Gunning for the Red Baron

  • Published
Gunning for the Red Baron by Leon Bennett. Texas A&M University Press, 2006, 216 pp.

Gunning for the Red Baron by Leon Bennett mainly explores the technical aspects of gunnery and aerial combat among fighter pilots in World War I. Despite the book's focus on technical concepts, Bennett writes in such a straightforward manner that a reader of any technical aptitude can comprehend the information presented. Moreover, it is clear that the work is the result of the author's well-planned and thorough research. However, Gunning for the Red Baron fails to present a clear thesis; Bennett discusses two separate purposes at the beginning, but by the end, neither has been fully explored. The author may not fulfill his promises to the reader, but he does deliver a first-rate look into the technical challenges faced by British fighter pilots in World War I.

Leon Bennett certainly has the credentials to write about World War I aviation. Besides being a published aeronautical engineer, he has authored another book about Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron. Furthermore, the research behind the book is clearly more than adequate. Although it includes only about 180 pages of text, more than 120 references are listed in the bibliography, including primary sources of British and German origin along with a handful of French ones. Readers, therefore, need not worry about the accuracy of the information.

Bennett's previous experience in writing reveals itself in his style. He masterfully intertwines visual aids, which include photographs, diagrams, and charts, with transparent writing to easily explain technical concepts and present unique conclusions. The sheer number of historical photographs complements rather than overwhelms the writing because only relevant pictures are paired with the text on any particular page. The charts and diagrams, both historical and the author's, are also placed strategically to embellish the narrative and facilitate easy comprehension. The result is a book that is surprisingly quick to read.

With respect to organization, Gunning for the Red Baron is simply a mess. The book starts off well enough by providing key background about why air services were considered necessary. However, what follows is a muddled explanation of the study's organization and purpose. Bennett appears to toy with two different objectives: (1) analyzing all of the technical aspects of aerial combat in World War I as experienced by pilots of all major participating nations and (2) analyzing everything about the Red Baron, the pilots who fought him, and the technology involved in his air battles.

The author reveals the first purpose in the introduction: "This book is concerned with the craft of shooting down airplanes in the Great War. At issue are men, weapons, airplanes, and tactics. Examined are the lessons learned as every Air Service fought for dominance" (p. 5). This sentence, in conjunction with a graph of air service casualties of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States, which also appears in the introduction (p. 3), implies that the scope of the book covers these four nations. Even the description on the book jacket implies it will be all-encompassing, but this promise is never fulfilled. Markedly British-centric, Gunning for the Red Baron fully explores only the technical aspects of the British air service. Seven of the nine chapters relate to technology, but just three refer to the German air service, of which only one does so thoroughly. The other four concern themselves with only the British perspective. Ironically, Bennett admits to the British slant in the "Acknowledgements": "Without these magnificent British sources, the book would lack content." The title of the book, though, and information in the book jacket suggest that the real objective is to examine von Richthofen in detail. (Only chapter 8, however, which explores two of his dogfights, fulfills this purpose.) The author attempts to reference the Red Baron in earlier parts of the book but does so inappropriately. A prime example occurs in chapter 6, in which Bennett clumsily throws in a quip about von Richthofen's career in the middle of a discussion about World War I fighter design (p. 108). One chapter is not nearly enough to fully explore the Red Baron's World War I experiences.

The author commits one final organizational blunder by including chapter 9, which relates to neither of his two purposes. Granted, it offers interesting information and insight into why both German and British aces have limited numbers of victories, but it is irrelevant to the rest of the study. Bennett should have conducted further research on the topic and expanded chapter 9 for publication either as a monograph or as a stand-alone book.

Besides failing to meet its objectives, Gunning for the Red Baron provides an original and thrilling look into the detailed technical aspects of aerial combat in World War I from the British perspective. It is a must-have for anyone who wishes to learn about this topic and is a good starting point for academics researching anything related to aerial combat during the Great War. There is one caveat, however. To enjoy the book and to avoid disappointment or confusion, readers should (1) ignore both the title and certain information in the book sleeve and introduction, (2) ignore chapters 8 and 9, and (3) approach the book with the expectation that it is a strictly informative piece about the technical aspects of air combat in World War I from the British viewpoint. Gunning for the Red Baron is far from perfect, but the author's diligent research and plain writing style more than make up for its shortcomings.

2nd Lt Viktor J. Theiss, USAF
Columbus AFB, Mississippi

"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."