Air Power History in Review for 2013

At Airminded, Brett posited the question of book of the year. However, rather than choose one, I thought I would provide an overview of some of the key works that have emerged this year and look forward to some potential highlights next year.

For me there have been three outstanding books this year. Firstly, Richard Overy’s long awaited The Bombing War is a mammoth tome and whether or not you agree with his conclusions, it will remain the standard work on the subject for many years to come.[1] There is a clear shift from his early work present. There is a more moral perspective prevalent in this work compared to Overy’s previous works that had a more realist stance to them. Did bombing achieve what it set out to do, no, there was, as Biddle has shown in Rhetoric and Reality, a clear difference between what was being advocated and what was achieved.[2] Does this mean that effort should have been directed to other areas? No, to me, the argument that more of the RAF should have been deployed to the Mediterranean in 1941 or diverted to support operations over the Atlantic ignores issues such as force ratios required to support these campaigns. Clearly, you can put too much air power over the battlespace without achieving strategic effect. Indeed, it is possible to suggest that this was the root of the problem prevalent in some of the pre-war rhetoric concerning bombing. Additionally, the argument that Bomber Command should have been diverted in 1942 to reinforce Coastal Command during the Battle of the Atlantic ignores the question of what would have happened to these forces for a minimum of six months while they were retrained. Flying over the sparse featureless Atlantic is a very different proposition to flying over land and ignores the political context of the strategic bombing command in terms of moral support for the Soviet Union. The West had to be seen to be doing something. Nonetheless, putting aside moral arguments, the allies accepted that, ‘The gloves will have to come off’, and by 1944 were using the bomber forces to the fullest. I think some historians, though not Overy, tend to forget that air power, not aviation, was only 30 years old when America entered the war when thinking about its theoretical and doctrinal underpinnings.

This question of the immaturity of air power theory on the outbreak of the Second World War brings me to the second of this year’s excellent books; Thomas Hippler’s Bombing the People.[3] This is an erudite examination of the evolution of Giulio Douhet’s strategic thought. Douhet remains a controversial figure due to his association with strategic bombing as advocated in Command of the Air. However, Hippler provides some useful insights into the foundation of Dohet’s thinking including the issue of his advocating the banning of aviation prior to the First World War. This shift from pacifism to advocate of the knockout blow has never really been examined and postulates the question of why? Additionally, Hippler provides balance to Douhet’s development by examining the so-called ‘anti-Douhet’, Amedeo Mecozzi. Mecozzi, like Colonel John Boyd, never published a systematized theory but clearly questioned Douhet’s assumptions. This book is worth reading in order to understand these opposing views but also to consider how strategic thought evolves. If pushed this would be my book of the year.

The final notable book for me this year, while actually published in 2012, has been Christopher Rein’s The North African Air Campaign.[4] This book focusses on the US Army Air Force’s experience up to Salerno in 1943 and does a good job of showing that while there were clear attempt to develop a strategic bombing doctrine pre-Second World War, USAAF did not ignore its support mission. Indeed, rationally, how could it given that it was part of the US Army. The other useful aspect of this work is its focus on the Mediterranean, which despite Gladman and Hall’s work remain an under examined theatre of operation from an air power perspective. Indeed, we still need a good academic history of the RAF’s Western Desert Air Force in my opinion. Air power history of the Second World War has too long focussed on strategic bombing or the Battle of Britain when there is much more besides. In this respect, Rein does a valuable service by showing that a good academic operational history can be produced.

Of the honourable mentions, Gary Sheffield and Peter Gray’s recent edited collection Changing War provides some useful essays on the RAF in 1918.[5] Gray’s contribution on the Air Ministry is particularly notable while Peter Dye’s chapter on aviation logistics provides a useful portend of his forthcoming PhD on this very subject.[6] Logistics are an overlooked subject but vital to our understanding of modern war and deserves greater attention. Another honourable mention is Vincent Orange’s Churchill and His Airmen.[7] This was his last book before he passed away at the end on 2012. A great loss to the air power community irrelevant of whether you agree with some of his views. This book is of particular interest to me as his research papers were donated to the RAF Museum and I am going to be going through them in the next few weeks as we begin accessioning them to our catalogue. It will be interesting to view these valuable sources given the subject of my PhD. Finally, I have just started reading Jeffrey Smith’s Tomorrow’s Air Force, which seeks to try to map a future path for the US Air Force using organisational change models.[8] Technically listed as a release for 2014, I am reviewing this for H-Diplo. It will be interesting to finish this as I am all for interdisciplinary methodologies when they work. I would suggest that this should be read in conjunction with Robert Farley’s Grounded when that is published next year.[9]

There is only one dishonourable mention and this is Maryam Philpott’s Air and Sea Power in World War I.[10] I will not go over the issues with this book but simple point you back to my review of it here.

There are a couple of books that I have not managed to get hold of this year but will endeavour to purchase in the New Year. Notable are Benjamin Lambeth’s The Unseen War, which examines the role of air power in Saddam Hussein’s downfall. Lambeth is very much pro-air power so this could be interesting.[11] Jennifer Van Vleck’s Empire of the Air appears to be a worthy addition to the literature on the evolution of America as an aerospace nation both industrially and culturally.[12] Thomas Wildenberg’s Billy Mitchell’s War should be a useful contribution to this controversial airmen’s legacy while James Libby’s Alexander P. de Seversky and the Quest for Air Power may offer some insights in to the latter’s life.[13] Finally, Gavin Bailey’s The Arsenal of Democracy seeks to place the issue of American aircraft supply to Great Britain during the early Second World War into its broader strategic and diplomatic context.[14]

Next year is also shaping up well with some interesting projects coming to fruition. Of course, Brett Holman will be publishing his thesis and I look forward to this.[15] Additionally, I.B. Tauris will be publishing Michele Haapmaaki’s The Coming of the Aerial War, which examines similar themes to Brett so a comparison will be required.[16] Dietmar Süss’ Death from the Skies will seek to provide a comparative examination of how British and German populations coped with bombing during the Second World War.[17] Finally, John Andreas Olsen will offer a collection of edited essays examining some of the contemporary challenges facing European air forces.[18]

Are there still gaps? Absolutely, air power history is a fertile field but from an operational perspective, there has been too much focus on issues relating to doctrine and policy. We still know very little about the manpower and organisational aspects of air forces and how they have evolved and what norms underpin these. There is research being done on these themes, including my own research, which will hopefully open up more avenues for examination. I know of a few exciting PhDs in progress that will provide some interesting perspectives but they are still a year or two off.  In many respects, air power history, much like air power itself, remains an immature subject that is only now starting to open up and integrate future research strands. For example, far more research is required on the relationship between the state, the aviation industry and how this fits into traditional operational considerations.

[1] Richard Overy, The Bombing War: Europe, 1939-1945 (London: Allen Lane, 2013).

[2] 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, 2002).

[3] Thomas Hippler, Bombing the People: Giulio Douhet and the Foundations of Air Power Strategy, 1884-1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[4] Christopher Rein, The North African Campaign: US Army Air Forces from El Alamein to Salerno (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2012).

[5] Gary Sheffield and Peter Gray (eds.), The British Army, the Hundred Days Campaign and the Birth of the Royal Air Force, 1918 (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013).

[6] Peter Gray, ‘The Air Ministry and the Formation of the Royal Air Force’ in Sheffield and Gray (eds.), The British Army, pp. 135-148; Peter Dye, ‘The Genesis of Modern Warfare: The Contribution of Aviation Logistics’ in Sheffield and Gray (eds.), The British Army, pp. 171-190.

[7] Vincent Orange, Churchill and His Airmen: Relationships, Intrigue and Policy Making, 1914-1945 (London: Grub Street, 2013).

[8] Jeffrey J. Smith, Tomorrow’s Air Force: Tracing the Past, Shaping the Future (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2014).

[9] Robert Farley, Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, Forthcoming (2014))

[10] Maryam Philpott, Air and Sea Power in World War I: Combat and Experience in the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Navy (London: I.B. Tauris, 2013).

[11] Benjamin Lambeth, The Unseen War: Allied Air Power and the Takedown of Saddam Hussein (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013).

[12] Jennifer Van Vleck, Empire of the Air: Aviation and the American Ascendancy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

[13] Thomas Wildenberg, Billy Mitchell’s War: The Army Air Corps and the Challenge to Seapower (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013); James Libby, Alexander P. de Seversky and the Quest for Air Power (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2013).

[14] Gavin Bailey, The Arsenal of Democracy: Aircraft Supply and the Evolution of the Anglo-American Alliance, 1938-1942 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013).

[15] Brett Holman, The Next War in the Air: Britain’s Fear of the Bomber, 1908-1941 (Farnham: Ashgate, Forthcoming (2014)).

[16] Michele Haapmaaki, The Coming of the Aerial War: Culture and the Fear of Airborne Attack in Inter-war Britain (London: I.B. Tauris, Fortchoming (2014)).

[17] Dietmar Süss, Death from the Skies: How the British and Germans Survived Bombing in World War II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, Forthcoming (2014)).

[18] John Andreas Olsen (ed.), European Air Power: Challenges and Opportunities (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, Forthcoming (2014)).

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