Air University Review, January-February 1980

Killing in the Night Sky

Donald M. Bishop

Because of the profusion of aviation books now pouring off the presses, the officer interested in the study of air war in its personal, technical, and tactical dimensions must buy and read very selectively, for only a very few are written with an eye toward the profession. Among these are Full Circle by Group Captain Johnny Johnson and The First and the Last by Adolph Galland. Two additional recent publications deal historically with the special requirements of air warfare at night. "All flying is uplifting and exciting," writes Bill Gunston. "Flying to fight other fliers is more exciting still. But flying to fight by night reaches pinnacles of human experience that are touched but rarely."

Gunston's book, Night Fighters,* is a formal history of night air fighting from World War I to the present. Gunston, himself a World War II night fighter pilot who later became editor of Flight magazine, has produced a rare book--one which combines with economy and style the story of tactics, aircraft, equipment, and men over six decades.

*Bill Gunston, Night Fighters: A Development and Combat History (New York: Charles Scribnerís Sons, 1976, $8.95), 192 pages.

Historically, the successful engagement of aircraft at night has been the result of the development of radar. But the problems first arose during World War I. In a lively opening chapter, Gunston brushes the peculiar blend of incompetence and disorganization on one hand and ingenuity and bald bravery on the other that characterized attempts by the British to intercept and down German Zeppelins and bombers operating at night over England. In the age of over-the-horizon radar and data link, who can imagine the British solution to the detection problem?

Sound seemed to be the only way of establishing the direction of night bombers. Humans have two ears, and binaural listening was once (and still is, among primitive peoples) vital to the accurate hunting of game. Today the most accurate binaural hearing is possessed by people who have lost their other distantly stimulated sense, sight. Blind people had top priority in south-east England in September 1917, and soon they were able to give a fairly accurate bearing on a Gotha at a range of up to five miles. (p. 24)

By the end of the war, the Bristish had made great progress in developing an interception system and in "lashing-up" day fighters to perform night interceptions (by modifying the guns, for instance, to suppress the flash, which would destroy the pilot's night vision). By the end of the war, German losses over England were serious.

Between World War I and World War II, the problem of night flying, let alone night interception, was neglected, and the technological developments that would ultimately lead to the development of night combat were ignored. In 1931, King George V attended a lecture on sonar developments and asked, in a moment of offhand inspiration, whether electronic waves could be reflected off aircraft in the same way that sound waves bounced off submarines. The lecturer assured the king that such was an impossibility.

During the 1930s, however, the idea of radar was conceived of in the United States, Germany, and Great Britain. The United States made some initial advances; the Germans proceeded to develop radar detection and antiaircraft gun control systems. In Britain, however, the problem was ignored until it was referred by chance to a government electrical engineer, Robert Watson-Watt. He conceived the entire system of radar defense in a short time, and the British soon outdistanced the other powers in radar development. The development of the theory, hardware, aircraft, and, above all, the coordinated radar defense system is given thorough attention by Gunston, and he describes as well the separate problems faced by the "boffins" (research scientists) in developing airborne microwave radar for use by night fighters.

Gustonís developmental history is nicely complemented for the period of World War II by another book which skillfully combines tactics, hardware, and personal experience. Early in World War II, Jeremy Howard-Williams joined the Royal Air Force and was assigned to the then emerging night fighters. Night Intruder is his personal account of how radar altered the air combat environment in World War II.*

*Jeremy Howard-Williams, Night Intruder: A Personal Account of the Radar War between the RAF and Luftwaffe Nightfighter Forces (North Pomfret, Vermont: David and Charles, 1977, $13.95), 184 pages.

The author flew combat with both 604 Squadron, the pioneers of night fighting, and with the RAF's Fighter Development Unit, which had the mission of testing the latest products of the electronic laboratories in combat. His experience went far beyond that of the average line pilot. In the development unit, he flew in British, American, and captured German aircraft and used every type of airborne radar. He tested new equipment by flying "intruder" sorties over Germany. His expertise gives the book special authority and relevance for the student and practitioner of air war.

In three respects Night Intruder is noteworthy. The personal side of the night war comes through in abundant excerpts from the author's diary--skillful, literary entries which relate both the tactics and the spirit of night fighter crews. The technical aspect of the war is presented in the accompanying narrative, which is enhanced by very clear diagrams of the radar coverage and scope display of the different airborne interception radars used by the RAF. The author also adds a historical dimension by comparing British measures with the contemporary Luftwaffe efforts.

Personal narratives of the air war over Europe are commonplace, but Jeremy Howard-Williams has produced a book that successfully combines reminiscence and history in a fine fashion. Though his memoir lacks the precision and detail of a formal military history, it is entertaining and, above all, instructive.

As Gunston and Howard-Williams both demonstrate, night fighting per se reached its climax in the closing years of World War II German night fighters penetrated the British bomber streams, using either their own radars or homing in on the bombers' own electronic emissions. British intruders accompanied the stream and did battle with the German fighters. And both sides sought to foil (forgive the pun) ground radar systems with primitive electronic countermeasures. There are enough lessons to be learned from World War II alone to occupy air strategists for a lifetime. Indeed, Gun-ston includes in one chapter, "Riddles of the Night Sky," twenty tactical, developmental, and doctrinal questions that stem from historical experience (thirteen from World War II); they shoud be mandatory reading for all air tacticians.

After World War II, development continued. Gunston follows the story of night warfare from the early jets to the F-15; his narrative is not quite so detailed and compelling for the years after Korea, however, perhaps because of the difficulties of security classification Moreover, night fighting is no longer a distinct subset of air combat. Now all advanced aircraft are designed with radar systems for all-weather use; they can be easily adapted for night combat.

Well illustrated with photographs and diagrams, carefully written to avoid jargon, short, lively, and professional, these two books might well occupy a prominent place on the airmanís bookshelf. They are more than flying stories; they are highly useful accounts of a specialized kind of warfare. They are important studies of radar and air defense and such related concerns as instrument and bad-weather flying and air traffic control.

Department of History
USAF Academy


Captain Donald M. Bishop, USAFR, (M.A., Ohio State University) is a Foreign Service Officer in the United States International Communication Agency, Department of State, Washington, D.C. An Air Force officer for eleven years, he served in the United States, Vietnam, and Korea. His last assignment was teaching military history and area studies at the Air Force Academy. He is a graduate of Squadron Officer School and the Air Command and Staff College and has previously been published in the Review.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

Air & Space Power Home Page | Feedback? Email the Editor