Archive for the 'Books' Category

A Short Critique of Vincent Orange

[Cross posted from Thoughts on Military History]

One of the key authors I have to engage with in my PhD is Dr Vincent Orange. What follows is a short critic of his work as it appears in the introduction to my thesis. It may seem that I am being harsh but I feel that are some important structural and historiographical issues with his works. They tend to lean towards the hagiographical and need to be read with care and with an understanding of the context of both the period and of the RAF.

Orange has written several key biographies of RAF airmen. In general, these works have been well received and undeniably, Orange has added valuable accounts to the historiography of the RAF. As Air Commodore (ret’d) Henry Probert, the former head of the RAF’s Air Historical Branch, noted in his review of Orange’s work on Air Marshal Sir Arthur ‘Mary’ Coningham in 1990 there had been few biographies of RAF commanders.[1] Thus, this work was a welcome addition to the field. This is a situation that to a large degree still exists to this day, though Orange himself has added several important works since writing his Coningham biography; however, it should be noted that works dealing with combat pilots rather than high commanders of the RAF remain an ever-popular genre with the publishing houses.

However, while Orange’s works have been lauded an important issue must be considered when utilising these works. This is the issue of bias that is inherent in all of his works, but notably his biographies of Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park and Air Chief Marshal Baron Dowding. The issue can be described as the ‘Park View of History, in effect his works are biased to the view of Park when viewing contentious events; it should be noted that Orange’s first biography was his work on Park and his affinity to this important airmen is noticeable in his writings. This especially notable in sections of his works that deal with the Battle of Britain but this bias is also inferred in sections of dealing with the issues surrounding the use of air power in the Normandy Campaign. Even in his work on Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor, a book that is generally positive about this airmen’s contribution to air power history, we can see this bias emerge where the subject turns to events that include Park or officers involved in the contentious events of 1940. For example, in discussing, the decision to replace Slessor with Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Douglas of Kirtleside at Coastal Command at the start of 1944 Orange describes the RAF’s posting system as random and that it was the wrong decision for the forthcoming role that the command would play in preparations for OVERLORD.[2] However, Orange’s criticism is wrong, as it was not unusual to post officers to new commands in order for them to gain further operational experience. In addition, the change in command for Slessor, and indeed Douglas, did not significantly affect the conduct of the war. In reality, the decision to send Slessor to the Mediterranean aided in the conduct of complex political issues that affected operations in theatre; Slessor undoubtedly had the skills need for dealing with the political of coalition operations.[3] In addition, Douglas fitted in with the command team then being gathered together for OVERLORD through his experience of working with these officers in the Mediterranean in 1942 and 1943. In addition, to argue that he had a lack of experience is to ignore his time as Deputy Chief of the Air Staff where he would have been fully cognizant with the problems facing Coastal Command.[4]

Perhaps Orange’s bias, in particular towards those officers involved in the debates of 1940, can be best summed up by comments made in his review of John Ray’s work The Battle of Britain, New Perspectives: Behind the Scenes of the Great Air War in the Journal of Military History.[5] In this review, Orange concludes by noting that ‘Dowding and Park were right, Douglas and Leigh-Mallory were wrong.’[6] This simplistic analysis of the debates of fighter tactics in 1940 and 1941 highlights the partisan nature of Orange’s work. He sees himself as the defender of Park’s, and latterly Dowding’s reputation. In doing so, he has sought to denigrate the role and impact of their contemporaries. In doing this, he ignores the difficulties of fighter operations as a whole but rather concentrates on daylight defensive operations.


[1] Henry Probert, ‘Coningham by Vincent Orange (Book Review)’ Journal of the Royal United Services Institute, Vol. 135, No. 2 (Summer: 1990) p. 81

[2] Orange, Slessor, p. 123

[3] For a more positive view of Slessor’s impact both at Coastal Command and the Meditteranean Allied Air Forces see; Corvin Connelly, ‘Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Cottesworth Slessor and the Anglo-American Air Power Alliance, 1940-1945’ PhD Thesis (Texas A&M University, 2001) pp. 193-271

[4] Lord Douglas of Kirtleside with Robert Wright, Years of Command: The Second Volume of the Autobiography of Sholto Douglas, Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Lord Douglas of Kirtleside, GCB, MC, DFC (London; Collins, 1966) p. 246

[5] Vincent Orange, ‘The Battle of Britain, New Perspectives: Behind the Scenes of the Great Air War by John Ray (Book Review)’ Journal of Military History, Vol. 59, No. 2 (1995:Apr.) pp.348-349

[6] Orange, ‘The Battle of Britain (Review)’ p. 349

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New Books on First World War Air Power

While browsing the shelves at my local Waterstones I have come across two new works on air power during the First World War that may be of some interest to readers. Air Power and the First World War is a an area that really needs some good scholarship to be produced. Peter Hart has done some useful work on it and there is some useful stuff in the pages of the Journal of Cross and Cockade but I think it still has some way to go.

The first book is by E R Hooton who was the author of Phoenix Triumphant: The Rise and Rise of the Luftwaffe. This new book, entitled War Over the Trenches: Air Power and the Western Front Campaigns 1916-1918, is published by Midland Publishing and on the glance that I have given it at the bookshop it appears to be a well researched work with good referencing and a full bibliography. I hope to pick up a copy soon and not to be disappointed. Here is the blurb about the book:

The colossal impact and effect of World War 1 has provided a historical watershed of which almost every aspect has been studied and revised. Yet there is one aspect which has remained an enigma – air power. This book helps resolve many unanswered questions. Ironically, less is known about the air war, especially over the Western Front, than the campaigns of the armies of ancient Rome. Yet the technological development of the aeroplane, in air power and in air power’s use as an offensive weapon between 1914-18, accelerated at a pace which has never been matched. Few histories of World War 1 air power have focused upon the strategic air campaign, especially against England – fewer still those based upon documentary evidence which describe the course of operations and the events which shaped them; but the events of 1916-18 have been so little studied that mythology has become accepted fact, including myths in many now famous ‘standard works’. “War over the Trenches” is the first internationally-researched study to portray how air power really evolved and how it was really used to support armies during the massive and devastating battles on the Western Front. E.R. Hooton examines how air power was deployed en masse for the first time over Verdun and its subsequent use over the Somme in the second half of 1916; how reconnaissance and measures of co-operation with artillery were developed and refined; and, the recovery of Allied air power during in the autumn and summer of 1917 following months of attrition and in the final, great German offensives of 1918. This could often be a grim war, whose participants were directed in the air – frequently to their deaths – by commanders on the ground. War over the Trenches is based on exhaustive research conducted in archives in France, Belgium, the UK, the USA and includes German material which has never before been published. It provides the most insightful, exciting and radical reassessment of First World War air operations ever published.

The second book I have seen is by John Sweetman. John is the former head of Defence and International Affairs at Sandhurst and wrote a book on the Dambusters Raid. This book, entitled Cavalry of the Clouds: Air War Over Europe 1914-1918, is published by the History Press and again from a quick glance appears to be a good work. The key difference to the above work is its more general focus as it concentrates on the developments of the whole war, however, this hopefully should not a problem with it. Again I hope to have a copy at some point. Here is the blurb for it:

In 1917, David Lloyd George declared that airmen were ‘the cavalry of the clouds – the knighthood of this war.’ This romantic image was fostered post-war by writers of adventure stories and the stunts of Hollywood filmmakers, and yet it was far from the harsh reality of life of an airman. From their baptism of fire in 1914 carrying out reconnaissance and experiencing the first dogfights, to the breakthrough in 1918 which claimed heavy casualties, the aerial defenders of Britain were continually tested. In Cavalry of the Clouds John Sweetman describes the development of British air power during the First World War on the Western Front, which culminated in the creation of the first independent air force, the RAF. By making use of the correspondence of airmen and ground staff of all nationalities, he illustrates the impact this new type of conflict had on those involved and their families at home. Extensively researched and handsomely illustrated with contemporary photographs, Cavalry of the Clouds is an essential reference work for any student of military history.

It is good to see some focus return to First World War air power.

Reprints of Classic Air Power Texts

Like all areas of military history there are some classic texts that deal with air power. Like all classic texts they can often be difficult to find if they are not reprinted. Therefore it is good to see the University of Alabama Press reprinting some classic titles on air power. In particular the following have been reprinted in new editions:

John C Slessor Air Power and Armies (University of Alabama Press, 2009) – This new edition has an introduction by Philip Meilinger. The original was published by Oxford University Press in 1936. For me it has always been my nemesis as when ever I tried to get hold of a copy it was either too expensive or I was outbid on evilbay. Therefore, I am glad I know have a copy in my collection. It is one of the key texts on the use of operational air power in support of the land campaign, discussing its use primarily in aerial interdiction campaigns.

The next to be reprinted is:

Giulio Douhet The Command of the Air (University of Alabama Press, 2010) – Initially published in 1921 this edition is edited by Joseph Patrick Harahan and Richard H. Kohn. While it is debatable what impact the Douhet had upon the interwar development of air power theory in Britain and the US it remains an important text in air power history so it is good to see an accessible edition being available.

It also appears that later on this year they will be reprinting Mitchell’s Winged Defence.


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