The Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World War

The Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World WarThe Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World War by Samuel Hynes
ISBN: 0374278008
on October 21, 2014
Genres: Aviation
Pages: 336

My initial impression of this book by its cover, was pretty skeptical. Was it one more book about famous aces, rehashing the stories that have been told many times before? Was it one of the flood of books written quickly to cash in on the WW1 centennial? After reading just a couple dozen pages, however, I was pleasantly surprised at how wrong I had been. This is an incredibly insightful overview of what it was like to be an American pilot in the First World War. It is not simply a repeat of war stories. Using the writings of many individuals, Hynes describes the pilots’ prewar lives, their civilian and military flight training, their reactions to living in foreign countries, their time in combat, and how their experiences affected their lives afterward if they survived.

The author takes full advantage of his experience as a young pilot in WW2 to describe what the WW1 young men went through and what they thought about it. This level of understanding enables him to share these insights with his readers.

One example among many will suffice to illustrate this. Hynes comments (p.212) on the common phenomenon of pilots being disgusted by their hometown newspapers’ exaggerated accounts of events in which they participated: “Pilots know that the newspaper version will miss the important details: the roles the other pilots on the patrol played, and what the Boche did, and the weather, and the way luck enters in, and fear, and nerves. Civilians won’t get it right… And so pilots at the front withdraw into their pilots’ world, where there are other young men like themselves who understand the contingencies of combat….”

One of the other joys of this book is how Hynes puts the actions and attitudes of these young pilots into their historical, cultural, and socio-economic contexts. In reading it, you start to understand for the first time how their views were shaped by such factors as contemporary concepts of manhood; an upper-class, Ivy League background (for many); grandfathers who were Civil War veterans; etc. Hynes submerges you in the American life of the turn of the last century and the result is fascinating.

The raw material for this excellent book consisted of the first-person writings of over 60 individual pilots. As I was reading, it occurred to me that a hundred writers could have started with the same raw material but that probably none of them would have interpreted it with the same insight and brilliance. Whether this will be your first exposure to World War One aviation or you’ve already read dozens of books on the subject, I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Steve Suddaby, past president of WW1HA. This is only the second time he has awarded a book five stars on an Amazon.com review.

New York Times: “…both thrilling and poignant…

The Washington Post: “A terrific book.”

Kirkus Review: “…a marvelously fluid narrative.

The First Blitz: Bombing London in the First World War

The First Blitz: Bombing London in the First World WarThe First Blitz: Bombing London in the First World War by Ian Castle
ISBN: 1472815297
Published by Osprey Publishing on October 20, 2015
Genres: Aviation
Pages: 204

Ian Castle tells the story of the Zeppelin, Gotha, and Giant air raids on London in WW1. It is one of the best overviews in print, devoting a fair amount of attention to the raids’ effects on the populace but also covering well all the other aspects of the topic.

The maps are beautiful and very helpful in guiding the reader. This reviewer walked the route taken by Heinrich Mathy’s Zeppelin L13 on its devastating September 1915 raid and visited a number of other sites described in the text. The combination of Castle’s descriptions, maps, and Christa Hook’s paintings get the reader quite close to being on the sites themselves.

Osprey reprinted and updated two of Castle’s earlier works to create this single volume. London 1914-17: The Zeppelin Menace and London 1917-18: The Bomber Blitz. If you have neither or only one of them, however, this book is well worth reading. The use of footnotes would have improved this history, but that is a small complaint about this work that is otherwise exceptional.

Reviewed by Steve Suddaby, past president of WW1HA

Oswald Boelcke: Germany’s First Fighter Ace and Father of Air Combat

Oswald Boelcke: Germany’s First Fighter Ace and Father of Air CombatOswald Boelcke: Germany's First Fighter Ace and Father of Air Combat by Rg Head
ISBN: 1910690236
Published by Grub Street on August 5, 2016
Genres: Aviation
Pages: 240

Head’s distinguished U.S. Air Force career involved flying several combat aircraft and several assignments in Vietnam. His work on Boelcke reflects Head’s insights on how aerial combat assumed a definitive role thanks to Boelcke’s leadership and legacy.

The book is a leisure read, covering aviators, the physical flying environment, and the rewards associated with combat aviation.

The formation and evolution of Germany’s air service is interweaved with Boelcke’s life. Information on aeroplanes is covered in detail, particularly the Fokker Eindecker models and Albatros series that replaced it.

Most important is the discussion of Boelcke’s Dicta, the foundation of formal German fighter tactic principles he wrote in 1916 that still apply today (although not always attributed to him). Boelcke’s concept of deploying fighters in squadron formation produced higher effectiveness and protection especially when flying together under the lead of an expert pilot.

The appendices include Boelcke’s chronology, the aces Boelcke trained (including the Red Baron), a detailed evolution of the Albatros fighter, and four of Boelcke’s contemporaries who also wrote their views on aerial tactics.

Abridged from review by Terrence Finnegan in RoadstotheGreatWar-ww1.blogspot.com/

One in a Thousand: The Life and Death of Captain Eddie McKay, Royal Flying Corps

One in a Thousand: The Life and Death of Captain Eddie McKay, Royal Flying CorpsOne in a Thousand: The Life and Death of Captain Eddie McKay, Royal Flying Corps by Graham Broad
ISBN: 1442607467
Published by University of Toronto Press on March 20, 2017
Genres: Aviation
Pages: 208

Tim Cook, a historian at the Canadian War Museum, wrote that this “well-written and deeply researched microhistory offers a detailed biography of one of Canada’s most important fighter pilots from the Great War.” Captain Eddie McKay flew with No. 24 Squadron and fought over the Somme offensive from July-October 1916, and survived “Bloody April” in 1917. McKay disappeared on 28 December as commander of “A” Flight, No. 23 Squadron. He was last seen diving on a German two-seater southeast of Ypres.

This book is unusual among Great War aviation titles because, as Cook comments, “[Broad] skillfully weaves… a robust defence of the historical process as he lays out the writing of the history with its successes and failures, investigative victories, and time-consuming historical dead ends. This forensic deconstruction of historical methods, tools, and approaches is first class.”

Professor Broad’s extensive notes on how to identify relevant source materials, how to pose questions, and how to assemble a book into a coherent story are invaluable.

Reviewed by Dana Lombardy, publisher of WWOI

The Last Flight of the L31 and L32

The Last Flight of the L31 and L32The Last Flight of the L31: The True Story of the Potters Bar Zeppelin by R.L. Rimell
ISBN: 978-1-906798-47-5
Published by Albatros Productions on 2016
Genres: Aviation
Pages: 24

 

 

 

The Last Flight of the L31 and L32The Last Flight of the L32: The True Story of the Billericay Zeppelin by R.L. Rimell
ISBN: 78-1-906798-47-2
Published by Albatros Productions on 2016
Genres: Aviation
Pages: 24

Ray Rimell’s two books on Zeppelins include an astounding wealth of new information and photographs. These two Zeppelins were shot down a week apart over England in 1916 and ended the lives of two of the Germany Navy’s most capable airship commanders, Heinrich Mathy and Werner Petersen.

The two slim monographs discuss the careers of Mathy and Peterson, the missions of L31 and L32, their demise in September and October 1916, the British pilots who brought down the airships, the sites where they fell, and what happened to the remains of the Zeppelin crews.

Both footnoted books are profusely illustrated with photographs (many new to this reviewer), color and B&W artwork and aircraft sketches, as well as WW1-era postcards that present a cultural view of how British and German civilians perceived the Zeppelin raids. Appendices include sources and suggestions for places to visit in England that preserve the histories of the L31 and L32.

Reviewed by Steve Suddaby, past president of WW1HA. In the 1990s he interviewed survivors of Zeppelin attacks and walked the paths of two of Heinrich Mathy’s raids.

Grim Reapers: French Escadrille 94 in World War I

Grim Reapers: French Escadrille 94 in World War IGrim Reapers: French Escadrille 94 in World War I by Jon Guttman
ISBN: 193588140X
Published by Aeronaut Books on March 15, 2016
Genres: Aviation
Pages: 94

This is an exceptional squadron history. It is based on interviews with several pilots that were conducted as far back as the 1970s. Guttman provides insightful, well-written context on the pilots, their aircraft, markings, their adversaries, and daily squadron life.

Escadrille N.94 was created in May 1917, started by flying Nieuport 24s and later transitioned to Spad 7s and 13s as Spa.94. In early 1918, N.94 was split to form a new escadrille, N.156. The latter was one of the few units to fly the Morane-Saulnier AI, a beautiful but fatally flawed high-wing monoplane. The author’s discussion of the short combat history of this little-known fighter is one of many gems in this account.

A number of Americans flew in Escadrilles 94 and 156, including the ace David Putnam and the little-known Austen Crehore. Sergent Crehore was one of the few Americans to be inducted as a Chevalier of the French Légion d’Honneur. (His story is one that deserves to be remembered.) Very highly recommended.

Reviewed by Steve Suddaby, past president of WW1HA

The Great War’s Finest: An Operational History of the German Air Service, Volume I: Western Front 1914

The Great War’s Finest: An Operational History of the German Air Service, Volume I: Western Front 1914The Great War's Finest: An Operational History of the German Air Service (Operational History of the Imperial German Air Service) (Volume 1) by Matt Bowden
ISBN: 1935881582
Published by Aeronaut Books on 2017
Genres: Aviation
Pages: 378

The Over the Front review of this extraordinary new study described it as a “large-format volume with personal accounts and large-size color and black & white photos, as well as many clear charts [also in color] and multi-color maps. The latter are important to understanding the scope and sweep of the ground war, which aviators strived to support.”

Bowden’s well-footnoted, well-organized tome utilizes primary sources, official publications, squadron histories, after-action reports, and memoirs, many never before published in English. It is much more than a summary of German aviation activities at the start of the war. The effective relationship between Feldflieger Abteilungen (Field Flying Sections) and the advancing armies is explained in the narrative and delineated in several orders-of-battle at key points during the 1914 campaign in the West.

The importance of the Fliegertruppe was not only in reconnaissance, but also in working closely with artillery batteries that contributed to the successes of the German armies during the Battle of The Frontiers. This book is highly recommended and future volumes are eagerly awaited.

Reviewed by Dana Lombardy, publisher of World War One Illustrated

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

Eyes All Over the Sky: Aerial Reconnaissance in the First World WarEyes All Over the Sky: Aerial Reconnaissance in the First World War by James Streckfuss
ISBN: 1612003672
Published by Casemate on July 29, 2016
Genres: Aviation
Pages: 240

This is not only a good book, it’s an important book. Streckfuss argues convincingly that the least-studied segment of WW1 aviation, aerial reconnaissance, was also the most important. The landplanes, seaplanes, and captive balloons devoted to observation turned artillery into a dominant force on the battlefield by extending its range and accuracy to an extent unimaginable in past wars.

Aerial photography conducted by planes and balloons became the most important intelligence source by far for battlefield commanders at all levels. For the first time in history, commanders did not have to wonder what was over the next hill—weather permitting, they had photographs and photo-based maps, some of which were only hours old.

Despite its critical role, aerial reconnaissance aircraft ended up taking a back seat to the fighters and bombers then and since. The mystique of the fighter pilot is well known, but the offensive “air power” of bombers between the wars eclipsed everything.

This well-researched history belongs on the shelf of anyone with a serious interest in the air war or the ground war of 1914-1918.

Reviewed by Steve Suddaby, past president of WW1HA

Billy Bishop VC Lone Wolf Hunter: The RAF Ace Re-Examined

Billy Bishop VC Lone Wolf Hunter: The RAF Ace Re-ExaminedBilly Bishop VC Lone Wolf Hunter: The RAF Ace Re-Examined by Peter Kilduff
ISBN: 190980813X
Published by Grub Street on October 19, 2014
Genres: Aviation
Pages: 192

Peter Kilduff is recognized as an authority on WW1 aviation and the Red Baron (Manfred von Richthofen) in particular. As an expert on German records, Kilduff describes what the German records say and don’t say regarding each of Bishop’s 72 aerial victories.

The German aviation records are incomplete due to WW2 aerial bombing, others were lost or didn’t make it into WW1 records, and some are too vague for verifying particular aerial combats.

It quickly becomes clear, however, that no conclusions about the veracity of a victory claim by Bishop or anyone else is possible simply because of a lack of German records regarding that event. This is not a hagiography, however. Kilduff points out that Bishop “inflated” the drama of his combats in his private letters home and “embellished” his stories in later years.

Billy Bishop VC contains all of the qualities that have made Peter Kilduff’s biographies such outstanding works. This is an indispensable work for anyone seeking to understand Billy Bishop’s story.

Steve Suddaby, past president WW1HA

Bill Lambert: World War I Flying Ace

Bill Lambert: World War I Flying AceBill Lambert: World War I Flying Ace by Samuel J. Wilson
ISBN: 1476664676
Published by McFarland & Company on August 12, 2016
Genres: Aviation
Pages: 266

American born Lambert apparently went to Canada in late 1915 and tried to enlist, but instead became a chemist making explosives in a factory. Before the U.S. declared war, Lambert sought to join the British Royal Flying Corps that was recruiting in Toronto. He was accepted in June 1917 and received only four rather than the standard six to eight weeks of basic training. Wilson speculates that it was shortened due to the heavy losses suffered by the RFC during “Bloody April” of 1917. Surprisingly, he was sent home to Ohio for a brief visit before being sent overseas.

Lambert flew old Avros and the single-seat Sopwith Pup (“one of the nicest machines that any pilot could want”). He disliked the Sopwith Camel, and enjoyed the SPAD although “it would fall like a brick.” Lambert scored his 22 aerial kills flying the S.E.5a in No. 24 Squadron starting in March 1918. A nervous breakdown in August ended his WW1 career.

Wilson’s book is well written, entertaining, and covers Lambert’s post-WW1 experiences without ignoring his caustic personality.
Reviewed by Dana Lombardy, publisher of WWOI