BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Australia's aviation pioneers
, July 23, 2011
FIRE IN THE SKY:
The Australian Flying Corps in the First World War
by Michael Molkentin
(Sydney: Allen & Unwin)
Paperback: 424 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
Most people know about the crucial contribution aircraft made in World War II; however, often overlooked is their important role in World War I.
Just over 10 years after the first successful flight of a powered aeroplane by the Wright brothers, flimsy biplanes such as Bristols and Camels were an important adjunct of British fighting strategy on both the Western Front in northern France and the theatres of operation in the Middle East. However, almost forgotten is the role played by the Australian Flying Corps (AFC).
Award-winning Australian historian Michael Molkentin addresses this gap in Australian military history in this valuable study.Australiawas the only dominion to form a flying corps. At its height, there were four operational Australian squadrons in combat zones and other training squadrons.
Although aviation technology was in its infancy in World War I, Australian military authorities recognised the important role that aircraft would have in combat, so they established a flying corps which began to train an initial class of four student pilots in August 1914, ironically the same month that the Great War broke out.
Molkentin, after briefly surveying the establishment of the AFC, examines the AFC’s role in World War I. His study is divided into two sections: the AFC’s role in campaigns against theOttoman Empire, and its role on the Western Front.
The four graduates of the first AFC course, mentioned above, went on to play an important role in the now forgotten 1915 British campaign in Mesopotamia (today’sIraq). While allied forces, including Australians, were pinned down by forces of the Ottoman Empire, British forces steadily advanced intoMesopotamiabefore suffering reversals in 1916.
The role the AFC pilots played set a pattern for future engagements. Contrary to popular belief, as depicted in films such as Flyboys (2006), the primary function of pilots was not to engage enemy pilots in dog-fights, but to undertake reconnaissance. The other major function was to attack enemy positions on the ground.
The handful of AFC pilots played crucial reconnaissance roles during this campaign, facilitated in part by an absence of opposition air forces.
Molkentin explores the role the AFC played in the liberation ofPalestinefrom Ottoman rule. Working alongside the British Royal Flying Corps (RFC), Australian pilots encountered at times stiff opposition by German pilots until they were effectively eliminated from the skies by September 1918.
The seminal role the AFC played is demonstrated in the capture ofBeershebain 1917. While the victorious charge of the Light Horse is remembered, the role that air reconnaissance played in making this attack feasible should not be forgotten.
The second part of Fire in the Sky examines the AFC’s role on the Western Front. Given the increasingly important role of aircraft, the Australian army responded to requests by British military authorities to train pilots. Initial training was conducted at flying schools run by the RFC and involved theoretical knowledge, before pilots undertook their practical training.
The AFC’s first significant engagement was the Battle of Cambrai (November 20 to December 7, 1917). Not only were AFC pilots engaged in reconnaissance, but they also fulfilled a significant role in attacking bodies of German troops and machine-gun outposts. This pattern was to be repeated during the campaigns of 1918.
One crucial innovation, which first occurred at the battle of Hamel on July 4, 1918, was that AFC aeroplanes re-supplied troops with ammunition by dropping it by parachute, an important factor in the successful outcome of this battle.
While the bulk of Molkentin’s study is a sometimes rather dry chronological account of the AFC’s activities in each respective theatre, the author makes extensive use of personal letters, diaries and official records to depict the lives of AFC pilots.
Many of them were recruited from serving-officer and other ranks of the army, and saw a career in the AFC as a way of escaping life in the trenches, and, for some, obtaining a commission.
Based normally 10 to12 milesbehind the lines, they lived a life of comfort not shared by their infantry comrades in the trenches. However, this was offset by the very high casualty rates among airmen.
The severe stress resulting from the constant fear of death was such that a significant number of pilots had to be repatriated toAustraliaafter they suffered nervous breakdowns.
Molkentin’s narrative also contains extensive vignettes of raids conducted by squadrons, including their outstanding successes as well as lucky escapes, interspersed with tragic accounts of pilots’ deaths.
However, on a more positive note, the AFC pioneers formed the nucleus not only of the RAAF, upon its inception in 1921, but also of Australia’s burgeoning air industry, the first pilots of Qantas, for example, being AFC veterans.
Fire in the Sky is a valuable study of the AFC and fills in a gap in Australian military history that has been overlooked for too long.