1943. It detected transmissions from the Lichtenstein-BC allowing Serrate-equipped aircraft to find and attack fighters using the radar. Serrate was employed extensively over enemy territory contributing to the 242 Luftwaffe fighters that the Mosquitoes of Bomber Command’s No. 100 Group shot down following its introduction. Moreover Ground Grocer, Window and Serrate may have hastened the withdrawal of the Lichtenstein-BC which was all but phased out of service by April 1944 in favour of new radars with improved resistance to such countermeasures.
The endeavours of Paulton and his crew were relayed to the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal who told them: ‘I have just read report of your investigation flight […] and should like to congratulate you all on a splendid performance.’ Their deeds were recognised with the award of a Distinguished Flying Cross for Barry and Paulton, Distinguished Service Order for Jordan and Distinguished Flying Medals for Bigoray and Vachon. It is miraculous that the Wellington returned to the UK yet the actions of Paulton and his crew helped pave the way for the development of ECMs which undoubtedly saved Bomber Command lives. Their legacy can still be seen today. Radar jammers are now standard equipment on most military aircraft venturing in harm’s way, illustrating how one sortie on a cold December night would have implications for airpower which are still felt today.
Dr Thomas Withington specialises in contemporary and historical electronic warfare, radar, and military communications, and has written numerous articles on these subjects for a range of general and specialist publications. He holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham.
 The National Archives (TNA), AIR 50/503, No. 1474 Flight, December 1942.
 TNA, AIR 20/8962, War in the Ether: Europe 1939 to 1945: Radio Countermeasures in Bomber Command: An Historical Note (High Wycombe: Signals Branch, Headquarters Bomber Command, October 1945), p. 6.
Editorial Note: In the fourth instalment of ‘Air War Books,’ Dr Randall Wakelam discusses the ten books that have influenced and shaped his writing as an air power historian. If you are interested in contributing to this series or From Balloons to Drones more generally, find out how here.
Since joining the Air Force more than 45 years ago, I have found that professional education for those working with air power has not been a forte of Canada’s Air Force. Much of what I have learned, I have done so out of curiosity and by selecting graduate courses and by doing graduate research that allowed me to satisfy my curiosity and develop a better understanding of air power. While I am critical of this circumstance in Canada I do not think it is unique; there are too many editorials, op-eds and notes from chiefs of service that attempt to get aviators to read if not write.
Having taught air power at the Canadian Forces College and now at an undergraduate and graduate level to officer cadets and civilian students, I continue to learn. In this teaching, I think I am comfortable with the notion that air power concepts introduced a century ago have now reached maturity regarding what air power effects can be applied and how. What is constantly in flux is the larger Geopolitical context of why and when one wants to apply air power effects.
The one other factor that I would want to bring into the formulation of this list is my desire to get inside the thinking processes of those who have developed air power concepts and then applied them. Thus, several the titles that you will see below are either biographies or studies of the human condition. In the case of biographies, I fully recognise that looking at the life stories of some of these actors comes with risks. Case studies of human and personnel questions are perhaps less risky but not without risk.
And now to the list, which is most certainly too short to do justice to the many other works that I have found important to me.
Philip Meilinger (ed.), The Paths of Heaven: The Evolution of Airpower Theory (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1997). This volume is without question the one work that I keep going back to. Admittedly written from a United States Air Force (USAF) perspective I have found the work balanced and useful in seeing the ‘long duree’ of air power thought and its application. I first read the book just after it came out but even now, twenty years later, do not find it particularly dated. Of great value is I.B. Holley’s summary and commentary. His criticism that the work ignores naval aviation serves as a caution to readers that while highly valuable the volume does have its limitations.
John Andreas Olsen (ed.), A History of Air Warfare (Washington D.C.: Potomac, 2010). This work fills the void of the last two decades since Paths of Heaven was published and provides readers with a different treatment of many of the same ideas and events presented in the former. For that reason, I think it provides a solid bookend to balance the USAF compendium. Also, the reader gets a good dose, perhaps too good of the air campaigns of the post-Cold War decades and three useful studies of current and future themes, most importantly small wars and space. The penultimate chapter, by Martin van Creveld, balances Holley’s commentary and leaves the reader with the ultimate question: has the age of air power come and gone?
Allan D. English, Understanding Military Culture: A Canadian Perspective (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004). When I reviewed English’s book about a decade ago, I wrote that it was, for me at least, a volume that captured essential ideas about military culture, ideas that I might have benefited from even from my first days in uniform. In a relatively short but well-focused study, English laid out the elements of culture, looked at them through the lens of the USAF and then from the perspective of the Canadian air arm. At that time there was no the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), as there had been up to the 1960s and as there is again today. The absences of that organisational title and the emotional trappings of an independent air service were all the more reason to read English’s book at the time. The comings and goings of organisations, from squadron to air forces that continue in all nations made and makes this work incredibly insightful.
Henry Probert, Bomber Harris: His Life & Times (Aylesbury: Greenhill Books, 2001). For a long time, I wanted to attempt to understand the thinking of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris. Was he the wanton killer of German civilians that he was accused of being? How did he apparently hold the loyalty of his aviators? Probert’s study of the man gave me the answers that others did not. Bullheaded to the point of obstinacy – certainly more than not – but he did set out to apply the concepts and technology available to him to accomplish the task set for Bomber Command. Moreover, in this, we see not bombast alone but also a sharp intellect and a degree of flexibility and accommodation (that I would not have expected) and above all a desire to save the lives of his crews, or at least make their sacrifices count. Probert showed me Harris’ strengths and weaknesses, giving me a good picture of what any operational level leader might look like, warts and all.
Denis Richards, Portal of Hungerford (Tintern, MON: William Heinemann, 1977). If Harris is a good case study in operational level leadership, then Denis Richards biography of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Viscount Portal makes a good companion. Few of us will ever get to work at or even observe the work of senior air force leaders or to have exposure to the sorts of institutional level challenges they face, both within their service and across governments and coalitions. This book gives us that access, and it allows us to put the better-known struggles of the Royal Air Force (RAF) in its formative years into a more personal context where, as in the case of Harris, personal strengths and weaknesses – the human factor – contribute to success or precipitates failure.
Dewitt S. Copp, A Few Great Captains: The Men and Events That Shaped the Development of U.S. Air Power (McLean, VA: EPM Publications, 1989). This work has been my only deep dive into the USAF, and as I began to think more about culture, doctrines and effects, it seemed to be important to study not just one man or a few, but rather the birth and evolution of an air power community. I believe I found that in this work. It looks at the people and their professional growth, ideas, experiences, small ‘P’ politics and larger organisational conflicts.
John J. Zentner, The Art of Wing Leadership and Aircrew Morale in Combat, CADRE Paper no. 11 (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2001). This set of case studies looks at leadership in a flying organisation, arguably one of the hardest notions to explain to army and naval officers who generally lead within plain sight of their followers. Moreover, to be honest, how one leads in the air is often hard to describe, or at least it was before the recent decades of air operations, to aviators. Effective leadership should promote high morale, and Zentner posited that that strong morale is linked to aircrew control over the tactics they are to use in the air. During a period of relative global calm, he set out to test his concept in three case studies. He looked at two fighter leaders, one German and one American in the Second World War, and for a third case flows the leadership of a B-52 Wing Commander during the Vietnam War.
Allan D. English, The Cream of the Crop: Canadian Aircrew, 1939-1945 (Montreal: McGill Queen’s University Press, 1996). This work is focused on the personnel issues of the RAF and the RCAF, and thus we find an investigation into an aspect of air warfare every bit as important as technologies. English sets out to explore and comment on the impact of what today we recognise as post-traumatic stress disorder on Bomber Command aircrew. To do this he looks at the Royal Flying Corps experiences of recruiting and training during the First World War and how these, and societal cultural norms were adopted by the RAF and to a lesser extent the RCAF in the Second World War. He shows the significant difference in the policy adopted by the RCAF and how rehabilitation of stress casualties rather than their banishment could safeguard critical human resources.
Robin Higham and Steven J. Harris (eds.), Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat (Lexington, KT: The University Press of Kentucky, 2006). Not every air campaign is a success and not every air service ensures the security of its home nation. In studying failures Higham and Harris edited volume expose us to valuable experiences of things gone wrong. More important than the various well researched and presented case studies is the introduction where the editors lay down a simple truth: ‘other things being equal’ the better air power ‘should’ prevail. They then go on to look at the range of ‘other things’ and here is the true value of the collection: the reader soon realises, or should, that there are almost countless factors in play that can cripple an air force, often long before a conflict begins. To codify these factors, Higham adapts Mahan’s characteristics of a maritime nation to identify where and how air power nations can and have failed.
Robert Grattan, The Origins of Air War: The Development of Military Air Strategy in World War I (London: IB Tauris, 2009). Grattan, an RAF navigator, turned business professor in his later years, presents a study of air arms in the First World War. He argues that the leaders, flyers and even politicians and industrialists had nothing to go on and so national air arms were sort of a ‘design build’ enterprise with rapid advancement through trial and error. He looks at aircraft, weapons, personnel and tactics studying the advancements of each in relation to the others. The use of the word ‘strategy’ in his title is a bit misleading; ‘air power concepts’ would more accurately describe his focus in my view.
Dr Randall Wakelam teaches military and air power history at the Royal Military College of Canada. After graduating from RMC in 1975 he flew helicopters for the Army, becoming CO of 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron in 1991. Along the way, he also had staff appointments in aircraft procurement and language training policy. Since 1993 he has been an educator, first in uniform at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto and now at RMC. His research and publishing focus on air power and military education.