Overarching view of the air war

These two volumes are a solid starting point for understanding the British and Commonwealth air war


This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

There is no shortage of books on the Royal Air Force and its Commonwealth sister air forces in the Second World War, in all the wartime theatres, and in a variety of strategic roles. Ben Kite, an army officer specialising in intelligence assessment, and a recent addition to the stable of historians writing on the war, sets out in these two large volumes to bring together the many separate histories on the RAF and Commonwealth wartime experience.

Through Adversity: Britain and the Commonwealth’s War in the Air: Volume 1, by Ben Kite, Helion, £29.95

Rather than a continuous narrative, which is by now well-known, he has chosen to approach the subject by theme. The result is a very readable and wide-ranging history that pays tribute to the contribution made by the air forces in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa — part of the story all too often neglected or abbreviated.

The first volume tackles the formal strategic tasks confronting the British and Commonwealth air forces: achieving air superiority, long-range “strategic” bombing, and the air war at sea. The last of these sits rather oddly, because although Coastal Command was an element of the RAF, the Fleet Air Arm, which undertook fleet action, had been handed over from the RAF to the Admiralty in 1939.

Undaunted: Britain and the Commonwealth’s War in the Air: Volume 2 by Ben Kite, Helion, £29.95

This move reflected the low priority the RAF had granted air-sea warfare during the inter-war years and the Fleet Air Arm never quite matched its American and Japanese equivalents. Kite includes the Fleet Air Arm because these volumes are about air war, not just the RAF, a decision that ensures a more comprehensive survey of the subject.

The second volume goes beyond strategy to focus on other things done by air forces to aid the war on the surface, ground and sea. These include aerial reconnaissance (much overlooked according to Kite, though he fails to cite Taylor Downing’s excellent study of the photo-reconnaissance centre at Medmenham), air support for army operations, and air transport.

Rather than a continuous narrative, which is by now well-known, he has chosen to approach the subject by theme

These were all vital dimensions of combined operations and in some respects a more significant contribution than the independent air superiority and bombing strategies preferred by the air forces. Kite might have included a study of air force logistics, recently explored in an original history by Trevor Stone. This was often a critical factor, particularly as the British and Commmonwealth air effort was spread across the globe and relied absolutely on the regular supply of everything from complete aircraft, aero-engines and ammunition to the smallest nuts and bolts. The section on air transport developed here focuses on airborne operations and air supply to beleaguered forces, not least at Imphal in 1944, beseiged by the Japanese, where 120,000 men were adequately supplied from the air for three months, in this case a logistic triumph.

Much of the text is conventional enough, drawing heavily on familiar published histories. The addition of much material on the Royal Australian Air Force and the conflict in the south Pacific is a welcome corrective to the European bias in much of the history.

Kite notes that air support for amphibious forces was an essential element in Allied victory in New Guinea (as it also was for the much larger American forces committed to the Pacific campaign), but he is also critical of air superiority tactics in the theatre where the Australians stuck to the V formation of three fighters long after the Battle of Britain had exposed its shortcomings, while another unit opted for the “Big Wing” concentration of fighter aircraft, which had been rejected during the Battle of Britain as too unwieldy and open to easy counter-attack — exactly what happened when it was tried in the Pacific war.

Kite is good on the war in Burma, in which air power was a dimension essential to cope with the long distances, jungle and mountainous terrain, and the constant threat of encirclement by the opposing Japanese. There is much less on the formation and development of the Royal Canadian Air Force, which was, Kite observes, the fourth largest in the world in 1945. The official history by Brereton Greenhous and others, one of the best of the genre, is missing from Kite’s bibliography.

There are, nevertheless, drawbacks to the way the history is presented. Kite draws heavily on first-person accounts, either memoirs or contemporary publications. This certainly achieves his aim of giving the history an immediacy and depth only possible through the words of those who experienced the air war. But the lengthy quotations crowd out space that might have been used for exploring many arguments with a fuller analysis and greater factual detail.

Take for example the discussion of air support in the Desert War. The “Libyan model” of air support, as Churchill called it, involved a complete overhaul of the way the RAF had been made to operate by army commanders. The Air Support Control units assigned to ground divisions from 1942 meant that air support could be summoned in 30 minutes instead of three hours, while centralised control directed them to the most strategically useful targets.

Rather than provide a regular air umbrella (which was leaky in the extreme), RAF units engaged in a counter-force strategy against enemy airfields and air resources, distant from the front line. Indeed, counter-force became the first principle of air operations, isolating the battlefield the second priority, and direct support a third priority. VHF radio and mobile radar completed the transformation into what was arguably the most effective force the RAF fielded. Some of this can be gleaned from the text, but by no means all.

The treatment of the bomber offensive is equally a mix of very useful testimony, a focus on how an operation was conducted, and rather bland accounts of how the strategy evolved, derived chiefly from the official history. There is room for much more on the route by which the Air Ministry arrived at area bombing, on the role of the Ministry of Economic Warfare in promoting bombing, on the arguments over tactics, armament and objectives, and the final judgement of the campaign carried out by both the United States and the British bombing surveys.

Kite is right to argue that Harris stuck to area bombing for too long in defiance of evidence that it produced diminishing returns, but he does not discuss sufficiently the American strategy in 1944 for suppressing the Luftwaffe, destroying oil, and interrupting rail and water traffic in Germany, which was the most significant contribution air power made to degrading the German economy.

A useful addition is the discussion of Bomber Command’s capacity to mount precision raids in the last year or two of the war, which is an angle that has attracted too little attention, just as it attracted little attention at the time from Arthur Harris.

They are splendidly illustrated throughout, and there are excellent maps

One controversial aspect of the air war that gets no specific coverage here is the psychological strain on the men who flew in the campaigns worldwide. The stigma “Lack of Moral Fibre” for those men who broke down and refused to fly for no reason acceptable at the time has occasioned a good deal of research. Most of those who became psychiatric casualties were not punished but were given psychiatric treatment of mixed value.

But the rate of casualty is a reminder that flying over and over again in extreme danger, watching companions die, never certain of a return to base, presented exceptional psychological pressures. Kite cites an Australian air force veteran in an interview admitting that combat “left its scars” both physical and mental: “I had a lot of nightmares.” Air forces took the problem of combat fatigue seriously, but that did not stop them pushing air crew to the limit. Bomber Command expected 30 operations, but the majority were dead before they reached that milestone.

These two volumes are certainly a solid starting point for understanding the British and Commonwealth air war. They are splendidly illustrated throughout, and there are excellent maps. Each volume has a string of appendices giving the essential statistical and technical data for the air war for anyone curious to know more. No-one reading them could be left in doubt that the air effort, for all the misjudgements, mistakes, and deficiencies that are now evident, did contribute in multiple and significant ways to the overall victory of the Allied powers.

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