Book Review: High in the Empty Blue: The History of 56 Squadron (Alex Revell) : AVH

8/11/2001 • Aviation History Book Reviews

Just as German ace Manfred von Richthofen was determined to make his Jagdstaffel (Jasta) 11 the best in the German airservice, Major Richard Graham Blomfield intended to make his new squadron the finest in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC).After taking command of his unit–the first in the RFC to be fully equipped with the Royal Aircraft Factory SE-5 fighter–onFebruary 6, 1917, he sought out pilots with the greatest potential, to be led by flight leaders of proven ability, includingCaptains Cyril M. Crowe, Henry Meintjes and Albert Ball, who was then Britain’s leading ace with 31 enemy aircraft to hiscredit.

SE-5a's of No. 56th Squadron
SE-5a's of No. 56th Squadron
Ball’s presence gave No. 56 Squadron a reputation before it even reached the front; he also laid substantial groundwork,making improvements on his SE-5 that would be incorporated into production aircraft, and bringing in talented personnel likeLeonard M. Barlow and Gerald J.C. Maxwell.

Ball was killed on May 7, 1917, after bringing his score up to 44. But No. 56 soldiered on and more than lived up to theexpectations of its founding cadre. By war’s end, it would be Britain’s highest-scoring single-seat fighter squadron–with 401enemy aircraft destroyed or sent down out of control–and arguably the most famous. Its many aces included two VictoriaCross winners–Ball and James Thomas Byford McCudden–as well as such notable aces as Geoffrey H. Bowman (32victories), Gerald Maxwell (27), Reginald T.C. Hoidge (25), Richard Aveline Maybery (25), A.P.F. Rhys-Davids (23),Leonard Barlow (18), and Hank Burden, whose 15 victories included five brought down in one day. Some of the squadron’sairmen were as skilled with the pen as they were with the control stick. Of the many firsthand accounts written by members of”Fighting 56,” Cecil Lewis’ Sagittarius Rising, Jimmy McCudden’s Five Years in the Royal Flying Corps and DuncanGrinnell-Milne’s Wind in the Wires have become classics of wartime aviation literature.

One other famous name associated with No. 56 Squadron came from the German side: Leutnant Werner Voss of Jasta 10.Voss’ lone 10-minute dogfight with McCudden’s “B” Flight on September 23, 1917, which finally ended with the 48-victoryGerman ace’s death before the guns of A.P.F. Rhys-Davids, has also gone down in the annals of World War I legend.

For many years, British author Alex Revell has been researching and writing about No. 56 Squadron. That research nowreaches its culmination in High in the Empty Blue: The History of 56 Squadron, RFC/RAF, 1916 to 1920 (Flying MachinePress, Mountain View, Calif., 1995, $49.95), his complete history of the famous unit.

In addition to detailing the events in No. 56’s squadron log and describing the men and machines involved, High in the EmptyBlue focuses on some of the more notable and sometimes controversial aspects of the squadron’s history. These include thedeath of Ball, the Voss fight, and the identity of the skillfully flown Albatros D.V frequently mentioned in McCudden’s memoirsunder the nickname “Green Tail.” As an added bonus, the book has 16 pages of color profiles of SE-5s and SE-5a’s,representing the changing policies in unit markings and a variety of individual schemes.

High in the Empty Blue may not be in the same literary class as Sagittarius Rising, but as a squadron history, it is amasterpiece in its own right.
Jon Guttman