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The Flatpack Bombers — or how the Zeppelin threat created the first air force and the first aircraft carrier

9 May 2014

The Flatpack Bombers — or how the Zeppelin threat created the first air force and the first aircraft carrier

The Flatpack Bombers: the Royal Navy & the Zeppelin Menace, Ian Gardiner, 2009, ISBN 9781848840713, 224 pp.

The Flatpack Bombers: the Royal Navy & the Zeppelin Menace by Ian Gardiner

The Flatpack Bombers: the Royal Navy & the Zeppelin Menace by Ian Gardiner

This is a wild, enlightening and incredible book. Gardiner has a wonderful ability to take a walk into the “long grass” as he calls it to find the facts and the stories mostly forgotten. In Flatpack Bombers he has a tale replete with James Bond-like daring exploits as well as incredible bravery on an almost daily basis. Gardiner blends well researched facts with personal human elements which combined to make the history of aerial delivered bombs as we still know it over 90 years later. Along the way we learn how a handful of British airmen, in aircraft assembled from crates (flatpacks), accomplished the:

  • First strategic bombing (in the sense of destroying infrastructure and manufacturing facilities hundreds of miles from any front)
  • First low level bombing
  • First aircraft carrier
  • First aircraft carrier launched attack
  • First entirely airborne sea battle (British carrier based aircraft versus German port based seaplanes)
  • Although extreme care was taken avoid civilian casualties, also the first unintended civilian casualties of a bombing raid

But Gardiner does not avoid the past or the present in his so very well written book. He fully explains the birth of the world’s first air force (ultimately becoming the Royal Air Force) coming into being to counter the Zeppelin threat from Germany during World War I, as well as how Imperial Germany failed to make the threat a reality at the expense of enhancing their submarine menace. He also, through writing of the personalities involved, illustrates how the Royal Navy foresaw the offensive advantages of the airplane whereas the Royal Army was somewhat myopic in those regards. His strategic understanding of the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet as well as Imperial Germany’s surface fleet is enlightening. His pilot-level perspective also does not disappoint as he defines their intrepidness and what must have seemed disregard of their aircraft frailties as well as severe navigational challenges. His description of how pilots flew aircraft powered by Gnome rotary engines alone has the reader either in complete amazement of these airmen or complete bewilderment.

Happily, this book also addresses in detail the Zeppelin designs, combat history, strategic uses as well as misuses — and Gardiner writes with the same knowledge and verve as he does with the flatpack bombers. Reading about the exploits of Noel Pemberton Billing reminds the reader of “Indiana Jones” with the exception that Pemberton Billing is nonfiction!

Gardiner’s book is also useful as an aspiration of how to explain research and overview with energy, clarity and understanding. But most of all read this book for the trials, failure and pathfinding of these legacy airmen (Gardiner’s term and well ascribed) as well as what he underscores about them, “…morale, courage, endurance and human ingenuity mean everything.”


The Legacy Airmen

Charles Collet Reggie Marix Eugene Gerrard
Spenser Grey John Babington Sidney Sippe
Edward Briggs Robert Ross Arnold Miley
Francis Hewlett Charles Edmonds Vivian Blackburn & James Bell
Douglas Oliver & Gilbert Budds Cecil Kilner & Erskine Childers
2 Comments leave one →
  1. Warren J. Brown, M.D. permalink
    16 August 2014 14:19

    The book is “English style” with their mannerisms “ol boy”….slow beginning that builds up to worthwhile reading…the book is tight physically to read as it is glued too closely together.

    • travelforaircraft permalink
      18 August 2014 17:08

      I agree with your observations though I didn’t arrive at the same conclusion. The book is on the compact side and seems, to me anyway, to be a hallmark of the publisher (Pen & Sword). Thanks for teh clarity of you opinion — it was a pleasure to read. Joe

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