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The Battle of the Coral Sea in Two Books

7 November 2022

Much has been written about the World War II’s epic Battle of Midway (June 1942) but not much has been addressed regarding the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942) and this is odd. Most odd.

This is will not be a shallow hit piece dramatically stating one battle is more significant than another—all battles are significant. Most know of the few minutes when dive bombers attacked and sank three Imperial Japanese aircraft carriers at Midway as it was quite a dramatic moment in history—though most aren’t aware of the piecemeal attacks by U.S. forces which occurred more-or-less continually earlier during that day. Jabs which fortuitously set up the heavy weight knock-out dive bombing blow. The battle’s outcome halted Imperial Japan’s invasion plans for Midway and subsequent ensuing threat to the Hawaiian Islands. Halted those plans as sure as pulling the plug at a rock concert. Many books and academic papers have been written about Midway but recent works have outshined the past ones. To best understand this battle I suggest, Shattered Sword: the Untold Story of the Battle of Midway by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully. 

The Battle of the Coral Sea similarly made Imperial Japan’s immediate plans in the Southwest Pacific come to a bone-jarring stop. Yet, this battle is usually and singularly known for being the first naval battle where the combatant ships were not within sight of each other. A bit of a longwinded way to say this battle was the acid test of naval carrier aviation war fighting over battleship shoot-outs. But that is the 30,000 foot perspective—that is not so much the immediate impact of the U.S. Navy’s achievement at the time. The immediate effect, the effect which permitted the Allies to take a moment to breathe, was to halt the invasion of New Guinea which would have isolated Australian and New Zealand from the world by severing their logistical supply chain with the United States.

For the Battle of the Coral Sea I recommend two books. For ship movements and strategic decision making by the commanders of both sides readers should rely on, The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway which is by another renowned author, John B. Lundstrom. Here, in the title, Lundstrom takes the term “naval air combat” literally by concentrating on the actions of the fighter forces (i.e. Zeros and Wildcats) and their leaders. For a complete perspective readers should also read Destined for Glory: Dive Bombing, Midway and the Evolution of Carrier Airpower which is by the uniquelly qualified author, Thomas Wildenberg. Unique since Wildenberg addresses logistics of both sides and how they weighed on commanders strategizing. The book concentrates on the history of dive bombing, and does not ignore torpedo bearing aircraft or horizontal bombing by torpedo bombers, as one would imaging from the title. It is the superb writing by Wildenbrerg of the moment-by-moment attacks by these attack aircraft which is vibrantly enlightening.

Both The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway as well as Destined for Glory: Dive Bombing, Midway and the Evolution of Carrier Airpower were heavily used to research and fact check the ambitious proposal recently submitted to the U.S. Navy to recover especially historic aircraft which were flown into the carrier-vs-carrier actions during the Battle of the Coral Sea.

The three books mentioned are available, and reasonably so, as the Naval Institute Press.

The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway by John B. Lundstrom, 1984, 547 pp.
Destined for Glory: Dive Bombing. Midway and the Evolution of Carrier Airpower by Thomas Wildenberg, 1998, 258 pp.
Shattered Sword: the Untold Story of the Battle of Midway, by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully, 2007, 612 pp.

Landing at Tarawa

4 November 2022

“Landing at Tarawa” is the book’s cover and is from artwork done by artist Richard Gibney. Fittingly, the painting is in the Marine Corps Art Collection as the amphibious assault on Tarawa was the beginning of a steep learning curve for the U.S. Marine Corps in World War II. Mistakes were made, and learned from. The Navy created Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT) and new weapons were developed. Tactics evolved and the United States continued to relentlessly retake islands occupied by Imperial Japan. Amphibious assaults which eventually led to the doorstep of Japan’s home islands.

Maritime Unmanned: From Global Hawk to Triton

29 October 2022

Maritime Unmanned: From Global Hawk to Triton, Ernest Snowden and Robert F. Wood, Jr., 2021, ISBN 9781682477007, 262 pp.

This is a story that is populated with intriguing events about an immensely capable UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) as well as how intense the competition in the aerospace industry is for a major military contract. This is also the story of the engineering conversion (“migration” in industry-speak) of Northrop’s Grumman’s Global Hawk, flown by the U.S. Air Force, to be a strategic UAV for the U.S. Navy as the Triton. Also story where Northrop Grumman, Lockeed Martin, Gulfstream of General Dynamics and General Atomics were all in the same competition.

The United States Navy desired a long endurance, high-altitude UAV and, at the same time, was developing a UAV culture within the Navy. All this began at the turn of the century and transpired over the subsequent twenty years. The designs proposed to be modified for the Navy’s use could not have been more varied but came down to these three systems:

  • Northrop Grumman’s Triton from their Global Hawk—30+ hours endurance / 60,000 feet maximum altitude
  • Lockheed Martin’s and General Atomic’s Mariner from General Atomic’s Reaper—48 hours / 50,000 feet
  • Gulfstream Aerospace’s GV business jet (the C-37 in the USAF and USN)—14 hours / 51,000 feet

Aside from fitting the electric surveillance systems specified by the Navy into the UAV—and much unlike the Air Force UAVs—the Navy required their strategic UAV to be able to descend for positive visual identifications or inspections, and subsequently reascend. The engineering challenge was then to reinforce the airframe, in the case of both the Trident and the Mariner, but not the Gulfstream GV (Also known as the G-Five) as it was a proper aircraft, not the norm of UAV designs of the time.

The authors could not be better for this story since Snowden worked for the Secretary of Defense (in the Research and Engineering Office) as well as Northrop Grumman during the development of Trident. He specialized in analysis of engineering change-orders as well as following the money. Wood was formerly Director of Air Warfare with the Chief of Naval Operations as well as currently consulting with the aerospace and defense industries. What does all this mean? It means the authors know the ways of military aviation procurement, what documentation to look for and where to find it, as well as interpreting the decisions of the three competing companies.

Readers will appreciate the experience and explanations of the authors as the story is intricate, involving legal and lobbying efforts, moves and countermoves, attempts to parlay personal relationships over objective analysis and the usual twisting of words on the Navy’s request for proposal (RFP) to sell a product the Navy did not exactly ask for but what that company could manufacture. To say this story is a maze is like saying the SR-71 could fly fast—there are no adequately descriptive words.

Readers will learn about engineering challenges to make an Air Force UAV into a Navy UAV as each service has common as well as disparate demands for their reconnaissance missions. Also, an education about the procedures, protocols, intricacies and importance of trusted relationships in the industry is eye-oopening, to say the least.

The authors are superbly qualified to tell this story and do so well. The book is complete with notes, citations, bibliography and index to complete the package.

Maritime Unmanned: From Global Hawk to Triton can be obtained from the Naval Institute Press, no need to join—but joining is inexpensive, no requirement for military service and there are significant savings when purchasing from the Naval Institute Press.

Hell to Pay: Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan 1945-1947 (updated and expanded)

27 October 2022

Hell to Pay: Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan 1945-1947 (updated and expanded), D.M. Giangreco, 2009 and 2017, ISBN 978-1-68247-643-7, 552 pp.

Giangreco’s 2009 edition of Hell to Pay: Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan—is an excellent work (read the review here) and puts to rest how the United States would have ended World War II by invasion of Japan’s home islands from south to north (Kyushu to Hokkaido). If Hell to Pay had not been revised it would have remained standing as the chief reference work on the subject—but now it is that much better. This book is a must read for those who have the opinion that forcing Japan to surrender by the use of nuclear weapons was completely wrong. Giangreco writes in extreme detail how U.S. casualties alone would have approached one million—not to mention Japan’s leadership choosing to sacrifice its population as well as its culture rather than unconditionally surrender. Facts are facts and the surprise ending of World War II prevented millions upon millions of additional deaths. The one million U.S. casualty estimate was likely low, likely purposely, as the author documents, since U.S. leadership was balancing the even greater call-up (drafting) of men which was sure to be unpopular and risked losing popular support for the war against treaties signed with the other Allies to end the fighting only with the unconditional surrender of the all the Axis powers. Casualties were underestimated due to Japan’s military forces planned use of a variety of suicide forces and invasion beach defenses undetected by Allied reconnaissance. The Japanese knew where, knew when, and were fully prepared for the expected amphibious assaults. Iwo Jima and Okinawa underscored the greater determination Japanese defensive tactics. Even though Japan could not stop losing it was making Allied victories ever more costly.

In 2017 Hell to Pay was “updated and expanded” with 190 pages added pages of well investigated, analyzed and insightful information. What about those millions of Japanese who would be killed in the invasion of the home islands? Of course, some would be men but a substantial portion would have been women and children—most armed with pikes or similarly primitive weapons. U.S. psychologists were more than concerned about the mental health of Army and Navy combatants upon their return to the States because of this horrific inevitability. A normal person just cannot reconcile wholesale killing of woman and children—but that is what Japan’s leadership was prepared to do—sacrifice, and repeatedly sacrifice their forces and citizens.

The updated Hell to Pay also dispels the myth many use who have the opinion that the atomic bombs which exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki were extravagant measures to beat Russia into Japan, to keep Russia out of Japan altogether for future political reasons. As the author carefully documents, the U.S. leadership almost desperately wanted Russia to invade Japan and to do so beginning with the northernmost island, Hokkaido. Why? Numbers. The grist of war. Russian invasion would be expected to end the war sooner, ultimetly leaving the U.S. with fewer casualties. Di Giangreco has quite a bit of detail about Russia’s invasion plans and the ability of its forces to execute an amphibious assault—or Russia’s inability to so so.

The updated Hell to Pay also details Great Britain’s sizable and growing contribution with Royal Navy Forces (centered around five fleet carriers, five flight fleet carriers and six battleships) as well as the Royal Air Force (with twenty squadrons of Lancaster heavy bombers, named Tiger Force).

Operation Blacklist is also well explained and illustrates how Allied Forces would occupy Japan once the war ended. There is more than readers might think to consider and makes for incredible reading. The indexing, maps, photos and maps of this book are superb. Of particular interest—considering how vastly underestimated were the U.S. land force casualties, the severely delayed timelines and the kamikaze effects—are:

  • Appendix A: G-2 Estimate of Enemy Situation in Kyushu, U.S. Sixth Army, August 1, 1945
  • Appendix B: G-2 Analysis of Japanese Plans for Defense of Kyushu, U.S. Sixth Army, December 31, 1945

The remaining two appendices are also of interest.

Hell to Pay: Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan 1945-1947 (updated and expanded) can be obtained from the Naval Institute Press, no need to join—but joining is inexpensive, no requirement for military service and there are significant savings when purchasing from the Naval Institute Press.

Hell to Pay by D.M. Giangreco

“A Pitiful, Unholy Mess”: the Histories of Wheeler, Bellows, and Haleiwa Fields and the Japanese Attacks of 7 December 1941

26 October 2022

“A Pitiful, Unholy Mess”: the Histories of Wheeler, Bellows, and Haleiwa Fields and the Japanese Attacks of 7 December 1941, J. Michael Wenger, Robert J. Cressman, and John F. Di Virgilio, 2022, ISBN 9781682476024, 336 pp.

“A Pitiful, Unholy Mess”: the Histories of Wheeler, Bellows, and Haleiwa Fields and the Japanese Attacks of 7 December 1941 by authors J. Michael Wenger, Robert J. Cressman, and John F. Di Virgilio

Authors Wenger, Cressman, and Di Virgilio have gone beyond the trifecta and scored a fourth success in their unique and unusual book series (Pearl Harbor Tactical Studies) about the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Japanese Navy. This series is unique for their research and writing skills. And, this series is unusual for their style of successfully detailing strategic and tactical decisions by participants on both sides—all the while addressing the important but small details. It is the small details, personal experiences and impressions of the moment, which makes the humanity of this history visceral to the readers.

Like the three previous books, in this series, the authors start before the beginning. In A Pitiful, Unholy Mess readers understand how the Army established these air fields (recall the Navy was thoroughly written of in previous books of the series) at Wheeler, Bellows and Haleiwa. Not usually discussed in other books the authors describe, with citations and references, discussion between the Army and the Navy to transfer Army aircraft (Curtiss P-40s) to Wake Island and Midway by aircraft carrier. Curiously, no mention was made by either service branch as to how these aircraft might return as they could not land aboard an aircraft carrier though they would have flown off them to deploy. The authors have the facts and the tonnages of the logistics involved as well as how many tents would be required for the additional personnel. An amazing amount of detail to give readers an appreciation of military planning when it comes to logistics and keeping aircraft flying.

Readers will also learn how these air fields were set up, the planning as well as logistics involved, and training schedules. Army aircraft stationed on Oahu began with P-26s but were soon replaced with P-36 and P-40 aircraft.  Drawings of the fields and aircraft placements during the attack are plentiful as well as detailed accounts of dogfights, bombing runs and dozens of photos showing individual combatants of both sides—as well as civilians.

Once again the authors have covered any dimension readers may desire for comprehensive understanding of Imperial Japan’s attacks on these Army air fields during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Additionally, readers will learn the U.S. military was prepared in large part though expected first attacks on Wake or Midway before Hawaii. Also, the incredibly unfortunate timing of full dress inspections and constant alerts is better undertsood. Individual accounts abound—both of heroism and bad luck. The captioning of the images is complete as are the citations as well as the index.

A Pitiful, Unholy Mess  is a proud fourth companion to the book series published by the Naval Institute Press—the Pearl Harbor Tactical Studies series:

I suggest joining the U.S. Naval Institute—it is inexpensive, no requirement for military service and there are significant savings when purchasing from the Naval Institute Press.      

A chance to get incredibly historic aircraft–Devastators and one important Wildcat!

24 October 2022

The U.S. Navy has a premier opportunity to recover Category I (according to the NASM system)—aircraft which participated in an historic event. In this case the aircraft are several Douglas TBD Devastators and a singularly historic Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat.  They were on the forward part of the U.S.S. Lexington’s flight deck when she was scuttled with a destroyer’s torpedos. She was scuttled after fires stopped the engines and threatened to explode the torpedos in storage. 

These eleven aircraft settled to the bottom of the Coral Sea a good distance from the Lexington. They alsohave remained in excellent shape since they were largely not involved in the ship’s fires or explosions. The depth of nearly 10,000 feet aids in keeping these aircraft remarkable preserved since the cool waters and low oxygen concentration values keep marine life to a minimum as well as corrosion rates.  The magnesium based engine mounts have returned to the ocean so the engines are most often either detached or nearly so. Paint is in excellent shape though as are the fuselages and wings. These aircraft are a remarkable find thanks to the efforts of Paul Allen and his ship the R/V Petrel.

The Navy should get these!

All of them!

They still own them after all—see the Sunken Military Craft Act for more details.

And the Navy can now get them due to a gathering of private groups and museums joining forces with a private benefactor providing 25-40% of the cost of recovery, conservation and restoration. Volunteers have also joined.

The idea is for these nongovernmental entities to use their skills in conservation and restoration after also raising the funds for the Navy’s Diving and Salvage Division to recover these aircraft. The Lexington is a war grave but these aircraft are not. The aircraft are also free and clear of the Lexington ensuring the remains of the 216 sailors KIA aboard ship remain undisturbed, as they should remain.

On Tuesday, October 25th, the U.S. Navy’s Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) will receive the request to recover these aircraft as well as the plan to conserve and restore them at the Air Zoo with the assistance of the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation (NAFM). The NHHC needs only to review the application and rely on the Navy’s Diving and Salvage Division as well as experts from the NAMF and the vaunted Air Zoo—with advice from experts in two other countries. 

A TBD Devastator should be, and could be, in the soon to be built National Museum of the U.S. Navy as well as in the National Naval Aviation Museum. Surely the NHHC can focus on two priorities—the Navy’s newest museum and recovering the heritage of U.S. Navy’s ultimate heroism, when it won against dark odds and helped to save to world from more totalitarian rule, for display to the public. Other aircraft can be distributed so that they may be within driving distance of most U.S. localities.

Need more be said?


The first half of 1942 found the U.S. Navy in dire straits having World War II thrust upon it—especially in coping with the Imperial Japanese forces which were expanding their territories across the Pacific Ocean at an unprecedented pace.

The Pacific Fleet battleships had been decimated but most would be salvaged and repaired in time. A stroke of luck prevented the fleet’s aircraft carriers from damage or outright destruction buy the Navy’s most modern fighters—the Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat (the version yet to possess folding wings)—were few in number as were the Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers. Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo-bombers numbered less than 150 in the entire Navy. The Navy had not heavily practiced offensive aircraft carrier tactics due to economic and political measures until to the raid on Pearl Harbor. 

This is what the Navy had to take the fight to the enemy at the time. And fight against an enemy who had honed combat operations through years of military exercises as well as years of combat. The U.S. Navy against Imperial Japan. Novices versus veterans.

What was the Navy to do? To think?

What the Navy always does…go into Harm’s Way…any action is better than no action.

So the fight was taken to Imperial Japan with an aircraft carrier-borne raid in the Southwest Pacific against the islands of Lae and Salamaua—which Japan had recently invaded to support the invasion of New Guinea. Japan invading New Guinea would cut Australia’s sea lanes off and isolate it. The U.S. Navy was going to fix that. The raid was a success with Devastator and Dauntless crews obtaining near total surprise and devastating the facilities. The Doolittle raid on Japan’s home islands threw another wrench into Imperial Japan’s martial plans of dominating Asia.

Imperial Japan’s military reacted by diverting more forces for home defense but they remained tru to their main strategy—lure the U.S. Navy into a cataclysmic night battle and this decision led to the Battle of the Coral Sea (the world’s first carrier-on-carrier fight) where Devastator and Dauntless aIrcrews once again proved blunted Japan’s moves for domination. Dauntless dive bombing at steep descent angles for a few minutes in their attack runs. Devastators flying barely faster than 100 mph straight and level less than 100 feet above the water for several minutes. The Navy had not yet perfected coordinated attacks with fighter cover but the idea of a combined torpedo and dive bombing attack was sound at the time—but could not work well in 1942 with little fighter cover and the slow Devastator aircraft. Yet the Devastator aircrews pressed on and did their ships proud. The Devastator’s reputation came crashing down at the Battle of Midway of course which seems to have unfairly made the Devastator and their aircrews not worthy of remembrance.

This is wrong and should be rectified. These were some of the Navy’s best attack aircraft and they took the fight to the enemy—forcefully and decisively. Their actions help wrest the initiative away from Imperial Japan. The first rule in war is to gain the initiative. The second is to retain the initiative.

So…where are these Douglas TBD Devastator aircraft to be seen? In what museums?

Nowhere. None.

Dauntless aircraft can be found, as can Wildcats, but not a single Devastator is to be seen—not even in storage. Why is there no regard for this historic aircraft?  

And why the Wildcat? This F4F-3 Wildcat is significant since it has four kill symbols and a single bombing mission symbol—these symbols are some of the earliest personal victories against the Imperial Japanese forces rampaging across the Pacific early in World War II. This early Wildcat was also flown by at least three historical figures in the U.S. Navy. They were “Jimmy” Thach, “Butch” O’Hare and “Scoop” Vorse and Noel Gaylor—collectively three future admirals as well as one who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Quite and aircraft.

Manga on the World’s Most Capable Seaplane

13 September 2022

US-2: Story of Search And Rescue Flying Boat Development drawn and written by Fuji Tsukishima

This is a manga, the Japanese art form similar to a graphic novel though with a certain dramatic as well as personal presentation. It is the story of a rescue by the crew of a ShinMaywa US-2 which is a remarkable STOL amphibian seaplane. Its ancestor is the Grumman Albatross though the US-2 has much more power and more advanced aeronautical features. It is incredibly capable and can operate in seas as high as nine feet which is unbelievable for a seaplane.

This link will take you to the manga and remember that this is in the Japanese language so page turning is from right to left. Advance by mousing over to the end of the left page and clicking. Similarly, going back is done by mousing over to the end of the right page and clicking.

Enjoy, the artwork is brilliant and so is the research.

Japanese Aircraft 1910—1941

25 August 2022

Japanese Aircraft 1910—1941, Robert C. Mikesh & Shorzoe Abe, 1990, ISBN 1-55750-563-2, 293 pp.

Front cover and the right side of Keith Woodcocks painting of IJN Soryu’s Mitsubishi A5M4 Claude fighters in 1939 over the East China Sea
Back cover and the left side of Keith Woodcocks painting of IJN Soryu’s Mitsubishi A5M4 Claude fighters in 1939 over the East China Sea

Japan defeated the Russian Navy surprisingly as well as spectacularly in 1905 (Battle of Tsushima Strait) and set a course to be a world power. Japan chose to do so by emulating the colonizing done by western powers in the previous centuries beginning with the invasion of Korea in 1910. This was closely followed in 1937 by invading a portion of China (Manchuria)—the Second Sino-Japanese War—but now largely accepted as the beginning of World War II (WW II). This “Asia for Asians” strategy of forceful country invasions by Japan would, of course, lead Japan into World War II (WW II) where she proceeded to invade Burma, Malaysia, the Philippines and other West Pacific island territories—beginning with the attack on the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor. 

Japan strove to keep pace with aviation development during this time and remarkably so by building aircraft under license (e.g., Kawasaki-Dornier’s Wal flying boat) as well as developing aircraft of original design. Eventually creating a few aircraft which were among the best of their types during World War II—e.g., the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, the Kawanishi H8K Emily, and the Yokosuka D4Y Suisei Judy. These are the later aircraft models than addressed in this book, but what of the designs which preceded them? Were there many? Were they interesting? Was there a thriving aviation industry with more than the three manufacturers just mentioned?

These question are difficult to answer using English language based sources but, once again, Robert Mikesh has stepped up and polished this hidden facet of aviation’s history. In his spare time serving in the U.S. Air Force while station in Japan for seven years he also studied Japan’s aviation history thoroughly and made vital personal connections. Much of his study culminated in Japan’s Aircraft 1910-1941 which he co-authored with Shorzoe Abe (an aeronautical engineer who was on the editing board for Tadashi Nozawa’s native Japanese language premier eight volume history, Encyclopedia of Japanese Aircraft 1900-1945).

Fortunately, Japanese Aircraft 1910-1941 is much more brief than Nozawa’s epic work since it comes in at a more easily digestible 293 pages. But these 293 pages of wonderful and insightful material are packed with images, data and descriptions. The format of Japanese Aircraft 1910-1941 will be familiar and comforting to readers of Janes All the World’s Aircraft in Service.

Leafing and perusing through this book is perhaps the best way to absorb its material. Given this period of aviation history is all but ignored in western media there are many surprises easily discovered in Japanese Aircraft 1910-1941.  A few of them are:

  • The number of aircraft design firms which number well over the handful made famous for their  WW II aircraft.
  • Aircraft were shipped to Japan from many countries.
  • Japan’s aviation industry had advanced sufficiently to design an ultra long distance aircraft beginning as early as 1932—the Gasuden Koken Long-range Research Aircraft which had several advanced features for the time.
  • The number of floatplane and seaplane designs is astounding.
  • Japan employed German aircraft firms for some of its military aircraft (e.g., the Ki-20 derived from the Junkers G 38)  in 1928—helping both Japan and Germany to prepare for initiating war. 

Thankfully the authors explain the naming system of the Imperial Japanese Army as well as the Imperial Japanese Navy. There are also four appendices which are especially helpful:

  • A list of WW II Japanese aircraft employed in the Pacific Theater of Operations (PTO)
  • Calendar conversion dates from Japan’s imperial calendar to the Gregorian calendar for the aircraft type numbers
  • As well as a compete bibliography as well as glossary.

Mikesh sagely optimized Japanese Aircraft 1910-1941 to address that country’s aircraft designs up to the onset of the attack on Pearl Harbor, bringing the U.S. into WW II—though aircraft employed by the Imperial Japanese forces in the 1937 invasion of China are included. But why? Well, for good reason in that both authors recognize René Francillon’s book Japanese Aircraft of the Pacific War as the signal publication for this phase of Japan’s aviation history. Obviously this is an excellent reference book for anyone with interests in Japanese aviation as well as the years between WW I and those leading into WW II.

Leaving no detail of presentation forgotten, the book’s cover wraps from the front all the way around to include the back as a marvelous copy of an original Keith Woodcock painting. It shows a pair of Mitsubishi A5M4 Claude fighters which were assigned to the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Soryu while flying a mission over the East Chine Sea in 1939.

Zeppelin Onslaught: the Forgotten Blitz 1914-1915

24 August 2022

Zeppelin Onslaught: the Forgotten Blitz 1914-1915, Ian Castle, 2018, ISBN 978-1-84832-433-6, 356 pp.

Ian Castle’s recent talk made during Aviation Cultures Mk VI was highly interesting for a few reasons:

  • The tech software broke down but he segued to an extemporaneous talk which was entertaining and jammed full with facts, observations and insights. It was obvious to all in the internet conference that Mr. Castle not only knew his subject matter but had been carefully considering all the research he had uncovered.
  • He is quite knowledgeable in the types of airships, and makers, flown for the Kaiser during World War I (WW I) as well as intimately aware of the effects of the various bombing endeavors. So much that he is writing a trilogy on the subject with the first two books, Zeppelin Onslaught: the Forgotten Blitz 1914-1915 and Zeppelin Inferno: the Forgotten Blitz 1916, already published.
  • Castle pleasantly spoke of his keen insight as well as objectivity to both sides of the aerial conflict—England’s first blitz—and how each side matured their respective tactics and strategy.

The first title, Zeppelin Onslaught: the Forgotten Blitz 1914-1915 centers on Imperial Germany employing a new weapon (the airship and the airplane) in an innovative way (long range aerial bombing) and how Great Britain reacted defensively—and a bit offensively at times. Castle has sussed out the sequence of events, people who made significant decisions as well as a bit of their personalities. He writes brilliantly with a smooth easy style using clever word phrasing on occasion—like a chef adding layers of flavor while cooking.

Zeppelin Onslaught also describes the remarkable evolution of the airships made my Zeppelin as well as Schütte-Lanz during this time. This development continued rapidly during 1914—1915 both in production numbers as well as sizes. Additionally, bombing raids, novel for the time, increased in frequency as well as audacity. In brief, airships became more capable for the Imperial German forces (army and navy) in terms of range, load, altitude and speed while Great Britain struggled to find raiding airships much less intercept them with the aircraft of the day.

Castle addresses the anti-airship weaponry employed quite well. This ranged from conventional artillery to the dropping of bombs and grenades from aircraft flying above the raiding airships—including, incredulously, a grapnel like device loaded with TNT explosive at the end of a 1000 foot cable.  He also closely follows the thinking of Germany’s military leadership influencing the Kaiser’s decisions initially from greatly restricted targeting to essentially opening London up as a free-fire zone—while keeping the homes of his relatives off the targeting list. Balanced against this is his telling of Great Britain’s initial slowness to address the threat, especially the Admiralty.

There were the innovators, however, and Castle writes of their boldness and leadership. From Admiral Sir Percy Scott to a variety of German airship captains. People who have long been unknown for their great achievements such as the developer of an anti-aircraft artillery shell design to produce smaller fragments (increasing the safety factor for those on ground below the detonated shell) to the multitude of rescuers of bombing victims amid the rubble of destroyed structures as well as the bravery of aircrews.

Ian Castle details the deaths, casualties and monetary losses almost blow-by-blow and shows how extraordinarily ineffective this original blitz was. The overall destruction has been neatly tabulated but Castle also retains the suffering of the victims by noting their wounds and deaths on an individual basis. The dichotomy of airship crews braving electrical storms (recall the airship lifting gas was hydrogen) and inadequate navigation ability to somewhat randomly drop either high explosive or incendiary bombs is a running thread through this period of the air war over Great Britain. These fantastic machines flown by rugged aircrews to drop, what are by today’s standards, small bombs (10kg-100kg) without the use of any science to aerial bombardment—no concept of precision or accuracy like bomb drift, ballistic trajectory or aerodynamic drag—all to usually damage a garden or an apartment. Random navigation and random bombing—Castle does his best to describe Imperial Germany’s rationale—but it is an unfathomable rationale. But when does irrationality deter the efforts of a warring power?

Zeppelin Onslaught: the Forgotten Blitz 1914-1915  has an excellent compact index, flight paths charted of significant airship and seaplane missions, well reproduced glossy black and white images, as well as copious notes and a rich bibliography. Eerily, this blitz shows much commonality with the blitz to come during World War II with regard to the switch in raid timing as well as following the Moon’s phases and the strategic shift from military to civilian targets. The machines would change, the destructiveness would increase and civilians would be meant  to suffer—as Ian Castle states, this “forgotten blitz” opened a new dimension of warfare. Unfortunately, a warfare which would be employed by all major powers in the future—but these long range air assaults were part of that beginning. Historians as well as humanitarians will appreciate this book for its writing, depth of research and passion.

Readers will likely know these air raids failed, in the end, to achieve significant or even anything of lasting military value. This was the age when airships were approaching their zenith and aircraft were so nascent they were undergoing revolutionary redesigns nearly every six months. Engine reliability was also a challenge for both airships as well as airplanes. Yet, the blitz continued, but why? And what future changes were made by Germany as well as England? These details and inquiries will likely be addressed in the second book of Ian Castle’s remarkable trilogy, Zeppelin Inferno: the Forgotten Blitz 1916 which will be reviewed here shortly.

Interestingly, Ian Castle has a website devoted to this subject and it is quite complete with a talk schedule, his books, historical information and more—Zeppelins. Gothas & Giants

N-4 Down: the Hunt for the Arctic Airship Italia

12 August 2022

N-4 Down: the Hunt for the Arctic Airship Italia, Mark Piesing, 2021, ISBN 978-0-06-285152-9, 428 pp.

Another fantastic book about a lesser known—though enrapturing—chapter in lighter-than-air (LTA) aviation history has been deeply researched and well written by Mark Piesing—N-4 Down: the Hunt for the Airship Italia

Piesing writes descriptively and in detail about the demise of The Italia (Umverto Nobile’s N-4 design) as readers would expect from the title, of course, but it is also the backstory which is also captivating and intriguing. The rescue of the survivors, which was weeks in the making, as well.  Readers will sense the agony of Arctic crash survivors (Piesing also recounts previous Arctic expeditions of the 1920s and before). Survivors who endured desolate weeks and even months marooned on the pack ice. Pack ice which is constantly in motion, apparently at random speed as well as direction, but never still for long—much like “The Grand Staircase” of Hogwarts. An overnight’s drifting could find oneself more than ten miles from the night before. Travel on foot was a combination of hiking, sloshing and crawling that lent whole new meanings to the terms arduousness and hostile environment.

N-4 Down also brings to life the actual personalities of historical figures in this historical part of Arctic exploration. Names which are universally recognized, and many which are not, but all described in all their humanity. They were men and women—some were less than likable, most were ensnared by their country’s governmental power plays. Naturally, all had feet of clay (marking N-4 Down as an objective telling history) but all were driven to be the first to explore, or tell the tale of, the blank million square mile surrounding the geographical North Pole. Yes, people knew it was there but they did not know what was there. Exploration at its most challenging and demanding!

Umberto Nobile, designer and commander of The Italia, was much more than the man most typical histories record him—as well documented by Piesing. He was a brilliant designer of aircraft and highly personable. He saw value in the semi-rigid dirigible designs—a solid keel from which a control car and engines were positioned, control surfaces to the rear, and a fabric covered envelope that housed the bags of lifting gas—hydrogen in the case of The Italia, as in his earlier designs. 

Famed arctic explorer Roald Amundsen came to realize that reaching the North Pole would have to be done by means other than months of dog sledding which brought him to aviation with its promise of hours instead of months travel time. After a false start with aircraft he shifted to LTA and Umberto Nobile. They collaborated, with others too, and flew the LTA renamed The Norge to the North Pole and to the World’s acclaim. The flight was less than pleasant as stirringly told by Piesing given the roughness of Amundsen’s leadership style and lack of common language between Nobile and Amundse. The apparent disdain of the Norwegians to non-Scandinavian arctic explorers also did not help. Readers will feel the tension as well as the cluttered, messy confines of the unsealed control car as The Norge navigates the unknown.

After the flight of The Norge Nobile realized that more could be done with airships than ticking off record boxes. The airship era meant arctic exploration was no longer the realm of the Scandinavians, especially the Norwegians. Piesing describes intricately, and in an easily understandably way, Nobile’s effort to fund, build, then fly his N-4 design—The Italia. Italian built and crewed but all was not to be so altruistic as Nobile lived in a totalitarian state ruled by Benito Mussolini who allowed Italo Balbo, more devious and vicious than Il Duce, to be Nobile’s powerful nemesis. 

As readers soon learn The Italia had a demanding schedule of five flights slated during the Arctic exploration season of 1928. Five flights for science, for mapping, for dispelling of myths and unfounded beliefs in what lay in the Arctic. Returning from the fifth flight, Nobile’s second to the North Pole, ended tragically with a crash which separated the envelope and control car. The control car somewhat softly crashing onto the pack ice and the envelope (containing the bags of lifting gas) carrying away part of the crew but not before they heroically tossed out life saving supplies to those on the ground. Weeks of ingenuity and abandonment followed for the rest of the crew. Their well thought out struggle for survival is remarkably told in N-4 Down. Soon the world joined in the rescue the survivors of The Italia with the notable exceptions of three major countries—Great Britain which had flying boats and an airship which could be soon with range of the Arctic, the USA with its great LTA capability, and Italy which sponsored Nobile’s expedition for a huge propaganda ploy.

Italy? Yes! Amazingly…unbelievably…Italy. 

Italo Balbo had the fix in and delayed, denied and deliberated any rescue efforts. Shame on the captain of Nobile’s support ship. Bravo to one Italian army officer who defied orders and set out to find the crash site and survivors. Piesing tells their stories and more—describing perilous transcontinental flights, stormy tossed passages through mountain passes and flight through dense fog to break out over land with the problem of finding out where they actually were (given the absence of GPS and electronic navigation at the time).

N-4 Down: the Hunt for the Arctic Airship Italia is a wonderfully written and a well researched book on Umberto Nobile’s exploration of the Arctic using his airships The Norge and The Italia. It is also the story of the best of human nature with people uniting as a force to survive and a number of rescuers risking life and aircraft with many losing both.

Readers will enjoy the excitement of the times, the thrill of exploring the unexplored, flying LTA and vicariously meeting historic figures through Piesing’s expert authorship. Aviation history buffs and historians will want this book for its telling of perhaps the most significant historical chapter of semi-rigid LTA airships, the Arctic exploration achievements and personality of Umberto Nobile. They will also enjoy the context filling footnotes, index and detailed end notes.