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Posted on Jan 18, 2021 in Armchair Reading, Front Page Features

Airpower Over Gallipoli: 1915-1916.

Airpower Over Gallipoli: 1915-1916.

Ray Garbee

If you asked a random reader about the Gallipoli campaign, they’d likely think of the Australian and New Zealand troops engaged in bitter combat with the Turks, or perhaps the French and British warships that tried to ‘force’ the Dardanelles, only to lose several ships to a Turkish minefield. Rarely would you have thought of how the war was being waged in the skies about those battlefields. There’s been a dearth of coverage of aerial operations in the Dardanelles, with much of what is accessible to be found in historical journals such as Over the Front, or Cross and Cockade International

Dr. Sterling Michael Pavelec aims to change this lack of coverage through his recent book Airpower Over Gallipoli: 1915-1916. The result of decades of research, Dr. Pavelec has created an indispensable reference guide to air operations over Gallipoli. A professional historian working with the military, Dr. Pavelec approaches the subject through the lens of how well the aerial campaign was integrated into both naval and land operations during the campaign. In addition to the raw battlefield performance, Dr. Pavelec explores how well this early example of ‘joint’ warfighting worked, how aviation performed as a reconnaissance tool, as well as the how the limits posed both by technology and tactical mindsets of the participants influenced operations.

Airpower Over Gallipoli begins with a short summary of the state of aviation in the lead up to the war. It’s an excellent starting point as it reminds the reader of the fragility of this emerging technology. When the Great War erupted 1914, aviation was bleeding edge technology that married rapid improvements in mechanical engineering with increasing knowledge of sound aeronautical design.

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Moving on to the Dardanelles campaign, Dr. Pavelec documents how the aviation components on both sides were operating at the end of a shoestring logistics channel. Compounding the supply difficulties, the physical environment of Gallipoli was profoundly more difficult than that on the Western Front.   

The narrative of combat operations is illuminating. There were but a handful of planes on both sides. However the demands of the conflict meant these overworked aviators were tasked with the full gamut of aviation missions. Initially confined to naval gunfire observation, the Royal Navy and French missions rapidly expanded to include reconnaissance, ground support of the attacking troops as well as logistics interdiction and maritime strike. The Allied contingent even dabbled with engaging in what would later be considered strategic bombing!

The narrative gives the Central Powers solid coverage that includes both the state of the Ottoman air service as well as the German technical missions to the Ottomans that contributed both planes and pilots to the Ottoman war effort.

Here’s a book that will appeal to a broad audience. At its core, this is a narrative of how a small group of intrepid aviators faced adversity with strength and ingenuity to innovate against a series of never-ending obstacles. The solutions these aviators fielded resonate over the years as you see similar challenges faced by future generations from the Second World War through the counter insurgency conflicts of our modern age.

In addition to the compelling narrative, the book is a wealth of historical details with robust appendices. One appendix provides biographical snapshots of the key participants on all sides of the campaign. In addition, the aircraft used on both sides are summarized and detailed providing a great jumping off point for the rivet counters looking for quantitative data on the machines used in the conflict.

The last appendix will appeal to scholars and historians. Dr. Pavelec has created an amazing literature review. This review is the result of the author literally scouring the world for material. The review encompasses both mainstream sources as well as material from the archives of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Turkey and Australia.

Airpower over Gallipoli does a solid job presenting both the narrative of the campaign as well as the difficulties encountered by the participants. Dr. Pavelec stays focused on his topic with laser-like accuracy. That focus can lead you to believe that the Dardanelles was the only far-flung aviation campaign being waged in the Great War. It would be interesting to see a comparison between the challenges faced by the aviators over Gallipoli with the challenges faced on the ‘other’ Ottoman front, south of Bagdad. As I read the challenges faced by 3 Squadron RNAS, I could not help but thing of the similar challenges faced by Imperial aviators in Mesopotamia. In addition to fighting the Turks (and Germans) both groups faced a harsh environment, while using second-hand equipment at the end of long supply lines. (See Wings over Mesopotamia: Air War in Iraq 1914-1918, Cross and Cockade International, 2017 for a solid reference)

A weakness in the work is in the maps. A work covering an area outside general familiarity should strive to include clear, detailed maps that convey and reinforce the themes presented in the text. Of the two maps included, only one provides any degree of detail, and that is focused on the naval action in the straits. Unfortunately, the page size of the book works against the maps as these are constrained by the 9” by 6” page size of the book. The result is a lack of coverage that details the topography of the Gallipoli peninsula. It’s unfortunate as the narrative stresses how the topography of the peninsula is critical to understanding the nature of the campaign.

A partial solution was using the maps from a commercial board game Geoffrey Phipps, “Gallipoli 1915: Churchill’s Greatest Gamble”, published by GMT Games as a reference. Though a board game, the maps provide a detailed analysis of the terrain and clearly depict how the landforms influenced the land battles.

Airpower Over Gallipoli: 1915-1916 is a welcome addition to the literature on the campaign. The book provides solid coverage of the contributions of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and French aviators with reasonable coverage of efforts by the Ottoman Empire. Much of this imbalance reflects the availability – or unavailability – of source materials. A good summary of these challenges is included as part of the literature review.

Dr. Pavelec has clearly laid out the challenges, successes and failures experienced by the aviators on both sides of this campaign. With a clear narrative and generous appendices, this book will appeal to both students of the Great War as well as those with an interest in the evolution of joint operations. The literature review alone makes this book essential reading for students of Great War aviation history. It’s a worthy selection to your book shelf.

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