Airpower over Gallipoli 1915

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Airpower over Gallipoli 1915. By Sterling M. Pavelec. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 2020.

Reviewed by Dr Gregory P. Gilbert

‘The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.’ Georg Hegel

STERLING PAVELEC’s new book ‘Airpower over Gallipoli 1915’ helps to fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge and understanding of this important campaign.

Gallipoli was the first joint maritime campaign of the modern era. It involved complex operations in the naval, land and air environments, involving new and emerging technologies that were applied in an effort to achieve timeless naval and military strategic effects.

It was the inability of the Allies to develop and coordinate their joint strategy, their plans, and their execution that inevitably led to their failure at Gallipoli. The Ottoman victory was gained, with German support, when they effectively countered every offensive the Allies threw at them.

Surprisingly we still have much to learn from the 1915 Gallipoli campaign. The naval and the land operations have been the subject of numerous histories and various studies. These include recent works released to coincide with the 2015 anniversary of Gallipoli. Traditionally Australian histories of Gallipoli have been centred upon the role of the land forces at Anzac and have often under-played or ignored the naval and air side of the campaign. Pavelec’s book is one of the few serious works on the Gallipoli air operations.

Perhaps the main reason for the gap covered by ‘Airpower over Gallipoli’ is the almost stove-piped separation between the fields of military, naval and airpower history. Of course most of the air power utilised in the Dardanelles in 1915 was under naval control and hence does not fit easily under the umbrella of modern air forces. Such research is always exceedingly difficult. Even today, despite increasing demand for joint operations, there is very little real joint historical effort or joint understanding amongst service historians. Pavelec has brought together a large slice of the available evidence, including several little known and recently rediscovered narratives, however his research still has some way to go before it can be considered to be the authoritative source on the subject.

Pavelec covers all aspects of the air side of the Gallipoli campaign – the preparation, the Dardanelles naval attack, the Gallipoli landings, the summer, the Suvla Bay offensive, the autumn and the evacuation. The book also includes a discussion on the birth of airpower, the lessons learnt from Gallipoli and its legacy. It also includes useful short biographies of Gallipoli personalities and descriptions of the aircraft of Gallipoli. The aircraft technology was not very sophisticated but more importantly they were mostly the ‘2nd Eleven’ rather than the best available. A third appendix examines the relevant literature on Gallipoli – interesting but nowhere near a complete assessment.

‘Airpower over Gallipoli’ covers the activities of the British (mostly Royal Naval Air Service), French and Ottoman aviators, (including the Germans who worked alongside the Turks in developing Ottoman airpower). This alone has required significant international effort. Unfortunately this book falls short in its use of British sources more familiar to naval historians who have studies the campaign. Perhaps Pavelec’s decision not to reference the British Naval Official History (J.S. Corbett, ‘Naval Operations’, Vol. II, 1921), can be overlooked however there are a number of lower level Admiralty sources that should have been examined. For instance any examination of lessons learnt needs to reference the Mitchell Report (CB1550 – ‘Report of Committee Appointed to Investigate the Attacks delivered on and the Enemy Defences of the Dardanelles Straits, 1919’) which includes significant evidence concerning air operations. Another deficiency is evident in the limited use of modern Turkish airpower history sources. A number of Turkish researchers have worked on the Gallipoli campaign in recent years and, although many originally tended to repeat evidence from the Allied sources, the Turkish aviation story is somewhat underplayed by Pavelec.

Overall the research for ‘Airpower over Gallipoli’ is good although one or two minor errors would have been avoided if a knowledgeable naval expert had reviewed the draft. For example the British minesweepers were mostly crewed by Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) members many of whom had volunteered for service on the same trawlers which were taken into RN service. They were not ‘civilian-contracted’ crews. One other point also suggests the book would have benefitted by further editing. The first few chapters include several annoying repetitions – in particular regarding details of No. 3 Squadron Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) under Commander Samson.

So we still have to wait for a fully developed authoritative joint history of the air side of the 1915 Gallipoli campaign. That said Pavelec’s ‘Airpower over Gallipoli’ is a very good start. It is a useful reference and hopefully will help inspire future thinking on joint maritime campaigns. Hopefully we will learn from this history.

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