Monday, 14 September 2015

To Rule the Winds: The Evolution of the British Fighter Force Vol 1 - Prelude to War - The Years to 1914 - Michael C Fox

This review has been submitted to Airforce Magazine

Title: To Rule the Winds: The Evolution of the British Fighter Force Vol 1 - Prelude to War - The Years to 1914
Author: Michael C Fox
Publisher: Helion
ISBN: 978-1-909384-14-9
Pages: 314
Photos: 87
Tables: 14 

The early years of military aviation in Britain is not one of dynamic leadership or decision. Indeed, the British Government was well behind their counterparts on the mainland regarding recognition of military aviation capability/potential, assistance to the fledgling civilian industry and civil/military cooperation in the field of aviation. The author has endeavoured to trace the development of the British Fighter Force and the challenges that it faced both technologically and politically as it transformed from nascent straggler into a world leader of aviation technology. His first volume focusses on the period leading up to the First World War when aviation was at its birth. Indeed, even the concept of lighter than air 'craft' was being identified with two distinct tracks being followed: the airship and the airplane. 

What is fascinating about this period (and expressed very well by the author) is the struggle amongst government, civilian and military leaders as to what was required in terms of capability, who would control it, what developmental track should be followed (airship or airplane), how much money should be invested and should development be exclusively within the military or should civilian industry be both engaged and nurtured. These questions as much as the development of the capability itself dominated the discussion of this new element. Fox traces the challenges and arguments amongst the key players and emphasizes the recognition of the necessity for not only risk acceptance but also vision amongst the pioneers. It is difficult to appreciate from a modern perspective the degree of risk assumed should the leaders/developpers guess wrong as to where to put limited money and resources. 

Intertwined in the development of the physical aircraft itself was the challenge of doctrine or what the aircraft was anticipated to do. Fox discusses at length the debates regarding what the military saw as the potential use of aircraft in an operational setting. Focus centred upon reconnaissance which served as a logical and obvious start point but which quickly led to a variety of follow-on challenges; such as kinds of armaments that would be needed to ensure that the aircraft could undertake its mission unmolested. Communication with the ground was also understood to be a critical capability if reconnaissance was to be seen as worthwhile. Information had to be passed quickly or it rapidly became of limited value. How that was to be achieved became another line of discussion. Additionally, the nature of the aircraft design in terms of stability was of ongoing debate. An effective combat aircraft required significant instability to promote maneuverability yet that required skilled pilots and did not promote a good reconnaissance platform. Fox's evaluation of these issues is both insightful and clear.
The author has provided an in depth and comprehensive bibliography utilizing both primary and secondary sources. His use of tables also provides for quick and clear information for the reader. Fox has put together an excellent book, well researched and comprehensible. The machinations and struggles of the designers, government and customers of the fledgling military aviation arm is both noteworthy and broad ranging. Fox has shed light upon a little known or appreciated aspect of military development. In a period when extensive criticism has been leveled at the leadership for myopia and short-sightedness, Fox has provided a logical and well written analysis of the successes and failures of the British leadership and designers as they grappled with an absolutely untested technology and the consummate risk of getting the answers wrong.

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