The Forgotten Air Force: French Air Doctrine in the 1930s. By Anthony Christopher Cain. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002. ISBN 1-58834-010-4. Maps. Photographs. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xvi, 214. $34.95.
Although a new book, this has a tradition of sorts, a tradition to which the reviewer has made a small contribution. Anthony Cain and I agree on matters broad and specific; and therefore readers should know that my satisfaction with his work may reflect a measure of self-accord. So much for admission.
This satisfaction has other sources of inspiration. First, the prose is clear. Second, much use is made of the French air archives, in particular the air arm's own, almost immediate, analyses of its failures during the campaign of 1939-40. Third, this book uses narrative for analytical purpose—rather than settling for the lesser accomplishment of salting narrative with grains of analysis. Fourth, Cain understands that historians are not magistrates, and that even failure—especially on the scale of the French collapse—warrants explanations which surpass the simplistic. It is not good enough, he says, to walk away from such débâcles with imprecations of stupidity, spinelessness, or treason. Fifth, and more specifically, his inquiry addresses the ways this arm contributed to—not caused—the defeat, and the reasons why it was inadequately prepared for the war that came its way in 1940.
Those reasons are complex, doubly so given their inter-relatedness. Boasting the largest air force in Europe in 1920, those in its service entered the postwar period with great ambitions, ambitions for the role air power would play in subsequent conflicts, ambitions for the stature of the air force vis-à-vis the army and navy. Those ambitions, however, were scotched in the years that followed. It took more than a decade for it to become a separate service, even nominally independent of the army, and at no point was it free to implement the doctrine it favored. While strategic bombing seemed to airmen the best way of fighting an industrialized enemy—as well as of defending its autonomy from the other services—they never escaped the army's expectation that their first priority would be the ground war. It was this tension between ambition and expectation that led to the mid-1930s experiment with the avion à tout faire, a plane that aspired to be strategic bomber, fighter, and close-support weapon. Unsurprisingly, it did not work.
Directed by a doctrine that accommodated opposing impulses, and equipped
with a resulting, hybrid aircraft, this air force then ran into a host
of escalating training problems, failed maneuvers, mobilization troubles
and, in 1940, operational failures. All of this Dr. Cain explores: the
historical experiences of World War One and the Rif war of the 1920s;
the inter-service rivalries; the constant interplay of technology,
fabrication, training, and logistical support; the attendant evolution
of doctrine; ultimately the trick of having an arm at its peak precisely
at the moment of greatest need. As an
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"old" airman, and a "new" scholar, Anthony Cain has served this air
force well, and this profession.
Robert J. Young
University of Winnipeg
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada