Fighter Aces of the Great War – Stephen Wynn & Tanya Wynn

Review by Adrian Roberts.

A book with such a broad title as this will either be an exhaustive work aimed at existing enthusiasts, or a greatly simplified version aimed at the beginner to the subject. From its length and format it is clear it is the latter and it is good Pen & Sword perceived the need for it. The authors have written several works on local history aspects of the Great War, but apparently none on aviation. That need not be a problem, new authors should be encouraged, but, oh dear. The sources listed are limited to Wikipedia, and some other websites, and newspaper archives. Contemporary newspaper reports cannot be relied on for accuracy. Primary sources such as the National Archives are not quoted, neither are the well-known established authors. There are no references or footnotes at all. 

The ace biographies are continuous in one long chapter. It is stated they will be in alphabetical order, but this soon goes awry. Bishop comes first. There is a paragraph about the VC controversy, but only a line about the issues around the number of his victories. There is a brief account of his early life and enlistment, and we are told the name of the ship on which he arrived in Europe, but not the type of aeroplane in which he flew as an observer. The only information that he later flew Nieuports comes from a photo caption and S.E.5as are not mentioned at all. His post-war life and death are mentioned in a couple of sentences. The other biographies are similar. Their combat histories are largely covered by quoting the medal citations in their entirety, which can be tedious, and, usually, their post-war lives are not mentioned at all. The order of information is non-linear. We are told Rickenbacker was “the head” of Eastern Airlines before his W.W.I history is mentioned, which could be confusing to an absolute beginner. 

There are numerous errors. For example, the aircraft in Collishaw’s Black Flight are implied to be all black, whereas all other sources, including Collishaw’s autobiography, say only the noses and wheel covers were black. Information on the aircraft is on the level of “[Voss] climbed into his Fokker aircraft, more commonly known as the Fokker Triplane because of its three vertical stacked wings…” and “the aircraft had a cockpit which had a seat and a stick that moved the aircraft up and down and from side to side”. In Beauchamp-Proctor’s entry it states “the author has always found that shooting down a balloon … included in a pilot’s victory tally makes no sense … a balloon was only an observation platform; it didn’t attack anything”. This shows a serious lack of understanding. The main focus of the air war was observing and preventing the enemy observing and, as balloons were heavily defended, it took as much or more courage to attack them as to attack an aeroplane. 

The choice of aces is eclectic. Most of the highest-scoring ones have an entry, but some, such as Nungessor, Lowenhardt, Jacobs, Rumey, Berthold, and Gass, are not mentioned at all. Boelcke, probably the most influential ace of all time, does not have an entry and is only mentioned in Richthofen’s entry. However, some lesser aces find their way in, such as Habich and McEvoy. Both of those entries are rather similar to their Wikipedia entries. A list of aces by country is attempted at the back, with the admission that British and German aces could not be listed for lack of space, but space is wasted by duplicating the aces of Croatia and the Czech Republic, which did not exist at the time, when those aces are also listed under Austria-Hungary. 

The author sometimes makes judgemental criticisms of a pilot’s attitudes. They were not perfect people, but apparent callousness to an opponent could have been part of their psychological defence mechanism. Elsewhere there appears to be an attempt at deconstruction of the concept of an ace, with political overtones. 

There is probably a market for an introductory book on W.W.I aces, but this one is confusing, misleading, incomplete, and often erroneous. The beginner could save their money, look at Wikipedia, or www.theaerodrome.com, and then buy books if they want to go into more depth. 

ISBN 978-1-47383-520-7

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