James Streckfuss. Eyes All Over the Sky: Aerial Reconnaissance in the First World War

James Streckfuss. Eyes All Over the Sky: Aerial Reconnaissance in the First World War. Havertown, PA: Casemate Publishers, 2016. Hardcover, illustrated, 239pp.

Review by Peter L. Belmonte

In this new book, James Streckfuss argues that military aviation historians have generally downplayed the effect of aviation on military operations during World War I. By focusing upon the comparatively high potential of bombardment and the perceived glamour of pursuit, some historians have downplayed the role of aviation in reconnaissance and direct tactical support to troops on the ground. The former functions of airpower drew more attention but were less impactful upon overall operations. The author hopes “to restore aviation to the story of the Great War by demonstrating that by putting eyes all over the sky aviators significantly altered the manner in which operations were conducted in the war’s other dimensions” (p. 4). Streckfuss is an aviation historian and author, and a founder and past president of the League of World War I Aviation Historians. In this book, he uses official records as well as primary and secondary sources from the United States, France, and Britain to give us this thought provoking study. The author covers most of the belligerents, but much of the material focuses on the United States Air Service.

After two chapters that serve as an introduction to the development of military airpower, Streckfuss examines reconnaissance airpower (reconnaissance, aerial photography, etc.) in topical chapters: fixed balloons and airships, artillery observation, infantry contact and liaison, aerial reconnaissance and photography, and naval airpower. In each chapter, the author describes how these functions served to shape and alter the war. For example, observation and photography missions caused the mass of armies to move during the darkness of night; artillery spotting caused more accurate artillery fire and possibly resulted in greater casualties; and airship and naval air patrols helped to blunt the U-Boat threat.

The last two chapters are key to understanding how postwar developments resulted in an emphasis on airpower’s air-to-air and bombardment functions at the expense of reconnaissance and photography. Streckfuss analyses each nation’s postwar efforts to develop an independent air service; in particular he shows how some U.S. leaders were willing to concede the roles of reconnaissance and photography and naval observation to the Army and Navy, respectively, if that would result in the establishment of an independent air force focused on bombardment. The author demonstrates that viewing reconnaissance and photography as evolutionary steps in airpower development, rather than as integral parts of airpower, resulted in the diminution of those functions in light of other, more destructive, functions of airpower.

The final chapter includes a brief historiographical examination of the ways in which World War I aviation has been portrayed. Streckfuss points out the comparatively short shrift World War I aviation has been given, even by aviation historians, is largely due to the perceptions that resulted from postwar airpower theory developments. The theories generally held that strategic bombardment was the most valuable function of airpower. Since strategic bombardment was nascent and mostly ineffective during World War I, some historians and theorists concluded that airpower was not too effective, let alone decisive, during that war. These writings either overlook or downplay aerial reconnaissance and photography that, as the author contends throughout the book, was effective and influential.

The author uses a vast array of sources to present his argument logically and persuasively. He correctly cites the successes, not always quickly or easily achieved, of the reconnaissance branches of airpower. He also nicely incorporates details from most of the belligerent nations, thus showing the universal applicability of his assertions. Some readers might disagree with the author’s criticism of airpower visionaries (William “Billy” Mitchell, Giulio Douhet, and Hugh Trenchard) who, it can be argued, needed to look ahead and think creatively and “outside the box” in order to develop an appropriate doctrine and create an independent air service. There is still room for debate among historians and military theorists about how much emphasis to give each of the many roles of airpower in current and future wars. But Streckfuss very well defends his assertion, that Great War airpower has been comparatively little credit for influencing the war’s direction due largely to overlooking or undervaluing its reconnaissance roles.

Two maps and thirty-one photographs enhance the text. Streckfuss includes extensive endnotes, and his helpful bibliography shows the depth and breadth of his research. There are not an excessive number of books about World War I aerial reconnaissance, and this one, while not an in-depth history, is an important step in correcting that shortcoming. It is highly recommended as an introduction to the topic. Those readers interested in World War I aviation, as well as in aerial reconnaissance in general, will be pleased with this fine book.

Peter L. Belmonte is a retired U.S. Air Force officer, author, and historian. A veteran of Operation Desert Storm, he holds a master’s degree in history from California State University, Stanislaus. He has published articles, book chapters, reviews, and papers about immigration and military history. Pete’s books include: Italian Americans in World War II (Arcadia, 2001), Days of Perfect Hell: The U.S. 26th Infantry Regiment in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, October-November, 1918 (Schiffer, 2015), Forgotten Soldiers of World War I: America’s Immigrant Doughboys (with Alexander F. Barnes, Schiffer, 2018), Play Ball! Doughboys and Baseball during the Great War (with co-authors Alexander F. Barnes and Samuel O. Barnes, Schiffer Books, 2019), and Chicago-Area Italians in World War I: A Case Study of Calabrians (Fonthill Media/Arcadia Publishing, 2019). He is also working on a multi-volume history of Italian Americans in World War I. You may see his books at his webpage: https://www.amazon.com/author/peter.belmonte.