Book Review: Allied Air Operations 1939–1940: The War Over France and the Low Countries


by Jerry Murland

Barnsley, Eng. / Philadelphia: Pen & Sword, 2022. Pp. viii, 168+. Illus., append., biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 1399087711

Allied Air Forces during the "Phony War"

If you know, or would like to know, a lot about airplane types and capabilities in use in Europe in early World War II, then this is the book for you. The author, Jerry Murland, is an aviation expert and it shows. While little happened on the ground between the outbreak of war and May 1940 – a period evocatively referred to as the Phony War – it was far from that in the air. In spite of British and French efforts to develop their air forces when the threat from Germany became more apparent from 1934 onwards, when war was declared in September 1939 they were poorly equipped, poorly organized, and poorly supplied.

The British aircraft that were to play such a major role in the rest of the war – the Spitfires, Blenheims and Wellingtons – were being developed feverishly, but throughout this period the RAF was fighting mostly with outdated bi-planes, only a little better prepared than the French to meet the onslaught of the Luftwaffe, particularly its Messerschmitts and Dorniers. Nevertheless, though seriously outgunned, once the German invasion began the RAF and the French, Belgian, and Dutch air forces fought back tenaciously.

Taking a chronological approach, Murland describes the pre-war rearmament efforts and then swings into the war itself. His interesting comments on the general course of the early campaign are interspersed by long and minutely detailed accounts of individual maneuvers and actions including numbers and types of aircraft involved and their squadrons. While it is clear that not every air engagement that took place between 1939 and 1940 is described here, it sometimes seems like it. The pilots are usually also named, many of whom were killed and many who survived these initial encounters died later, often within a few weeks or months. The very detailed accounts of so many individual actions can result in a blur of feverish activity, although this probably closely reflects the experiences of those involved. And the parade of dogfights is often relieved as well as humanized by the inclusion of personal accounts left by the pilots themselves. These touches do a great deal to break up the otherwise relentless tapestry of aerial combat presented by Murland. The many excellent photographs of planes and pilots and some very good charts help too.

Ending his account with the evacuation of Dunkirk and the other Allied departures, Murland has well prepared his readers to understand how the highly trained and motivated Luftwaffe could have defeated so quickly its poorly equipped and - as he himself notes - “largely inept” (p.144), adversaries.

The absence of footnotes is a real omission, although in the text the author often makes reference to sources consulted, such as squadron logbooks. A bibliography including official sources is helpful in this regard as is a very detailed appendix of many of the aircraft mentioned. A map or two of the terrain covered would also be of benefit, especially for those not familiar with the geography of this area.

Generally, Allied Air Operations, 1939-1940 is a book for the very detail oriented and a useful and comprehensive reference for those interested in the war in the air in the early months of World War II in Europe.


Our Reviewer: Prof Williams, a military historian, former visiting professor at Annapolis, and sometime Executive Director of The New York Military Affairs Symposium, is the author of several books on naval history and technology, including Secret Weapon: U.S. High-Frequency Direction Finding in the Battle of the Atlantic, Grace Hopper: Admiral of the Cyber Sea, The Measure of a Man: My Father, the Marine Corps, and Saipan, and most recently Painting War: George Plante's Combat Art in World War II. Prof Williams’ previous reviews include The Trident Deception, Battleship Commander: The Life of Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee Jr., Churchill, Master and Commander, and Admiral Hyman Rickover.



Note: Allied Air Operations, 1939-1940 is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Kathleen Broome Williams   

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