Mark Hillier. Royal Flying Corps Kitbag: Aircrew Uniforms & Equipment From the War Over the Western Front in WWI. Yorkshire, UK: Frontline Books, 2020. Hardcover. Illustrated. 268 pages.
Review by Peter L. Belmonte
The World War I air war has always garnered academic and popular attention. Historians have examined aircraft, air campaigns, units and squadrons, and individual aviators. Enthusiasts have discussed tactics, aircraft paint schemes, squadron insignia, aces, and air victory tallies. What has been uncommon, however, is an examination of airmen’s uniforms and flying equipment. In this new book, author Mark Hillier let’s us peak inside the aviator’s “kitbag” to examine these items. Hillier is a historian and aviation enthusiast. He has written similar “kitbag” books about other wars and air forces, and he himself is a pilot of open-cockpit aircraft. In this book, Hillier focuses on flying officers and enlisted men in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), the immediate predecessor of the Royal Air Force (RAF), during World War I. Thus the author looks at pilots and observers; in later years official flying duties were honed to include navigator, gunner, bomb aimer, flight engineer, etc.
Hillier begins by giving an interesting account of how early aviators had to discover the need for special and protective clothing and equipment by trial and error. The effects of speed and altitude upon the human body were not well understood, even during the war, and protective clothing evolved along with aircraft design and capabilities and air tactics. Next comes the meat of the book: an examination of the items in the kitbag. The book is divided into chapters dealing with each item: flying clothing; flying equipment; uniforms; rank, badges, insignia, and buttons; paperwork and documents; and RFC to RAF transitional items.
For each type of item (coats, trousers, boots, gloves, etc.) the author gives an account of their development and their different variations. He cites original orders, many dating from the years before World War I, which established the need and requirements for each item. Period photographs, taken from private collections and archives and liberally distributed throughout the book, show each item in use; other photographs depict current close-ups of items from private collections and museums. These photographs give the historian and collector a good idea of how these pioneer airmen dressed and functioned in the air a century ago. The contemporary photographs of items such as the various types of leather coats, helmets, gloves, and goggles allow us to see items we may never see in person; they give us an appreciation for what it was like to fly in an open cockpit in such an inhospitable environment.
Another wonderful feature of this book are the many accounts of aviators in which they discuss an item of uniform or a piece of equipment. We thus hear firsthand how some men felt about their equipment and duties. Also of interest is the paperwork and documents chapter, covering items such as the aviator’s certificate issued by the Royal Aeronautics Club, without which a man could not hope to enter the Royal Flying Corps as a pilot. This section also covers pilots’ logbooks, showing some interesting examples from private collections. Hillier also covers other less “glamorous” items used by aviators that were integral to mission success. These include map and plotting boards to aid in navigation and observation, watches, compasses, binoculars, and side-arms.
One strength of this book is Hillier’s ability to write about these mundane items in a way that isn’t boring. He goes into enough detail for the reader to understand the context of each item without descending into arcane descriptions that would be of interest to only a few readers. Another strength is the author’s use of photographs. The dozens of photographs of aviators in various styles of uniform are a treasure. They give ample evidence to the author’s assertion that the World War I British aviator was clad in a variety of uniforms even within the same flying squadron.
As mentioned above, the book is profusely illustrated. Hillier’s bibliography will give aviation enthusiasts ideas for further reading. Several appendices give official tables of issue and stock numbers for some items. With this book, Hillier has added to the historiography of World War I aviation by detailing the evolution of flight gear and uniforms and giving us a fine visual reference. It will please aviation historians as well as collectors and re-enactors and is highly recommended.
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.