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

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Great Personalities of the Air War: A Reading List

Pilots Victor Chapman, Kiffin Rockwell, Norman Prince, and James McConnell  of the Lafayette Escadrille

Contributed by Aviation Historian Steve Suddaby

These 11 biographical works are not necessarily a list of the “The Best” works about the war's aviation personalities—I'm not confident I could compile such a list. Each of these is interesting in its own way, and I hope to pleasantly surprise the reader with my unusual, even quirky, choices. Regrettably, I've found no bios of French or Italians that could elbow their way onto this short list.

1. Maurice Baring, Flying Corps Headquarters 1914–1918, 1920. The multilingual Maurice Baring  was Gen Hugh “Boom” Trenchard's right-hand man through most of the war. He translated the inarticulate RFC commander's mutterings into English or French and later wrote this entertaining and literate story of life at RFC HQ.

2. Freiherr Treusch von Buttlar Brandenfels, Zeppelins Over England, 1931. A rare first-person account by a zeppelin commander.

3. K.N. Finne, Igor Sikorsky: The Russian Years, 1987. Excellent story of the visionary designer and his airplanes.

4. Peter Kilduff, Richthofen: Beyond the Legend of the Red Baron, 1993. Simply the best biography of Manfred von Richthofen, the most important personality of WWI aviation.

5. Cecil Lewis, Sagittarius Rising, 1936. This is justifiably the most well known pilot autobiography in English. If it's not in your library, you're missing out.

6. Frederick Libby, Horses Don't Fly, 2000. Amazing and humorous  autobiography of a Colorado cowpuncher who joined the RFC via Canada.

7. Charles Nordhoff & James Norman Hall, Falcons of France, 1929. A slightly fictionalized account using a composite character to describe their experiences in the Lafayette Flying Corps. These famous authors tell a more interesting story than most regular autobiographies without compromising historical accuracy.

8. Blaine Pardoe, Lost Eagles: One Man's Mission to Find Missing Airmen in Two World Wars, 2010. Biography of Frederick Zinn (Lafayette Flying Corps, USAS, OSS), a genuine American hero who devoted his life to bringing closure to the families of missing U.S. fliers.

9. Alexander Riaboff, Gatchina Days: Reminiscences of a Russian Pilot, 1986. Riaboff flew for the Imperial Russian Air Service and later for the Red Air Fleet before escaping the Soviet Union.

10. Gavin Roynon, ed., Home Fires Burning: The Great War Diaries of Georgina Lee, 2006. Georgina Lee was a very literate and politically well connected Londoner. She kept a diary throughout the war years for her infant son. The impact of the zeppelin and Gotha air raids on England, often viewed as merely a nuisance, is astounding when seen from her perspective.

11. Rudolf Stark, Wings of War, 1933. Stark was a German fighter pilot in 1918; his own paintings illustrate the book.

Originally presented in the Winter 2013 issue of The Journal of the World War One Historical Society


  1. Super fun, Steve. So glad you included Fred Libby. His account of rigging up his Lewis gun when he was an observer/gunner is a good story of Great War ingenuity.

  2. What about Wilson's Bill Lambert: World War I Flying Ace as well as Lambert's own book on his Great War experiences: Combat Report?

  3. Great information, thanks for adding to my reading list!

  4. Some of these I have read; the rest I must do. First hand accounts are illuminating and fascinating, but need to be read in conjunction with researched works. The fact that Von Buttlar was one of the few surviving WW1 Zeppelin commanders, especially from the Naval Airship Service, is possibly not unconnected with British Intelligence's assessment of him as "excessively cautious": virtually none of his accounts of his targets hit co-incide with actual bomb damage. But still worth a read.

  5. I am surprised to not see neither Werner Voss nor Georges Guynemer on this list. Both were superb aces and each had a bit of bravado that should be recognized on a list like this. Try reading this about Guynemer-

  6. Frederick Libby's story is amazing in so many ways. This should be required reading.