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The Peninsular War: A New History
Charles J. Esdaile
Progress: 369/640 pages

Precursor to "the Blitz"

The Sky on Fire: The First Battle of Britain, 1917-1918 - Raymond H. Fredette, Tom D. Crouch

Today the Battle of Britain has become an indelible part of the British historical identity, one with which nearly every Briton is familiar on some level. In the process, however, the air battles between the British and the Germans often obscure the fact that the air campaign was hardly unprecedented even in British history. For during the last two years of the war, the German Luftstreitkräfte launched a bombing campaign of London and the Home Counties, one which Raymond Fredette argues was a forerunner for the more famous sequel nearly a quarter of a century later.

 

To demonstrate this, Fredette charts both the development of the German’s air campaign and the British response to it. As he describes it, the German campaign was a product of evolving technology, namely the improvement in German aircraft design. With British air defense forces increasingly successful in their efforts to shoot down the zeppelins used in Germany’s initial bombing campaign, the Germans turned to large biplane bombers as a means to strike their enemy across the channel. Though the flights were generally small and the damage they inflicted had a negligible impact on Britain militarily, they elicited a response out of all proportion to their effect. Numerous guns and fighters were diverted from other missions to provide for the defense of London, which proved a considerable challenge as the bombers proved to be much more difficult targets to locate (let alone shoot down) than the ponderous zeppelins. Yet it was the weather and the turn of the larger war against the Germans that doomed the campaign, as by the summer of 1918 the bombers were diverted to support the doomed offensive on the Western Front, having nevertheless established a precedent that would be followed by others.

 

Though Fredette draws primarily from contemporary news reports and other published accounts for his information, he uses this information to good effect. As a career air force officer he infuses his narrative with a professional’s understanding of the challenges the pilots and their superiors faced in both mounting and responding to the bombing campaign. Written with a sense of the dramatic, his book provides an engaging narrative of the “first battle of Britain,” one that makes a good case for its underappreciated significance to the history of strategic air warfare.