The Aero Club Which Never Was: Gentlemanly Aeronauts versus The New Breed

The Aero Club Which Never Was: Gentlemanly Aeronauts versus The New Breed

By Dr Michele Haapamaki

The accepted anecdote is that the Aero Club of Great Britain was imagined during a hot air balloon outing over the lush countryside of Kent in 1901. Its instigators were Frank Hedges Butler, officially a partner in his family wine merchant business but more of a gentleman adventurer, his daughter Vera Butler, and the young Hon. Charles Rolls – who would lend his name to the famous automotive company and become one of the first licensed pilots in Britain. The organisation they founded would serve as a sort of gentleman’s club for aviators and gained the patronage of the King in 1910 – thereafter referred to as the Royal Aero Club.

Besides establishing some of the first training fields for flyers, the Aero Club was the sole body tasked with granting pilot’s licenses prior to the First World War. All the men who would join the newly formed Royal Flying Corps or naval flight units first obtained this qualification at their own expense. In the postwar years, the Club was the political and social centre of British flying, hosting annual dinners for the winner of the King’s Cup Air Race. The heydey of the Aero Club is now identified with the apex of British aerial achievement in the interwar years. The early Club, however, invested little energy promoting new technical or scientific developments in the direction of heavier-than-air flight, instead of fulfilling its initial brief as a leisure and sport-oriented ballooning for gentleman amateurs. Hedges Butler seemed preoccupied with rural ballooning competitions and his hobby-horse idea of a volunteer Army Balloon Corps, which initially gained half-hearted endorsement by the War Office but was scuttled prior to the First World War.

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The Wright brothers aircraft at Farnborough being inspected by a small group of soldiers, c. 1910. (Source:  © IWM (RAE-O 615))

A little-known controversy over the Aero Club and a rival club which was never formed is a fascinating way to access larger questions about the development of heavier-than-air flight in early British aviation. Aviation historians will be familiar with the debate over whether ‘official’ Britain – be it government or quasi-official institutions – exhibited a characteristic, haphazard approach to the development of national aviation. Critics, both contemporary and historical, have argued that this lassitude allowed British ‘wings’ to fall behind other nations. Among other shortcomings, the British government may have been amateur in efforts to contact the Wright Brothers or probe their technology.[1] Hugh Driver, in his detailed history of early British military aviation, argued that the lengthy emphasis on ballooning by the Aero Club had ‘a material effect on the development of aviation generally’.[2]

Prior to the inception of the Hedges Butler Club, motor engineer and founder of the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland, Frederick Simms, was the first to distribute a prospectus for an aeronautical club based on the existing French model. Its primary goal was directed towards the pursuit of heavier-than-air flight and in support of inventors. (Though it should be noted that at the time the French Aero Club also had an early emphasis on ballooning and dirigibles.) Simms was also a successful businessman who acquired rights to the UK manufacture of the internal combustion engine. He founded several eponymous companies, developing the magneto spark plug. As outlined by Driver, ‘Simms had the prior claim to found an aero club as such’.[3] Not only was he the founder of the Automobile Club in 1897, but he was also interested in heavier-than-air flying machines as early as 1896 – cooperating with Hiram Maxim’s attempt to build a steam-driven aeroplane.

His proposed group – the ‘Aero Club of Great Britain and Ireland’ – was intended as a spur to the development of ‘aerial navigation’. With characteristic enthusiasm, he claimed:

I am convinced that it only wants a Club or Society on modern lines to bring together the many British enthusiasts [to solve] this great problem.[4]

The Aeronautical Society, in existence since 1866, would have seemed – at least in theory – to fit the bill. However, it too was established as a ballooning Society and was in a somewhat moribund state at the turn of the century. At the time of Simms prospectus there indeed was a perceivable gap in organised enthusiasm for flight. After several acrimonious exchanges, Simms’ idea lost out to rival Aero Club. Simms and Hedges Butler were probably already acquainted, the latter having been appointed an honorary treasurer of the Automobile Club in 1898. It is therefore doubly unfortunate that the acrimony over the Club remained unresolved.

Class identity was one of the most salient characteristics of the Aero Club. In short, the emphasis was understood to be on the ‘club’ aspect of the name. It consciously modelled itself on the gentleman’s clubs of Pall Mall and St. James and acquired grand premises to match. Stanley Spencer, the aeronaut who piloted the three founders on the balloon outing when they conceived of the Club, was barred from membership due to his status as a ‘professional’. Many engineers, such as Simms, did not adapt readily to the image of an Aero Club man. He was an uneasy attendee at the first meeting of the Club on 3 December 1901 and was not placed on either the Organising or Balloon committees. The hierarchy and direction of the club were firmly established, ensuring that Simms was effectively sidelined from the new organisation, with the result that his prodigious energy (and those of like-minded men) for aeroplane flight was not utilised. To add insult to injury, Simms was asked for a £10 contribution to a balloon fund which he, understandably, refused.

Minutes of early Aero Club meetings, indeed, provide little indication of interests beyond ballooning. A certain Mr A. Verdon Roe was elected to membership in 1906, only for the name to be soon withdrawn. The Club did institute a ‘Technical Committee’ later that year with Charles Rolls, Simms, and John Moore-Brabazon as members. The latter was to become one of the best-known among the early generation of British aviators, though he learned more from time spent in Paris among French pioneers.

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British Army Aircraft I during the first sustained flight. Cody began building the British Army Aircraft I in 1907 with the design similar to the kites and glider that he had successfully flown. Cody made the first sustained flight (lasting 27 seconds and for a distance of around 1390 feet) on the 16th October 1908. (Source: © IWM (RAE-O 995))

It is, however, one thing to make observations about the Aero Club and its early focus and yet another to conclude that they had any substantial impact on the larger course of British aircraft pioneering. There are substantial points to be made for a counterview. David Edgerton is well-known for his consistently presented case that the British aeronautical industry was thriving and well-supported in the Edwardian years and prior to the First World War.[5] Some evidence for this is the fact that the first flight on British soil, by the flamboyant American showman Samuel Cody, was in an army aircraft produced by the Balloon Factory at Farnborough.

Others have suggested that British aviation needed to take its own course in its own time, and in fact benefited from a lack of meddling from ‘boosters’ of different varieties. For the most part, no amount of progress was ever enough for some aviation buffs who tended to be of strong and unmoderated feeling; it could be argued that the hand-wringing was merely that. Aviation journalists, such as C.G. Grey of The Aeroplane, traded on histrionics over the fate of the British nation due to some aerial oversight or another by both government and, on occasion, private industry.

There is also the view that there was little of concrete import that an Aero Club could have produced in the pursuit of heavier-than-air flight in the early 1900s. Indeed, when it did become a reality on European soil with the 1908 demonstrations of the Wright brothers at Le Mans, France, the Club soon pursued these capabilities. They established one of the first aerodromes at the Isle of Sheppey, near the mouth of the Thames, and partnered with the Short Brothers – who brought characteristic British inventiveness to the manufacture and testing of new aircraft.

One conclusion we may reach is that discussion about the omissions of the organisations such as the Aero Club, both then and now, suffice to highlight the level of anxiety within British aviation circles – whether the basis for these worries was real or imagined. Was it inevitable that any such Club conceived during the Edwardian years would be (at least initially) unimaginative, snobbish, and genteel? Perhaps so. The episode of the duelling Clubs does provide an illuminating insight into the early world of British aviation, which the self-taught engineers and inventors were just on the cusp of breaking into. Those of the Hedges Butler ilk would soon be superseded by a new aviation elite which was, while not entirely a meritocracy, certainly closer to it than the sporting aeronauts would have imagined.

Header Image: A close-up of Cody in the cockpit of Cody aircraft mark IB. The cloth seat as opposed to a plough seat along with the control that Cody is moving differentiate this from the other marks of aircraft that Cody built. According to the caption, this was the aircraft that Cody intended to fly from London to Manchester in. Due to a mechanic failing to close a tap between the sump and the freshly filled oil tank the engine ceased up after fifteen minutes of flight. Fortunately, Cody was able to land safely. Shortly afterwards this aircraft was scrapped and Cody started work on a new one. (Source: © IWM (RAE-O 1075))

[1] See; Alfred Gollin, No Longer an Island: Britain and the Wright Brothers, 1902-1909 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1984) and The Impact of Air Power on the British People and their Government, 1909-14 (London: Macmillan Press, 1989)

[2] Hugh Driver, The Birth of Military Aviation: Britain, 1903-1914 (Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1997), p. 32.

[3] Ibid, p. 33.

[4] Ibid.

[5] David Edgerton, England and the Aeroplane: An Essay on a Militant and Technological Nation (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1991).

Air Power and the Battle of the Bismarck Sea

Air Power and the Battle of the Bismarck Sea

By Alan Stephens

This week marks the 74th anniversary of the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, arguably the most significant action fought by Australians during World War II.

Between December 1941 and April 1942, Imperial Japanese forces shocked Australians with their victories over the United States at Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines; and over the British Commonwealth in Malaya, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies and Rabaul. When enemy forces occupied northern New Guinea, an invasion of Australia, with its unthinkable consequences, seemed possible. However, supported by their American and British allies, Australia’s servicemen and women regrouped and fought back.

From mid-1942 onwards, Australian victories with American support at Milne Bay and Kokoda, and the triumph of American naval air power at Coral Sea and Midway weakened Japan’s hold on New Guinea. Further Allied successes on New Guinea’s northeast coast at Buna, Gona and Sanananda between November 1942 and January 1943 left the Japanese position substantially weakened.

Then, intercepted radio messages revealed that an enemy convoy would sail from Rabaul with reinforcements for the vital Japanese garrison at Lae on the northeast coast of New Guinea in late-February. This was likely to be Japan’s last throw of the dice in New Guinea. If the convoy were stopped, then so too would be the likelihood of an invasion of Australia

Allied Air Forces under the command of the American General George Kenney immediately began preparing for an all-out assault against the convoy. A critical factor was the brilliant plan largely conceived by the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) Group Captain William “Bull” Garing. Garing had already fought in Europe for two years with the RAAF’s No. 10 Squadron, and his experience of maritime warfare was to prove decisive.

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Group Captain Garing RAAF (standing, right) hands over information to his successor Group Captain McLachlan, seated at the office desk, c. 1943. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

It was Garing who convinced General Kenney of the need for a massive, coordinated attack. Garing envisaged large numbers of aircraft striking the convoy from different directions and altitudes, with precise timing.

Initially, the allies would rely on reconnaissance aircraft to detect the convoy, which would then be attacked by long-range United States Army Air Force (USAAF) bombers. Once the convoy was within range of the allies’ potent anti-shipping aircraft – RAAF Beaufighters, Bostons and Beauforts, and American Mitchells and Bostons – a coordinated attack would be mounted from medium, low, and very low altitudes.

During the waiting period, crews practised their navigation and honed their formation flying, bombing, and gunnery skills.

Six thousand four hundred Japanese troops embarked at Rabaul between 23 and 27 February 1943, and the convoy of eight merchant ships and eight destroyers sailed just before midnight on the 28th, planning to arrive at Lae on 3 March. Air cover was provided by about 100 fighters flying out of bases in New Ireland, New Britain and New Guinea.

The enemy convoy initially was favoured by poor weather, which hampered Allied reconnaissance. It was not until mid-morning on 2 March that USAAF B-24 Liberators sighted the ships. General Kenney immediately launched eight B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers, followed shortly afterwards by another 20. The B-17s attacked from an altitude of 2000 metres with 450-kilogram demolition bombs. Later in the day, another strike was made by 11 B-17s whose crews reported that vessels were ‘burning and exploding […] smoking and burning amidships’ and ‘left sinking’.

By nightfall, the enemy was only hours from Lae, which meant that in the morning it would be within range of the entire allied strike force. If the coordinated attack were to succeed, the precise location of the convoy had to be known at daybreak; consequently, throughout the night, it was tracked by an RAAF Catalina from No. 11 Squadron, which occasionally dropped bombs and flares to keep the Japanese soldiers in a state of anxiety. Also during the night, eight RAAF Beaufort torpedo bombers from No. 100 Squadron took-off from Milne Bay to try to use the darkness to their advantage. The heavy frontal weather made navigation hazardous, and only two aircraft found the convoy. Neither scored a hit.

The moment the Allied Air Forces had been waiting for came on the morning of 3 March 1943, when the Japanese convoy rounded the Huon Peninsula. For much of the time the adverse weather had helped the enemy avoid detection, but now clear conditions favoured the allies. Over 90 aircraft took-off from Port Moresby and set heading for their rendezvous point. While the strike force was en route, RAAF Bostons from No. 22 Squadron bombed the enemy airfield at Lae.

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By 9:30 a.m. the AAF formations had assembled, and by 10:00 a.m. the Battle of the Bismarck Sea had begun.

The allies attacked in three waves and from three levels, only seconds apart. First, 13 USAAF B-17s bombed from medium altitude. In addition to the obvious objective of sinking ships, those attacks were intended to disperse the convoy by forcing vessels to break station to avoid being hit.

Second, 13 RAAF Beaufighters from No. 30 Squadron hit the enemy from very low level, lining up on their targets as the bombs from the B-17s were exploding. With four cannons in its nose and six machine guns in its wings, the Beaufighter was the most heavily armed fighter in the world. The Australians’ job was twofold: to suppress anti-aircraft fire, and to kill ships’ captains and officers on their bridges.

The Beaufighters initially approached at 150 metres above the sea in line astern formation. The pilots then descended even lower, to mast-level height, set full power on their engines, changed into line abreast formation, and approached their targets at 420 kilometres an hour.

It seems that some of the Japanese captains thought the Beaufighters were going to make a torpedo attack because they altered course to meet the Australians head-on, to present a smaller profile. Instead, they made themselves better targets for strafing. With a slight alteration of heading the Beaufighters were now in an ideal position to rake the ships from bow to stern, which they did, subjecting the enemy to a withering storm of cannon and machine gun fire.

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 A Japanese transport on fire during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

According to the official RAAF release:

[e]nemy crews were slain beside their guns, deck cargo burst into flame, superstructures toppled and burned.

With the convoy now dispersed and in disarray, the third wave of attackers was able to concentrate on sinking ships. Thirteen American B-25 Mitchells made a medium level bombing strike while, simultaneously, a mast-level attack was made by 12 specially modified Mitchells, known as ‘commerce destroyers’ because of their heavy armament. The commerce destroyers were devastating, claiming seventeen direct hits. Close behind the Mitchells, USAAF Bostons added more firepower.

Following the coordinated onslaught, Beaufighters, Mitchells and Bostons intermingled as they swept back and forth over the convoy, strafing and bombing. Within minutes of the opening shots, the battle had turned into a rout. At the end of the action:

[s]hips were listing and sinking, their superstructure smashed and blazing, and great clouds of dense black smoke [rose] into a sky where aircraft circled and dived over the confusion they had wrought among what, less than an hour earlier, had been an impressively orderly convoy.

Overhead the surface battle, 28 USAAF P-38 Lightning fighters provided air defence for the strike force. In their combat with the Zeros which were attempting to protect the convoy, three of the Lightnings were shot down, but in turn, the American pilots claimed 20 kills. Apart from those three P-38s, the only other allied aircraft lost was a single B-17, shot down by a Zero.

With their armament expended the allied aircraft returned to Port Moresby. However, there was to be no respite for the enemy. Throughout the afternoon the attacks continued. Again, B-17s struck from medium level, this time in cooperation with Mitchells and RAAF Bostons flying at very low level. (Incidentally, the Bostons were led by Squadron Leader Charles Learmonth, after whom the RAAF’s present-day base in north-west Australia is named.) At least 20 direct hits were claimed against the by-now devastated convoy.

That was the last of the coordinated attacks. The victory had been won. For the loss of a handful of aircraft, the Allied Air Forces had sunk twelve ships – all eight of the troop transports and four of the eight destroyers – and had killed more than 3,000 enemy soldiers.

The brilliantly conceived and executed operation had smashed Japanese hopes of regaining the initiative in New Guinea and had eliminated any possibility that Australia might be invaded. In the words of the supreme command of the Southwest Pacific Area, General Douglas MacArthur, the Battle of the Bismarck Sea was ‘the decisive aerial engagement’ of the war in the Southwest Pacific.

However, there was still a terrible yet essential finale to come. For several days after the battle, Allied aircrews patrolled the Huon Gulf, searching for and strafing barges and rafts crowded with survivors. It was grim and bloody work, but as one RAAF Beaufighter pilot said, every enemy soldier they prevented from getting ashore was one less for their Army colleagues to face. Moreover, after fifteen months of Japanese brutality, the great immorality, it seemed to them, would have been to have ignored the rights of their soldiers.

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A Japanese destroyer steaming astern while under attack by USAAF bombers during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

Japanese media never mentioned the battle, but in a macabre footnote, two weeks later, Tokyo announced that in future all Japanese soldiers were to be taught to swim.

The Battle of the Bismarck Sea was a master-class in air power. The RAAF and the USAAF had smashed Japanese hopes of regaining the initiative in New Guinea; they had forced the enemy into a defensive posture from which ultimate victory was unlikely, and they had eliminated any possibility that Australia might be invaded.

This was arguably Australia’s most important victory in World War II.

This post first appeared at The Central Blue, the blog of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation.

Header Image: During the Battle of the Bismarck Sea in which the Japanese suffered heavy losses while attempting to reinforce their garrison at Lae, a RAAF Beaufighter attacks a camouflaged Japanese transport. A burst is poured into the burning vessel. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

From Balloons to Drones – Top Posts of 2016

From Balloons to Drones – Top Posts of 2016

By Ross Mahoney

Happy New Year!

Now we have reached 2017, and that From Balloons to Drones has been up and running for around six months, it thought it would be worth posting our top five posts of 2016 based on views.

  1. At the head of the list is ‘Supporting the Secret War: T-28s over Laos, 1964-1973 – Part 1: Training.’ This is the first of a three-part article by Jeff Schultz that examines the use of the North American T-28 during the war in Laos in the 1970s. Parts two and three can be found here and here.
  2. In second place is my research note on ‘Air Power and the Challenge of Professional Military Education’ that was based on my thoughts on an excellent conference at the Royal Military College of Canada in November. An important subject that I hope to return to in 2017.
  3. In third is Brian Laslie’s commentary, ‘TheF-35 is here!’, which deals with some of the issues surrounding this program and the important role that training will play in developing the aircraft’s use.
  4. In fourth, and timed in conjunction with the types eventually retirement for the United States Air Force, Mike Hankins provided a timely discussion of the development of the McDonnell F-4 Phantom II in his piece ‘Remembering the F-4 Phantom – Part 1: A Product of Its Time.’ The second part of this article can be found here.
  5. Finally, but no means last, Alex Fitzgerald-Black’s research note ‘Operation HUSKY’s Air Battle by the Numbers’ provided a useful discussion of the importance of the air battles fought during the invasion of Sicily in 1943.

These are just a selection of the highlights of our half year in existence. We are keen to expand our list of contributors and if you are interested in writing about air power issues – both historical and contemporary – then you can find out how here. If you have any questions then please leave a comments here or emails us at airpowerstudies@gmail.com.

Header Image: A row of T-28s in Laos. (Source: USAF)

Supporting the Secret War: T-28s over Laos, 1964-1973 – Part 2: Attack Role

Supporting the Secret War: T-28s over Laos, 1964-1973 – Part 2: Attack Role

By Jeff Schultz

Editor’s Note: In the second of a three-part series, Jeff Schultz examines the use of the North American T-28 Trojan during the so-called Secret War in Laos during the Vietnam War. In this part, Schultz examines the aircraft’s attack role. Part One can be found here.

Perhaps the most important mission performed by T-28s was in the attack role, dropping ordnance and strafing ground targets, which was the most commonly performed mission in Laos by T-28s. The armed trainers were flown by some different operators carrying a broad range of ordnance on multiple bomb racks such as .50cal gun pods, unguided bombs and rockets, napalm and/or cluster bomb units.[1] The cluster bomblets would fall in a series and per a former pilot could be devastating to troops in the open.[2]

In 1963, former Thai pilot Chert Saibory, now flying for the RLAF, defected to North Vietnam, his T-28 later returned to service for the VPAF as its first fighter plane, which per one source, nearly shot down a Nationalist Chinese C-123 during a night attack mission in 1965.[3] An early example of the attack role of T-28s came from June 1964, when the first US Navy aviator was shot down over Laos. Lieutenant Charles Klusmann was on a ‘Yankee Team’ RF-8 reconnaissance mission when Pathet Lao ground fire hit his plane.[4] During nearly three months of captivity, while being transported at one point to Vientiane via truck, the column was ‘halted by intense air raids by jet aircraft and T-28s,’ per his POW debriefing.[5] T-28s also flew in support of search attempts following Klusmann’s shoot down.[6]

In 1964 not only Air America pilots (forming the so-called ‘A-Team’), but also Thai volunteer pilots flew T-28s (as ‘B-Team’) and the Laotians as ‘C-Team’ which, would be much easier to explain than downed Americans.[7] The Thai ‘B-Team’ pilots flew missions under the call sign ‘Firefly’ and conducted attacks on the crucial Plain of Jars (French: Plaine des Jarres) region in north central Laos, knocking out two enemy trucks in one particular mission.[8] In June 1964 the CIA evaluated the T-28s as probably having more effect on enemy morale than otherwise, owing to the lack of RLG (Royal Lao Government) forces supporting them.[9] RLAF T-28s also flew the first missions against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in October 1964, which acted as the unofficial beginning of the later American attacks against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in December, known as BARREL ROLL.[10] Laos often featured very heavy AAA, another hazard to the T-28s, as Ted Maudlin, a former Air America pilot, related in an interview.[11] From 1964 to 1969 the RLAF flew occasional missions against targets in the Laotian panhandle, but eventually AAA became too heavy for daylight attacks.[12]

As a witness to T-28 missions in Laos, Reginald Hathorn flew with the American 23rd Tactical Air Support Squadron out of Nakhon Phanom, Thailand and coordinated air strikes in Laos as a Forward Air Controller (FAC). He provided an account of the role of RLAF T-28s in a strike mission in support of a Laotian Army base then under mortar fire from the Pathet Lao in 1968. After Hathorn had marked the intended target with unguided white phosphorus rockets, the accompanying T-28s dropped their ordnance accurately. He pointed out he could never be sure who was flying the RLAF T-28s they worked with, until this time an American voice came over the radio in contrast to the Lao or Thai pilots.[13]

Captain George Marrett, who flew USAF A-1 Skyraiders from 1968-69, summarised the war in Laos as follows:

All the ground fighting – and dying – was done by a group of mountain people known as the Hmong. Early in the war, they provided much of their air support, flying mission after mission until they died.[14]

Among the T-28 pilots produced in the American-led Water Pump training course at Udorn, Thailand were several standouts: Ly Lue and Vang Sue. According to one source, Ly Lue could be called the ‘Hans-Ulrich Rudel of the Laotian war’ about his effective bombing exploits, flying over 5,000 missions.[15] At his funeral in Long Tieng in July 1969, a Distinguished Flying Cross was placed on his casket by Colonel Tyrrell, the USAF Air Attaché for his incredible feats.[16] Vang Sue flew at least 3,000 combat missions in four years.[17] Both of these men went on to great success but like all the Hmong fliers they lived with the unfortunate reminder as fellow pilot Vang Bee recalled, ‘Hmong pilot have no limit to missions, they fly until they die.’[18] Depending on the source consulted, about 20 of the 37 total Hmong pilots survived the fighting.[19] An American who served with the Hmong called them, ‘some of the finest pilots in this world.’[20]

In 1969, during the early days of Vietnamization, Kissinger sent a memo to President Nixon advocating, among other things, more T-28s for the RLAF since he intended for them to be supported but without being able to send more evident help in the form of Thai ground units or B-52 strikes. The reliable T-28 remained the simplest way to support our ally given the existing rules of engagement.[21] In 1969, RLAF T-28s knocked out a former ad hoc guerrilla weather station captured by the enemy using bombs and napalm.[22] As an indication of the T-28 contribution in the attack role, from November to December 1969 alone Thai, Lao and Hmong pilots flew an impressive 4,629 sorties with an average of only twenty-eight T-28s available on a given day.[23]

By 1970 the Thai T-28 ‘B-Team’ pilots became redundant and were phased out since enough RLAF pilots existed for the task.[24] In 1971, an article in the Milwaukee Sentinel discussed the grim situation in Laos and ominously mentioned the likelihood that the Nixon Doctrine would not protect the small country from North Vietnam with or without more aid, with only two new ‘T-28 propeller driven bombers’ provided to the RLAF per month as replacements.[25]

Eventually, the Plain of Jars suffered so much from air attacks that it became, according to one source, ‘the most intensely bombarded place on the face of the planet’ while Laos itself was eventually hit by 2 million tonnes of bombs.[26] In 1970, John Halliday, an American C-123 “Candlestick” flare-ship pilot, described the situation supporting friendly forces at night near the Plain of Jars region:

Our flares light the area below for…our Laotian allies fighting the Pathet Lao bad guys. The light we provide…is their only security against being overrun in the dark by overwhelming enemy forces.[27]

 The situation in Laos declined during Nixon’s Vietnamization, and as a 1970 Life magazine article pointed out, ‘In the last two years the pendulum of war in Laos has been swinging harder and wider, and each wet-season dry-season offensive has mounted a little higher than before.’[28] In 1971, the NVA attacked Long Tieng and forced the T-28s based there to withdraw, while others arrived to strike at the attackers.[29] In 1972 when USAF General John Vogt, commander of Seventh Air Force, visited the base at Long Tieng he was impressed by the Hmong pilots and ‘awed.’[30] A CIA officer working with the Hmong, James Parker, Jr., described the role of Vang Pao’s pilots in 1972 as follows:

There was no politics involved, no sterile high-tech environment where the converted T-28 trainers from the Second World War were parked. It was honest warring, primitive, a throwback to combat flying in the First World War. The Hmong flyers strapped as many bombs and bullets as they could get on their planes and went out and found North Vietnamese to attack – flight after flight, hour after hour, day after day […] the major part of our close fire support was left to the T-28s.[31]

The steady attrition of Vang Pao’s CIA-backed Hmong army and the slow drawdown of American financial and material support until the 1973 ceasefire, all contributed to the sense that things looked much worse. Since the Pathet Lao and NVA had won in Laos, it was simply a matter of time until the final defeat. In 1973, in one of the coup attempts involving T-28s, after years in exile in Thailand, Laotian General Thao Ma attacked Wattay, near Vientiane, along with other loyal RLAF personnel. Shot down while landing; General Ma was soon after that executed for his part in the coup attempt.[32] Also in 1973, the USAF Ravens withdrew from Laos, which forced Vang Pao to provide his FAC ability via what T-28s were available.[33] By 1974, the CIA withdrew all support, and by 1975, Laos was overrun. Per one source, Vang Pao sent RLAF T-28s on one last attack against a Pathet Lao column even as late as April 1975, just before the collapse.[34] Further south in 1975, the Cambodian Khmer Air Force T-28s flew support for the American withdrawal from Phnom Penh, Operation EAGLE PULL, when only weeks remained for Cambodia.[35]

Header Image: A row of T-28s in Laos. (Source: USAF)

[1] Chinnery, Air Commando, p.73; Ginter, North American T-28 Trojan, pp.54-6.

[2] Interview Notes – Unknown Source – re: Joe Holden, Missions in Vietnam and Laos, ca. October 1998, Folder 01, Box 03, Jan Churchill Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p.8.

[3] Conboy and Morrison, Shadow War, p.103.

[4] Anthony and Sexton, War in Northern Laos, 1954-1973, pp.109-10.

[5] Initial Debriefing of Klusmann, 02 September 1964, Folder 16, Box 13, George J. Veith Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p.2.

[6] CHECO Report: U.S. Air Force Search and Rescue in Southeast Asia (1961-1966), 24 October 1966, Folder 09, Box 05, Allen Cates Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p.34.

[7] Leeker, Royal Lao Air Force / Raven: North American T-28s, p.1.

[8] Conboy and Morrison, Shadow War, p.110.

[9] Current Intelligence Memorandum: Effectiveness of T-28 Strikes in Laos, 26 June 1964, Folder 14, Box 03, Douglas Pike Collection: Unit 01 – Assessment and Strategy, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, pp.1-2.

[10] Conboy and Morrison, Shadow War: The CIA’s Secret War in Laos, p.121.

[11] Interview with Ted Mauldin, Undated, Ted Mauldin Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, pp.69-70.

[12] CHECO Reports: RLG Military Operations and Activities in the Laotian Panhandle, 01 January 1981, Folder 24, Box 01, Contemporary Historical Examination of Current Operations (CHECO) Reports of Southeast Asia (1961-1975), The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p.27.

[13] Reginald Hathorn, Here There are Tigers: The Secret Air War in Laos, 1968-69 (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008), pp.45-55.

[14] George J. Marrett, Cheating Death: Combat Air Rescues in Vietnam and Laos (New York: Harper Collins, 2006), p.25.

[15] Boyne, ‘The Plain of Jars,’ p.78; Chinnery, Air Commando, p.201.

[16] Jane Hamilton-Merritt, Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942-1992 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), pp.213-5.

[17] News article – ‘Meo Pilots: Flights Against the Odds,’ No Date, Folder 01, Box 01, Tom Matthews Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University.

[18] Interview with Vang Bee, No Date, Vang Bee Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p.11.

[19] Danya Hernandez, ‘Hmong Pilots Saluted in Maplewood,’ TwinCities.com Pioneer Press, June 15, 2012.

[20] Interview with Ronald Happersette Lutz, Jr., 05 November 2002, Ronald Happersette (Hap) Lutz, Jr. Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p.49.

[21]Document 112 – Memorandum from the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon, Sep 2, 1969,’ in Edward C. Keefer and Carolyn Yee (eds.), Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, Volume VI, Vietnam, January 1969–July 1970 (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 2006).

[22] Bernard C. Nalty, The War against Trucks: Aerial Interdiction in Southern Laos 1968-1972, (Washington D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 2005), p.32.

[23] Anthony and Sexton, War in Northern Laos, 1954-1973, p.322.

[24] Conboy and Morrison, Shadow War: The CIA’s Secret War in Laos, p.264.

[25] Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, ‘US Aid Cut, Laos at Hanoi’s Mercy,’ Milwaukee Sentinel, September 29, 1971.

[26] Kenton Clymer, ‘The War Outside Vietnam: Cambodia and Laos,’ in Andrew Wiest (ed.), Rolling Thunder in a Gentle Land: The Vietnam War Revisited (New York: Osprey Publishing, 2006), p.106; George Herring, American’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2014), p.353.

[27] John T. Halliday, Flying Through Midnight (New York: St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 2005), p.62.

[28] Greenway, ‘The pendulum of war swings wider in Laos,’ pp.32-3.

[29] News Article – ‘Reds Shell Laotian Outpost,’ 17 February 1971, Folder 01, Box 01, Tom Matthews Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University.

[30] Parker, Codename Mule, p.129.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Conboy and Morrison, Shadow War, pp.406-7.

[33] Dommen, The Indochinese Experience of the French and Americans, p.932.

[34] Conboy and Morrison, Shadow War, p.415.

[35] Albert Grandolini, Tom Cooper, and Troung, ‘Cambodia 1954-1999; Part 2.’ ACIG.org.

A Case of Mistaken Identity: Colonel Edgar Stanley Gorrell – Part 3: Postscript

A Case of Mistaken Identity: Colonel Edgar Stanley Gorrell – Part 3: Postscript

By Johannes Allert

The lingering question remains as to why Edgar Gorrell is repeatedly misidentified as a stalwart advocate for strategic bombing. One clue, in particular, involves his analytical work compiled in the First World War entitled ‘The Future Role of American Bombardment Aviation.’ The plan above called for a robust air campaign aimed at German industry designed to break both German production and morale; however, the plan was shelved once Armistice was declared.[1] Withdrawing from the world’s stage, America quickly re-embraced isolationism. Yet, air strategists in their stubborn willfulness remained convinced that subsequent wars required sufficient strategies and weapons designed to mitigate problems associated with trench warfare.[2] Then, in 1935, technology and theory merged with the development of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and the coincidental discovery of Gorrell’s of plans by a fervent disciple of “Billy” Mitchell – Lieutenant Laurence S. Kuter, later a General. This serendipitous moment reinforced his existing argument for strategic bombing in lectures he conducted at Maxwell Army Air Base. Believing strategy and technology could transition from theory to reality, the impressionable young Lieutenant arranged a meeting with its author to verify the data. Upon arrival, Kuter was surprised to discover Gorrell invited former members of his staff to corroborate the information. To a man, each concurred that the Lieutenant’s lecture matched the original plans. Vindicated, Kuter departed for Maxwell confidently stating:

We may return to our steel desks considerably refreshed by the knowledge that our school plans and our theories are not only supported by, but [are] identical with the plans of the level headed commanders in the field when the grim realities of actual war demanded effective employment.[3]

raid_by_the_8th_air_force
A Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress during the raid on the Focke Wulf plant at Marienburg, 9 October 1943. (Source: NARA)

Overlooked in the young Lieutenant’s statement, was the slight detail involving ‘employment of effective plans’ that, in reality never occurred. Furthermore, aircrews did not fly steel desks and the advent of the Second World War revealed a savage reality of aerial combat consisting of unexpected headwinds, radio interference, dispersed targets obscured by cloud cover, and skies filled with flak and fighters. Only the arrival in late 1944 of long range Allied fighter escort in substantial numbers alleviated the bomber’s plight. Kuter simply made a mistake common to us all – he saw what he wanted to see. Gorrell and his staff merely reinforced it.

Thus, the combination of events served as the catalyst for initiating a narrow and ideologically driven agenda. History, however, reveals Gorrell’s penchant for tackling any project assigned to him by meticulous analysis and hard work. Consequently, his recognition of aviation’s vast potential resulted in expansion and development of airlift capability that far surpassed his ‘significant achievement’ of 1918. It is also interesting to note that while analysis of his bombing study receives frequent coverage, his ‘Gorrell Histories’ remains virtually untouched. This is ironic given the fact that its intended purpose was to ‘assist in establishing Army aeronautics on a sound basis for the future.’[4] Furthermore, the manner that Gorrell’s obituary was written indicates Kuter, another West Point alum, as partly responsible for crafting the legacy of the late air executive to reinforce the ‘bomber mafia’ narrative. Gorrell’s ‘mistaken identity’ simply coincided with the leading aviation proponents’ narrative. Consequently, his death combined with strategic bombing’s overwhelming consensus sufficiently prohibited others from offering a counter-narrative.

Yet, it is the development and expansion of air transportation that endures. The ability to transport and sustain forces globally on a consistent basis in peace and war for over seventy years remains an underappreciated, yet unique and critical feature of the modern U.S. Military arsenal. Whether it is airlift’s support in battle or providing humanitarian aid in peacetime, success simply cannot occur without it. Gorrell recognised this early on and, in keeping with his philosophy of constant analysis, laboured ceaselessly to improve and expand it.

Similarly, it is the task of the historian to revive and revise Gorrell’s story and contribution. Unlike proponents of strategic precision bombing, historians must instead consider the broader actions and provide a greater contextual understanding of events and individuals of human history.

Part One and Two of this article can be found here and here.

Header Image: A Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Mark Clodfelter, Beneficial Bombing: The Progressive Foundations of American Air Power, 1917-1945 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), pp.22-9.

[2] James P. Tate, The Army and its Air Corps: Army Policy toward Aviation: 1919-1941 (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1998), pp.166-7.

[3] Clodfelter, Beneficial Bombing, pp.58-9.

[4] Edgar S. Gorrell, Gorrell’s History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service, 1917-19 Record Group 120 (National Archives, Washington, D.C. 1923), pp.1-4.

A Case of Mistaken Identity: Colonel Edgar Stanley Gorrell – Part 2: The Emerging Role of Civil Aviation in Air Transport

A Case of Mistaken Identity: Colonel Edgar Stanley Gorrell – Part 2: The Emerging Role of Civil Aviation in Air Transport

By Johannes Allert

Having achieved the rank of full colonel at age twenty-eight, Gorrell, for reasons unknown, resigned from the Army in 1920 and briefly pursued a career in the automotive industry. By 1934, however, he returned to aviation and served alongside his former Army comrades George C. Marshall and Harold ‘Hap’ Arnold as a member of the newly formed committee known as the Baker Board. Their assignment involved reviewing events surrounding President Franklin Roosevelt’s ill-advised and hasty decision to cancel commercial airmail contracts (a system allegedly deemed rife with corruption), temporarily replacing them with Army aviators ill-equipped and unaccustomed to performing night navigation in inclement weather. The unintended consequence of this action resulted in sixty-six accidents and twelve fatalities.[1] A month-long session of testimony and reports exposed America’s scant support for adequately funding the nation’s fledgeling Army Air Service and revealed the enormous gap existing between military and civil aviation. The stark contrast showed that even at the height of The Great Depression, civil aviation’s assets in equipment, organisation, and talent dwarfed that of the U.S. Army Air Service. Consequently, the board recommended, with Gorrell’s insistence, that future construction of civil airliners include structural modifications for adaptation in military use should the need arise.[2]

In January of 1936, Gorrell was selected as head of the Chicago-based organisation known as the Air Transportation Association of America (ATA). As president, he viewed his mission as twofold. Firstly, to avoid a repeat of the boom and bust cycle experienced by America’s railroad industry of the previous century, Gorrell advocated for the establishment of reasonable and modest regulations compatible with commercial aviation’s development.[3] Secondly, and of equal importance was the grafting of civil aviation with the needs of national defence in times of crisis. He categorically stated that:

Beyond doubt, the scheduled air transport industry has influenced and stimulated many of our other national industries. Our military air force is as dependent on commercial aeronautics as our Navy is upon our Merchant Marine.[4]

This statement more closely aligns with Alfred Thayer Mahan’s concept of naval strategy than anything related to William “Billy” Mitchell’s thoughts involving strategic bombing. Furthermore, unlike Mitchell’s acerbic personality, Gorrell maintained cordial relations with leaders in governmental agencies and commercial industry alike. Affability combined with credibility and insight made him the perfect catalyst for advancing aviation technology.[5] This was evident in his adept response to a proposal from Senator Royal S. Copeland (D-NY) to mobilise the airlines for a two-day exercise during the military’s 1937 summer manoeuvres. The mobilisation plan, based on a preliminary study from 1922 was, in Gorrell’s estimation, an outdated, vague, and ham-fisted approach. Having carefully studied the plans as they related to the exercise, he calmly concluded that should they proceed with the plan in its current form; the cumulative effect would result in a seven-day disruption of the entire airline system and cost the taxpayer approximately $5,000,000. Wisely, the War Department accepted his sage advice and rescinded the order without further argument from the Senator.[6]

C-54
A Douglas C-54 Skymaster of the Military Air Transport Service. Air Transport Command was a precursor to this organisation. (Source: Wikimedia)

Over the next three years, Gorrell assisted by his staff laboured to enhance civil aviation to include navigation aids, aircraft modification, mapping of routes, development of runway aids, and weather stations across the globe for the immediate benefit of commercial aviation and for military use in a war he considered as inevitable.[7]  By the time Germany invaded Poland in the fall of 1939, Gorrell confidently assured General Marshall, now head of the U.S. Army, that the airline industry was readily available to support any contingency.[8] Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Gorrell spelt out in a memo circulated to all airlines dated 20 January 1942 reviewing wartime control, industry coordination, and requests from the military and stressed the need for cooperation.[9] Still, relations between civil aviation and the military were not without incident and in 1943 when it appeared progress was stalled; President Franklin Roosevelt briefly contemplated nationalising the airlines. Fearing the possibility of a permanent government takeover of the industry Gorrell, with the support from the Army’s Chief of the Air Corps General Arnold, met privately with Roosevelt and expressed opposition to nationalising America’s commercial airlines. The two men eventually persuaded the President to maintain the current relationship between civil and military authorities whereby the later enlisted rather than commandeered commercial aviation’s support and as history demonstrates, this proved the better choice.[10]

liberator_express_consolidated_c-87_41-11706_281552059443329
Consolidated C-87 Liberator Express (Source: Wikimedia)

Gorrell realised that necessary ingredient for achieving Allied victory in World War II required logistics that, in turn, required expansion of air transportation on a global scale. This was the very thing the U.S. Army Air Corps lacked. The existing bomber bias so pervasive within its pre-war ranks was nowhere more evident than in the inventory of aircraft that, in 1939 amounted to 1,700 – of these, only seventy-five were designated as transport.[11] Without civil aviation’s support encompassing its equipment, expertise, and facilities, expansion of the United States Army Air Force’s transport system was, at best, problematic. During the early stages of the war, the Army relied almost exclusively upon civil aviation’s assistance in transporting men and equipment to Alaska to blunt the Japanese offensive in the Aleutians.[12] Civilian transport also played a crucial role in assisting with securing vital assets in Latin America deemed necessary for the war effort.[13]  With civil aviation’s assistance, the U.S. military went so far as to commandeer civil aircraft used by Axis powers and press them into military service.[14] By 1945, the Army’s Air Transport Command, with Gorrell’s expertise and support, grew to operate 3,386 aircraft consisting of 41,520 officers, 166,026 enlisted, and further backed up by 23,735 civilian technicians.[15] This organisation was a one of a kind operation that successfully performed global missions utilising civil aircraft modified for military use – namely Consolidated’s C-87 (modified from the B-24 bomber), the Lockheed Constellation (designated C-69) and Douglas DC-4 (designated C-54).[16] By war’s end, strategists recognised the value of airlift operations and therefore incorporated this significant component into all future planning and logistics.[17] Another overlooked feature of Gorrell’s contributions to the growth of American air power was the modification centre concept. The management of ‘Mod Centers’ by various airlines across the United States enabled aircraft manufacturers to concentrate on production without stopping to refit for improvements.[18] Overall, Mod Centers were responsible for readying half of all U.S. military aircraft produced for combat during World War II.[19]  Gorrell’s foresight and hard work culminated in not only the expansion and development of aviation technology but forged a successful partnership between civil and military aviation on a global scale. Unfortunately, Edgar Staley Gorrell did not live to see the fruits of his labour. Without warning, he suffered a heart attack and died in the spring of 1945 at age fifty-four. In accordance with his wishes, his remains were cremated and scattered across the parade ground of his alma mater, West Point.[20]

Part One and Three of this article can be found here and here.

Header Image: Newly delivered USAAF Consolidated C-87-CF Liberator Express transport planes at the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation, Fort Worth, Texas, in October 1942. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] E.R. Johnson, American Military Transport Aircraft Since 1925, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co. 2012), p.3.

[2] Theodore J. Crackle, ‘Roots of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet,’ Air Power History, 45(4) (1998), p.30.

[3] ‘Notable, of course, is the fact that the new (Civil Aeronautics) Act imposes a comprehensive system of economic regulations of air carriers, heretofore lacking, which is, as the Interstate Commerce Commission has said, if anything more comprehensive than that applying to railroads.’ Address delivered by Col. Edgar Gorrell entitled ‘Progress Ratified: Lethargy Rejected’ delivered at ATA’s Experimental Station located in Indianapolis, IN on 29 May 1939. Courtesy of Norwich University Archives & Special Collections  http://library2.norwich.edu/catablog/aviation/gorrell-edgar-s-1891-1945

[4] Edgar Gorrell’s address to the Boston’s Chamber of Conference on Transportation 14 January 1937. Archives & Special Collections  http://library2.norwich.edu/catablog/aviation/gorrell-edgar-s-1891-1945

[5] Crackle, ‘Roots of the civil reserve air fleet,’ p.32.

[6] Ibid. 33-4.

[7] Roger Bilstein, Airlift and Airborne Operations in World War II (Washington DC: Air Force History and Museum Program, 1998), pp.10-1.

[8] Reginald M. Cleveland, Air Transport At War (New York, NY: Harper & Bros. Publishing), pp.17-9.

[9] Ibid, p.19.

[10] Ibid, pp. 1-2.

[11] Bilstein, Airlift and Airborne Operations in World War II, p .3.

[12] Jack El-Hai, Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), pp.91-2.

[13] Crackle, ‘Roots of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet,’ pp.40-1.

[14] Dan Hagedorn, Alae Supra Canalem – Wings Over the Canal: The Sixth Air Force and the Antilles Air Command (Paducah, KY: Turner Publishing, 1995), pp.105-7.

[15] Johnson, American Military Transport Aircraft since 1925, p.7.

[16] Ibid, pp.145-46, 113-14, and 95-7.

[17] Bilstein, Airlift and Airborne Operations in World War II, pp.14-5.

[18] Cleveland, Air Transport at War, pp. 282-83.

[19] Ibid, pp. 282-309.

[20] Mark Clodfelter, Beneficial Bombing: The Progressive Foundations of American Air Power, 1917-1945 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), p.34.

A Case of Mistaken Identity: Colonel Edgar Stanley Gorrell – Part 1: Early Life

A Case of Mistaken Identity: Colonel Edgar Stanley Gorrell – Part 1: Early Life

By Johannes Allert

In the following series of posts, Johannes Allert explores Colonel Edgar Gorrell’s role in co-ordinating US civilian aviation assets in support of military aviation strategy during the Second World War.

I came solely to benefit [American] commercial aviation, to try to keep it supreme in the air, [and] to do what I could for national defense.

Edgar Gorrell speaking before the Senate Committee Investigating Air Safety – January 1936

‘Chicago Banker, Air Transport Head, Dies.’ This headline in the Associated Press dated March 5, 1945, informed the world about the passing of Colonel Edgar Staley Gorrell and indicated that the decedent’s work evolved more around finance than flying.[1]  Later that same year his alma mater at West Point paid homage to his career stating his most notable contribution ‘was his formulation of the plan for strategic air bombardment of Germany’ and further asserted his ideas concerning aerial bombing predated those of Mitchell and Douhet.[2] His brief life, however, encompassed far more than the obituaries or a singular doctrine reveal, yet his legacy quickly faded amidst the Allies’ triumph in the World War II and was further overshadowed by Strategic Air Command’s ascent during the Cold War. With the collapse of the Soviet empire, however, interest in his work reemerged in 1990 with the publication of Marvin Skelton’s article entitled ‘Colonel Gorrell and his nearly forgotten records.’ The author, utilising West Point’s Assembly, reasserts ‘one of his most notable contributions to the development of military aviation was his formulation of the plan for the strategic air bombardment of Germany.’[3] George Williams later countered this assertion arguing Gorrell merely copied theories previously proposed by Major Lord Tiverton and Hugh Trenchard.[4] Rebecca Grant, however, rebuts this notion in her article published in November 2008 and stated Gorrell’s work concerning strategic bombardment was, in fact, the key to allied’ air victory in the Second World War.[5] In actuality, his varied career concentrated on the growth and development of civil aviation yet; historians repeatedly define him as the principle architect responsible for creating the original blueprint designed to target German industry through strategic precision bombing.[6] Further, complicating matters was the fact that, unlike many of his colleagues who frequently engaged in a very public and ideologically driven campaign promoting a bomber-centric doctrine, Gorrell’s preference involved coordination of civil air assets with military airlift operations. As history demonstrates; his results lay in actual achievements that endure today.

Edgar Gorrell’s Early Years

600px-1st_aero_squadron_-_pilots_in_mexico
At field headquarters near Casas Grandes, Mexico, April 1916, dashing airmen Lieutenants Herbert A. Dargue (left), and Edgar S. Gorrell (right) pose with Signal Corps No. 43. (Source: Wikimedia)

Small in stature, yet boundless in energy, Gorrell entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1908. His classmates nicknamed him ‘Nap’ (an abbreviation for Napoleon) and the moniker proved appropriate because, like his namesake, Gorrell was indefatigable. As a young cadet, his interest in aviation blossomed when he witnessed Glen Curtiss complete the final leg of his Albany to New York flight.[7] Briefly serving as an infantry officer, Gorrell quickly transitioned to the Signal Corps and obtained a pilot’s license within its air service section. In 1916, he flew reconnaissance missions in support of General John Pershing’s Punitive Expedition against the elusive Pancho Villa. This marked the first time in American military history where powered flight and ground forces operated jointly. Although the exercise achieved less than expected results, the experience left an indelible impression upon the young aviator.[8] During America’s brief involvement in the First World War, he served under the flamboyant and controversial General William “Billy” Mitchell; however, unlike his superior, Gorrell was short on style and long on substance. While Mitchell sparred with General Benjamin Foulois over control of the America’s emerging Air Service, Gorrell created a detailed and comprehensive air offensive aimed at crippling Germany’s industrial centre. Although hostilities ceased before his plans were implemented, they were later resurrected and used as a template in the Army Air Force’s bombing campaign against Germany in the Second World War.[9]

Following the Armistice, Gorrell further burnished his credentials by chronicling America’s aviation efforts in the Great War as part of the Army’s official history – a project concocted by the general staff as an instructional aide for future wars. However, in a rush to demobilise, many perceived the gathering and analysis of squadron operations as an unnecessary task, yet Gorrell embraced the challenge and delivered a detailed report never published but often referred to as ‘The Gorrell Histories.’[10] He later incorporated aspects of his experiences in the Great War into academic lectures and speeches where he effectively debunked two myths concerning America’s involvement in the First World War. The first pertained to the ‘Billion Dollar Bonfire’ propagated by the media criticising the U.S. military’s disposal procedures of surplus aircraft at war’s end. Countering the charge of carelessness on the part of the Air Service that sent taxpayer’s dollars up in smoke, Gorrell provided a comparative analysis revealing the cost break down and the logic behind the disposal procedure.[11] Secondly, he argued that despite early setbacks associated with coordinating aircraft production congruent with allied war aims, American industry succeeded in supporting the Allied war effort by producing quality tools and equipment including the lighter and more reliable Liberty aircraft engine based upon the British Rolls-Royce design. From this and other experiences in his varied and fruitful career, Gorrell repeatedly maintained that careful planning, preparation, and just plain hard work were fundamental ingredients for success.[12]

In the next part, here, we will explore Gorrell’s role the emerging to role of civil aviation in air transport in the US.

Header Image: A Curtiss JN-3 of the US 1st Aero Squadron during the Mexico Expedition of 1916. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] ‘CHICAGO BANKER, AIR TRANSPORT HEAD, DIES.’ Col. Edgar Staley Gorell. 54. President of Air Transport Association of America and Chicago Investment Banker, died today of a heart condition after a brief illness. Lubbock Morning Avalanche, Tuesday, March 6, 1945, http://newspaperarchive.com, (accessed 6 February 2014), p. 1.

[2] Quoting directly from Assembly ‘One of his most notable contributions to the development of military aviation was his formulation of the plan for the strategic air bombardment of Germany. It is difficult in these days. When huge German and Japanese cities lie in heaps of rubble, to appreciate the daring imagination which conceived that plan in 1917 and 1918. No Douhet or Mitchell had yet preached the modern gospel of air power.’ Gorrell’s obituary is reproduced and available on line. Cullum No. 5049. Mar 5, 1945. Died in Wash DC. Age 54 http://apps.westpointaog.org/Memorials/Article/5049/

[3] Marvin Skelton, ‘Colonel Gorrell and his “nearly forgotten records”’, Over The Front, 5(1) (1990), pp. 56-71.

[4] George K. William, “The Shank of the Drill’: Americans and Strategical Aviation in the Great War,’ Journal of Strategic Studies, 19(3) (1996). pp. 381-431

[5] Rebecca Grant, ‘Airpower Genesis,’ Air Force Magazine, 91(11) (2008), pp. 54-57.

[6] At Strategic Air Command’s zenith, Thomas Greer’s ‘Air Army Doctrinal Roots, 1917-1918’ published in Military Affairs states Gorrell’s plan ‘was a truly striking forerunner of the doctrine which matured years later at the Air Tactical School’ and quotes (then) Major General Laurence Kuter ‘the earliest and least known statement concerning the conception of American airpower.’ Thomas Greer, ‘Air Army Doctrinal Roots, 1917-1918,’ Military Affairs, 20(4) (1956), p. 214.

[7] Mark Clodfelter, Beneficial Bombing: The Progressive Foundations of American Air Power, 1917-1945 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), pp. 7-8.

[8] Skelton, ‘Colonel Gorrell and his “nearly forgotten records”’, p. 56-8.

[9] In James J. Hudson, Hostile Skies: A Combat History of the American Air Service in World War I (Syracuse,: Syracuse University Press, 1968), pp. 54-8, the author chronicles the friction between Mitchell and Foulois. Mitchell arrived in France ahead of his peers and after consulting with various allied air strategists, became the self-declared American authority on air power. Contemptuous of Foulois’ Air Staff, Mitchell frequently referred them as ‘an incompetent lot’ or simply ‘carpetbaggers’ this implies they were newly arrived outsiders out to take credit for his efforts.

[10] Following the Armistice, and order was dispatched to all air units directing each to prepare a history and forward it to the Information Section. However, feedback concerning the order surfaced indicating a lack of enthusiasm for the project since ‘The Z. of A. has no further interest in war. The squadrons have but one idea – getting home. Writing history does not appeal to them.’ Consequently, M.G. Mason Patrick assigned Col. Edgar Gorrell the task of assembling a staff, gathering the information, and submitting a report to include any information that might ‘assist in establishing Army aeronautics on a sound basis for the future which would leave unanswered questions that might be asked concerning the Air Service in Europe.’ Gorrell’s History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service, 1917-19, Record Group 120 (National Archives, Washington, D.C. 1923), pp. 1-4.

[11] Edgar Staley Gorrell, The Measure of America’s World War Aeronautical Effort (Northfield, VT: Norwich University, 1940) pp.73-7.

[12] Gorrell’s commencement address to the Norwich Corps of Cadets on 7 June, 1937 emphasized the concepts of life time learning, empathy, and above all hard work and diligence in problem solving far outweighs the label of genius. ‘Standing on the threshold of a Profession,’ Graduation Address to the Corps of Cadets Norwich University, Northfield, VT. June 7, 1937. Courtesy of Norwich University Archives & Special Collections  http://library2.norwich.edu/catablog/aviation/gorrell-edgar-s-1891-1945