Review by Andy Wright.
As we all know, the Royal Australian Air Force celebrates its centenary in 2021. While the infernal global pandemic has perhaps stymied a significant proportion of the planned celebrations and commemorations, aspects of the RAAF’s ‘rejuvenated rear view’ are powering on. One of these is a renewed focus on quality publications that has been gathering momentum over the past few years. Armageddon and Okra is the first book in The Australian Air Campaign Series and is indicative of an organisation very much aware of where it stands in the world and how it got there. It also points to the efforts being made to record, analyse and publicise the less well-known aspects of the RAAF’s history.
The defeat of Ottoman forces in Palestine (Armageddon), just weeks before the end of the Great War, was the culmination of a long campaign that began in early 1915 with the Turks intent on reaching the Suez Canal. They were not removed until two years later, the Imperial forces then beginning their initially sporadic pursuit into Palestine. Aviation during this time was, like other military assets in the region, hamstrung by the need for resources on the Western Front and the types on hand were largely outclassed by German aircraft supporting the Ottoman forces. The arrival of a new commander for the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF), however, was a godsend. General Allenby, erudite and fresh from the Western Front, believed in a combined effort and was keen to employ the latest technology available. He set about rejuvenating the Imperial forces, building their strength, but also increasing co-operation between units. The air component, of which No 1 Squadron Australian Flying Corps was a part, was hard-pressed, but willing despite the odds. The need for newer aircraft was paramount and 1 Squadron’s Richard Williams, the father of the RAAF, was instrumental in getting this point across. Allenby listened to his sub-ordinates and, before long, aircraft like the Bristol Fighter arrived and the tide began to turn.
As the EEF pushed into Palestine, the RFC/RAF and AFC aircraft struck Ottoman communications behind the lines and attacked airfields and other infrastructure. While air superiority had tipped in favour of the Imperial flyers, and the numbers of German aircraft had been whittled down in air combat, the greatest impact on negating this component of the Ottoman forces was from removing its infrastructure. It was aerial reconnaissance and photography, however, that was perhaps the greatest asset and symbolises the emphasis Allenby placed on preparation and co-operation. Even during the various stalemates in what was a relatively mobile campaign, aircraft flew sortie after sortie, bringing back photos of vast tracts of Ottoman territory.
Concentrations of personnel could also be targeted in direct support of soldiers on the ground or beyond the range of ground-based weapons. This advantage demoralised the retreating Ottomans. There were few places to hide from so many eyes in the sky. Roll forward a little less than 100 years and the same applied to the coalition aircraft supporting Iraqi ground forces as they attempted to remove ISIL from its self-proclaimed caliphate. Once again, Australia contributed aerial assets as part of a much larger multi-national force and, once again, 1 Squadron was a part of this effort (flying a cutting-edge two-seat strike aircraft). Now, however, the benefits and lessons of effective, sustained and co-operative air power were well-entrenched (albeit occasionally forgotten over the years) and the environment in which it was to be employed not so unfamiliar. The War on Terror, a little over a decade after the first Gulf War, had sadly dragged well beyond President Bush’s carrier deck ‘Mission Accomplished’ proclamation and surges, withdrawals, insurrection and political instability had seen the rise of barbarism in a country trying to emerge from decades of oppression. The Iraqi government had the manpower to directly assault the ISIL strongholds spread throughout the country, but it would have struggled against a well-entrenched enemy. The request for aerial assets from the international community was therefore made and fulfilled. This was the advantage needed.
Australia quickly arranged an air component consisting of Super Hornets, a KC-30 tanker and an E-7 Wedgetail. With the addition of supporting capabilities, forward and battlespace controllers, and tactical analysts, it was a considerable task force to organise with some haste and indicative of the RAAF’s professionalism, adaptability and foresight. Personnel were rotated regularly across three or six-month deployments, with some performing three rotations during the three-plus years of the Australian commitment. The aircraft were also rotated with the most obvious change being ‘Classic’ Hornets replacing the newer Super Hornets.
The campaign against ISIL moved through several phases from stopping the enemy’s advance through to defeating them and ‘supporting stabilisation’. Everything was driven by the Iraqis. They had the final say on air strikes that ranged from attacks on opposing forces metres in front of Iraqi soldiers to hitting convoys, strongholds, weapons caches and even earthmoving equipment used to build defences. Once again, the mobility and flexibility of airpower was put to great use with stacks of aircraft waiting to be employed, ably supported by a multi-national tanker force.
All of this, and much more, particularly looking at the intricacies of actually delivering a precision weapon from a congested airspace into a civilian-populated battleground, is presented in an attractive softback of about 230 pages of incredibly great value (it is about A$20!). The book is presented in two obvious main sections with little in the way of detailed comparison made until the Okra part is underway. Both sections contain regular lessons listing the basic tenets of the application of deployed airpower. These give the narrative a slight academic lean perpetuated through some admittedly dry discussion that is somewhat expected when talking about modern airpower and its multitude of logistical, managerial, political, social and tactical layers. Do not forget, however, this is a campaign analysis and the context has to be researched and understood if the book is to be of any value to present and future generations. This context, in both sections, is often, and perhaps most effectively, presented in focussed ‘break outs’ spanning 1-3 pages. Rather than letting the narrative get bogged down in the origins of ISIL, the concept of airmindedness, or the very early development of aerial photography and reconnaissance, for example, these break outs can be read separately, but do interrupt the flow a little. To that end, it would be worth reading each break out before the main narrative of each section, absorbing the information so it becomes acquired knowledge ‘accessed’ as you progress through the author’s main discussion and analysis.
The break outs also add a splash of colour, particularly needed in the Great War part of the book. Happily, some of the break outs include profiles of aircraft from both periods, adding further colour (it’s not needed in the Okra section as the imagery supplied is superb); these were prepared by the incomparable Juanita Franzi. All photos are reproduced well and reflect the considerable effort put into the overall layout of the book. Clarity of design is paramount and sets a good standard for the subsequent volumes of the series.
The Armageddon part of the book has a more personal bent to it with several break outs concentrating on individuals. The anecdotes from the Okra personnel, often just a short paragraph that can almost be read in isolation to the narrative, get a bit lost in the wide-ranging discussion of a modern deployment in a complicated world. Some Okra opinions and comments are necessarily anonymous, but perhaps because the author is a contemporary with experience in the region, the characters and backgrounds of various RAAF element commanders are particularly well explained. On the flip side, the Okra section, despite the complexity of what is discussed, has a better flow (although the language changes with much use of modern terms like ‘platform’ and ‘package’ etc), largely because of the author’s familiarity with the present-day service’s machinations and his experience in the region.
As mentioned, Armageddon and Okra is a particularly strong start for the RAAF’s new air campaign series. While additional consistency of style would further enhance the experience, as would the relocation of some of the bigger break outs, there is no doubt this book tackles new subject matter and must be the first publicly accessible account of the Okra deployment. It sometimes feels odd comparing fast jets to ‘wood and fabric’ biplanes but look beyond the equipment and you have Australians far from home doing what they can for the greater good. Despite a few hiccups and stumbles over the years, the airminded Australian’s ability to embrace new ideas, or even adapt what’s at hand to a new way of thinking, has always resulted in a highly valued contribution. That same thinking has resulted in this book and is proof such innovation extends far beyond those who work in the ‘frontline’ units.