By Steve Mills
Published by Casemate
The popular image of the British military establishment of 1914-1918 remains that of an intensely conservative group, resolutely opposed to any new technology.
This was always a caricature, and the author emphasises just how readily Edwardian technological innovation was adapted and developed during the First World War.
The extent of pre-war development is surprising. In 1910, for example, a large radio-controlled, scale-model airship powered by motors had been flown inside the London Hippodrome.
The shock of the early Zeppelin raids initiated a host of unconventional countermeasures, including Professor Archibald Low’s project for a small radio-controlled pilotless aircraft carrying a 40kg command-detonated explosive charge.
The type was designated the ‘Aerial Target’ or ‘AT’ as a security measure, in an attempt to persuade German intelligence that it was being developed as a target for AA guns.
Despite working at the very limit of the radio technology of the period, Low’s small team made considerable progress, and had prototypes ready for trials at the RFC’s Central Flying School, Upavon, by March 1917.
By this time, it was envisaged that the AT would initially be deployed as a ground-launched anti-Zeppelin weapon, with a later version to be developed as an air-to-ground ‘flying bomb’ that was controlled by an accompanying manned aircraft.
These trials were a qualified success – the AT was launched by a compressed-air catapult and briefly flew under radio-control, before crashing due to engine failure. Although the type never entered service, it acted as a ‘technology demonstrator’ for later drones, such as the Larynx and Queen Bee.
Perhaps it is best to describe this book as rather like panning for gold – the gold is there, but you have to sift through tons of gravel to find it. In short, the work needs drastic editing: barely 50 of its 290 pages are actually relevant. The rest are a jumbled series of accounts of the scientists and inventors working on both the AT and other projects, including disintegrating link machine-gun ammunition belts and the development of the tank.
These are interesting, but their already dubious relevance is diluted by a tendency to drift into biographical details instead of focusing on the projects.
Annoyingly, none of the review copy’s illustrations and photographs are captioned, which makes them difficult to interpret.
Yet the author has clearly carried out a tremendous amount of research and has a real enthusiasm for the period. The problem is that he seems to have let his enthusiasm run away with him. In his determination to include every bit of ‘period detail’, he has certainly added atmosphere, but lost sight of the subject.
Review by David Porter
This article was published in the January 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.