Review by Adrian Roberts.
Mark Hillier is an established aviation historian and Stearman pilot who has written The RAF Battle of Britain Pilot’s Kitbag and a companion volume on Luftwaffe pilots’ equipment. These gave an insight into the lives of these men that complemented the accounts of their operations and their aircraft. Now he has turned his attention to their Great War forebears.
The book is a very well-produced volume with clear colour photos, interspersed throughout the text, of surviving equipment and clothing in museums or private collections, along with contemporary photos of the items in use. The text is informative and concise with extracts from relevant personal accounts. Inevitably the longest chapter is on flying clothing, but there are also chapters on flying equipment (maps, map boards, personal weapons, watches etc), uniforms, badges, and paperwork. Many enthusiasts will be able to recognise an RFC ‘Maternity Jacket’ or Sidcot suit, but, without a book such as this, for most of us a jacket or a helmet would be just a jacket or a helmet. There were several styles of such items available; a new pattern did not necessarily mean the previous one was withdrawn, so several styles might be worn by men of the same unit. It is surprising this was officially sanctioned. This was possibly because the aviation service was in its formative years without established traditions and, during a war, total replacement was not a priority. Many flying personnel bought their own flying kit, which added to the variety.
The subject is limited strictly to kit used over the Western Front, essentially covering the RFC. It is a shame that the RNAS is not included (especially as they did have squadrons on the Western Front), but, as the author says, that would fill a book on its own. The principal point to note is that the RNAS used black leather rather than the RFC’s brown. The RFC Full Dress uniform and Mess Dress are described, but not illustrated. However, there is a chapter on transitional RAF uniforms from April 1918. The RAF originally used the same khaki as the RFC, then briefly tried an unpopular light blue, before adopting the blue-grey with belted jacket it has used ever since.
There is a balanced account of the parachute issue. There are very few typos and errors. The only real howler is the naming of the Siddeley Puma engine as ‘Hawker Siddeley’ (p233).
This has to be the definitive book on the subject and a must for all enthusiasts with a more than basic interest in WWI aviation.