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Striking the Hornets’ Nest: Naval Aviation and the Origins of Strategic Bombing in World War I

Striking the Hornets’ Nest: Naval Aviation and the Origins of Strategic Bombing in World War I by Geoffrey L. Rossano and Thomas Wildenberg. Naval Institute Press, 2015, 304 pp.

 In this historic compilation of early naval aviators’ experiences in World War I, authors Geoffrey Rossano and Thomas Wildenberg exalt the role played by the US Navy’s Northern Bombing Group (NBG) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) in the conception of strategic bombing (p. 2). With their strong background in naval history, the authors use a variety of sources to reconstruct the struggle that the aviators endured to employ airpower in a novel way. The authors assert that “the sailors were the first” to identify strategic bombing as the path that air warfare would follow (p. 211), at least from a British and American perspective. Here the authors could mislead new readers to the topic; first, by not recognizing the other powers’ aerial bombing intended for strategic impact early in World War I, and second, by not explaining why they omitted this perspective. For example, historians Michael S. Sherry and Williamson Murray acknowledge in their writings that German Zeppelin attacks were aimed at British cities before the British air attacks on Zeppelin sheds in September 1914. Also, scholar Spencer Tucker, in his edited volume on the war, acknowledges a French attack against German Zeppelin hangars at Metz-Frascaty as early as 14 August 1914.

To summarize the authors’ historical arc, the book begins with RNAS efforts at the advent of the war in 1914 to stop the main threats to England: enemy Zeppelins and U-boats. The technological and operational limitations on fighting the Zeppelins in the air and the submarines in the sea gave birth to the idea of attacking their operating bases (pp. 8, 11). After finding a technological solution to the Zeppelin threat, the authors note how increasing requirements for air operations forced the British to reduce attacks on the U-Boat bases in Belgium. Later, the submarine attacks on US vessels caused the American entrance into the war. President Woodrow Wilson stated that “We are hunting hornets all over the farm and letting the nest alone,” (p. 26) a direct reference to the need to attack the U-Boat bases. The authors then describe the process that the US Navy’s aviators had to follow to accomplish the presidential directive to attack the “hornets’ nest.” The aviators never fully accomplished this task due to technological and industrial drawbacks, operational restrictions, interservice rivalry, and the Allied advances that forced Germany to abandon its submarine bases in Belgium during the autumn of 1918 (p. 210).

To enrich their book with particular and personal details, references, and descriptions of the officers involved in the creation of the NBG, Rossano and Wildenberg mined official archival collections and both academic and public documents. Using an easy-to-follow narrative, the authors present the dilemmas and difficulties overcome to accomplish the organization, training, and equipment for a naval strategic bombing capacity. Although some details, like the mention of Captain Cunningham’s complaint about his lunch at the Adelphi Hotel (p. 65) seem irrelevant, this could be taken as a way to picture the character and personality of the individuals who influenced the decisions and controversies that appeared in the process.

However, despite the generally meticulous research, some key events receive slight mention and are not thoroughly analyzed. This way of presenting the work could make the reader think that the book is a colloquial narration of historical events instead of an academic endeavor to deepen the reader’s understanding of the theoretical aspects of strategic bombing. Similarly, the last chapter on lessons and legacies summarizes the book well, but falls short of addressing all the lessons applicable to the development and employment of airpower from the strategic perspective, leaving the impression that something is missing. Perhaps, as the authors note, “The Navy's disappointing experience attempting to field a credible bombing force, and the virtually insurmountable difficulties encountered. . .” (p. 212) also limits the book’s conclusion. After all, during World War I, strategic aerial bombing was not sufficiently tested nor proved.

Altogether, Rossano and Wildenberg provide a well-rounded profile of the people who shaped naval airpower in the US. Their historical review of events creates a compendium for those interested in early US naval aviation history, and brings to light some interesting details about the first steps of military aviation and air warfare. They also identify the inherent limitations of airpower and the conflicts among different air services’ doctrine and roles, some of which recur today, especially when the issue of strategic employment arises.


Col Luis E. Orozco J., Colombian Air Force
Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California.

"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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