Chief of Air Force Reading List, 2015
Released in October 2014, Michael Molkentin’s Australia and the War in the Air is the first of a five volume history of Australia’s experience of the Great War, with succeeding volumes set for periodic publication with the final volume due for release in April 2016. Conceived as a contribution to marking the centenary of the Great War 1914-18, this series of books is intended to be a ‘scholarly account of the impact of one of the great formative national experiences’. In this aim the five volume series sets itself apart from the more sensationalist and populist commercial offerings that currently flood the market and loosely pass themselves off as history.
The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War is being written and edited by professional academic historians, and being published by the highly reputable Oxford University Press. In short, the series is set to become a valuable reference work that would supplement any military history collection, while also being a worthwhile primer for readers with little knowledge of Australia’s Great War history.
This series is not intended to supplant the twelve volume official history of the Great War, edited and in a large part written, by Charles Bean. Rather it is intended to view the war from a wider perspective gained from access to records not available to Bean and his team. The newer work also differentiates itself from the earlier histories in that it takes a more strategic-operational perspective of the war, rather than recording the more personal experience of the conflict. Bean was concerned with ensuring that the story of the combatants was at the forefront of the narrative, and this approach left much of Australia’s involvement in The Great War left untold. This new series aims to fill that void, thereby complementing the official history. The first volume, Australia and the War in the Air by Michael Molkentin details Australia’s involvement in the first great air campaigns in the history of warfare. Indeed, with military aviation employed in very few conflicts prior to the Great War, there was little appreciation of how to raise, train, sustain and employ a national air arm. Molkentin’s early chapters, which look at the Australian Flying Corps’ (AFC) formation, organisation and training, reflect the tentative nature of military aviation in Australia at the outbreak of war.
The AFC was a small component of a very large aviation force fielded by Great Britain, and Molkentin communicates this reality very well, including in the narrative ample description of the relationship between the AFC and the Royal Flying Corps, Royal Naval Air Service and, from April 1918, the Royal Air Force. The reality that the AFC did not operate in isolation is further expounded with detail of the role of the Australian and British Governments in the development and employment of AFC. It is in this wider view of the AFC experience that we see a marked difference between the official history—written by Frederic Cutlack and edited by Charles Bean in 1923—and that of Molkentin’s Australia in the Air War.
In the chapters dealing with AFC operations, the air war and how it related to theatre wide efforts is captured in excellent detail and makes for good reading. The theatre wide perspective gives the reader ample appreciation of just how rapidly the air campaign became pervasive during the Great War. The book provides a ready example of the difference between simple battlefield support and the far more complex air campaigns which span whole-of-government and whole-ofconflict requirements. From the point of view of air power development alone this volume is worth studying.
Overall Molkentin has produced a very readable study covering the development, organisation and employment of the AFC in the Great War, set against a backdrop of operations with allied air arms and coalition Governments— all in an era when such concepts were in their infancy. This book and the entire five volume set, make for an important contribution to the understanding of Australia’s involvement in the Great War.
Barbara Baker, Courier Mail, 18 August 2012
If you believe the legend we were raised with, then Michael Molkentin’s book is going to hurt. And nowhere more so, perhaps, than when he points out that Charles Kingsford Smith’s famous pan-Pacific flight of 1928 was touted by The Sun as due to Aussie greatness of character and pioneering spirit when in fact it was made possible only by American GA Hancock’s generosity after Australian governments withdrew funding. The Sun was also responsible for attributing aviation glory mainly to Kingsford Smith – who always protested that success was a team effort – and Molkentin seeks to redress the imbalance, particularly concerning Charles Ulm. None of this detracts from the courageous achievements of our pioneer aviators but Molkentin’s research shows the men behind the public images. Like anyone, they were flawed. Ulm’s treatment of fellow crewmen Warner and Lyon, for example, was correct but uncharitable. The interplay between colleagues could be strained, as it was between Keith Anderson, Ulm and Kingsford Smith, and yet Anderson lost his life helping search for Ulm and Kingsford Smith when they went missing for two weeks in WA in 1929. Illustrations abound in this lavishly produced book. The sepia tones coupled with so much detail revive the 20s and early 30s. Molkentin’s book is bound to delight aviation enthusiasts and general readers alike. Verdict: duller truth makes for even brighter glory.
The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 August 2012
The dashing Charles Kingsford Smith, chief aviator of the first trans-Pacific flight, has become an Australian legend. But this legend was forged, Michael Molkentin suggests, at the expense of the co-pilot, Charles Ulm. The Sun newspaper’s coverage of the flight edited Ulm’s logbook to imply that it was written by Kingsford Smith. This exclusive focus ‘would later become integral to “Smithy” folklore’. Molkentin restores Ulm’s centrality by using his terse but often gripping logbook – later incorrectly displayed in Parliament House as Kingsford Smith’s diary – as the scaffolding for his story. He also fills out the crucial role played by the Americans, navigator Harry Lyon and radio operator Jim Warner. From Clipped entries such as ‘last sight of land for 24 hours’ and ‘terrific rainstorm with violent bumps’, Molkentin teases out the highs and lows of this famous flight.
Kristen Alexander, Sabretache, December 2010
I must declare my interest. Michael Molkentin and I share a publisher and in August 2008 Ian Bowring told me he was publishing an account of the Australian Flying Corps. I have done a bit of reading in my time about Australia’s growing civil aviation industry, the interwar RAAF and Australians in the Second World War. I was keen to discover more about their flying antecedents as well as the early flying days of those who had significant places in my Second World War research. So, when Ian mentioned Fire in the Sky, I was excited. Often, the anticipation is better than the event, but not in this case. Fire in the Sky surpassed my expectations.
Fire in the Sky is roughly divided into two sections: the Half Flight and 1 Squadron’s experiences in Mesopotamia, Egypt–Sinai and Palestine, and 2, 3 and 4 squadrons on the Western Front. In some respects it reads like a typical squadron history (despite the multi-squadron focus) and I will admit I find dry, operations-based accounts boring but when I flipped through to the bibliography, which includes Molkentin’s thesis ‘Culture, Class and Experience in the Australian Flying Corps’, I knew there would be a firm emphasis of the men of the flying corps, and not just their operations. And I was not disappointed. Rather than presenting a straight blow-by-blow, battle-by-battle history, Molkentin has skilfully woven personal experiences of airmen and ground crew into a readable and absorbing account of Australian Flying Corps operations, giving it a sound social history grounding.
Molkentin has drawn widely on public and private, published and unpublished sources. One of the standout stories is that of Owen Lewis. The reader first meets Lewis, a freshly minted observer, when 3 Squadron posted him to a British unit for training with an experienced pilot. It was a hectic time and Lewis and his pilot experienced enemy fire in five aerial combats; their aircraft was badly damaged during two of them. Within ten weeks, Lewis was among 3 Squadron’s veteran observers and about to embark on a fortnight’s leave. But Lewis did not make it to England. Drawing on Lewis’ brief diary, which abruptly ends the night before he was killed; his brother Athol’s diary; an interview in The 14–18 Journal; and the published memoir of his younger brother, Brian, Molkentin movingly recreates from a number of perspectives Owen Lewis’ last day and the aftermath of his death. This is storytelling and social history at its best. But it is not a one off. Molkentin tells of Frank McNamara and his VC-winning rescue of Douglas Rutherford as well as the what-happens-next for both men (and especially Rutherford who was perceived as having the ‘unlucky habit of attracting trouble’), and unravels the mystery surrounding the death of Manfred von Richthofen. The Richthofen story is another standout story amongst many. Molkentin discusses the various who-got-the-Baron stories and draws his own conclusions regarding who did what. Even so, he indicates that readers and historians (as one admits) may sentimentally cling to long-held favoured explanations.
I am particularly interested in the notions of chivalry and the ‘knights of the air’ and how these concepts originated. Molkentin has unearthed some outstanding examples which left me wondering if both German and Australian pilots realised they were actually at war and not involved in some gentlemanly game. But sadly, the Richthofen episode shows all too clearly that chivalry was something practised by only a handful; there was little dignity or honour in the plundering of Richthofen’s body and possessions. And there was certainly nothing chivalrous in the actions of some of the scout pilots who, after the Armistice was declared, returned from a purported search for a missing squadron member with conspicuously empty bomb racks.
Molkentin relates the early flying careers of significant interwar and Second World War personalities such as Richard Williams, Harry Cobby, George Jones, Lawrence Wackett and Hudson Fysh, and also tells of those whose early promise, such as that of George Merz, was not realised. He recounts what I term ‘vagaries-of-war’ stories such as that of two of ‘Jasta Boelcke’s’ victims in the dying moments of the war. Arthur Palliser was one of 4 Squadron’s most experienced pilots and had survived four years of war, only to be killed in battle on 4 November 1918, one week before the Armistice. Palliser was due to return to Australia the next day and had told George Jones that ‘If I was only lucky enough to break my finger in the hangar door I would not be able to fly today’. On the same day, 23-year-old Charles Rhodes was shot down on his first patrol. Molkentin points out that he would not have even had time to learn the names of his fellow pilots.
Molkentin notes that just 880 officers and 2840 men served with the AFC during the war and, of those, only 410 pilots and 153 observers fought in battle. These 563 men were significantly fewer than those who enlisted in the AIF. So few that Les Carlyon did not even mention the AFC in the 700+ pages of his The Great War. And yet its contribution was significant. Its service spanned three continents and nearly every type of aerial operation during the Great War. As Molkentin points out ‘Australian airmen and mechanics were contributors to the pioneering days of aerial warfare in Mesopotamia and Egypt, when aeroplanes were still widely perceived as a reconnaissance arm only. They were there too in 1918, keen participants in the evolution of air power as a tool for gaining air superiority, bombing strategic targets and directly supporting ground operations.’ And of course, they regularly increased the victory tally, producing ‘aces’ and accounting for some of the earliest DFCs of the war.
Given the importance of its role, I wonder why the AFC has remained largely unsung since the 1923 publication (and subsequent reprints) of Cutlack’s The Australian Flying Corps in the Western and Eastern Theatres of War 1914–1918, the occasional memoir, the odd chapter in air force histories and the all too rare private diary. The publishers and contributors of Cross & Cockade and The 14–18 Journal have done much to ensure that the AFC heritage is not lost but individual journals, as well as the unpublished manuscripts held in public institutions, are normally lost to or out of bounds of the general reader. Thankfully, Molkentin has vividly brought these stories and memories to a new generation and now re-establishes the significance of AFC involvement in the Great War. He notes parenthetically that, at 27, he is too old to be an ACF scout pilot. Readers should be pleased that he still has many writing years ahead of him, whether he turns his hand again to aviation history (and I for one certainly hope he does) or other aspects of Australian military history.
Michael McKernan, The Canberra Times, 25 September 2010
George Mills was a 30-year-old dentist from Sydney, a lighthorseman who had fought at Romani in 1916. German aircraft had bombed the camp and Mills decided he wanted to be on the giving rather than the receiving end of this new form of warfare. So he joined the Australian Flying Corps (AFC). “Once in the air, you were your own boss” was how he explained it later. His perceptive understanding of the first days of aerial warfare might just about summarise this fine book.
Fire in the Sky is a book about individuals in a way that the story of soldiers can never be. Sure, stories such as those of Albert Jacka tell of remarkable episodes of individual bravery and initiative. But even Jacka, holding his trench alone, needed support from those around him and those behind him with the guns. Step into the rudimentary aircraft Michael Molkentin is writing about and you are on your own. There may be others around you in the sky, but your life and your contribution to the attack and defence is entirely in your own hands. This is a book that captures the excitement, the danger and the creativity of that. It is a book you will find hard to put down.
Who were Australia’s first airmen? They were young. So young that this first-time author who tells their story can claim, although he is now only 27, that he “too old to be a scout pilot in the AFC”. I don’t know whether I’m more surprised by the youth of the pilots or the youth of the author, but both appear to have done an excellent job. The pilots were also predominantly middle class, from private schools, and better educated than those on the ground.
Molkentin’s method is to follow the action first in the desert and then on the Western Front. Following Charles Bean and Bill Gammage, he wants those involved to speak for themselves and, given that he is writing more than 90 years after the events, at first sight this ambition seemed likely to be thwarted. Yet he has brought it off with an extraordinary amount of detailed research. More than once as I raced through this book I asked myself, “How could he know that?” But the endnotes tell how wide-ranging is the research. Molkentin has found just the phrase or expression that can make you think he personally interviewed those about whom he has written. It is a striking achievement.
(Sir) Richard Williams, who died in 1980, joined the Central Flying School at Point Cook just as war was breaking out in Europe. He was 24; there were three other classmates in this first-ever intake of pilots, the oldest of whom was 26. The Central Flying School was “an old tin shed and some lean-tos”. Eventually 3720 men would serve in the AFC during the war; 205 of them were killed. Williams survived to have a distinguished air force career, retiring (against his will) in 1946. An early, but relatively minor character in Fire in the Sky, Williams was a prickly, even difficult character. It is impressive how Molkentin tells his story. “Father of the RAAF” he might have become: in this book he is one of those who fought, whom we come to know as an individual, warts an all. “An airman’s life is one of comparative ease interspersed with moments of intense fear,” Williams most memorably wrote.
Ground crew knew no such ease. It is another strength of this book that Molkentin is as determined to tell their story as much as the story of the pilots. Ground crew, he tells us, were skilled tradesmen, recruited specifically for their expertise, though not, of course, having previously worked with aircraft. There were fitters who would entirely rebuild each engine after five hours of flying time, riggers who would maintain the aircraft’s frame, wood, fabric and wire. It was a delicate matter- of life and death – to correctly balance the airframe. This was time consuming work and never-ending. Armourers had perhaps the most difficult job of all, for a misfiring bullet would smash the propeller. The precision required was remarkable.
Yet, as the years went on and the aircraft improved, perhaps the dangers only intensified. Aircraft, it was thought, would fight only to obtain an uninterrupted view of the enemy’s affairs. But by 1918, at Hamel for example, they were integrated with the soldiers on the ground to provide General Monash with a smashing victory. So much had equipment and communications improved. Though more directed than before, even so, war in the air remained a matter of individuals.
George Mills, now an airman, was an observer on a reconnaissance mission at Gaza in 1917. Coming through the clouds he, and his pilot Eric Roberts, found that those on the ground had been waiting for them: “They had our exact height and track…” Somehow through all the bursting shells the aircraft managed to keep flying, though Mills was badly hit, severing an artery. For him, the war was over and he was sent back to Australia as AFC’s No. 1 Squadron’s first invalided battle casualty. To have told the stories of so many men like Mills is a mighty achievement. To have done so in a manner that is accessible and unfailingly interesting, not to say exciting, shows that Michael Molkentin is a young historian with an impressive future.