#BookReview – British Imperial Air Power: The Royal Air Forces and the Defense of Australia and New Zealand Between the World Wars

#BookReview – British Imperial Air Power: The Royal Air Forces and the Defense of Australia and New Zealand Between the World Wars

Alex M. Spencer, British Imperial Air Power: The Royal Air Forces and the Defense of Australia and New Zealand Between the World Wars. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2020. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Pbk. 307 pp.

Reviewed by Ashleigh Brown

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The First World War was a catalyst for the development of aviation. At the outbreak of war in 1914, the British Army and Royal Navy air arms, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), acted purely as auxiliaries to the British Army and Royal Navy. By 1918, although still predominantly considered a support function for the other services, aviation had taken on an increased level of importance, as illustrated by establishing the independent Royal Air Force (RAF) on 1 April 1918. The importance of aviation and air power was not lost on the self-governing Dominions of the British Empire. Inspired by the experience of the Australian Flying Corps and the creation of the RAF, Australia began looking toward an independent air force during the closing stages of the First World War. This vision was soon realised with the creation of the Australian Air Force (RAAF) on 31 March 1921 (the ‘Royal’ prefix was added in May). New Zealand, the smaller dominion, was understandably slower during the interwar period. The New Zealand Permanent Air Force came into being on 14 June 1923 and grew slowly, much to the frustration of the United Kingdom (pp. 70-1). It is the experience of these two forces that Alex Spencer, a Curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in the United States, discusses in his new book, British Imperial Air Power.

Focussing on the Australian and New Zealand experience, British Imperial Air Power, derived from Spencer’s 2009 PhD thesis from Auburn University, offers one of the few contributions about military aviation developments in the Pacific dominions during the interwar period. Although the Australian and New Zealand experience of air power during has been examined, the interwar period is decidedly less studied. This is unfortunate; a far more comprehensive understanding of the air war during the Second World War can be gained by understanding the many steps taken between the wars. The immense technological, tactical, and organisational developments made during this period, as a direct result of First World War experiences, undeniably affected how air power was used in the next war. As such, as well as being an essential contribution to the discussion over the development of air power in Australia and New Zealand specifically, Spencer’s work is more generally a vital contribution to air power history of the interwar period. Spencer takes a thematic approach to the topic, beginning with the imperial air defence schemes of 1918 and 1919, which leveraged the progress made in military aviation during the war (pp. 11-36). Other themes investigated include the Empire’s air defence, post-war air transport, airships, disarmament and eventual rearmament, and the final preparations for war.

Looking at the development of the air forces of Australia and New Zealand through the imperial lens, Spencer places the dominions within the context of the British Empire. This includes a discussion of the RAF’s own struggles, namely, its fight to remain an independent service and its battle for resources throughout the interwar period. Wider economic and political issues are also discussed, including the Great Depression and the Geneva disarmament discussions, which had the potential to make building and modernising air forces more difficult (pp. 173-94). Spencer’s analysis of the broader economic, political, and imperial context is valuable. The dominions’ air forces were not created and developed in a vacuum; external factors inevitably influenced them. Additionally, Australia and New Zealand faced problems in developing their air forces – including interservice rivalry, difficulty obtaining resources, and economic restrictions – which were not unique to these dominions. Rather, they were problems faced worldwide, not least in Britain itself. Therefore, the RAF’s imperial context and experience are valuable inclusions in Spencer’s work.

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Two unidentified Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) aircrew wearing flying clothing and standing in front of an Airco (de Havilland) DH9 two-seat light bomber. This is one of 29 DH9 models that the British government gave to the fledgling RAAF as an Imperial Gift to Australia in 1920. (Source: Asutalian War Memorial)

In addition to these broader considerations, Spencer discusses the emergence of a more immediate threat to Australia and New Zealand: Japan (p. 38). Given the dislocation of the Pacific dominions from Britain, it is not surprising that fears of attacks by Japan influenced their plans for local air defence (p. 149). Spencer also discusses the renewal of Britain’s alliance with Japan (the Anglo-Japanese Alliance), which occurred to the consternation of Australia and New Zealand (p. 52). This demonstrated some cracks that were beginning to form between Britain and the Pacific dominions. Britain appeared less interested in the Japanese threat, in some instances appearing to completely disregard it as a threat despite the concerns of the dominions. Spencer adds to this issue by discussing the movement away from complete dependence on Britain and forging a closer relationship with the United States as an ally. Under the assumption that the United States had a greater interest in the Pacific area than Britain, Australia increasingly aligned itself with America. Additionally, with supply issues in Britain inhibiting the RAAF’s ability to acquire aircraft, Australia turned to the United States for new aircraft (p. 207). Spencer’s discussion of this provides essential context for the close relationship between the United States and Australia, which was apparent from the Second World War.

Spencer takes his work a step further by incorporating civil aviation’s development in Britain and the dominions, albeit on a much smaller scale. Importantly, he links this to the concurrent development of military aviation (p. 86). This is rare; military and civil aviation are usually treated quite separately. As Spencer points out, however, they were not entirely separate efforts. In addition to proving the value of aircraft in a military capacity, the First World War also opened the door for the possibility of civil aviation. For Australia, both veterans of the air war propelled spheres of aviation. While some Australians – such as Richard Williams and Stanley Goble – continued in the military and were instrumental in the RAAF’s early years, others – including Hudson Fysh, Paul McGinness, and Charles Kingsford Smith – pursued careers in civil aviation upon returning home. Fysh and McGinness, along with Fergus McMaster, founded the Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services (QANTAS), while Smith completed a series of daring long-distance flights. With developments in military and civil aviation taking place parallel to one another during the interwar period, it is entirely appropriate to discuss the latter in Spencer’s work. Spencer explains that civil aviation of the era included mapping routes to connect Britain and the dominions, which was undoubtedly an important effort in terms of aerial defence (p. 249-50).

Spencer’s work is not without its problems. On a surface level, an unfortunate typographical error (Jan Smuts is incorrectly referred to as ‘Ian Smuts’) within the first 15 pages leaps out at the reader (p. 15). Additionally, large block quotes are frequently used, often becoming a distraction from the main text. In many cases, the author could have effectively summarised these and added little to no value by being quoted in full. More significantly, there is an uneven focus throughout the book: the bulk of Spencer’s analysis is dedicated to Australia, with New Zealand’s experience receiving less attention. This is understandable given the disparity in the size of the air forces and the advancements each made. However, Spencer should have explained this in the introduction to avoid the reader expecting to see an even comparative study of the two.

With these minor issues aside, Spencer presents a thoroughly researched and well-reasoned account of the formation of Australia and New Zealand’s air forces and the developments and challenges they faced during the lead-up to the Second World War. This includes archival research in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, focusing on air ministry and air department records and political decisions. Importantly, this is placed within the context of the Empire and international events, providing a broader view of the various difficulties faced during the interwar period. As such, Spencer’s work is an important contribution to this underserved period in military history.

N.B. You can listen to an interview with Dr Alex Spencer about his book here.

Ashleigh Brown is a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales, Canberra. Her thesis focuses on the creation and interwar development of the Royal Australian Air Force. Ashleigh is a researcher for the Official History of Australian Operations in Iraq & Afghanistan and Australian Peacekeeping Operations in East Timor, where her focus is Australia’s commitment to Afghanistan between 2005 and 2010. She is also an editor at From Balloons to Drones. Her research interests include the First World War, the interwar period, recent conflicts, air power, and military command. Ashleigh can be found on Twitter at @ash__brown.

Header Image: A Line up of two Vickers Vildebeests of the Royal New Zealand Air Force at RNZAF Station Wigram in the late-1930s. Vildebeest NZ108 is in the foreground. The flashes on the fuselage and wheel spats are blue. (Source: Air Force Museum of New Zealand)

#Podcast – The Apollo Program in Global Politics: An Interview with Dr Teasel Muir-Harmony

#Podcast – The Apollo Program in Global Politics: An Interview with Dr Teasel Muir-Harmony

Editorial Note: Led by our Editor Dr Mike Hankins, From Balloons to Drones produces a monthly podcast that provides an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and provides a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here. You can also find our podcast on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.

The Apollo program, including the moon landing, is one of the most famous events in world history, and one of the most inspirational. Dr Teasel Muir-Harmony, the Curator of the Apollo collection at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, joins us to re-evaluate Apollo and look at its political dimensions across the world. 

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Dr Teasel Muir-Harmony is a historian of science and technology and Curator of the Apollo Spacecraft Collection at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Before coming to the Smithsonian Institution, she earned a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and held positions at the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics and the Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum. Her most recent book is Operation Moonglow: A Political History of Project Apollo (2020).

Header image: The Apollo 15 Service Module as viewed from the Apollo Lunar Module, 2 August 1971. (Source: Wikimedia)

 

#Podcast – British Imperial Air Power: An Interview with Dr Alex Spencer

#Podcast – British Imperial Air Power: An Interview with Dr Alex Spencer

Editorial Note: Led by our Editor Dr Mike Hankins, From Balloons to Drones produces a monthly podcast that provides an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and provides a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here. You can also find our podcast on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.

The years between the First and Second World War was a very important time for the development of air power, and this was especially true in Australia and New Zealand. Dr Alex Spencer, curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, joins us to talk about these developments, which he discusses in his new book: British Imperial Air Power: The Royal Air Forces and the Defense of Australia and New Zealand Between the World Wars.

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Dr Alex Spencer is a Curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum where he curates two collections. Together these collections include the Supermarine Spitfire, Hawker Hurricane, de Havilland Mosquito, Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Me 262, Heinkel He 219, Arado Ar 234, and over sixteen thousand artifacts of personal items, including uniforms, flight clothing, memorabilia, ribbons, and medals. He received his PhD in Modern European History from Auburn University. His research focuses on British and Commonwealth military aviation during the 20th Century. He was the coeditor of Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum: An Autobiography.

Header Image: A Line up of two Vickers Vildebeests of the Royal New Zealand Air Force at RNZAF Station Wigram in the late-1930s. Vildebeest NZ108 is in the foreground. The flashes on the fuselage and wheel spats are blue. (Source: Air Force Museum of New Zealand)

#AirWarBooks – Dr Michael Hankins

#AirWarBooks – Dr Michael Hankins

Editorial Note: In the next instalment of our Air War Books series, our Podcast Editor, Dr Michael Hankins, discusses the ten books that have influenced and shaped his writing as an air power historian.

Before I became a historian, I was a professional musician, and one of the most fun things that musicians do is sit around and talk about their influences. What did you listen to over the years that made you play the way that you play and compose music the way you do? The #AirWarBooks series here is a similar opportunity for us air power historians to talk about what books influenced us most. But, of course, the way any historian interrogates the past is rooted in many things, not just what books they read, but also their values, beliefs, background, and maybe even what kind of music they like.

That said, here are ten books that influenced my approach to studying and writing about air power history and technology. Not all of them are about aviation, but they shaped my approach to history in key ways. I’ll discuss the non-aviation books first:

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J.E. Lendon, Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006). So why is a book about Greco-Roman Warfare on my list of military aviation books? Because Lendon’s amazing work links culture and memory to the practice of warfare in specific and compelling ways. He argues that the Greeks and the Romans looked to the past – a culturally constructed, imagined past—to inform what they thought warfare should look like. I noticed some similar trends when I studied fighter pilot culture and began working on my first book, Flying Camelot. I don’t think I could have written that book without Lendon’s influence.

David Nye, America as Second Creation: Technology and Narratives of New Beginnings (Boston, MS: MIT Press, 2003). This book is not about aircraft specifically, but it is about the cultural power of technology. I’ve been deeply influenced by Nye’s examination of how specific technologies came to symbolize cultural narratives about the origins and evolution of the United States. The idea that a piece of technology could be a symbol that tells a specific story to a specific culture, almost defining their sense of identity in a way, is an idea that continues to define my own work.

Jill Lepore, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (New York: Vintage, 1998). There may not have been any aircraft in King Phillip’s War, but what I found so compelling about Lepore’s work here is the power of how people talk about the past. This book is less about the war and more about how it came to be remembered by the opposing sides, and how the language used to describe the past can create whole systems of meaning that shape the future. This idea, so powerfully explored here, has shaped my approach to studying later conflicts from the Korean and Vietnam Wars to the Gulf War and beyond.

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Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (New York: Free Press, 1989). Finally, some aeroplanes! There is a rich literature about air power in the Vietnam War, but I still think Clodfelter’s classic holds up as one of the most important. Even over 30 years later, his argument is still controversial: that strategic bombing in Vietnam was not effective, that air power, although very important, has limits. Nevertheless, his explanation and comparison of the different goals, limits, and methods of the Johnson and Nixon administrations’ approaches to bombing is still useful and insightful. Even for those who disagree with it, this book remains a giant in the field for a reason.

John Flanagan, Vietnam Above the Treetops: A Forward Air Controller Reports (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1992). There are a lot of pilot and aircrew memoirs from Vietnam, and many of them are very good. But, for some reason, Flanagan’s tale of flying O-1 Bird Dogs on the incredibly dangerous low-and-slow FAC missions in Southeast Asia has stuck with me much more than any other pilot memoirs I’ve read. Starting at the USAF Academy, Flanagan was a deeply principled man who was surprised at how the military handled itself in Vietnam. His story includes the way he wrestled with himself about the war and described in detail the brutal missions and the horrific things he saw. His story also includes a detailed look at how the US brought South Korean troops into the war – something not covered much in other works. There are many great memoirs to read, but if you can only read one, this would be my pick.

Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004). Of all the books on bombing in the Second World War (and there are seemingly too many to count), Biddle’s work is one of the best. She highlights one of major themes in air power history: the disconnect between the promises of air power and its actual results on the battlefield. This work is a wonderful look at the evolution of an idea – how strategic bombing theory grew and changed over time, and how that idea and the assumptions that grew to accompany it influenced air power leaders on both sides of the Atlantic to interpret the air war in particular ways. This mode of analysing not only what happened, but what people thought about what happened, is something I’ve tried to carry through in my own work.

Steven Fino, Tiger Check: Automating the US Air Force Fighter Pilot in Air-to-Air Combat, 1950–1980 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). Fino’s study of the evolution of fighter pilot cockpits, detailing the F-86 Sabre, F-4 Phantom, and F-15 Eagle, is still one of my favourite histories of technology. That’s not just because it’s about three of my favourite aircraft, but because of how deftly Fino – himself a former Eagle driver – connects that technology to the people using it. He illustrates the complex interactions between human and machine in the high-stress combat situation of flying fighters, and how the culture of fighter pilots evolved along with the technology. I’ve also never seen another book be so technically detailed while remaining so accessible.

Linda Robertson, The Dream of Civilized Warfare: World War I Flying Aces and the American Imagination (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2005). As a Professor of Media as opposed to a historian, Robertson comes at this study of First World War pilots with a fresh perspective. She examines how the image of the knights of the air (inaccurate as it is) was constructed and took such a grip on the public and the flyers themselves. It’s a study of the public perception of the war and of flying and expands the literature on the First World War in interesting ways.

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Stephen Bourque, Beyond the Beach: The Allied War Against France (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018). Books about bombing during the Second World War are plenty, but few of them critique the allied effort in quite the way that Bourque does here. By travelling across France and consulting local archives, then comparing them to the official USAAF records, Bourque demonstrates the horrific true costs of the allied bombing campaign for French civilians. Almost as a companion piece to Tami Davis Biddle’s work, Bourque shows the human, emotional, and deeply personal costs of inaccurate bombing attacks, which wreaked destruction over France, killing tens of thousands of civilians. I read many books about bombing theory and doctrine, but this book makes those things real on a human level and made me look in a new way at a historical event that I thought I understood.

C.R. Anderegg, Sierra Hotel: Flying Air Force Fighters in the Decade After Vietnam (Washington DC: Air Force History and Museums Program, 2001). I’m not sure what it is about this book that keeps drawing me back. It’s a short volume about the transition from the Vietnam-era fighters like the F-4 Phantom, to the more advanced F-15 Eagle fighters of the 70s and 80s, and the suite of other changes that accompanied that shift, from more advanced air-to-air missiles like the AIM-9L to the changing nature of pilot culture, tactics, and training practices. Nevertheless, Anderegg’s approach – part history, part memoir – makes for very compelling, engaging reading about a fascinating topic. Maybe it’s that the subject matter is what my work focuses on, or maybe it’s the engaging writing style and interesting anecdotes, but I keep finding myself returning to this one again and again.

Dr Michael Hankins is the Curator for US Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps post-World War II Aviation at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and the author of Flying Camelot: The F-15, the F-16, and the Weaponization of Fighter Pilot Nostalgia (2021). He is a former Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and former Instructor of Military History at the US Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD in history from Kansas State University in 2018 and his master’s in history from the University of North Texas in 2013. He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header image: A US Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft assigned to the 18th Aggressor Squadron takes off during Red Flag-Alaska 12-3 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, 6 August 2012. Red Flag-Alaska is a series of Pacific Air Forces commander-directed field training exercises for US and partner nation forces, providing combined offensive counter-air, interdiction, close air support, and large force employment training in a simulated combat environment. (Source: Wikimedia)