Stalking the U-Boat: U.S. naval aviation in Europe during World War I (New Perspectives on Maritime History and Nautical Archaeology series) by Geoffrey L. Rossano 429 pp., 35 b&w photographs, 3 mapsUniversity of Florida Press, 15 NW 15th St., Gainesville, FL32603, 2010, $85 (hbk), ISBN 978-0813034881
Article first published online: 4 FEB 2013
© 2013 The Authors. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology © 2013 The Nautical Archaeology Society
International Journal of Nautical Archaeology
Volume 42, Issue 1, pages 237–238, March 2013
How to Cite
Lambert, A. (2013), Stalking the U-Boat: U.S. naval aviation in Europe during World War I (New Perspectives on Maritime History and Nautical Archaeology series) by Geoffrey L. Rossano 429 pp., 35 b&w photographs, 3 mapsUniversity of Florida Press, 15 NW 15th St., Gainesville, FL32603, 2010, $85 (hbk), ISBN 978-0813034881. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 42: 237–238. doi: 10.1111/1095-9270.12008_22
- Issue published online: 4 FEB 2013
- Article first published online: 4 FEB 2013
Although the United States only entered the First World War in April 1917 it did so with ample warning, and with the benefit of access to a wealth of experience, largely through links with Britain and France. Nowhere were these connections more important than in the rapidly developing field of naval aviation. In April 1917 the United States Navy had less than 40 aircraft, and less than 100 aviators, by late 1918 it had more than 1600 pilots and a host of naval air stations in France, Britain and Italy, conducting a combination of anti-submarine patrols, convoy escort and offensive bombing missions against enemy naval bases at Bruges and Pola. This explosive growth, Rossano argues, would be the key to the post-war survival of independent American naval aviation.
In 1917 naval aviation meant flying-boats and float-planes, rising from and landing on water. The American Navy had no aircraft carriers, so any wheeled aircraft in the American inventory were the property of the separate Army Air Force. As a result the new American bases in Europe were built by the sea, or large lakes, and left behind the massive concrete slipways needed to get flying boats onto the water. From the far west of France and Killingholme on the Humber, to Cobh in Ireland and Porto Corsini in Italy, Rossano has examined these structures, linking bases with their local environments.
When the Americans arrived they used French, British and Italian aircraft, with mixed results. The over-stretched French industrial base had major problems meeting orders, while Italian Caproni bombers proved lethally unserviceable. By late 1918, British-built aircraft and American versions of the same design had become standard. Unfortunately the new American ‘Liberty’ engine had serious teething problems, while quality control in American factories left a lot to be desired. Most American flying-boats had to be completely rebuilt on arrival in Europe before they could be flown. Even when the aircraft were serviceable the work of the aviators was neither rewarding nor safe. Not a single U-boat was sunk by American aircraft, while human and aircraft casualties were heavy. Almost all losses were caused by flying accidents, or the mechanical and structural failures of these primitive machines.
The book is divided between four overview chapters, which deal with the organization and policy of the naval air effort in Europe, six dealing with specific regions (from the French Atlantic coast and Ireland, by way of Dunkirk, the British and Irish bases and Italy), one on the abortive lighter-than-air effort, and another on the Northern Bombing Group, which, with the Italian deployment, pioneered land-based strategic attacks on enemy naval bases. The central chapter examines the life of the new air bases which, then as now, quickly took on the character of ‘back home’, complete with American food, facilities and amenities.
While much of the book necessarily focuses on the building of bases, the problems of aircraft supply, and the inevitable, tragic loss of life in the pioneering aerial war effort, four chapters include air-to-air combat, the Dunkirk station was the busiest, only one located within artillery range of the enemy front line, and included considerable air-to-air combat with the formidable German float-planes based in Belgium. American aviators flying from British bases, often with British squadrons, took part in heavy fighting off the Belgian and Dutch coasts. The Northern Bombing Group based in France was just building up to be a land-based strike-force to attack the U-boat base at Bruges when the Germans retreated, while the Italian base, close to Venice, conducted raids on the main Austrian naval base at Pola, and engaged in air-to-air combat. In all these areas the advantages of lighter, land-based aircraft became obvious.
Just as the American effort was getting into its stride the war came to a sudden, largely unexpected end. Before they went home, the Americans took care to study every aspect of Britain's world-leading naval aviation, fledgling aircraft carriers, fleet operations, long-range flying-boats, strategic-bombing land-based fighter squadrons and much more. They were hugely impressed by Rolls-Royce engines, and Handley Page four engine bombers. They also visited Germany, where they ordered a Zeppelin. Within hours of the Armistice the programme went into reverse, and by April 1919 the men, machines and stores had been sent home, the structures dismantled or sold off to the locals, and the Navy was getting ready to fight for the budget on Capitol Hill. The massive expansion of air effort in 1917–18 equipped the service to fight off calls for an independent air force, like that adopted in Britain, which American naval observers soon realized had been a serious mistake. Over the next two years a bitter battle was waged with the Army Air Force over control and amalgamation. It would be resolved on 12 July 1921 when the Navy set up a Bureau of Aviation and committed itself to carrier aviation, with wheeled aircraft. Newsreel footage of American flying-boats hunting for U-boats was shown in every American cinema, making an entire nation aware of the naval air effort, beginning a relationship with the cinema that lasted down to Top Gun. As Rossano rightly stresses, the European naval air effort made that outcome possible, it gave the Navy a credible, battle-tested air force.
This fine book makes excellent use of the extensive official and private archives to build a rounded picture of a significant subject, linking the human insights of pilots and observers with higher-level policy discussions. It will join William Still Jr's Crisis at Sea (2006), examining the entire American naval effort in Europe, reviewed in IJNA, 37:1, 220–221, and John Abbatiello's Anti-Submarine Warfare in World War One: British Naval Aviation and the Defeat of the Submarine of 2006 as the essential texts on the nature and cost of naval aviation in the First World War.