RAF by Richard Overy


The Birth of the World's First Air Force
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A skillful pocket history of the founding of the Royal Air Force in 1918 and its fate after the armistice.

This is well-traveled ground for veteran military historian Overy (History/Univ. of Exeter; WWII Remembered: From Blitzkrieg Through to the Allied Victory, 2015, etc.), who emphasizes that in 1917, after three years of war, Britain’s army employed a large air force and its navy a modest one, and no airman yearned for an independent service. That was a decision made by politicians in London and provoked by German bombing raids. Although trivial by World War II standards, the 1,400 Britons killed provoked panic and desire for revenge as well as a more effective air force. “The politicians wanted a force to defend the home front against the novel menace of bombing,” writes the author, “amidst fears that the staying power of the population might be strained to the breaking point by the raids.” Naval and army commanders opposed the decision, and one of the detractors was Hugh Trenchard, the commander of the Royal Flying Corps who felt that a major reorganization would distract from support of ground forces in France. After consolidation became inevitable, Trenchard reluctantly agreed to become Chief of Air Staff but quarreled so badly with his civilian superior that he resigned after three months. Despite fierce, almost comic-opera disputes over uniforms, ensigns, and titles, ably recounted by Overy, the RAF was up and running by summer 1918. It performed well supporting ground forces against the final German offensive, but this change also encouraged the fantasy, still going strong, that air power alone—strategic bombing then, drones now—will win wars. Shared by civilian leaders, it kept the RAF alive during disastrous cutbacks after 1918 but meant that it got off on the wrong foot in WWII.

This is a story Overy has told in earlier, much longer histories, but this is a fine introduction.

Pub Date: May 15th, 2018
ISBN: 978-0-393-65229-1
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2018


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