Review by Adrian Roberts.
Peter Reese has produced a workmanlike and comprehensive history of early aviation in Britain. He has clearly read thoroughly around the subject; there is a lengthy bibliography and copious references, and a decent index.
However, most of the references are secondary sources, and this leads to some pitfalls. For instance, he quotes one reference which says that Germany had thirty operational airships at the start of W.W.I and another that says it had twelve (the latter is nearer the truth, if non-rigids are included). There are other errors, especially where he strays from his area of expertise, e.g. the ‘Mayfly’ was not the Royal Navy’s only airship when it was destroyed, but rather it was the only rigid airship.
It is somewhat arbitrary to limit the scope of the book to British developments and to aeroplanes. Airships played a major role in the early history of flight and even by 1914 it was by no means clear they were an evolutionary dead end (At one point he talks of ‘airships and aircraft’ rather than ‘airships and aeroplanes’; an airship is an aircraft). It is possibly fair enough to discuss only the British developments in the run-up to W.W.I, but a more international picture is desirable for the pre-1910 history of flight. He does mention non-British pioneers such as Wright Brothers and Bleriot in some detail, but there are omissions; there is no mention of Clement Ader for instance. A beginner to the subject would be better served with a more comprehensive approach.
A more serious omission, given the central theme of the book, is that there is no coverage of the monoplane ban that affected British military aviation prior to, and during, W.W.I. There are other errors: Skene and Barlow were killed in a Bleriot not a Farman, and the index confuses Robert Loraine, the actor and aviator, with another Captain Loraine who was the RFC’s first accidental fatality. The book possibly overstates the degree to which the British were behind in aircraft development in 1914. Although the RFC was heavily dependent on French types (not the RNAS so much), the best British aircraft were as good as any the French and Germans had, and that includes the B.E.2.
The book is written in a readable, entertaining style that fleshes out the characters of the personalities involved and provides numerous anecdotes. It will provide a good overview of the subject, but for an in-depth understanding it will need to be read in conjunction with other sources and should not be considered a primary source.