With the arrival of James Streckfuss’ EYES ALL OVER THE SKIES: Aerial Reconnaissance in the First World War, we thought we’d take a few minutes to get to know the author.
What fascinates you about revisiting the past and bringing it to life in a book?
Understanding the past, of course, is fundamental to an understanding of the present. But that’s a stock answer for someone with a history degree. When it comes to WWI aviation, the real answer is it’s just great fun! The bravery of men who went into battle in open-cockpit, wood-and-wire airplanes still blows me away. The RFC’s F.E.2b carried an observer who rode in an open cockpit without a safety belt and frequently had to stand on the rim to man his gun and defend the aircraft. Zeppelins had crew members assigned to “patch duty,” i.e. they had to climb out on top of the airship in flight to repair holes in the envelope. German giant bombers carried mechanics whose duties included climbing out on the wing to repair a faulty engine in flight. It’s hard to imagine jobs that required more guts.
When and how did you become interested in Military history?
My parents gave me the old Milton Bradley board game, Dogfight, for Christmas when I was 15. The game included a little booklet about WWI flying aces. I was immediately hooked.
How much research did you do for the book? Can you give us some tips on this?
I’ve been reading about WWI aviation for close to 50 years, but began seriously researching primary sources towards writing the dissertation that became this book 16 years ago. I collected the Gorrell Report (the primary source material collected by Col. Edgar Gorrell immediately after the war) on some 58 rolls of microfilm, staying after work at the university most days to read sections of it on the library’s microfilm viewers. In 2006, I spent three weeks in London reading and photographing records in the National Archives at Kew, the RAF Museum and Imperial War Museum, coming home with nearly 21,000 digital photographs of primary source material. Later that same year, I spent a few days in Paris, which included some time looking at the French war records at Chateau Vincennes. Copies of German records were obtained with the help of several friends and colleagues.
Why did you decide to write this book? What prompted you to put this story down on paper?
WWI aviation historiography published over the near century since the war ended has focused overwhelmingly on the exploits of fighter pilots, particularly the major aces. Very little has been written about the reconnaissance crews who performed the work that really mattered in terms of aviation’s worth to the greater war. That story needed to be told.
How long did it take you to write it?
Serious writing of the dissertation began in the summer of 2006 and continued until December 2011. Revising that manuscript into the final book took about another year-and-a-half. Of course, research began several years before the actual writing.
What do you like most about your book? Why should we read it?
Eyes All Over the Sky tells the story of why airplanes, airships and balloons really mattered to the war. A friend and colleague once told me he knew many WWI aviation historians who knew very little about the overall history of the war. They’d spent too much time reading about the Red Baron and the other great fighter pilots and had never bothered to find out what connected the air war to what was happening on the ground and at sea. This book documents those connections.
Where and when do you usually write?
All times and all places. I have a basement library and sometimes write there, sometimes it’s on the couch in the living room. It all depends. My dissertation advisor quoted a prominent professional to me once who said when asked how he wrote so much he replied, “Got a minute, write a line.” I’ve tried since—though not always that successfully—to follow that philosophy.
Who are your favorite authors, fiction and non-fiction, and why?
Non-fiction writers—historians mainly—are my favorites. I like a lot of people. I spend so much time reading history, I don’t have a lot of time for fiction, but I have to confess to loving a good spy novel. So, John Le Carré and Ian Fleming.
One subject that published authors often claim to be under-discussed is rejection. Could you talk a bit about any of your experiences with rejection and about the persistence and resilience required of authors?
I started sending a brief proposal and a sample chapter to publishers a couple years ago and received rejections from three or four other firms before a friend suggested I try Casemate.
Do you have any advice for budding military history authors wanting to get published?
Hang in there, it gets better.
James is a Cincinnati resident and served as President of the League of WWI Aviation Historians and Managing Editor of its quarterly journal, Over the Front, for 11 years. He currently serves on the Board of Nominations of the National Aviation Hall of Fame.