Lt-Col Louis Arbon Strange. Recollections of an Airman. Philadelphia: Casemate, 2016.
Hardcover, illustrated, 196pp.
Review by Peter L. Belmonte
Great War pilot memoirs usually find an appreciative audience among aviation
enthusiasts. Louis Arbon Strange, a British war pilot of great experience, wrote his
memoir in 1933, and it was reprinted by Casemate in 2016. As a young man Strange
enlisted in the Dorsetshire Yeomanry and soon thereafter learned to fly. This was on the
eve of World War I; fortune thus positioned him to be one of the first Royal Flying Corps
airmen to go to France in August 1914. During the war, Strange flew a variety of aircraft
and rose to command an air wing. His memoir is a simple account of his time in service
during the war.
Strange provides us with interesting insights about what it was like to fly during the early
days of the war. Many things had to be improvised. Strange himself had rigged up his
aircraft with a Lewis machine gun and mount for his observer (simply “passenger” in the
early days). After landing following an early sortie in August 1914, his commanding
officer ordered Strange to remove the Lewis gun and mount, arguing that they weighed
too much and that the observer would be better off using a rifle to fire at enemy pilots.
Strange also developed a “petrol bomb” that he used in combat in September; with it, he
actually destroyed at least one or two trucks.
Military veterans will marvel at the rather loose way that military business was conducted
in the early days of the war. When Strange showed up to assume command of the newly
forming No. 23 Squadron, he was surprised to learn that no one knew anything about it.
He had to personally beg, borrow, or scrounge airplanes. Likewise, when he was
appointed commander of the gunnery school, Strange commandeered boarding houses,
hotels, the town hall, and even a local bus line in order to successfully carry out his
duties. He did these things without prior approval, and businesses were forced to submit
claims for damages later.
The book contains interesting, sometimes gripping, descriptions of aerial battle. He
includes many instances of almost unbelievable feats. During one harrowing flight in
May 1915, Strange fired off all the rounds in the ammo drum of his Lewis gun. Unable to
remove the drum while seated, Strange stood up to gain better leverage; the drum still
wouldn’t budge, but Strange’s aircraft went inverted, and he fell out of the cockpit,
dangling in the air, saved from death by the stuck ammo drum to which he desperately
clung. Strange managed to grab ahold of some rigging and swing his legs back into the
cockpit; somehow he got the aircraft correctly oriented before settling back into his
pilot’s seat. Other accounts are only slightly less spellbinding. Strange’s description of
two bombing raids in the final months of the war are invocative of the destructive nature
of subsequent air campaigns.
Other interesting notes include Strange’s mention of nascent aerial special operations
including “dropping baskets of carrier pigeons to secret agents at selected spots, and
landing the agents themselves behind enemy lines, which was a very ticklish business”
(p. 96). Strange also comments on the burden of responsibility on pilots; they could be
held liable for almost any mishap that should occur. He concludes: “It is your
fault—well, it is a golden rule to assume that whatever goes wrong, is your fault. You
may save yourself a lot of trouble if you act accordingly” (p. 113). In this regard, nothing
has changed in the world of aviation in the years since Strange wrote those words. This
helps to explain Strange’s comments, common to most Great War aircrew memoirs,
about the terrific strain pilots were under.
Strange concludes with a chapter reporting on his visits to Germany in the late 1920s and
early 1930s. There, he indulged in a common thought among flyers: to talk with opposing
pilots and hear their view of air combat during the war. His account of meetings with two
German officers whom he had opposed and met in battle years before is an interesting
commentary on the fellowship of World War I airmen.
Nineteen photographs and two interesting illustrations of formation flight enhance the
text. Casemate has done a service in reprinting this book. It is highly recommended to
readers who want to learn about what it was like to fly during the Great War.
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), Chicago-Area
Italians in World War I: A Case Study of Calabrians (Fonthill Media, 2019), and United
States Army Depot Brigades in World War I (with co-author Alexander F. Barnes,
McFarland, 2021). 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 .