Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Naval Aviation in the First World War: Its Impact and Influence
Reviewed by Editor/Publisher Michael Hanlon

Naval Aviation in the First World War: Its Impact and Influence
by R.D. Layman
Naval Institute Press, 1996

My late friend, R.D. "Dick" Layman, made a singular contribution to the Great War's historical literature with his 1996 work Naval Aviation in the First World War: Its Impact and Influence. Now I would like to take another shot at making sure his work is not forgotten. Under a barrage of Layman's well-aimed facts, the misconceptions that World War I aero-naval warfare was merely experimental in nature, minimal in scope, fully embraced by neither admirals nor admiralties, and generally inconsequential are smashed in this concisely written book. Most important are his case studies of the successes and missed opportunities of naval aviation in its most significant role of the war — strategic reconnaissance during such operations as Jutland and Gallipoli.

Depiction of German Seaplanes Attacking a Royal Navy Cruiser

The volume also contains an assortment of pithy introductions to subjects like aerial combat, just how operations differ over land and sea, airship design, and other topics on which much cluttered thinking has been published. These essays serve to clear one's head of both extraneous details and romantic "aviators as knights" nonsense. The chapter "Defending the Sea Lanes", for instance, gets to the nub of the tactical usefulness of aircraft in anti-submarine warfare: "The submarine of 1914–18 was for all practical purposes simply a submersible torpedo-boat. . . At average submerged cruising speed of 4 kts, the craft could travel scarcely more than 60 nautical miles before having to surface to recharge. . . Thus it was by forcing them to submerge, not by sinking them, that aircraft contributed most significantly to helping defeat the U-boats."

In six years in the U.S. Air Force, much of it with the now defunct Strategic Air Command, I never read or heard as succinct a summary and critique of air power theory as is provided in Chapter Seven of this book. Additionally, during his award-winning career as an aero-naval historian, Layman collected an inspired library of fascinating details, anecdotes, and surprising statistics. Here are two favorites:

  • Admiral Dewey of Manila was one of the earliest boosters of naval-air power.

  • In April 1917, zeppelin L-23 intercepted the Norwegian schooner Royal off the Danish coast, determined she was carrying contraband, put a prize crew aboard, and sailed the ship back to Germany. (Consider what this must have involved!)

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    Two final commendations are due the author and his editors: they cover all theaters of operations equally well (they do not disproportionately focus on the North Sea and Atlantic), and they provide a tremendous selection of photographs supporting the text. If you have any interest in the air, naval, or aero-naval aspects of the war, this is an essential addition to your library. The book has been out of print for years and ought to be reissued, but copies can be found through Amazon or other dealers.

    M. Hanlon
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