Marked for Death

[This review was commissioned by the Michigan War Studies Review back in 2016, but for some reason never got published. As MiWSR is now, sadly, defunct, I guess there's no harm in putting it up here on Airminded.]

James Hamilton-Paterson. Marked for Death: The First War in the Air. New York: Pegasus Books, 2016.

Vanishingly few aviation historians can boast a glowing cover endorsement from the likes of J.G. Ballard. James Hamilton-Paterson can; Ballard loved ‘his elegant and intensely evocative style: strangeness lifts off his pages like a rare perfume’. While Ballard had his own obsessions with aviation, he was presumably not writing of Marked for Death, published eight years after his death, but about Hamilton-Paterson’s earlier, more earthbound output. After a long and successful literary career, Hamilton-Paterson has turned to the history of flight for inspiration: first in Empire of the Clouds, the compelling and critical story of Britain’s attempt to keep to the forefront of aviation in the jet age, then in a fictionalised account of a Vulcan bomber crew at the height of the Cold War, Under the Radar.[1] In Marked for Death he has attempted something more ambitious: a history of ‘The First War in the Air’.

Such a book would be welcome to historians, and particularly to their students, if it were comprehensive in its scope and current in its scholarship. The current standard in this area is still John H. Morrow’s The Great War in the Air, which is now more than two decades old and badly in need of an update.[2] Lee Kennett’s The First Air War is more accessible but even older.[3] Many books on air power in the Great War have been written in the last quarter of a century but few attempt such a broad view of their subject, concentrating instead on particular air forces, key operational or strategic matters or on aircraft and their pilots. Hence the need for a new synopsis.

Unfortunately, Marked for Death is not that book. It is unashamedly written from the point of view of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), albeit with occasional contributions from the French and German sides, mainly on the Western Front with diversions to Britain, the Balkans and Mesopotamia. The selection of topics is idiosyncratic, concentrating on aerial combat to the detriment of other kinds of operations. Recent trends in the historiography of the air war, such as the increasing understanding of the origins and effectiveness of ground support, are conspicuous by their absence.[4] Hamilton-Paterson relies largely on works written before the turn of the century, mostly a mix of published memoirs, popular aviation history and a few more academic works. Even so, neither Morrow nor Kennett are cited, for example.

To be fair, Hamilton-Paterson never claims that Marked for Death is intended to be a compressive or even up-to-date narrative. Rather, he explains that he has ‘chosen a less exhaustive approach by means of chapters dealing with aspects that particularly interest me,’ hoping thereby ‘to give a vivid overall sense of the air war, together with its consequences for the aviation age that followed it’ (author’s note). It is by this standard, then, that his book should ultimately be judged. However, Hamilton-Paterson also decries ‘war’s misrepresentation by newspapers, film and TV companies that are inevitably driven more by the quest for sales and ratings than for factual accuracy’ (309), and this provides a further basis for evaluation.

Marked for Death certainly succeeds in giving a vivid sense of the air war. Hamilton-Paterson’s own prose can be vivid enough, as when he describes the visibility of an aeroplane’s engine exhaust pipe at night, which ‘glowed cherry red and sent back bright bags of blue flame’ (117). More typical is his liberal but effective use of memoirs and letters written by airmen such as Cecil Lewis, Arthur Lee Gould and W.E. Johns (of ‘Biggles’ fame). These bring home the strangeness of early aerial warfare, especially when compared with the much more sophisticated fighting of the Second World War. For example, a May 1915 account by Louis Strange, a prewar pilot who survived both wars and rose to the rank of Wing Commander, is used to demonstrate the difficulties and dangers imposed by having to manually reload a machine gun mounted on the upper wing of his Martinsyde biplane. As the empty drum had jammed he was forced to stand up in his cockpit, sending the aeroplane upside and in a spin.

I kept on kicking upwards behind me until at last I got one foot and then the other hooked inside the cockpit. Somehow I got the stick between my legs again, and jammed on full aileron and elevator; I do not know exactly what happened then, but the trick was done. The machine came over the right way up, and I fell off the top plane and into my seat with a bump. (82)

Strange had in fact fallen straight through his seat, and had to fly home bracing his body against the fuselage in order not to interfere with the control cables! This account highlights some of the difficulties involved in attempting to build aircraft capable of conducting air-to-air conduct before the invention of reliable synchronisation gear, which enabled guns to be aimed and fired through the propellor. Hamilton-Paterson fails to mention that Strange was himself an innovator in new armaments, and so his experiences may not have been representative.

True to his stated intention, Hamilton-Paterson has chosen an eclectic array of topics for inclusion in Marked for Death. Somewhat oddly, he opens with a chapter entitled ‘Air war and the state,’ which is essentially a discussion of the travails of the Royal Aircraft Factory (not to be confused with the RAF or Royal Air Force which only came into existence in April 1918). This allows him to start discussing aircraft design (which is also the subject of the following two chapters), but without clearly explaining why aviation was important in war, or thought to be important. He also spends too much time here discussing the admittedly fascinating figure of Noel Pemberton Billing — aviation pioneer and far-right independent ‘Member for Air’ at Westminster — whose influence on British aviation policy was marginal, at best. Despite the title of the chapter, most of the important changes in the way Britain organised its aerial forces (the RFC and the Royal Naval Air Service or RNAS) are barely even alluded to.

Hamilton-Paterson devotes most of his time and space to the pilots who still bulk so large in the popular memory of the First World War. He is at pains to emphasise the calculated brutality of much air-to-air combat, rightfully sceptical of the persistent ‘knights of the air’ myth. (He is much exercised by the murderous Red Baron’s enshrinement in popular culture as the arch-enemy of the cartoon dog, Snoopy.) Hamilton-Paterson notes the ‘complete irrelevance’ (203) of the vaunted air aces of all nations to the war’s outcome. Yet he cannot escape their allure either, having spent an entire chapter on them, as well as a chapter on the development of aerial weaponry which has much to say about synchronised machine guns but very little about cameras or bombs, and nothing about bombsights — and it is in bombing and reconnaissance that the major relevance of aviation to the war must be sought.[5]

Marked for Death is at its most interesting when Hamilton-Paterson takes roads less travelled. It is welcome, for example, to see a chapter devoted to the topic of aviation medicine, which in 1914 barely deserved the label ‘nascent’. While there was much that could be learned about oxygen deprivation and cold from the travails of balloonists and mountain climbers, the effects of aerial loops, spins and dives on the human body was much less well understood, let alone the effect on the human mind of the constant switching from relatively comfortable lodgings to combat patrols. While Hamilton-Paterson shows that the infamously raucous mess parties were much rarer than depicted by early Hollywood, and were usually a response to the loss of a fellow airman, he also argues that alcoholism was present to a significant degree. He also tackles the perplexing question of why RFC airmen were not issued with lifesaving parachutes until the very end of the war. He disposes of supposedly official explanations, finding no evidence that the War Office was wary of letting pilots literally bail on combat too early, and pointing out that parachutes were a reasonably well-known technology, having been deployed from balloons looming before 1914. If Hamilton-Paterson can only conclude that this seeming callousness is evidence of a different attitude towards risk on the part of our forebears — as he also notes, most of the other air forces in the war similarly disdained parachutes, and for that matter the earliest airlines saw no need for seat belts — then he has gone some way towards recapturing the strangeness of the past for the readers of today.

Where Marked for Death falls shortest is in the depth of Hamilton-Paterson’s research, and hence of his understanding. It is no virtue to provide a vivid portrait of the past if it is also misleading. For example, the chapter on ‘Home defence’ — that is, the air defence of Britain against strategic bombing — is marred by significant errors. Hamilton-Paterson gets some important things right: for example, that Britain was unprepared for defence against German air raids in 1914, or for that matter in 1915, and that the psychological impact of these attacks was all the greater for the inhabitants of an imperial, island nation which was much more used to fighting wars in other peoples’ homelands than in its own. Nevertheless, Hamilton-Paterson repeatedly gives the misleading impression that ‘panic induced by air raids’ (260) was a common and serious problem, particularly in the East End slums of London:

In fact, air raid casualties were often split along class lines since to the west and south of Holborn, and particularly in the West End, the numerous underground stations at least afforded a network of deep shelters. This inequity was exploited by union and strike leaders to reinforce their message that the whole conflict was a capitalist war, deliberately waged to enrich international bankers and arms manufacturers: one in which the British working class were mere cannon fodder in France and bomb fodder at home. (261)

Later he specifies that it was during the Gotha raids in the summer of 1917 when East Enders ‘finally’ lost their collective patience, given that ‘they had effectively been left unprotected for well over two years’ (269). But while there were certainly some instances of panic during air raids, such as the stampedes at Mile End and Bishopsgate stations in January 1918, in which 14 people died, these were in fact remarkably isolated. The considerable unrest in slum areas which did occur during the war, did not correlate particularly with air raids. When it did, such as in London in 1917, it manifested as ‘patriotic,’ anti-German rioting, not as protests against government callousness; conversely, the most evidently anti-war unrest occurred in places like Glasgow which were not visited by enemy bombers during this war. While the British government evolved contingency plans for the use of troops against civilian unrest due to enemy action, their fears were predicated upon small-scale raids from the sea, rather than large-scale raids from the air.[6] Moreover, Hamilton-Paterson claims that as late as the summer of 1917, there was ‘no comprehensive plan for the systematic defence of the capital and the warning and protection of its citizens’ (265), which is not quite the case; the problem rather was that the system which had been evolved was now adequate for defence against night attacks by airships, not day attacks by aeroplanes.[7] Nowhere does he mention the development from 1915 of the London Air Defence Area (LADA), which pioneered the principles of air defence used in 1940 in the Battle of Britain.[8] He does note some of the technical difficulties involved in detection and interception of enemy raiders, not to mention actually shooting them down, but in surprisingly little detail when compared with his earlier discussion of the invention of synchronisation gear. Surprisingly, while he gives due weight to the spectacular and shocking daylight Gotha raids on London in the summer of 1917, he breaks off his account just as the Germans switched to night raids over the fall and winter. Perhaps an account of these raids would have complicated his narrative: the switch was due to mounting losses inflicted by the defences, and while the raids imposed real hardships on civilians in this fourth winter of the war, morale still did not break. Instead, Hamilton-Paterson ends this chapter by providing a chronologically-confusing account of the sinking of the Lusitania, the executions of Edith Cavell and Charles Fryatt, and the formation of the Independent Force to carry out reprisal bombing of German cities (he is correct to say that the priority of its commander, Major-General H. M. Trenchard, was air superiority instead of strategic bombing, but fails to mention that this supposed prophet of independent air power was at this point in time a thorough sceptic), before digressing into an odd discussion of the origins of the RAF’s affected ‘upper-class Edwardian drawl’ (277). Only at the very end of the chapter, when criticising the interwar idea of bomber supremacy, does Hamilton-Paterson admit that any panic caused by bombing was in fact very localised and that bombing civilians was often counter-productive.

Marked for Death is an entertaining and sometimes insightful read, and is particularly strong in trying to evoke the experiences and mentality of the airmen of the RFC — which is more or less what Hamilton-Paterson set out to do. But he relies too much on these first-hand accounts; compelling as they seem, they cannot speak for themselves and require a wider interpretative context which, without the requisite research, he is unable to provide. For academic readers looking for a reliable and thorough overview of the Great War in the air, Morrow and Kennett still can’t be bettered.

[1] Empire of the Clouds: When Britain’s Aircraft Ruled the World (London: Faber and Faber, 2010); Under the Radar: A Novel (London: Faber and Faber, 2013).

[2] The Great War in the Air: Military Aviation from 1909 to 1921 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Press, 1993).

[3] The First Air War, 1914-1918 (New York: Free Press, 1991).

[4] See Gary Sheffield and Peter Gray (eds), Changing War: The British Army, the Hundred Days Campaign, and the Birth of the Royal Air Force, 1918 (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).

[5] See George K. Williams, Biplanes and Bombsights: British Bombing in World War I (Maxwell AFB, AL; Air University Press, 1999); Terrence J. Finnegan, Shooting the Front: Allied Aerial Reconnaissance in the First World War (Stroud: Spellmount, 2011).

[6] Brock Millman, Managing Domestic Dissent in First World War Britain (London: Frank Cass, 2000), chapter 11.

[7] Oddly, Hamilton-Paterson seems to think that airships are not aircraft, using the latter as a synonym for aeroplanes only, as when he claims that after the first successful British heavier-than-air flight at Farnborough in 1908, ‘Whitehall’s instinctive response to this historic landmark was to order the immediate abandonment of all further work there on aircraft in favour of airships and balloons’ (17).

[8] Barry D. Powers, Strategy Without Slide-rule: British Air Strategy 1914-1939 (London: Croom Helm, 1976), chapter 2.

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