by Donald Nijboer
Oxford and New York: Osprey / Bloomsbury 2022. Pp. 320.
Illus., maps, tables, diagr., chron., biblio., index. $40.00. ISBN: 1472854217
The Eight Air Force in World War II
It was indeed the mighty Eighth Air Force, as this book’s title says. It once could, as the lyrics of the contemporary song went, make tyranny tremble, day after day, mission after mission, albeit at a terrible cost. The Eighth Air Force’s power has been reflected in terms of the literature as well. It certainly leads the formation in terms of books written on the wartime USAAF numbered combat air forces (with the Sixth Air Force as tail-end Charlie). The bibliography of books on the Eighth Air Force, published in the 1990s, is a thick volume. A revised edition today would be even thicker. The Eighth’s impact has not been limited to print. Its story on the movie screen is evidence of the powerful drama and strong characters in the Eighth’s narrative and includes some classics: The Memphis Belle (still one of the most powerful documentaries ever made), Twelve O’ Clock High, Command Decision, Stalag 17 and, more recently, The Cold Blue.
With so much having been written about the Eighth Air Force (and the Allied bomber offensive against Germany of which it was a part) it is a challenge for any book to say something new. But that is not what this book sets out to do. It tells you – on the final page of text – “this book is a compilation of the following Osprey Books” and follows this with the titles of 35 of that publisher’s well-known and well-illustrated paperback monographs that it has been producing for over 50 years. While any publishing project that has run that long is obviously going to vary in quality, the best Ospreys are thoroughly researched – many dealing with subjects where there is little readily available – with an integrated presentation of text, illustrations and graphics. For many Ospreys, the only reviews they get are on Amazon or from online trolls. They merit consideration by a broader audience.
Here, the author has been faced with the task of integrating elements of some 35 books of existing material into a seamless single-volume treatment of the Eighth Air Force. Compressing a story that has “Mighty” in the title so that it fits between a single pair of covers is going to be difficult. The author has produced a hard-cover well-illustrated volume – the traditional Osprey strength – printed clearly on quality paper yet selling for a reasonable price. But if you are setting out to provide both a narrative and an analysis of the Eighth Air Force as a (massive) war-fighting organization and its combat operations from 1942 to 1945 in a limited number of pages, it is hard to do it by drawing from 35 different books, however compelling their illustrations.
Because of the Osprey emphasis on integrating illustrations with history, a table of contents for diagrams and statistical tables would have been very helpful. The illustrations – most recycled from the books where they originally appeared – include some 44 color photographs, 60 black and white photographs, ten two-page color spreads of combat scenes, eight one-page color diagrams of cockpits or tactics, 30 color profiles or illustrations of aircraft (and one anti-aircraft gun), 15 diagrams, ten tables and charts and ten reproductions from wartime documents. Of these, only the last are problematic, being reproduced at a size where reading their text requires a magnifier and leaving the reader frustrated at the absence of an identified source for most of them.
Of some 300 pages of text, only about a fifth are the narrative of the Eighth’s operations, from its initial deployment in 1942 through to V-E Day. A further 30 pages cover an introduction and describing the organization of the Eighth’s combat units (the Eighth’s vast logistics, service and support capabilities get only a brief treatment). There are chapters on aircraft (48 pages), the “tools of battle” (training formation, technology, armament, tactics, 34 pages), the “experience of battle” (80 pages) and short biographies of command personnel and fighter aces (20 pages). It includes one order of battle (January 1945 combat air units only), its utility diminished by the omission of what type of airplane each outfit flew and where they were based.
At times, the result of trying to pull together material from multiple books between a single pair of covers can be disjointed and uneven. Its seams do show, rather than providing the sort of survey, overview or narrative history – and there is lots of drama to be presented, as the movies demonstrate – that would have been needed to describe what the Eighth Air Force did and how they did it, which would be of greater interest to the non-specialist readers. After the combat narrative finished (at the front of the book), it is resumed. Later on, to look at the late-war threat from German jet and rocket fighters and massively increased ground air defenses (a subject on which the author has produced his own Osprey).
Critical events, decisions and changes glossed over while peripheral issues, like the short and unhappy combat career of the 12 YB-40 escort bombers, which showed the US willingness to improvise responses to combat setbacks, are emphasized. The story of the YB-40 appears in one of the 35 preexisting books that provided source material for this one and enabled the use of a well-done two-page artwork spread. The statistics presented are interesting, but do not cover some of the most important quantifiable data such as numbers of sorties, bombing accuracy, operational losses and numbers of aircraft of each type delivered.
The author has done a credible job within the limitations imposed, making difficult judgement calls. It is not a cut-and-paste production of the type that was familiar on discount book sales tables for decades. Yet it is limited in comparison with narratives and analyses that are already in print, nor does it fully draw on the extensive archival sources (including some now online). The Eighth kept better records and its members wrote more unit histories and memoirs than just about any other US numbered air force.
This book does not provide citations or source notes and, instead of a bibliography, a four-page section on “further research and reading”, citing some 55 publications but lacking URLs for those online. The brief chronology includes ten listings for all of 1944.
With the limited space available, there is a brief treatment of the Eighth’s German enemies and how they evolved, with the introduction of jet and rocket fighters and the introduction of massive ground-based air defenses that took over more of the defense of Germany once the fighters were defeated. In the months after D-Day, some Eighth Air Force fighter pilots rotated home, combat tours completed, without seeing a German fighter in the air, although periodic mass interception efforts could still inflict painful losses up until the final weeks of the war.
The story of the Eighth Air Force’s combat operations, along with all that made it possible – aircraft, leaders, tactics, organization – would be difficult to include in any book of this size. The author has included a lot in a limited space (especially when the extensive illustrations are considered). But even if the end result may not fully cover its subject, there is enough – text and illustrations – that may interest a reader to look at the broader (and deeper) story.
Our Reviewer: David Isby’s writings on current and historical airpower include The Decisive Duel: Spitfire vs. 109 (London: Little Brown, 2012) and Fighter Combat in the Jet Age (London: Harper Collins, 1997) and articles for Air International, Air Forces Monthly and other magazines. A veteran historian, defense analyst, and war game designer, Isby has quite a number of other books, articles, and games to his credit covering the Second World War, the military institutions of the Soviet Union, and military aviation in general. During the Soviet-Afghan War he observed the fighting on the front lines, and he is the author of Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires: A New History of the Borderland (New York: Pegasus, 2011). His previous reviews include A Military History of Afghanistan, The Elite: The A–Z of Modern Special Operations Forces, Taranto and Naval Air Warfare in the Mediterranean, Airpower in the War against ISIS, Korean Air War: Sabres, MiGs and Meteors, 1950–53, How the Army Made Britain a Global Power, Modern South Korean Air Power, Dirty Eddie's War, Air Battle for Moscow, 1941-1942, The Eastern Fleet and the Indian Ocean, and A History of the Mediterranean Air War, 1940-45, Volume Five, From the Fall of Rome to the End of the War, 1944-1945.
Note: The Mighty Eighth is also available in e-editions.
StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium