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Hostile Skies: A Combat History of the…

Hostile Skies: A Combat History of the American Air Service in World War I

by James J. Hudson

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From April to November 1918, the American Air Service grew from a poorly equipped, unorganized branch of the US Expeditionary Forces to a fighting unit equal to its opponent in every way. This text details the actual battle experiences of the men and boys who made up the service squadrons.



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I found the supposedly boring parts of Hostile Skies more interesting that the supposedly interesting parts. James Hudson apologizes for his first few chapters in this history of the American Air Service in World War One, since they are on the organization and development of American aviation rather than exciting combat depictions; however, you can only have so many accounts of Spads and Fokkers spinning sown in flames before it gets monotonous, while the discussion of what was involved in building and training the Army Air Service hasn’t been covered in any WWI history I’ve read previously.

It’s my general understanding that the US Government intervened a lot more in industry during WWI than during WWII – perhaps having learned its lesson. However, the US aviation industry was not Federalized – most likely because there wasn’t a US aviation industry to speak of. Apparently the Federal government, and the US military, imagined that on the declaration of war US industry would spring up overnight and (in the actual words of General George Squier, head of the Signal Corps) “…put the Yankee punch in the war by building an army in the air, regiments and brigades of winged cavalry on gas driven flying horses”. It’s possible that the quote isn’t even figurative; in April 1917 no American citizen serving in the American military had any combat flying experience and no officer in the Washington headquarters of the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps had ever seen a combat aircraft. Presumably this included General Squier and he may well have thought they were more or less gas powered flying horses. Hudson has blame to go around, though; the pre-war Congress didn’t allocate any money for aviation expansion, or even for planning for aviation expansion. When the war finally came, the initial program called for 22625 airplanes, 6210 pilots, 45000 aircraft engines, and sufficient spare parts, mechanics, ground crew, and everything else to make that work within a year. This was more of each than the French had been able to produce in the entire war thus far. Congress passed the largest appropriation in US history – without a roll call vote – in July 1917. The military busied itself with organizing the mighty air force – first there would be 13 air squadrons and 2 balloon squadrons; then 345 combat squadrons, 81 supply squadrons, 11 repair squadrons, 45 construction companies and 26 balloon companies; then, as the details of “combat” got worked out, 60 pursuit squadrons, 49 corps observation squadrons, 52 army observation squadrons, 27 night bombardment squadrons, 14 day bombardment squadrons, and 133 balloon companies. The Army Aviation Office of the Signal Corps became the Aeronautical Division, then the Aviation Section, then back to the Aeronautical Division, then the Airplane Division, then the Air Division, then the Air Service Division, then finally out of the Signal Corps altogether to be the Army Air Service. Unfortunately, while there were plenty of organizational charts and officers there weren’t any actual airplanes or pilots. Hudson notes that part of the problem was although there were around 5000 pilots in the US in 1917, there was no civil aviation – i.e., there were no entities in the business of providing aviation services, including no civil airports. There were 12 American companies in the business of making aircraft, but none of these were producing anything that would be of any use to the military beyond primary training and even combined they couldn’t come remotely close to producing the kind of air force the military and government imagined. As a result, once the initial optimism wound down, it was decided the American aviation industry would build primary trainers (the Curtiss JN-3 and JN-4), license build the DeHavilland DH-4 (with an American Liberty engine) for the American army, and build Handley-Page and Caprioni heavy bombers for the Allies. Of these, only DH-4s were actually delivered to Europe in time to be used during the war; all other aircraft used by the US Army were bought from the Allies.

The government did get involved in one aspect of aircraft building, however; it nationalized the lumber industry in Oregon and Washington, leading to the “Spruce Squadron” that eventually consisted of 27000 (!) officers and enlisted men. I’ve never heard of this before; a little googling discloses the official name was the “Spruce Production Division” of the Signal Corps.

Training proceeded at a large number of hastily built fields around the country, often in the South; experienced instructors were imported from Canada and the Canadians were allowed to use the bases so they could train year-round. Nothing beyond primary training was offered in the US; flyers went to France or Italy for advanced training (aerial gunnery, observation, and bombardment). The Italian training setup was controversial, as Italian instructors at first assumed that the American pilots they trained would fight on the Italian front. However, Pershing wanted to keep all American together on the Western front. Eventually, a compromise was worked out (partially due to the efforts of Fiorello LaGuardia, who maintained his position as a serving US Congressman while on active duty in the Army Air Service and thus had considerable more influence than his rank as Major suggested) and eventually some Americans did serve as crewmen on Caprioni bombers. However there were no all American squadrons on the Italian front.

Of course there had already been some Americans serving in Royal Air Force and French units, including the Lafayette Escadrille; these were offered commissions in the new Army Air Service and most accepted. (A surprising number of Lafayette Escadrille veterans opted to enter the US Navy instead of the Army; Hudson doesn’t suggest any reason and there is no other mention of WWI US naval aviation in the book).

Once Americans get overseas, most of the book is devoted to account of air combat. As mentioned these are interesting enough but there are only so many ways you can describe them. I found myself again more intrigued in organizational and operational details. One area actually has some junk science relevance: the danger of “apples and oranges” comparisons between national statistics. The Allies had dramatically different ways of recording air-to-air victories. The French required three witnesses, which could not include other pilots. In other words, a French aviator could only get credit for a victory if it was witnessed by ground troops – eliminating the possibility of getting credit for an airplane shot down on the German side of the front. As a result, Hudson suggests that a number of Americans that fought in the Lafayette Escadrille – notably Raoul Lufbery – had many more victories than the official records show. On the other hand, the French also gave full credit to every air crewman involved in a victory – in other words, if three two-seater aircraft were involved in shooting down a single enemy aircraft, there were six victories awarded, one for each French pilot and one for each observer.

The British practice was more generous in terms of witnesses – another pilot could act as a witness, as well as ground troops; however the British only awarded fractional credit if multiple aircraft were involved, i.e. it was possible for a pilot to get ½ a victory if he and his wingman shared a kill. The Americans adopted British practice, but would also accept the wreckage of an enemy aircraft of appropriate type or the testimony of a captured German. The Americans gave full credit for a balloon; the second ranking American ace, Frank Luke, shot down four German airplanes but 14 balloons.

In books about the Somme, I read that in 1916 an aircraft could carry an observer or a radio but not both; by 1917 an observation aircraft could carry a radio and an observer, but the radio was transmit only. Almost all the radio-equipped aircraft were used to correct artillery fire; standard procedure was to fly over your assigned artillery battery and send your call sign until the battery responded with a signal panel. Then you would head off over the front transmitting fire correction. Observation aircraft could, of course, transmit without being assigned to a particular battery but there was no guarantee your transmitter was working unless you saw results; therefore most observation flights involved the observer making sketches and notes to be delivered on return to base. Another type of mission, the “contact patrol”, was an attempt to solve another problem frequently mentioned in discussions of the Somme; once advancing troops got out of sight their commanders had no idea where they were. On “contact patrol”, an aircraft would fly around over where the front lines were thought to be until ground troops laid out signal panels identifying their unit. The observer would note the position and report on return to base. “Contact patrols” were very unpopular duty; the aircraft had to fly at low altitude to have any chance of identifying ground troops, and both sides tended to open fire on any aircraft they had a chance of hitting. (Hudson reports at least one American unit castigated for firing at friendly aircraft reported it had received no training in aircraft identification and no instruction that it was supposed to lay out signal panels).

Another interesting observation is that American experience in WWI may have influenced the later doctrine of the self-defending bomber. Brigadier General William Mitchell, Army Air Service commander, was very enthused about bombardment missions – although Pershing generally limited him to tactical operations against troop concentrations and railroad yards. American bombers – usually using Breguet 14s – had considerable success in fending off enemy air-to-air attacks. The Breguet 14 was fast for its size and the observer/bombardier, with twin Lewis guns, had just as much firepower as attacking aircraft. The Americans adopted a “double diamond” formation for bombing missions, a premonition of the later “box”. Hudson also reports Mitchell advocating paratroop attacks; modified Handley-Page bombers to carry ten parachutists each. This suggestion never got beyond the arm-waving stage.

Straightforward; no flights of prose. This is a relatively old book (1968) but my copy is a paperback reissued in 1996. The Germans are still “boche” or “Huns” (although several American airmen shot down on the German side of the lines comment on kind, even life-saving, treatment by German troops). There are photographs of some of the aces and most of the airplane types. There are several maps, but they are not of much use; they show areas of operation but not positions of the opposing armies, location of aerodromes, or anything else that would help relate to the text. Fairly extensive footnotes. I’ll have to read some more books about WWI aviation.
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  setnahkt | Dec 11, 2017 |
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