Airway to the East 1918-1920

Like Pen & Sword’s autobiography of Hitler’s snapper, this is the sort of book that inspires articles in the nether regions of the Daily Mail. Clever PR can do wonders for a book, so perhaps I missed any press coverage with all this Olympics stuff going on?

Clive Semple has pulled off a small magic trick to tease out what might be a lost fact about the early RAF when an aerial route was set up linking Britain with Egypt to transport aircraft to what was a strategic hub of the Empire. It was the time just after the Great War and the Balfour Declaration when some Brits were busy reneging on promises fellow countrymen had made to the Arabs. Yet more Brits, deeply uncomfortable with the whole thing stood powerless while their country and France carved up the old Ottoman empire as the seeds of so many of that region’s ills took root. Add this tragedy to the penny pinching shenanigans of post war British defence policy; sprinkle on a fiasco, add some truly epic heroics and bring gently to the boil!

This is the recipe for a really great story, but in this book you actually get several for your money.

The fledgling RAF was a strong candidate for infanticide at the hands of rival services, the Treasury and other malignant forces. Proving itself and doing things well were so important. But, as always, rivalries, indifference, incompetence and chunks of misfortune were all on hand to mess this particular episode up. The sequence of events is told well at a good pace with plenty of colour. I like the detail and the imagery. It is difficult not to agree with many of the conclusions.

What I didn’t enjoy were needless swipes at Douglas Haig and other references to British leadership which seem to be there to ingratiate the project to an Australian readership. The book continues the tired old myth that only Anzacs fought and died at Gallipoli in the Allied cause. Bad British generalship in the Dardanelles did not just kill Aussies and citing the behaviour of Ian Hamilton is pointless because his failure has long been cast as epic in both hemispheres.

The book can fairly be seen as sympathetic to the Arabs and I’ll be honest and say I agree with this stance. There is no anti-Semitism and nor should there be, because it is irrelevant to the story. The author saves much of his ire for Hugh Trenchard, and however relevant this is to the saga of the Aerial Route, I don’t agree with his assessment of his attitude to heavy bombers as a weapon when he is recognised as an advocate of strategic bombing and can hardly be cast as being against it! The fact is Trenchard had a bruising relationship with Northcliffe and Rothermere (who hated his mentor Haig) during the war and, having resigned as Chief of the Air Staff he baulked at becoming head of the Independent Air Force which was to carry out air raids on Germany. His negativity was directed at the role offered him, not at what the force was doing. Does this stuff spoil the book? Well, yes, it does a bit. But, there is so much more to the package, so let’s move on.

The book concludes with the truly epic tale of the England to Australia air race won by Ross and Keith Smith. It is an amazing story in itself and does the book great credit by its inclusion because it all fits together so well. The witness to all these events was the author’s father, Leslie Semple, a RAF officer who met several of the protagonists, wrote interesting letters and took excellent photographs. He is to be treasured.

The colourful characters who surveyed the air route, Biffy Barton and Ross Smith were giants. Smith and his brother Keith achieved immortality when they flew from Hounslow to Darwin in a Vickers Vimy at the behest of the showboating Australian PM Billy Hughes for a whopping prize of £10,000. It really was a case of advance Australia fair and no sane person would deny them or their mechanics Bennett and Shiers their place in the pantheon of great aviators. The author is correct to point out how sad it is that Biffy Barton, the Englishman who did so much for the enterprise has been largely lost to history. Bring him back.

So, all in all, this is a great read about little known events mixed in with better known history. I love the chutzpah of the author and can see why he has such pride in his father who was there to play more than just a walk on part in this most fascinating tale.

If you are interested in the early history of the Royal Air Force you cannot ignore this book even if some of the conclusions do not meet your expectations. It has a lot going for it and it will make you want to learn more, which is always a good thing, isn’t it?



 Mark Barnes

AIRWAY TO THE EAST 1918-1920 and the Collapse of No1 Aerial Route RAF.
By Clive Semple.
Published in hardback by Pen & Sword Aviation £19.99.
ISBN: 978 1 84884 657 9

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.