The year of reading airmindedly — IX

Kristen Alexander, Kriegies: The Australian Airmen of Stalag Luft III

Today we're looking at the three Ps: (defence) policy, prisoners (of war), and (MM.) Pilâtre (and d'Arlandes, the first aeronauts, along with early ballooning more generally). Okay, so I need to work on my intros…

Kristen Alexander, Kriegies: The Australian Airmen of Stalag Luft III (Mawson: Ad Astra Press, 2023). Many readers of this blog will undoubtedly be familiar with Kristen's books; indeed, I've already read one in this series, and I've got another still sitting on my to-be-read shelf. But while it certainly continues her established interest and expertise in writing the lives of Australian aviators, Kriegies is different. First, it's devoted to a non-flying cohort: RAAF airmen who ended up incarcerated in Stalag Luft III, one of the Luftwaffe's network of POW camps for Allied airmen, as well as their families and loved ones back in Australia or in Britain. Second, rather than taking a straightforward narrative or biographical approach, it's much more thematic and indeed analytical, as befits its origins in a PhD. Don't let that put you off, because Kriegies is a terrific book. Kristen's interest is in trying to uncover the emotional lives of these POWs, from the shock of capture through the camaraderie and cohesion of kriegie (a self-chosen label taken from Kriegsgefangener, German for prisoner of war) life, the boredom and strain of waiting for the war to end without going round the bend, solace and yearnings from prior romantic relationships (with letters to and from home being a somewhat surprising source), and the sometimes difficult transition back to peace. Nor are topics such as homosexuality and suicide neglected, despite the unease many of former prisoners felt in discussing these after the war. And of course, escaping is dealt with in some detail, including the Great Escape (five of the fifty escapees executed by the Germans were Australian). While the POW experience has definitely seen a surge of research in the last couple of decades, Kriegies is unique in focusing on the emotional lives of RAAF POWs as well their families. On top of that, it's a great read!

Mi Gyung Kim, The Imagined Empire: Balloon Enlightenments in Revolutionary Europe (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017). This a hugely impressive work of scholarship which advances our understanding of what early aerostatics meant, even if I think it falls a little short of its ambitions. Kim's primary concern is with the first few years of the balloon craze in France in 1783-85, but she also gives fascinating discussions of the slightly delayed rise of balloonmania in Britain and Europe, particularly Germany (and I didn't realise the crucial role played in the latter by Jean-Pierre Blanchard, first to fly the English Channel). These are some of the most detailed accounts I've read of the first flights of the air age as well as the social and political context in which they occurred; nor does she focus on centre at the expense of the periphery, with really interesting sections on the attempts of provincial cities to play their part in the conquest of flight. However, I couldn't quite follow Kim's argument that, at least sometimes, the various ascents provided images of an alternative, reformed monarchy or republican nation, and that the collapse of the balloon craze played some part in the collapse of faith in the monarchy itself. Nor does she seem to have the evidence base to show that these images resonated with any public. (Of course uncovering what people thought on any scale larger than the individual is hugely difficult and a big reason why I look to things like airship panics, though that's not without problems either!) The title would seem to be a reference to Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities, and indeed Kim says 'In focusing on the balloon's material agency, I am disputing in part Anderson's emphasis on the role of newspapers in the consolidation of a nation-state' (324) -- as much as I think aviation has been hugely implicated in nationalism, this seems like a huge claim that warrants much more than a (literal) footnote. But it may be that The Imagined Empire is just too specialist for a random modern historian like me to fully get; maybe historians of the Ancien Régime or the French Revolution will get where Kim is coming from much more readily than I. I will await further interpretations.

John McCarthy, Australia and Imperial Defence, 1918-39: A Study in Air and Sea Power (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1976). Despite the title perhaps implying even-handed treatment, airpower policy (rightly!) dominates this book, which is one of those classics I really should have read before now (of which there are far too many -- which is one reason for this series). Why is it a classic? It helps to be practically the first history of a particular topic, and to have relatively little secondary material to master (though I did cringe a little when I noticed how often McCarthy draws on Robin Higham's The Military Intellectuals in Britain: 1918-1939, which I also leaned on quite a bit some three decades later...), or for that matter primary sources (the 30 year rule had been announced, but was not yet in effect at the 'Australian Archives Office' when McCarthy did his PhD research). But Australia and Imperial Defence is a classic not because it's old but because it's cogently and logically argued, and because its arguments and conclusions are still shaping the historiographical debate on topics like the effect of the Singapore policy (which McCarthy blames for the RAAF's unreadiness for war in 1939) and the procurement non-British aircraft for the RAAF. That's not to say Australia and Imperial Defence is always right: I suspect, for example, that there was more than McCarthy allows to the emphasis placed in Australian aviation circles on the idea that civil aviation was a necessary adjunct to military aviation than cost-consciousness, given that (as I learned yesterday while reading this book!) that H. C. Brinsmead, the first Controller of Civil Aviation, was part of the British Military Section at the Paris Peace Conference and as an airman presumably served under Sykes and Groves, both proponents of the commercial bomber. I'm sure there's more that could be said, but this is essential reading nonetheless.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *