Monday, October 31, 2011

Clash of Wings

Clash of Wings: World War II in the Sky
© 1994 Walter J. Boyne
415 pages

Although European powers employed aircraft during war early in the 20th century, and they saw widespread use during the Great War as tools supplementing armies, not until the Second World War did military aviation truly come into its own. Who can think of those years and miss the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, or the furious carrier battles in the Pacific like that of Midway? During World War II, aircraft were manufactured at a rate never before seen and the respective powers turned them into weapons in their own right, leveling cities with bombers and making command of the air as crucial as command of the ground. In Clash of Wings, aviator and military historian Walter J. Boyne explores every aspect of the war in which aircraft were involved, from the large battles in which they dominated to the smaller affairs where they only assisted. He examines not just the planes, tactics, and strategy of various European powers, but the organizational strengths of the contending air forces. The result is a thorough guide to World War II's skies, a gold mine for students of the period.

Boyne leaps into the action straightaway, focusing immediately on the outbreak of war in Europe, though he does explain how history influenced every nation to develop the air strategy it did. Necessity also shaped strategy: while Britain's air policy may have been influenced by the memory of Germany's bombing raids in the first world war, it focused on long-distance bombers because bombers were its primary means of fighting Germany until the Axis began stumbling around in northern Africa. Japan's small  but elite air arm evolved to destroy inferior opponents, like the Russians and Chinese, but  proved to be insufficient for long-term war with a fully industrialized power like that of the United States.  This is an incredibly busy history, as airplanes were ubiquitious during the conflict and were the main contendors in some campaigns:  it is hard to imagine any conflict out-doing WWII in putting airplanes to tactical and strategic use, winning both battles and destroying Hitler's means of fighting. Boyne even devotes chapters to airplanes' use in fighting submarines, or supplying Chinese nationalists in their fight against the Japanese.  As an aviator himself, he's always kind to the airmen of every country, saving his harshest criticism for those high in the organizational ranks who failed to provide just or competent leadership. He also evaluates the machines themselves from a technical point of view,  where his own piloting experience proves useful.

I have been reading books about military aviation for over a decade now, and the quality of this book astonishes me. The wealth of information should make it staggeringly valuable to someone writing a paper on the subject, for Boyne's history not only covers every conceivable aspect of the air war but also includes production and loss numbers throughout, in addition to several appendices. The book's organization keeps all this information nicely contained and quickly accessible, and Boyne's passion for the subject makes his tale an engaging one to read.  I must read more Boyne, and strongly recommend this work.

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