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‘Combat Biplanes of World War 2’ – Peter C. Smith, Pen and Sword Books, Barnsley, ISBN-1783400854

Another definitive subject matter study, written by an expert and published by Pen & Sword.

The pace of aircraft development up to, say 1990, generally was nothing short of phenomenal, but even so, there were phases when there were particularly rapid leaps forward. The decade of the 1930s, as this book proves, was one of those. In the first half of this decade, the state of the fighter art was the radial-engined open-cockpit biplane, lightly-armed with, say a pair of machine guns with fixed undercarriage, but by the end, the liquid-cooled, enclosed-cockpit monoplane with retractable undercarriage, armed with many more machine guns as well as cannon, was king.

Nevertheless, the biplanes were still available and thrown into the fray as a measure of desperation. Smith deals with each type in turn. As we are dealing with obsolete aircraft in combat, there are, of course, two particularly insightful chapters on the much-loved Fairey Swordfish and the much-reviled Fairey Albacore. The saga of these 2 types summarises all the British folly of the inter-war years. At the end of the First World War, the Royal Naval Air Service had a commanding lead in naval aviation technology, which was rapidly squandered during the in-fighting of the ‘locust years.’ The malign influence of Churchill’s ‘Ten Year Rule’ (that arbitrarily stated that any threat would have a ten-year lead time, therefore as no threat was evident, huge cuts could be made) within the RAF was felt most strongly in Coastal Command and carrier-based aviation. Lack of high-level sponsorship or meaningful budgets meant that cheap ‘maids of all work’ were the focus of design efforts. The idea of combined ‘Torpedo Spotter Reconnaissance’ aircraft led to, frankly, second-rate aircraft such as the Swordfish, whose equivalents elsewhere included the monoplane, enclosed-cockpit, retractable undercarriage Douglas Dauntless or Vultee Vengeance. Acceptance of a second-rate aircraft then led on to acceptance of its third-rate successor, the Albacore. Given that this was developed at the same time as the Grumman Avenger, and that the Albacore’s only concession to modernity was an enclosed cockpit, the next step in this saga almost beggars belief. The Albacore lacked even the agility of its predecessor, and so was far more vulnerable to enemy action, and so many units that had traded in the Swordfish for the Albacore got their Swordfish back until a better aircraft could be found!

With biplane fighters such as the Fiat CR.42 or Gloster Gladiator, there was a sentimental attachment to these designs as well; superbly agile, some with comparatively recent combat experience over Spain or in the Sino-Japanese war, one can imagine heated arguments in messes as to the relative merits of monoplanes and biplanes, and the advantages of the latter. At this time of transition, liquid-cooled engines were also complex and unreliable beasts, and radial-engined biplanes were far more able to deal with rugged or austere conditions, driving better export sales. Of course, the key discussion would not have been how a Polikarpov I-15 could outperform a Heinkel 50 or Fiat CR.42. It would have been how any of these performers could take on the new breed of monoplanes such as the Curtiss P-36 OR Messerschmitt Bf.109, and it would take bitter experience, and men’s lives, to prove how wide the gap between these generations of fighters had grown.

In many cases, these obsolete aircraft were shunted off to secondary duties in secondary theatres of war. For the Fleet Air Arm, ‘secondary’ became just a matter of perception when they found their Swordfish and Albacore aircraft ranged against the Mitsubishi Zero. Elsewhere, as Smith makes clear, pilots were compelled to fly these aircraft in primary theatres. The Soviet Air Force and Navy fielded the Polikarpov I-15 and I-153 against Bf.109s and FW.190s during and after Operation BARBAROSSA. Despite a track record of genuine innovation in the early 1930s, Stalin’s purges had decapitated both the military command and various design bureaux, and obsolete aircraft flowed off the production lines until more capable aircraft could be lend-leased or designed and built.

An authoritative and thought-provoking read with lessons for the present. By going for proven, commercial off the shelf purchases today, are we committing our forces a decade hence to fighting in obsolete equipment? The reviewer had always felt, for example, that a buy of F-18 Hornets would have been preferable to the endless F-35 carousel until this book showed the alternative risks.

4/5 anchors. The 5th would have been in the bag if there had been more pictures and three-views. The reviewer has always had problems telling his Hawker Audaxes apart from his Hawker Hinds, and more imagery would help to embed the detail.