Michael Fox is a retired metallurgist who spent a quarter century working for the British Standards Institution. While most retirees enjoy their golden years by taking up gardening or spending time with their grandchildren, Fox has dedicated his to a much more ambitious goal: writing a multivolume history charting the development of the British fighter force from the beginning of flight through the Second World War. This book represents the first – and to date, the only – volume to appear, providing its readers with a useful account of the British military’s prewar interest in adapting the new technology of heavier-than-air flight to their wartime needs.
Fox begins by summarizing the British military’s earliest exploration of the possibilities of flight. In the century before the Wright brothers’ flyer first took to the skies, this meant balloons, which the British Army experimented with over the course of the 19th century. Though balloons were employed in various imperial wars during the later Victorian era, Fox covers these only in passing, focusing instead on the efforts to find offensive applications for a technology that was most usefully employed in observational roles. These unsuccessful efforts were eclipsed after 1903 by the increasing success of heavier-than-air flight, which soon came to dominate British military thinking.
The British military’s investigation of the potential applications of airplanes to their needs forms the heart of his book. In this respect Fox delivers more than the book’s subtitle suggests, as he covers how the army (initially through the Royal Engineers, then with the establishment of the Royal Flying Corps) and the Royal Navy developed their air arms generally during the prewar era. While air-to-air combat remained unknown in the wars prior to 1914, here Fox’s focus helps highlight the amount of thinking and experimentation went into aerial warfare. Impractical as it was with the lightly-powered early airplanes, the British nevertheless experimented with arming aircraft and followed closely similar investigations abroad. Thus, while the aerial duels over the Western Front were still a thing of the future, by the time Britain went to war in 1914 the military had already conceptualized many of the elements that would characterize aerial warfare for the next three decades and was working out the consequences of what might follow from it.
Generously illustrated and drawing upon a wealth of primary sources, Fox’s book is an excellent overview of the British armed forces’ experimentations with aerial warfare in the years leading up to the First World War. As beneficial as this is as a “pre-history” of air-to-air combat, though, his approach to the subject sometimes glosses over the other roles for aircraft explored by the British army, most importantly its employment in scouting. With air combat a means to enable scouting rather than an end in and of itself – as even the early advocates of aerial combat acknowledged – It deserved greater attention than Fox gives it in his book. Hopefully he will address this in his next volume, which promises a through consideration of the air war on the Western Front. If Fox can combine this analysis with the sort of technical and organizational detail he demonstrates in this book, it will be a considerable contribution to the study of the First World War in the air.