World War I was a time of vast changes, notably the development of aerial combat. Here’s a look at how it came to be.
Hamilton-Paterson (Empire of the Clouds: When Britain's Aircraft Ruled the World, 2010, etc.) looks at the war from a mostly British perspective, noting how the ups and downs of the Royal Flying Corps were emblematic of the growing pains of military aviation. At first, military leaders saw the airplane as a mobile observation post, reporting enemy strongpoints and troop movements. But ground troops fired at the unwanted flying spies, and soon the men in the planes were shooting at each other. Barely two months after the armies mobilized, a French aviator downed a German plane, and the air war began in earnest. However, the dogfights were only the tip of the iceberg. The author shows how decisions made by politicians, the owners of aircraft factories, inventors, engineers, and the men who turned new recruits into fighter pilots affected the air war. Most of them were making it up as they went along; nobody knew much about flying, and their machines were incredibly primitive by today’s standards. Inevitably, though, some became expert at the deadly game: the first aces. Hamilton-Paterson gives the likes of “Red Baron” von Richthoven and his French and English rivals their due, but the less-familiar aspects of the air war fascinate him, as well: German bombing raids on London, the almost criminally lax training regimes, and the planes themselves. The account is enlivened by quotes from pilots’ journals and letters home. While the author focuses mainly on the British war effort, there are enough looks into other nations’ inaugural attempts to build an air force to round out the picture.
Best of all, the author—who has a solid body of fiction to his credit—is a consummate storyteller; not only does the book tell a fascinating story, it is nearly impossible to put down.