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The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War, vol. 1, Australia and the War in the Air

The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War, vol. 1, Australia and the War in the Air by Dr. Michael Molkentin. Oxford University Press, 2014, 288 pp.

The Great War, a monumental clash among nations, utilized paradigm-shifting weaponry at the beginning of the twentieth century, resulting in unfathomable carnage and suffering. The brutality of this new era of warfare saw rapidly changing doctrines and strategies that sought to capitalize on newly developed weaponry for offensive and defensive purposes. One such weapon--the "aeroplane"--played a fundamental role in changing strategies, operations, and tactics. Leading the charge for airpower and its employment in the battlespace was Great Britain. The British Empire and dominions within the Commonwealth heralded this call to war across all branches, including the development and creation of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), which eventually merged, creating the Royal Air Force (RAF) in early 1918. Australia and the War in the Air is the first of five volumes in The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War series, devoted to a historical account of the First World War written from an Australian-centric view. This volume seeks to provide context of how Australian airmen served the British Empire, whether in the RFC, RNAS, RAF, or Australian Flying Corps (AFC) along the western front and in the Middle East.

Author Michael Molkentin had originally written this manuscript as a PhD dissertation and then expanded its scope and depth with the assistance of funding from his university and the Australian Army. That said, Molkentin provides a comprehensive and scholarly review of how the Australian public and military became interested in aviation for defensive purposes (e.g., concern over Japanese hostilities) and offers details about initial grassroots efforts to develop and organize aviation and flying schools in Australia during the war. Throughout the text, he shows how a lack of funding, infrastructure, training, logistics, and support staff consistently undermined Australia's efforts at fielding (and maintaining) its own flying squadrons for the British Empire. Nevertheless, such efforts (as well as the failed Gallipoli Campaign) were vital to facilitating Australian identity and eventual independence.

Most of the text is devoted to thorough examinations of major air-ground battles along the western front, the failed British campaign in Mesopotamia, and the British push from Egypt into Palestine. Showing how aircraft were initially used for aerial reconnaissance and artillery spotting, Molkentin describes how leadership in each region adopted varying tactics to employ aircraft based on climate, terrain, and logistics. As the war progressed, technology permitted aircraft to engage in air combat, and tactical close air support evolved into ground strafing and trench strafing, including opportunistic bombing, mapping, and other reconnaissance. By the war’s end, aircraft were air-dropping ammunition and other war matériel to rapidly advancing troops on the battlefield. Finally, one of the author's most interesting discoveries from his investigation of airmen's diaries and official memos is that the term ace (denoting a pilot with five air-to-air kills) was never used by airmen serving in the British Empire. He finds that ace was invented in the late 1920s by cinema and that such a term would have been considered "vulgar" (p. 159) by pilots had it existed during the Great War.

Given that this text was underwritten by the Australian military, many readers may find it skewed toward Australian airmen and their role in aviation operations across the western front and the Middle East. Even more distracting are the author's randomly placed anecdotal stories of Australian airmen involved in each operation--stories that rarely provide a causal link to outcome. Nevertheless, Molkentin does redeem himself on numerous occasions by dispelling commonly held beliefs about exaggerated Australian contributions to the Great War--for example, an analysis of the performance of Australian and British aviation units shows them to be comparable in combat, among other metrics. Furthermore, the author makes a strong case that Australia's desire to create its own air force significantly undermined the overall war effort--mainly attributed to the remoteness of the continent and a lack of organic industrial capability to build aircraft. Finally, the text does an admirable job of reassessing the great airpower theorist Marshal of the RAF Hugh Trenchard and his application of airpower along the western front. This examination highlights his poor decisions concerning organization of the flying squadrons and his blind commitment to strategic bombing. Conversely, Molkentin praises Trenchard for his overall belief in unrelenting offensive operations through decentralized execution at the squadron level. Such airpower doctrine, he finds, was decisive in gaining air superiority over the German Luftstreitkräfte (German Air Force).

The author wrote this book for the sole purpose of appreciating Australians who served in a flying or aviation support role in the RFC, RNAS, RAF, and AFC. Regardless of its focus, it effectively demonstrates many origins of the modern-day uses of airpower, describing how its role developed and evolved as aircraft capabilities grew by leaps and bounds during the Great War. Readers with an appetite for discovering insights into Commonwealth military aviation and its "birth pains" will appreciate Australia and the War in the Air for its in-depth analysis of World War I campaigns that utilized airpower. This book is also notable for its rejection of many notions of airpower's decisiveness during some major battles of the Great War. Molkentin is candid about this assertion in assessments of each side, finding (through diaries and official correspondence) that airpower was mostly decisive in undermining enemy morale and disrupting the organization of ground troops. Military leaders will appreciate Australia and the War in the Air for its ability to identify issues that still face airmen when they deploy aircraft and personnel to a combat zone.

Capt Jahara Matisek, USAF
Sheppard AFB, Texas

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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