Biplanes at War – Wray Johnson

Review by Brett Holman.

Originating in the era of sail as the small-arms complement of fighting ships, the United States Marine Corps (USMC) has since become a force like no other: a combined arms force which moves by sea like (and with) the US Navy, but fights on land like the US Army and in the air like the US Air Force. For two centuries, the power and mobility of the Marine Corps have made it an ideal tool for furthering the US national interest whenever boots are required on the ground, especially in the form of amphibious and expeditionary warfare. 

Airpower is an important force multiplier and a vital part of the USMC’s long reach. If it were a national air force, the USMC’s aviation component would rank as one of the world’s largest air forces, somewhere between China and Japan. It would also be one of the world’s oldest air forces, having formed in 1917; it quickly, if briefly, saw service in the First World War as part of a US Navy aerial bombardment group in France, but the true test of Marine Corps aviation’s worth came not in war-torn Europe but in the restless Caribbean in 1919, when a mixed squadron of Curtiss aircraft – six Jennies, six HS-2L flying boats, and a solitary N-9 floatplane – arrived to support USMC ground operations against so-called Haitian cacos (bandits). Marine aviators were to stay in Haiti until 1934 in support of the United States’ counter-insurgency and nation-building goals. During that period USMC aircraft also took part in a number of other ‘small wars’, of varying intensity, in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, as well as China. 

It’s easy to see why these neglected campaigns would interest Wray Johnson, professor of military history at the Marine Corps University, co-author (with James Corum) of Airpower in Small Wars, and a retired USAF colonel with experience flying counter-insurgency missions around the world. Indeed, in Biplanes at War he argues that ‘the Marines pioneered virtually every role and mission for today’s air forces (including army and naval aviation)’ (p268), including reconnaissance, supply, transport, evacuation and close support. The latter included, for example, the development of the dive-bombing tactics so familiar from the Second World War. With caco forces a hundred yards or less from Marines, a plunging dive was the only way to avoid friendly fire, and so, in 1919, one Lieutenant Sanderson improvised a bomb rack, and a rifle barrel for a bombsight, with considerable effectiveness. The practice soon spread throughout the Haitian command. 

While aviation is a key advantage held by the United States over its insurgent enemies, Johnson argues that, despite its prominence in nearly every account of airpower in small wars, bombing was, and remains, one of the least important counter-insurgency air missions. This is largely because the enemy is usually dispersed, rather than as a conveniently concentrated target, but it’s also because of the difficulty in distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants:

Any attempt to bring decisive, devastating firepower down on guerrillas is usually doomed to failure (and ultimately counterproductive if innocent civilians are killed in the process). (p264) 

Johnson acknowledges USMC aviators were responsible for civilian casualties in Haiti and Nicaragua, especially, but argues they at least tried to avoid unnecessary deaths, by order and by inclination. This was, he claims, in contrast to the contemporary exercise of airpower in European empires, especially by the RAF in Iraq, which he characterises as intentionally, and pointlessly, destructive, in the tradition of nineteenth century punitive expeditions on the imperial frontiers. He definitely has a point, but he doesn’t note that even the RAF ameliorated its attacks on villages over time, giving advance notice of impending raids to enable inhabitants to move themselves (and their livestock) to safety. This is not to excuse or condone British air control, but the differences with Marine Corps’ practice in Haiti and Nicaragua at least partly seem more apparent than real. Certainly, whether a matter of policy or not, Johnson describes a number of instances of callous disregard for civilian life by Marine aviators and, whether carried out with attempted restraint or not, he notes the international press reported the death of non-combatants from Marine bombing as atrocities. In Nicaragua, memories of these lingered until at least the 1980s. 

Unfortunately, the book’s structure feels somewhat haphazard. Some sections veer from personnel deployments to aircraft procurement to squadron nomenclature, for example, while a number of important themes, such as the place of aviation in the USMC’s structure, or comparisons with British air control, keep resurfacing without ever quite being tied together. There is sometimes a lack of focus: it’s not clear why there is a discussion of the development of radial engines through to the end of the Second World War, for example, when the book ends in 1934. Similarly, the sixteen pages on the Dominican Republic starts all the way back at Columbus and takes four pages just to get to the twentieth century; only about seven are actually devoted to aviation activities. More could have been said about doctrine and training (admittedly, well-covered for the First World War period) and a greater sense of how Marine aviation fit into the wider US aviation context would have been helpful in understanding its significance.

Nevertheless, there is a lot of fascinating material in Biplanes at War. I was particularly interested to learn about air displays performed in order to impress locals with America’s power in China and Nicaragua – the latter, oddly, featuring a US Navy Pitcairn PCA-2 autogyro, its only use in the theatre. Nor was innovation confined to the American side. In Nicaragua, the Sandino rebels improvised ‘Chula guns’, a kind of anti-aircraft rocket with a dynamite warhead, though, unsurprisingly, to little effect (p221). Johnson writes engagingly and is a scrupulous researcher (and his endnotes do repay reading). The illustrations are well-chosen, with plenty of contemporary photographs of the aircraft, aerodromes and aviators which populate the book. This is a solid study of a little-known topic, which makes its case that these small wars were the coming of age for Marine aviation. Anyone with a serious interest in airpower in small wars, or interwar airpower, or the history of USMC aviation, will want to read Biplanes at War.

ISBN 978-0-81317-704-5

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