Thursday Book

Fighter Heroes of WWI - by Joshua Levine

Originally published under the less jingoistic title of 'On a Wing and a Prayer', this book explores the experiences of British (and, to a much lesser extent, German) fighter pilots in the First World War, in their own words. This focus on British forces seems strange given the often quite personal nature of air combat in this era, and it's definitely at odds with the subtitle of 'The extraordinary story of the pioneering airmen of the Great War'. As Levine has to admit, it was frequently Germans like Anthony Fokker, Oswald Boelcke and Manfred von Richthofen who did a lot of the pioneering.

Still, even if the book seems to be trying to sell itself on a nationalistic angle, Levine is a very effective documentarian. In the first couple of chapters he may overdo the quotations a bit (with more than enough lengthy stories of what random people were doing before joining the Royal Flying Corps), but that's just because he seems much more interested in conveying the lived experiences of WW1 flyers than trying to build any kind of wider narrative or theory.

In fact, Levine is so happy to relate these stories that he'll frequently support a tangential aside with accounts that pre-suppose the answers to the wider question he's supposed to be addressing. Still, he's nothing if not enthusiastic, and the book does, on the whole, take us through the development of aerial warfare from the bare-knuckle hops of early civilian planes to the organised attacks of Richthofen's brightly painted Flying Circus.

You won't be surprised by now to hear that this is a part of history that interests me greatly, and although it may not convey the same (subjective) high-level view of the conflict you'll find in, say, Peter Hart's Aces Falling, this is a very worthy addition to the genre.

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