History 9808A – The Value of Digital Preservation

History 9808A – The Value of Digital Preservation

One of the things I love about the Public History program so far are the connections I’m making between our in-class discussions and my experience as an historian. This week in Digital Public History we discussed digital preservation and crowdsourcing, two methods that when combined well can result in real value creation for future historians and researchers.

IMG_20170920_213723_274Earlier this week I had the pleasure of returning to my academic roots at Wilfrid Laurier University, just down the road in Waterloo. The Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies (LCMSDS) was hosting a public lecture by Professor Terry Copp, one of Canada’s leading military historians. Terry – an old mentor of mine from my undergraduate days – gave another of his brilliant talks, this one providing context to the events portrayed in Christopher Nolan’s summer blockbuster film, Dunkirk.

I hadn’t visited LCMSDS for years, and it was great to reconnect with old friends, make some new ones, and reminisce about my time at the centre. In summer 2012, before heading to Fredericton to commence my Master of Arts in military history, the centre gave me a job! Terry employed me as one of a number of undergraduate students who assisted with the Second World War Air Photo Collection digitization project.

The collection is mainly composed of aerial photos of Northwest Europe (Normandy, France; Belgium; and The Netherlands) taken by photo-reconnaissance Spitfires in 1944-1945. These photos were then sent back to the Air Photo Interpretation Section for analysis and were used to help cartographers create maps for First Canadian Army. After the war, the collection found its purpose as an educational aide at the air photo interpretation school in Rivers, Manitoba. Then, when the school closed in 1971, the photos were sent to the Canadian War Museum. The museum did not have adequate storage space for the 300 boxes of approximately 130,000 photos. In 1985, Professor Copp secured permission to move the photos to LCMSDS.

Spitfire_0020_PR_0020_XI_0020_EN654_klein72

Fast-forward nearly thirty years later. While the collection was in good shape, there was no telling when it might start to deteriorate. In 2011, the centre began a project to digitize the entire collection with the backing of a number of private funders and some student elbow grease. By June 2012, around the time I started scanning, 30 percent of the collection was digitized. Our goal was to hit 60 percent by September. In the end, the project took until August 2013 to complete. Today, the result is a searchable online database with plenty of applications.

For instance, in 2010, Mike Bechthold used the photos to help illuminate the fate of Worthington Force. During the Battle of Normandy, Worthington Force was a combined infantry-armour task force from 4th Canadian Armoured Division. The force got lost while driving to its objectives on 9 August 1944. The photos allowed Mike to piece together what happened to the Canadians as they were isolated and destroyed by superior German forces.

Victory-15

I used the aerial photos to help understand what happened to the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada weeks before on 25 July 1944. The photos confirmed some of my previous research and led to new questions about how much information the Black Watch officers had when making decisions on that fateful day.

Victory-13

The centre is also working on a crowdsourcing follow-up project whereby interested parties can help them to identify photo boxes by their geographic location. Furthermore, there is an ongoing effort to couple the centre’s photo collection with maps to create a geographic information system (GIS) to understand better the terrain faced by First Canadian Army during the campaign to liberate Northwest Europe. As Terry Copp demonstrated in Fields of Fire (2003), even small gradient changes in terrain can have a big impact on the battlefield.

I’m looking forward to future returns to Waterloo and LCMSDS as their Military History Speaker Series continues this fall.

Advertisements
History 9808A – Looking Forward

History 9808A – Looking Forward

I’ve decided to follow my passion for history and make it a career. For the last three years, I worked for a management consulting firm in Moncton, New Brunswick. I learned a lot there, especially the need to activate one’s purpose motive, and that’s what I want to do. My overall goal is to land a job at one of Canada’s military museums, historical societies, or heritage institutions.

My first step on this journey is as a candidate in the University of Western Ontario’s Graduate Studies program in Public History. While I already have a research-based Master of Arts, I was particularly attracted to this program’s practical agenda. This is one of the reasons I’m writing this new blog post. Part of the course requirements for our Digital Public History class – History 9808A – is to maintain a blog to spark class discussions, to serve as a project log, to act as an online presence for future employers, and to get comfortable with writing in public.

I’ve maintained my blog on this website for over three years now, and I wrote the blog at Symplicity Designs, but I’m still a work-in-progress when it comes to public writing. The work I do in History 9808A and my other courses in the program will go a long way to preparing me for a career in the public history field.

I’m excited about Digital Public History in particular because it will give me and my classmates a forum to practice digital history skills and to make our work public. Personally, I’m looking forward to designing and producing a podcast. I’ve been on a podcast as a guest before (check out this previous post on my interview with Angus Wallace and WW2 Podcast) and I’m a regular listener to various other history podcasts. I’ll encourage my classmates to check them out at the links below:

History 9808A wraps up later this fall with an Independent Project meant to give us time to explore an application in digital history. This leads me to what I want to accomplish this term. By December, I would like to have a live website for promoting my first book. Eagles over Husky will be published sometime in Q1 2018 by Helion and Company, based in the United Kingdom. I’ve already bought the domain EaglesoverHusky.com and intend to use http://patrickmdennis.com/ and https://markmanson.net/ as inspiration for my website. I will probably focus more on the book than on myself the author.

IMG_20170829_081300

A backup idea (and something I’ve already begun) is to design an On This Date in History (#OTDH) Twitter campaign to promote my book. This campaign will be modelled on Twitter accounts such as @BofB1940, @RAAFvictoryroll, and @RealTimeWWII. I’ll be using the Twitter handle @EaglesoverHusky (already active) to execute the campaign.

The next eight months of coursework (followed by a four-month internship) look to be both some of the most challenging and exciting in my career as an historian. I look forward to sharing my trials, tribulations, successes, and achievements with you over the next 12 months.

“Danger gathers upon our path. We cannot afford – and have no right – to look back. We must look forward.” – Winston Churchill, 10 December 1936

Flying to Victory, a Book Review

Bechthold, Mike (2017) Flying to Victory: Raymond Collishaw and the Western Desert Campaign, 1940-1941. University of Oklahoma Press. 296 Pages. ISBN: 9780806155968

The Second World War saw the formation of many famous Allied air forces. The Flying Tigers, the Cactus Air Force, The Mighty Eighth, RAF Bomber Command, and RAF Fighter Command are among the best known. In the Mediterranean, perhaps none was more famous than the Western Desert Air Force (WDAF). This is the tactical air force that helped Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery’s British Eighth Army defeat Field Marshal Erwin Rommel at El Alamein in 1942. The victory was the result of an effective combination of air and land power according to an air support doctrine developed by Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Coningham.

9780806155968Coningham owes more to his predecessor, Air Vice-Marshal Raymond Collishaw, than historians have realized. Collishaw commanded No. 202 Group – and later No. 204 Group, which would later become the WDAF – between the opening of the war in the desert and November 1941. In that time, Collishaw’s command achieved much success, demonstrating the features of tactical air doctrine later associated with his successor. Mike Bechthold’s new monograph, Flying to Victory, offers us a new layer for understanding the development of Allied air support during the Second World War.

Raymond Collishaw was a native of Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada. During the First World War, Collishaw became one of the Empire’s leading flying aces, destroying 61 enemy aircraft and eight observation balloons with Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Air Force squadrons. Authors often celebrate his air-fighting prowess. In fact, some historians have gone as far as to say that his aggressive spirit made him ill-suited for commanding air forces at the end of tenuous supply lines. In Flying to Victory, Bechthold defuses these arguments.

Collishaw

Raymond Collishaw in the cockpit circa 1917

Collishaw’s experience with close army support missions during the 100 Days campaign at the end of the First World War taught him how wasteful these operations could be. He came out of the war believing that only emergencies – such as the Kaiser’s spring offensive in 1918 – warranted a heavy close air support focus. This and his experiences commanding various air units during Britain’s interwar conflicts served to prepare Collishaw for command in the Western Desert. He was well-suited to command operations at the end of a tenuous supply line while working jointly with army and naval commanders.

Collishaw first demonstrated the difference that an effective air support doctrine could make during early fighting in the desert and Operation COMPASS. In 1940-41, No. 202 Group faced an Italian Royal Air Force (IRAF) with superior numbers and quality of aircraft. Collishaw’s command achieved air superiority in spite of these disadvantages. While the IRAF squandered its superior resources by focusing on providing defensive screens for the Italian Army, Collishaw directed his forces to focus on disrupting and destroying IRAF aircraft and infrastructure. With air superiority secured, Collishaw’s forces focused on impeding the Italian logistical network and applying close-support attacks at the army’s request in special circumstances. Alongside Lieutenant-General Richard O’Conner’s Western Desert Force, the British offensive drove the Italians out of Egypt and Cyrenaica, completely destroying the Italian Tenth Army in the process.

Although Operation COMPASS was a model of cooperation between the army and air force, this model would soon be forgotten amid British retreats in the Western Desert, Greece, and Crete in spring 1941. The Germans had joined their Italian allies in the Mediterranean war. During Operation BREVITY, an attempt to relieve the besieged garrison at Tobruk, Collishaw commanded No. 204 Group (which had absorbed No. 202 Group in April 1941). He once again proved the usefulness of interdiction operations, though army commanders were disappointed that the RAF considered attacks on tanks on the battlefield to be impracticable. His forces immobilized counterattacking German units at critical junctures that saved army units, though the overall operation failed to relieve Tobruk.

500px-Collishaw-48

Raymond Collishaw circa the Second World War

The overall failures of BREVITY and Crete put the air force in a tough position. The Royal Navy had lost many ships to Axis air attacks during the evacuation of Crete. During Operation BATTLEAXE, another attempt to relieve Tobruk, the army demanded that the RAF establish an air umbrella over the battlefield. Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, Collishaw’s immediate superior, made a calculated move. With Air Chief Marshal Charles Portal’s blessing, he ordered Collishaw to accede to the army’s requests. This way, the RAF could avoid blame for failing to cooperate with the army even though this was a misemployment of resources that ultimately contributed to BATTLEAXE’s failure.

BATTLEAXE effectively settled the debate over tactical air power raging between the RAF and army early in the war. Before BATTLEAXE, Prime Minister Winston Churchill endorsed the army’s view of air support. After BATTLEAXE, he fully endorsed the RAF’s view. Churchill accepted that attacks on enemy airbases, ports, and lines of communication were more effective even though the army would not be afforded the comforting sight of friendly aircraft overhead. The result was “The Middle East (Army and RAF) Directive on Direct Air Support”, a document that marked the beginning of designing the war-winning air support system the Allies would continue to develop in 1942. This document reflected the operations and exercises that Raymond Collishaw commanded. Tedder and Coningham went on to refine and improve this system.

Air Marshal Tedder, the conduit for Collishaw’s early application of winning air support doctrine to Portal and Churchill, replaced Collishaw with Coningham in November 1941. Promoted from air commodore to air vice-marshal, Collishaw commanded No. 14 Group defending Scapa Flow, Scotland until July 1943, when the RAF involuntarily retired him. Bechthold’s evidence suggests that Tedder held a bias against Collishaw. Largely ignoring the results he achieved in the desert, Tedder and historians since have assessed Collishaw as incapable of running a larger command organization and delegating responsibility to his staff. Bechthold encourages us to avoid this speculative analysis of potential and instead focus on his war record. The result is an excellent profile of a man and – as it turns out – a largely misunderstood air campaign in the first year of warfare in the Western Desert.

Collishaw Street

Raymond Collishaw isn’t completely forgotten in Canada, although he is mostly celebrated for his First World War exploits. This is Collishaw Street in Moncton, NB.

Vimy: The Battle and the Legend, a Book Review

Vimy: The Battle and the Legend, a Book Review

Cook, Tim (2017) Vimy: The Battle and the Legend. Allen Lane. 512 Pages. ISBN 0735233160

In April 2017, tens of thousands of Canadians will make the pilgrimage to the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. 2017 is also Canada’s 150th birthday, the country being born with the British North America Act of 1867. This is a happy – albeit somewhat awkward – circumstance considering that Canadians often refer to the Battle of Vimy Ridge as the “birth of the nation.” Which is it, then? Was Canada born in 1867 or 50 years later in 1917? Perhaps Vimy was a coming of age event instead.

9780735233164Canada’s leading military historian, Tim Cook, has authored one of the most important
books in the field. Vimy: The Battle and the Legend answers why Canadians are flocking to the ridge this year. How did a tactical victory which cost Canada 3,598 dead over four days for no strategic gain become the centrepiece for Canadians’ understanding of the First World War as a nation-building moment? Tim Cook sets out to answer this question, and he delivers.

The first third of the book deals with the battle itself. Cook recounts how the Canadian Corps of four divisions came to be and performed over two years of combat. To be blunt, the Canadians’ performance, like much of the British Expeditionary Force, was mixed at best. Or at least it was until Vimy when all four divisions advanced together for the first time. They were executing part of a wider British offensive that would become known as the Second Battle of Arras.

02X110_1D40_9

Canadians atop Vimy Ridge looking out over the Douai plain. The view explains why the ridge was a remarkable tactical feature.

The Allies had to have Vimy Ridge because it afforded the Germans incredible visibility into the British rear, especially for the British Third Army’s planned advance towards Cambrai to the south-east. For this task, the Canadians were commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng, a British officer who would later go on to become the 12th Governor General of Canada. Byng and his officers – including future Canadian Corps commander Major-General Arthur Currie – used best practices learned from the British and French experiences in 1916 to make their plan. They emphasized devolution of command – the Corps’ cartography section created 40,000 maps for issue down to the private soldiers – and close cooperation between the infantry and gunners. Counterbattery fire and a well-coordinated creeping barrage protected the infantry as they crossed no man’s land. The artillery also helped the infantry hold against German counterattacks all across the ridge. After four days the Canadians held the ridge at the cost of 10,602 casualties. The rest of the British offensive had early promise but succumbed to a German defence-in-depth that inflicted heavy casualties and forced a stalemate.

a001024

Canadians and German prisoners move a light rail car taking wounded soldiers out of the line.

The latter two-thirds of Cook’s book examine the impact of the battle, both immediate and over the next 100 years. Cook’s chapter on Vimy’s consequences for the remainder of Canada’s First World War experience contains perhaps some of the most outstanding writing in Canadian military history. In it, he links the casualties at Vimy with the policies of Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden’s government and the implications of those policies for Canada as a whole. The Canadian Corps’ victory gave Borden ammunition at the negotiating table with Britain for increased autonomy within the British Empire. It also touched him on a personal level. Borden was in London during the battle and visited Canadian soldiers in hospital there in the aftermath. He was shocked to discover that many of these men would be sent back to the front. This experience played a significant role in Borden’s decision to implement universal service when he returned to Canada.

Conscription would poison Canadian unity. Nearly one year after the battle, riots erupted in Quebec City in protest of the policy. English Canadian soldiers arrived to restore order. French Canadian marksmen supporting the rioters sniped at the English Canadian soldiers from rooftops. The soldiers fired on the crowd and, although they made efforts to minimize casualties, killed four French Canadians. Far from being a unifying moment, the ripples of Vimy Ridge threatened to tear the country apart. But the manpower that conscription afforded the Canadian Corps enabled it to sustain the 45,000 casualties it suffered during the 100 Days campaign that brought the war to an end in 1918.

Cook then delves into efforts to commemorate the First World War in Canada. These efforts occurred against the backdrop of a Canada fractured on ethnic and social lines – Acadian Canadians, the labour movement, and farmers had also been sorely treated in the course of the war effort. Furthermore, the cenotaphs erected across Canada emphasized that the war had been a local experience. Cook explains why and how Canada chose Vimy Ridge as the site of the country’s national monument overseas, including the selection process for the memorial itself. As it turns out, Vimy was far from an ideal location. The Vimy battlefield was a mess of rotted corpses and unexploded ordnance. Furthermore, the site did not have the support of Canadian Corps commander Sir Arthur Currie. On Vimy, he said, “I do not think it was the most outstanding battle, or had the greatest material effect on the winning of the war.”

52736_10152244506500381_1126336012_o

The names of missing Canadian soldiers in France on the Vimy Memorial.

Nevertheless, the Canadian National Vimy Memorial came to be built on the site of the Canadian Corps’ first clear-cut victory. The book also outlines the construction of the monument and the significance of its various features – important considerations for any visit to the site. The real standout on the monument are the engravings of over 11,000 names of Canadian soldiers who went missing in France between 1915 and 1918. This is just one feature that connects Vimy to the wider war and makes it a gateway to a broader national experience.

Between the dedication of the monument by King Edward VIII in 1936 and the present day, the symbolism of Vimy has taken on different meanings. As dictators took power in Europe in the 1920s and 30s, many Canadians turned their backs on the First World War. Many veterans could not do this, and they looked to Vimy as a symbol to rehabilitate the war’s image. They used Vimy to help understand emerging Canadian autonomy within the British Empire.

Vimy had little relevance to Canadians as they emerged from the Second World War. There were new battles and new heroes that seemed to matter more. Furthermore, in the 1950s and 60s peacekeeping afforded Canada an opportunity to raise its profile internationally and many Canadians happily embraced the image of the peaceable kingdom. The 1960s was also a decade of new Canadian symbols. The country adopted a new flag and a new national honours system – yet more steps away from attachment to the British Empire. Older Canadians and veterans used Vimy in this context to make sense of a Canada that was changing. This culminated when Canadians celebrated the 50th anniversary of the battle alongside the country’s centennial celebrations. Vimy was proclaimed the “birth of the nation.”

There are only two minor detractors with the book. First, while Tim Cook clearly articulates his stance that Vimy does not represent the birth of Canada, he does not go into his reasons why in any great detail. He simply lets the fact that the Canadian state was founded with the BNA Act in 1867 stand on its own. However, Cook does understand Vimy as a symbol of Canada’s First World War, a war that he’s previously identified as Canada’s war of independence. In doing so, Cook positions Vimy as an important event (both the event itself and how Canadians remember it) in shaping modern Canada. This leads me to the second detractor. Cook notes that Canadian troops first moved into Vimy in October 1916, well before the battle occurred in April 1917. He leaves the fact that the Canadian Corps spent a significant part of its war based near Vimy out of his analysis. Perhaps many veterans could identify with Vimy because so many served there before, after, or during the battle. A veteran’s experience living in an area during the war could be as compelling as fighting and losing comrades over what becomes hallowed ground.

These are but minor blemishes. Tim Cook has provided Canadians with an outstanding, highly readable account of one of Canada’s enduring national symbols. To understand Vimy is not to know about the bloody Canadian surge up a ridge in 1917, but to know that generations of Canadians have used that moment to understand who we are. Vimy is part of a never-ending search for our origins as a people. Vimy: The Battle and the Legend should be required reading for all Canadians, especially those making the Vimy pilgrimage.

17434499_1645944005422930_6193313325352747511_o

A VIMY FLIGHT replica Nieuport 11 fighter flies over the Vimy Memorial in March 2017. The Royal Flying Corps took heavy losses leading up to and during the Battle of Arras. Yet the efforts of observation planes gave the Candian Corps’ artillery at Vimy Ridge crucial intelligence for their bombardments.

Canadians and War Volume 1

Canadians and War Volume 1

It’s a pleasure to announce that my work on Canadian airmen in the Battle of Sicily is included in Lammi Publishing‘s inaugural Canadians and War volume, just in time for Remembrance Day 2016. You can purchase copies of the e-book direct from the publisher, here, or read more about the volume below. I’m friends with many of the authors and have nothing but glowing things to say about their work.

img_0367

From the publisher:

Canadians and War Volume 1 brings together four diverse works of research from four Canadian scholars. Canada’s military history is a living, breathing thing, with endless perspectives and accounts to be heard, and this collection seeks to bring some of those little-known stories to light. See the effects of Canada’s proud military history throughout the world and the century. Go to a Maritime fishing village in “Lunenburg’s ‘Quiet Riot’ and Maritime Resistance to the 1917 Military Service Act” by Maryanne Lewell. Fly high above Sicily in “Canada’s Eagles over HUSKY: Canadian Airmen in the Battle of Sicily” by Alexander Fitzgerald-Black. Experience the Dutch occupation through the eyes of a child in “Who Were Their Liberators?” by Matthew Douglass. Finally, let Lieutenant Colonel W.A. Leavey, (retired) bring his four decades of military experience to hilarious light in “Canadian Army Humour: Second World War.”

Operation HUSKY’s Air Battle by the Numbers

Operation HUSKY’s Air Battle by the Numbers

In 1991, Samuel W. Mitcham Jr. and Fredrich von Stauffenberg published The Battle of Sicily: How the Allies Lost Their Chance for Total Victory. In it, they offer a scathing review of the performance of the Allied militaries in Operation HUSKY, the 1943 invasion of Sicily. Theirs is the common interpretation about the battle for Sicily: the Allies bungled total victory through national squabbles which allowed the Germans to mount a skilful withdrawal even against complete Allied air and naval supremacy while outnumbered by Allied armies by factors of up to 8:1.[1]

Part of their critique is the effectiveness of the Allied air forces. They call into question claims Allied commanders made at finding 1,100 Axis aircraft littering aerodromes and landing grounds across the island. According to Colonel Lioy of the Italian Air Force historical division, Allied claims vastly overstated the reality as the island had long harboured aircraft cemeteries from previous battles. He believes that the Allied bomber offensive only accounted for 100. Lioy pegs total Axis aircraft losses from 3 July to 17 August at not over 200. Finally, Mitcham and von Stauffenberg note that Axis statistics they consulted show that the Germans and Italians lost 225 and 95 aircraft respectively to all causes between 1 July and 5 September 1943.[2]

iwm-c-4183

Vertical aerial reconnaissance view of Castelvetrano airfield, Sicily, the day before a successful attack was made on it by Malta-based Bristol Blenheims of Nos. 18 and 107 Squadrons RAF. A number of Junkers Ju 52 and Savoia Marchetti SM 82 transport aircraft, many of which were destroyed during the raid, can be seen parked around the airfield perimeter. (Source: © IWM (C 4183))

These figures do not stand up to the scrutiny of other sources. First, Williamson Murray’s excellent study of the Luftwaffe, Strategy for Defeat, cites reliable quartermaster general figures for German losses throughout the war. German losses in the May to August period in the Mediterranean Theatre stood at 1,600, matching those of the other major fronts. This number includes 711 German aircraft lost in July 1943 alone, a figure 27 percent higher than that of the 558 German aircraft lost on the Eastern Front during the massive battles of Kursk-Orel in July.[3]

Second, Adolf Hitler also disputes Mitcham and von Stauffenberg’s figures. Hitler was particularly displeased with the ground organization in Sicily and southern Italy. On 13 July, he sent a message to Benito Mussolini complaining of “more than 320 fighters destroyed on the ground as the result of Allied aerial attack in the last three weeks.” When the two dictators met at Feltre on 19 July, Hitler further noted that between 300 and 400 aircraft out of 500 to 600 were destroyed on the ground in the recent Allied air offensive.[4]

Perhaps Hitler was particularly upset with a 15 July raid on Vibo Valentia, where the bulk of the remainder of the German fighter force had settled after withdrawing from Sicily. A force of 117 B-25 Mitchells and B-26 Marauders apparently caught Jagdgruppe Vibo on the ground. Lieutenant Köhler, a German ace with over 20 victories to his credit, wrote:

Toward noon 105 [sic] bombers came and destroyed the Jagdgruppe Vibo Valentia, which had about 80 aircraft. Not a machine was left intact, not even the [Junkers] which had just landed. Fuel trucks, hangars, aircraft, autos, everything was burning. The German fighters in Italy have been wiped out.[5]

Specifically, the raid eliminated Steinhoff’s JG 77, I/JG 53 (which lost 20 aircraft), and much of II/JG 27. After the raid, only survivors of II and III/JG 27 remained operational in southern Italy.

iwm-cna-1352

Wrecked and damaged Italian fighters outside bomb-shattered hangars at Catania, Sicily, under the scrutiny of an airman, shortly after the occupation of the airfield by the RAF. (Source: © IWM (CNA 1352))

The weight of evidence seems to go against Mitcham and von Stauffenberg’s conclusions. Furthermore, while it is true that many of the 1,100 aircraft abandoned on Sicily were from previous battles, the Allies still denied their use to Axis salvage details. Italian losses during the campaign are less easy to come by. However, one source notes that they may have been as high as 800 aircraft over two months – although the same source lowballs the German figure at 586.[6]

The Mediterranean was a meat grinder of Axis aviation. For the war, Axis aircraft losses in the Mediterranean stand at 17,750, much higher than the 11,000 on the Eastern Front, and closer to the 20,419 on the Western Front than one might assume.[7] The air superiority battles around and above Operation HUSKY in the summer of 1943 were a significant milestone in the air war against the European Axis. Indeed, Williamson Murray described Sicily as “the greatest air battle of the Mediterranean war” based on the scale of German losses.[8] This result was achieved by an effective Allied air force that has often been denied the credit it so rightfully earned.

iwm-cna-1029

Supermarine Spitfire Mark Vs of No. 243 Squadron RAF undergo maintenance at Comiso, Sicily. Photographed over the tail section of an abandoned Messerschmitt Bf 109G of 6/JG53. (Source: © IWM (CNA 1029))

Header Image: A line of Macchi MC200 fighters on Reggio di Calabria airfield under attack by cannon fire from two Bristol Beaufighter Mark ICs of No. 272 Squadron RAF Detachment flying from Luqa, Malta. (Source: © IWM (CM 1298))

[1] See Lee Windsor, “‘The Eyes of All Fixed on Sicily’: Canada’s Unexpected Victory, 1943,” Canadian Military History Vol. 22, No. 3 (Summer 2013): 6-7 for a summary of this literature. General Max Ulrich, commander of the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division offered the 8:1 ratio when comparing the odds his forces faced.

[2] Samuel W. Mitcham Jr. and Fredrich von Stauffenberg, The Battle of Sicily: How the Allies Lost Their Chance for Total Victory (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2007), 305.

[3] Williamson Murray, Strategy for Defeat: The Luftwaffe, 1933-1945 (Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Air University Press, 1983), “Table XXX”, 148.

[4] Albert N. Garland and Howard M. Smyth, The United States Army in World War II, The Mediterranean Theatre of Operations: Sicily and the Surrender of Italy (Washington, D.C.: US Army Center of Military History, 1993[1965]), 240 and 243.

[5] Brian Cull with Nicola Malizia and Frederick Galea, Spitfires over Sicily: The Crucial Role of the Malta Spitfires in the Battle of Sicily, January – August 1943 (London: Grub Street, 2000), 166.

[6] Hans Werner Neulen, In the Skies of Europe: Air forces allied to the Luftwaffe, 1939-1945 (Ramsbury, Marlborough: The Crowood Press Ltd., 2005), 72.

[7] Robert S. Ehlers, The Mediterranean Air War: Airpower and Allied Victory in World War II (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2015), 403.

[8] Murray, 164.

Commanding Far Eastern Skies, a Book Review

Preston-Hough, Peter (2015) Commanding Far Eastern Skies: A critical analysis of the Royal Air Force air superiority campaign in India, Burma and Malaya 1941-1945. Helion & Company Ltd. 308 Pages. ISBN 9781910294444

f2c6286f-cdef-4d7b-9bf7-7ef0bd8ed871_1.26c34f7bfda8cbacd827d4bca4f727e3 (2)Peter Preston-Hough’s PhD dissertation, Commanding Far Eastern Skies, examines the fight for air superiority in what many refer to as a forgotten theatre – the Far East. Instead of taking a strictly chronological approach to the campaign, he examines four themes.

First, Preston-Hough examines the Japanese air superiority victory in 1941-1942 from the perspective of the RAF’s early warning organization. He finds that the British inability to establish an efficient early warning organization – including human observers and radar and communications equipment – played a significant role in the Japanese air superiority victory. Of particular interest is the British development of radar equipment better-suited to local weather and topography. Once they established a more effective organization in 1943 it could work together with superior aircraft types – Beaufighters and Spitfires – to intercept Japanese raiders. This was an important factor in the air superiority battle ahead.

Next, he compares Allied and Japanese aircrew, tactics, and aircraft and the effects of these on the air superiority battle. Early in the war, the Japanese won air superiority with superior aircraft, tactics, and experience aircrew. To shift the battle into their favour, the Allies had to reverse these trends. It wasn’t until late 1943 that the local Allied air forces received superior aircraft types in significant numbers. The Beaufighter as a night fighter, the Spitfire as an interceptor, and the P-38 Lightning and P-51 Mustang as long-range fighters did wonders for the Allies, while the Japanese generally had the same types that won them air superiority early in the war. The Spitfire, in particular, gave the Allies an aircraft that effectively neutralized Japanese long-range reconnaissance aircraft, the Ki-46 Dinah. This blinded Japanese commanders from December 1943 onwards. Regarding tactics, the Allies came to understand that dogfighting with the much more manoeuvrable Japanese fighters was suicide. Instead, they adopted dive and zoom tactics, which became more effective as new aircraft arrived with superior climb rates. The quality of Allied aircrew also improved while that of the Japanese Army Air Force (JAAF) remained consistent, counter to claims made in earlier post-war narratives.

Preston-Hough then examines the RAF and USAAF counter-air campaigns of mid-1942 to the end of the war. He identifies three separate Allied counter-air campaigns. Lack of long-range fighters meant that Allied efforts between mid-1942 and the end of 1943 resulted in a relatively ineffective campaign. The 1944 campaign was much more successful due to the presence of these aircraft. The campaign did not break the back of Japanese air power in the theatre as the USAAF official history claimed. While the Japanese didn’t lose as many aircraft as the Allies claimed – air interdiction still contributed to the air superiority campaign far better than standard air-to-air combat. Sixty Japanese aircraft were destroyed on counter-air operations between March and June 1944, a figure twice as high as those destroyed in air-to-air combat. Counter-air operations were less successful between late 1944 and the end of the war. This was the result of the JAAF having fewer aircraft dispersed around many airfields, making them harder to locate and damage in large numbers.

Finally, Preston-Hough examines how the Japanese fought the war, their aircraft industry, and their strategy to determine its effects on the Far East. The Japanese understanding of air power was arguably obsolete. The JAAF in the Far East used their aircraft almost exclusively for the direct support of ground operations. They did not have the bomber force for strategic strikes and continued to use fighters in a ground support role rather than focusing on the vulnerable Allied supply flights supporting British Fourteenth Army’s advance in Burma. Regarding strategy, while the Far East was a Japanese priority from a resource and political perspective – the Japanese had hopes of establishing an Indian state under their Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere – the defence of the homeland took priority. This meant that the JAAF fought without support from the Japanese Naval Air Force after the initial Japanese victories. It also meant that aircraft and crew reinforcements were few and far between. The Far East did not fully realize the gains the Japanese aircraft industry made in 1943-1944.

Preston-Hough writes in the structure of a PhD dissertation, and the book’s detail is immense. This may turn off the casual history reader. However, the book will be invaluable for a serious researcher. Anyone researching the air wars of the Pacific or the Far East – or indeed, the idea of air superiority in general – will be well-served by adding it to their collection. The author provides an exceptional framework for analyzing air superiority campaigns the world over. Perhaps the most important idea that Preston-Hough has offered is his reminder that air superiority isn’t something that air forces necessarily win. Rather, enemy air forces often contest it locally, and friendly air forces must maintain it as needed over the battlespace.