High in the Empty Blue: The History of 56 Squadron RFC RAF 1916-1919 by Alex Revell
A Book Review by Kerry Nash
There hasn't been a book published like High in
the Empty Blue for almost thirty years, the kind of comprehensive
squadron history that relates the day to day activities of a unit
in considerable detail. This book tells the story of 56 Squadron,
RFC from creation to its disbanding in 1920. In just three and
one half years 56 Squadron became the most successful fighter
squadron in the RFC/RAF. Alex Revell tells a well-researched
historical saga of one of the most famous squadrons of the First
World War in a manner that keeps the reader glued to its four
hundred plus pages. Whether the reader is interested in individual
pilots, the evolution of aerial warfare or just "rippin'
yarns of air combat," this book appeals at many levels.
Technically, this book by Flying Machines Press is
well produced. Four hundred and fifty hardbound pages plus four
hundred and thirty photos and eight pages of color photos make
this book worth the hefty $53 price. It is a welcome sign to
the aviation enthusiast that Flying Machines Press is producing
such a superb book that does not cater to the masses. Perhaps
this means new opportunities for the readers and writers of our
niche in the publishing world. Certainly the traditional publishing
world has shown little interest in our genre. When the have,
the have often butchered the writer's manuscript to fit a particular
format or number of pages, or forced changes to make the work
appeal to a broader audience. Let's hope Flying Machines Press
holds up its high standards.
High in the Empty Blue
tells many fascinating stories of 56 Squadron. Perhaps a brief
review of the unit is in order: 56 Squadron was the first squadron
equipped with the S.E.5 aircraft. It also was home to those who
were arguably the best British aviators. The initial cadre was
Englishmen of high social background, pilots such as Albert Ball,
Arthur Rhys-Davids and Cecil Lewis. But by war's end, half of
the squadron was composed of Canadians, Americans, and middle-class
British such as James McCudden. Initially the squadron was equipped
with the S.E.5, but was replaced with the S.E.5a.
One of the most interest aspects of the book is the
rich detail which allows the reader to see how the aircraft's
technical problems and design superiorities influenced the squadron.
From the time the squadron arrived in France it was equipped
with some of the best aircraft available, and the narratives of
the pilots show the effect on morale and success by having aircraft
which essentially allowed 56 Squadron to engage, or not engage,
as they wished. The air battles against the Albatros and Pfalz
scout of 1917 and early 1918 were almost exclusively on their
terms and allowed the squadron to have a constant supply of well-trained
pilots and flight commanders. It wasn't until the Fokker D.VII
was available in mid-1918 that the squadron had cause to worry.
By that time, the numerical superiority of the Allies forced
the Germans to fight outnumbered 5 or 6 to 1 during the last six
months of the war, when the slight inferiority of the S.E.5 was
not of great importance.
Of great interest to me was the story of the squadron's
legendary fight against Werner Voss in his Fokker Triplane. The
author offered a fairly uncommon thesis that Voss could have ended
the battle against seven of 56 Squadron's best pilots anytime
he wanted. The narratives of the participants all agreed that
Voss was the best pilot they had ever flown against and the superior
climbing ability of the Triplane would have allowed Voss to disengage
the battle if so inclined. Voss was such a spirited warrior that
he pressed the battle, and by some of the narratives almost won.
Voss drove down two of the S.E.5a's and damaged all of the others
before being brought down by Rhys-Davids. It was the agreement
of all of the flight members that they wished they could have
brought Voss down alive.
In comparison to the battle with Voss in the autumn
of 1917 were the battles in the autumn of 1918. By September
of 1918, 56 Squadron had suffered taxing losses and the war had
removed the concept of chivalry from the thoughts of the squadron's
pilots. Revell does an outstanding job of illustrating this by
including two particular pilot narratives both from a Capt. Holleran,
who was a flight commander. His first entry is about his concern
for a member of his flight who was shot down earlier that day.
He was worried that the pilot might have been wounded because
later that day he led his flight on a strafing run on a "boche"
hospital and he was worried his man could have been in there.
The second incident occurred the next day when Holleran went
after a balloon. He expended all his ammo but the balloon wouldn't
burn and he was chased off by the AA. Holleran went back to base,
loaded his bomb racks up with 25 pound bombs and returned to bomb
and strafe the AA batteries, but again he was driven off by the
AA gunners, although he had done them considerable harm. This
was not enough for Holleran, so he went back home, loaded up with
more bombs and attacked a field hospital near the AA batteries
just to finish off any he missed on the first two visits. For
the reader, it is amazing watching this transformation in attitudes
as the war progresses.
I could go on with numerous stories such as these,
but why don't you experience flying and fighting with the 56 Squadron
for yourself? Alex Revell's book is the ideal passport back 75
years for you armchair historians, with extensive month-by-month
narratives and maps of the front. The photos in the book and
the colour plates provided the modeler with extensive documentation
of squadron and pilot marking of the earliest S.E.5's to the late
war S.E.5as. Lastly, the FITS player will feel a greater appreciation
for the tactics and realism of the game after reading this book.
I know I did.
© 1997 Kerry Nash - All rights reserved