The year of reading airmindedly — XIII

John Shields, Air Power in the Falklands Conflict: An Operational Level Insight into Air Warfare in the South Atlantic (2021)

There's very little linking these three books, except perhaps that they all reflect, in very different ways, the long drawdown of British power.

C. G. Grey, A History of the Air Ministry (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1940). This is a problematic book, for a number of reasons. The most obvious one is that Grey (editor of the Aeroplane from 1911 to 1939) was, as is well-known, a right-wing bigot who throughout the 1930s was at least a Nazi sympathiser, though probably not a card-carrying fascist. However, his ideology crops up surprisingly infrequently here: he even goes out of his way to praise the incoming Labour governments in 1923 and 1929 for not cutting the Air Estimates (though that is partly to contrast them with Labour's criticisms of the National government's rearmament policy later in the 1930s). The closest he comes to discussing ideology (apart from when talking about rigid airships) is when he rather bizarrely describes the formation of BOAC as 'another step [...] towards making our air transport a purely national-socialistic affair' (285)! In fact, I was surprised at Grey's general reluctance to offer his opinion on the matters he discusses, as this was not his usual style at all. (Indeed, I scoffed when he says in the preface 'I have expressed none of my own personal opinions', 29). It's not that he doesn't offer any opinions – he certainly makes it clear that he thinks it was the rapid demobilisation of the RAF after 1918 that was the cause of Britain's current predicament -- but I guess I had expected this book to involve a lot more score-settling and airing of long-held grudges. I suspect Grey bit his tongue partly in self-defence (if that makes sense!), so soon after being ejected from the editorship of the Aeroplane for his pro-German views. But he also seems to have thought that 'history should record and not discuss' (209). And record he does, in the sense of a chronicle or even, almost, a medieval annal. It's just data after more data. For example, there is a wearisome parade of personnel and organisational changes -- air ministers, new directorates, sub-departments and, of course, the makeup of the Air Council. This is not helped by Grey's rigid insistence on providing full ranks, titles and post-nominals for everyone he names – on one half-page (135) alone, there are two sirs, one mr, two air marshals, one air commodore, two KCBs, two CMGs, two CBEs, one OBE, one CB, one AM, one MA, one psc, one FRAes, one MIEE, two AMSRs, one AMRD, one AMSO, and one DTD. Still, all that detail is useful if you want it – there are organisational charts for the Air Ministry in 1921, 1930 and 1939, along with lists of the Air Council's members and the RAF's commanders for every year between 1918 and 1939 – and I don't think I've ever seen it all laid out in one book like this. However, while Grey has certainly tried to be comprehensive,((John James would have approved of his use of Air Force Lists as a primary source!)) it's surprising how often he resorts to speculation, e.g. 'In his Department was a Deputy-Directorate of Personnel and a Deputy-Directorate of Organization. One presumably [my emphasis] dealt with the acquiring of personnel and the other with organizing them when acquired' (125). You would have thought he could have just called one of his presumably numerous contacts and just asked them what the deal was, except that he boasts that he didn't do this, relying only on 'published facts or statements' (29). Anyway. While there's some interesting stuff in here (an Air Ministry prize of £25,000 for the 'best possible air transport machine', 245, was announced in 1935 but apparently never awarded), some interesting opinions (Sir Thomas Inskip, or rather the (non-existent!) Ministry of Defence 'never made any material difference to the Air Ministry', 258, lol) and personal bugbears (Grey does NOT like it if you use 'blimp' to refer to anything but SS-class airships, 164, 290), and a few clangers ('by 1939 a network of air defence of the Pacific had been established with headquarters at Fiji, linked up with Singapore, and covering the approach to Australia', 243, wtf) this is, as I said, a problematic book. Approach with caution.

Bob Maysmor, Te Manu Tukutuku ~ The Maori Kite (Te Whanganui a Tara ~ Wellington: Steele Roberts, 2001). A small, well-illustrated and well-referenced book on a topic I knew nothing about. Kites, ultimately deriving from Chinese models, have been an important part of Polynesian cultures for thousands of years, though one which had nearly died out by the time Europeans arrived in the Pacific. Māori kites appear in songs, art, myths, oral traditions, and as seven extant actual kites made between the 1840s and the 1900s, held in various museums in New Zealand, Hawaii and the UK, most spectacularly in the form of birdman kites with wingspans of up to 3.5 m. But these are just the tip of the iceberg. Kites were used for spectacle, play, divination, hunting/fishing and, it would seem, warfare. (There are oral traditions of human-lifting kites being used for observation, infiltration and extraction.) From the late 1980s there has increasing interest (well, up until 2001, anyway) in reviving the art form, with the author himself constructing several examples.

John Shields, Air Power in the Falklands Conflict: An Operational Level Insight into Air Warfare in the South Atlantic (Philadelphia: Air World, 2021). The Falklands War was the first war I can remember; as the little Anglophile I was, I recall following the southwards progress of the Royal Navy task force very keenly. I still find it interesting as a rare example of a Cold War conflict between a declining middle power with surprising punch and willpower, and an erratic regional one with terrible judgment and timing. It's generated a lot of myths on both sides (apparently some Argentinian writers still claim that a British carrier was sunk!) and Shields takes, to a great extent, a myth-busting approach. ('The Sea Harrier was decisive'? No. 'The Sidewinder tipped the balance'? No. 'Mirages diverted to defend Buenos Aires from potential Vulcan raids'? No. 'Argentine pilots were brave until the end'? No.) Shields does this through a rigorous analysis of (nearly, as far as the sources will permit) every weapon (bombs, missiles) planned to be used by either side against an enemy target, tracking them as they get closer and closer to their targets (getting airborne; getting to the theatre; getting through the defences; used against a target; actually hitting a target), determining the various attritional factors (usually not Sea Harriers…), and evaluating the significance of the targets to the enemy's centre of gravity (the British concentrated on denying the use of Port Stanley airport almost to the point of obsession). The latter terminology shows that Shields's analysis is based on an admittedly somewhat anachronistic use of doctrine (but then, the British armed forces in the late Cold War seems to have had largely abandoned formal doctrine). Number crunching has its limitations, particularly when it comes to less crunchable topics like morale, but I found this approach generally persuasive. While Shields does attempt to provide some strategic and operational context, this is not the book to go to for a blow-by-blow account of the air war over the Falklands. But it may well be the book you go to find out where the previous books you've read on the air war over the Falklands got it wrong.

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2 thoughts on “The year of reading airmindedly — XIII

  1. Errol Cavit

    The only known pre-European Māori sail is currently on display in NZ. There wasn't any discussion of kites in the exhibition unfortunately.

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