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& Bullets

Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.


With reviews of books that cover these topics


Transforming the Skies

Pilots, Planes, and Politics in British Aviation, 1919-1940


Peter Reese                                                                      The History Press, 2018

Whilst the title sounds a little like a specialist subject on the BBC’s Mastermind, I was a little sceptical that this book would bring much new to an understanding of the subject matter. However I was pleasantly surprised – Reese gives a lucid tour d’horizon of both civil and military aviation during the inter-war period. Along the way the author does not spare criticism where it is due: Churchill is castigated for example for appointing rather lacklustre figures to head civil aviation after WW1. Reese does however give Sir Sefton Brancker due praise for his central role in inter-war British civil aviation. He also rightly anoints Sir Alan Cobham – describing how he went for the ultimate $100 hamburger (the joke for civil pilots when they fly somewhere for lunch), when he went to Zurich for lunch, and returned the same day, recording nearly 14 hours flying – just to prove the utility of light aircraft.


The R101 crash was an iconic event in this period, and Reese sets out well how the holes in the Swiss cheese lined up to cause this crash. Another interpretation which may interest all but the most knowledgeable readers is how the Schneider Trophy saga reflected poorly on Hugh Trenchard (who was keen to throttle RAF help). Two men, who were unfortunately in power at broadly the same time, receive the heaviest criticism – Sir Edward Ellington (as CAS), and Lord Londonderry (as Secretary of State for Air). The unanswerable question of ‘what if’ they had not been in those roles hangs in the air…


The evolution of airlines in Britain is well documented here, and there is a particularly punchy table which shows how our European cousins did a much better job of growing (and utilising) their airliner fleet. The gestation of BOAC/BEA is done well. Reese also covers other more minor figures, such as Edward Hillman, who are sufficiently colourful to warrant a place in history.


There are several weaknesses in the book. Firstly a degree of duplication – Lord Thomson of Cardington (the Svengali behind the R101) is dissected more than once, for example. One or two faux pas, eg on page 24 “until in 1927 he [Geoffrey de Havilland] brought out the outstanding Tiger Moth light aircraft”. The Tiger prototype did not fly until 1931, and the Moth prototype first flew in 1925. And something really odd – the author uses digital images, for goodness sake, to illustrate the Spitfire and the Hurricane (eg on the back cover).  


But overall a great run through a fascinating period in our aviation development. The bibliography and sources have given much thought for future reading…


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