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Two Roads to War: The French and British Air Arms from Versailles to Dunkirk

by Robin Higham, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., 2012, $44.95

This superb book would be worth double its price solely on its merits as a historical study of a perplexing time in the development of air warfare. However, the fact that it is so exactly applicable to the existing situation in the United States in terms of politics, economics, technology, procurement, logistics and morale makes it one of the most important books of the decade. Every political and military leader in America should be required to read Two Roads to War.

This is the very best of Robin Higham’s many fine works, reflecting an enormous amount of research integrated into a sometimes densely written but very involving narrative. Higham’s approach is novel, in that it analyzes not a victor-versus-loser situation, but the nature of events that enabled one ally to succeed and survive while another utterly failed—against the same enemy.

Higham makes no overt attempt to associate the long, sad period of the British and French air forces between World War I and World War II with America’s present situation. Nonetheless, any reader will immediately pick up on the similarities. The U.S. has maintained an almost comatose attitude since the Vietnam War in regard to keeping effective air forces, and more important, an adequate industry to support them. The most important question of the book is not the difference between French and British methods in the period under study, but whether there are leaders within the United States astute enough to read this book and recognize the similarities.

Higham concludes that the difference in geography and culture of France and Britain during this important period were the “fundamental, if subtle, determinants” of their respective failures and successes in preparing for the air war. Fortunately for the British, as Higham points out, their government, especially after 1934, systematically prepared for war in spite of a limited budget. This led to an adequate fighter defense and a clear doctrine. The British had an expandable cadre of pilots and technicians and the essential technical developments, especially in engines, that the French lacked. Higham might well disagree with my analysis, but I think that any unbiased reader might see the similarities between pre-WWII France’s situation and today’s United States:

  • “in France, designs were developed but never thoroughly tested, and only sometimes ordered not in quantity and too late”—as with the U.S. helicopter industry
  • “most of the [government] leaders who emerged were avocats [lawyers]”—as in the U.S. Congress
  • “the administrative machinery [of France’s government]…were dictating not only policy but procurement”—again, see Congress
  • “Parlement (Parliament) created committees to control aviation as well as finance”— as with current U.S. procurement practices

It is exceedingly rare to find an aviation history book that has the genuine importance of Two Roads to War with regard to the present-day situation. America has for too long neglected its aerospace industry, and is currently in the process of further reducing an already limited budget. One can only hope that enough leaders will read this book and begin to correct the situation.


Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.