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The Romance of the Dogfight: A Cautionary Tale for Historians

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 July 2009

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By the end of 1991, the United States had not quite completed the restoration of the prestige of its armed forces. The occasion was the triumph of American arms as part of a United Nations exercise intended to restore the territorial integrity of the sheikdom of Kuwait, which had been violated by its truculent neighbor, Iraq. Curiously, photography was at the core of the adventure. For decades, World War II had been endlessly refought on American television screens, a stream of visual nostalgia for “the good war” (as Studs Terkel had named it) made possible by archival photographic images of a quite high order. But the image of victorious Americans against Axis heavies had been sullied by the Vietnam War, “the living room war” that had suffered a terribly bad press at least in part as a result of incessant, bloody, and finally fruitless combat that appeared as daily images on the nation's TV screens.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1992

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1. Rubey, Dan, “Star Wars: ‘Not So Long Ago, Not So Far Away,’” in Jump Cut: Hollywood, Politics and the Counter Cinema, ed. Steven, Peter (New York: Praeger, 1985), pp. 83105.Google Scholar

2. Burns, Edward McNall, Ralph, Philip Lee, Lerner, Robert E., and Meacham, Standish, World Civilizations: Their History and Their Culture, 7th ed. (New York: Norton, 1986), vol. 2, p. 1229.Google Scholar

3. Rogers, Agnes, Flight: The Story of Aviation in Pictures and Text (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1935)Google Scholar, n. p. A shot showing an improbably sharply outlined pilot falling to his death without parachute was captioned “Killed in action. Machine brought down in flames by enemy aircraft.” Such unlikely detail, Rogers reported, was the result of a singularly lucky pilot who carried a camera with a single plate wired to his trigger so that on each patrol his first burst recorded shots so vividly etched as to invite charges of fakery.

4. A single sentence on one of the accompanying expository plaques testified to continuing doubts as to authenticity of these “Cockburn-Lange” pictures, but having come into possession of the suite, the stature of the museum as a federal agency led subsequent users to label them “Official USAF photographs,” thereby augmenting considerably their presumed credibility.

5. Park, Edwards, “The Greatest Aerial Warfare Photographs Go Down in Flames,” Smithsonian Magazine 15 (01 1985): 102–6.Google Scholar

6. Grosz, Peter M. and Schneide, Karl S., “In Search of Mrs. Cockburn-Lange Part I,” manuscript (08 2, 1984)Google Scholar, in National Air and Space Museum (NASM), in which are cited Reed, Katharine Jean, This Week in New York, 02, 1931, pp. 814 (“realistic”)Google Scholar; Philadelphia Sun, 03 21, 1931 (“Striking”)Google Scholar; Philadelphia Inquirer, 03 29, 1931Google Scholar (“essence”); and London Illustrated News, 10 8, 1932Google Scholar, et seq., in which there is an eleven-part serial of an anonymous pilot's diary (for which Cockburn-Lange's agent got her nine hundred pounds sterling).

7. The Schneide-Grosz manuscript in the NASM appeared in one version as Peter M. Grosz and Karl S. Schneide, “Historiography: Cockburn-Lange,” part 1: “In Search of Mrs. Cockburn-Lange,” W. W. I Aero: The Journal of the Early Aeroplane no. 102 (12 1984): 413Google Scholar. On Archer's career, see a stringbound album of photographs including those of “St. Armands Key” and the “John Ringling North Estates” in Sarasota; “Airport Models Folder,” including a shot of the Pan American terminal in Miami labeled “Model by Archer”; and Chicago Tribune, 09 10, 1934Google Scholar, on Archer's Trianon Film Company, all in Box 3400, Cockburn-Lange Collection, Paul Garber Center, NASM, Suitland, Maryland.

8. Letter of agreement in Archer Papers, Box 3400, NASM, Suitland.

9. Lord Trenchard [Major General Hugh Trenchard, RFC] [to Cockburn-Lange], October 22, 1932; and Cockburn-Lange to Trenchard, October 27, 1932, and November 7, 1932 (her copies are in italic typeface), in NASM, Suitland.

10. Cockburn-Lange, to Ingram, Captain, 10 24, 1932Google Scholar (italic copy, return address Thomas Cook in Berkeley Street, Wl London), denying charges of fakery by C. G. Grey, editor of Aeroplane, but admitting acquaintanceship with Elliott White Springs, thereby linking herself and Archer to an actual author of an “intrepid airman” diary; and C. G. G. [sic], “On Air Flight Pictures,” Aeroplane 43, no 25 (12 21, 1932): 1185–88Google Scholar, in NASM, Suitland. Grey tested his theory by contriving a fake of his own, assembling a montage of five negatives of different aircraft into a single frame in the manner of Cockburn-Lange. Ken Gyford in his “‘Cockburn-Lange’ — A study in the Authenticity of the Photographs,” Cross and Cockade (1979): 104–15Google Scholar, proposes a third possibility with respect to the authenticity of the photographs: that the photographs are genuine and the diary is an ex post facto concoction designed to provide a publishable accompaniment to the eminently publishable photographs. As to the challenges that rest upon the inadequacy of a darting, looping, machine-gun-firing pursuit aircraft as a platform for an aerial camera, Gyford suggests a Bristol fighter instead. He sketches a setting in which the aircraft in the photographs indeed fought each other in the skies over the Western Front, but in which they were recorded by the observer in the Bristol which kept its distance from the actual dogfight. The Bristol lent itself to this chronicler's role by virtue of its two-seat (pilot-observer) configuration, the observer's mounting a Hythe “camera gun” next to his aft-firing Lewis gun, and the airplane's own stability and steady course which, taken together, allowed Gyford to conclude that “the Bristol Fighter was the platform for the Cockburn-Lange photographs.” Taking this position allows Gyford to dismiss the errors of detail and incident in the diary while pointing out the higher burden of credibility borne by the photographs themselves. As a further test of authenticity he used a version of the suite of photographs given to the American Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, by a Mr. Reed-Chambers who, “apparently” (reports Gyford) met Maud Cockburn-Lange, borrowed her negatives, and made fifty new prints with none of the retouching that marred subsequent published images — all of this in 1928, almost five years before their appearance in print. Cautiously, Gyford insists on his theory but grants that it is only “the first requirement” in the quest for a fuller accounting.

11. A few advocates broke silence: David W. Grant of Sunday Pictorial Newspapers to Cockburn-Lange, , 12 7, 1932Google Scholar; Capt. H. H. Balfour, MP, to editor, Sunday Pictorial [holograph, 11 1932]Google Scholar, on Parliament's and Air Ministry member Sir Philip Sassoon's silence; and G. H. Glasspool, Lt. (ret.), RAF, January 13, 1933, who not only thought various details of fittings and insignia correct, but thought the photographs “instinctively genuine” in the eyes of a veteran. Cockburn- Lange to Mr. Collins, copy, September 29,1938, “entre nous”; Curtis Brown, Ltd., invoice, December 8, 1939, all in NASM, Suitland; Park, “Greatest Aerial Warfare Photographs,” pp. 103–12Google Scholar; Grosz, and Schneide, , “In Search of Mrs. Cockburn- Lange,”Google Scholar passim; and Death in the Air: The War Diary and Photographs of a Flying Corps Pilot [Wesley Archer] (London: Heinemann, 1933).Google Scholar

12. Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), pp. 34, 77.Google Scholar

13. Tagg, John, The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), pp. 2, 14, 169–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

14. Tagg, , Burden of Representation, p. 168.Google Scholar

15. On Lange, see Curtis, James C., “Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, and the Culture of the Great Depression,” Winterthur Portfolio 21 (Spring 1986): 120.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

16. Tagg, , Burden of Representation, pp. 14, 169–70.Google Scholar

17. Sontag, Susan, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978), pp. 45.Google Scholar

18. Moeller, Susan D., Shooting War: Photography and the American Experience of Combat (New York: Basic, 1989).Google Scholar

19. Curtis, , “Dorothea Lange,” pp. 120Google Scholar; see also on its later uses Stott, William, Documentary Expression and Thirties America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 67.Google Scholar

20. Mosse, George L., Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 7, 70, 21, 23.Google Scholar

21. Mosse, , Fallen Soldiers, pp. 117, 122Google Scholar; and Wells, H. G., “The War in the Air and Other Forebodings,” in Works (New York, 1926), vol. 20, p. 23Google Scholar. For the poll, see Christadler, Marie Louis, Kriegserziehung in Jugendbuch (Frankfurt am Main, 1978), p. 193.Google Scholar

22. Mosse, , Fallen Soldiers, p. 117Google Scholar. For “the gods,” see Supf, Peter, Das Buch der Deutschen Fluggeschichte (Stuttgart, 1958), vol. 2, p. 239.Google Scholar

23. See Corn, John, The Winged Gospel: America's Romance with Aviation, 1900–1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983)Google Scholar; and Bào, Bùi Xuân, Aviation et Littérature: naissance d'un heroîsme nouveau dans les lettres francaises de l'entre-deux-guerres (Paris, 1961)Google Scholar, on the romance of flight.

24. Mosse, , Fallen Soldiers, p. 118Google Scholar, on “a shield against modernity”; p. 122Google Scholar, on a linkage between combat flying and English public school notion of “fair play”; and on aloneness itself as an echo of the Middle Ages, see Schaffer, Ernst, Pour le Merite: Flieger im Feuer (Berlin, 1931), p. 190Google Scholar. On “knights of the air” as a title phrase, see Molter, Bennett Arthur, Knights of the Air (New York and London: Appleton, 1918)Google Scholar; and Bowen, Ezra, Knights of the Air (Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1980)Google Scholar. The fact that we are taking up legends must not blur the fact of a legend's grounding in actual cultural behavior. According to Kennett, Lee, The First Air War 1914–1918 (New York: Free Press, 1991), p. 12Google Scholar, “air-minded” Europe could be measured by France's one thousand pilots' licenses and by the licensed famous such as Winston Churchill and C. S. Rolls in Britain and Prinz Heinrich of Prussia. Each of these same countries included in its social life various air leagues and fliegerkorps (pp. 13, 16). In practice the legend seemed grounded in observed behavior. The New York Times, on 11 2, 1912Google Scholar, for example, reported that the romance of pilots that set them apart was merely recognition that imagination, not knowledge, defines them. Even chivalry seemed grounded in practice: Admiral von Tirpitz, for example, invoked rules against bombing cities because airmen would seem “repulsive” if they killed “an old woman” (p. 57). And there really were dogfights, sometimes totaling one hundred combatants, which Reichsmarschal Hermann Goring remembered as “nerveshattering tumults” not unlike a “frantic witch's sabbath in the air” (p. 82). As to the chivalric code that seemed to arise simultaneously out of the British public school and the German officer caste, in fact, reported Kennett, the upper class was “over-represented,” contributing to a collective image of the “gentleman-pilot” (p. 119). And as to their elitist, brash manner, the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, examined a sample of the pilots and found them as a lot “headstrong” and “reckless” and prone to regard their work as “fun.” (p. 134). At first, they even thought it unseemly and lacking “military decorum” when some air services began counting victories and naming “aces” (p. 154). Finally, even troops in the trenches joined in the hero worship, regarding the pilots in the same chivalric terms as they preferred. “You are our gods,” they thought, as they watched dogfights over the trenches. “I am somebody,” thought Charles Nordhoff, as though in agreement, on the occasion of his joining the Lafayette Escadrille (pp. 158, 161).

25. Sontag, , On Photography, pp. 4, 6.Google Scholar

26. Sontag, , On Photograhy, p. 108.Google Scholar

27. Gilbert, Adrian, Illustrated History of World War I (New York: Portland House, 1988), p. 133Google Scholar; von Eberhardt, Walter, Unsere Luftstreitkrafte 1914–1918: Ein Denkmal deutschen Heldentums (Berlin, 1930)Google Scholar, for “Ab Dafür!”; and on museum paintings, for example, Jullian, Marcel, La Grande Bataille dans les Airs 1914–1918 (Paris, 198), p. 176Google Scholar, for Lengelle's painting of Charles Nungesser in La Musée de l'Air.

28. Grider, John MacGavock, War Birds: The Diary of an Unknown Aviator, ed. Springs, Elliott White, illust. Clayton Knight (1926; rept. College Station, Tex.: Texas A&M University Press, 1988), p. 226Google Scholar; and Gibbons, Floyd, The Red Knight of Germany: The Story of Baron von Richthofen, Germany's Great War Bird (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1927), p. 82Google Scholar, which together with Knight's sketches was serialized in Liberty magazine. For a good bibliography that includes intrepid airman accounts, see Kennett, , First Air WarGoogle Scholar.

29. Munden, Kenneth W., ed., The American Film Institute Catalogue of Motion Pictures Produced in the United States: Feature Films 1921–1930 (New York and London: Bowker, 1971)Google Scholar, in which, see, alphabetically, Across the Atlantic (1928)Google Scholar, The Aviator (1929)Google Scholar, Dawn Patrol (1930)Google Scholar, Hell's Angels (1930)Google Scholar, The Lone Eagle (1927)Google Scholar, The Sky Hawk (1929)Google Scholar, The Sky Raider (1925)Google Scholar featuring Charles Nungesser himself, Wings (1929)Google Scholar, Young Eagles (1930)Google Scholar, taken from two Elliott White Springs stories in Redbook; and Grace, Richard, Squadron of Death (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran, 1929).Google Scholar

30. Sandy to Alf [September 24, 1982]; and Gaby to Ank, September 24, 1982, Box 3400, NASM, Suitland, in which they discuss in passing whether Archer might have been in Grunewald while they were making the 1930s films, Pour le Merite and D III 88, two German dogfight movies. They also took up authenticity and concluded of the photographs that “die sind falsch.”

31. The Playbill on the occasion of the production of The Ace is in the Cockburn-Lange Collection; and the account of the gallery in the Heergechichtliches Museum is based upon a visit in December, 1988.

32. Meijering, Piet Hein, Signed With Their Honor: Air Chivalry in the Two World Wars (New York: Paragon, ca. 1988), pp. 12, 10Google Scholar. The debate over the extent of chivalry persists. Kennett, , First Air War, p. 156Google Scholar, found “the chivalric theme was already in full flower by 1916,” while Franks, Norman, Aircraft versus Aircraft: The Illustrated Story of Fighter Pilot Combat Since 1914 (New York: Bantam, 1986)Google Scholar, thought that by 1917 “the hapless pilot could expect no mercy from the less chivalrous pilots,” a trend documented by Boelcke's own war-tempered, harsh rules of combat (p. 46).

33. von Richthofen, Manfred Freiherr, Der Rote Kampfflieger, “erganzte” by von Richthofen, Bolko (Berlin, 1933), pp. 172, 173, 188, 221.Google Scholar

34. Rogers, , Flight, no paginationGoogle Scholar; Stallings, Laurence, The First World War: A Photographic History (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1933), 211–12Google Scholar, in which he credits “Mrs.” Cockburn-Lange for her contribution to his book, which is dedi cated, he said in capitals, to “THE CAMERA EYE,” but also dedicated in voice and tone to the sort of pacifism that led war-card makers to their slogan: “To know the horrors of war is to want peace.”

35. See the dustjacket art of Major Gurney, Gene, Great Air Battles (New York: Franklin Watts, 1963)Google Scholar, and Trevor N. Dupuy, Col. (ret.), USAF, The War in the Air, one of a set on “The Military History of World War I” (New York: Franklin Watts, 1967)Google Scholar. Gurney also used shots of models to show how a Spitfire tipped the wing of a V-l rocket, upsetting its gyroscope, but captioned the four-frame sequence as scale models (pp. 70–71); see also [Griffiths, William R.], The Great War, in “The West Point Military History Series,” ed. Griess, Thomas E. (Wayne, N.J.: Avery, 1986)Google Scholar, the cover of which is part of a general crediting to “historical library collection” of Dr. George Lankevich.

36. Winter, Denis, The First of the Few: Fighter Pilots of the First World War (London: A. Lane, 1982), pp. 9697Google Scholar. As though wishing to corroborate the data implied in the Archer pictures, the author argued that the French ace Guynemer had taken a camera aloft, but modern authorities such as Susan Moeller report only reconnaissance photography. Archer's caption for the same picture was his cryptic “Had a glorious (?) [sic] fight all by ourselves.” See Death in the Air, p. 144.Google Scholar

37. Clark, Alan, Aces High: The War in the Air Over the Western Front 1914–1918 (New York: Putnam, 1973)Google Scholar, in which on the same page as the “Farman” Clark asserts that “on nearly every aircraft” the fuel tanks were mounted forward of the pilot, whereas Winter and others locate them under the pilot's unarmored seat (p. 76); and Longstreet, Stephen, The Canvas Falcons: The Story of the Men and the Planes of World War I (New York and Cleveland: World, 1970)Google Scholar, in which the Revell credits appear on the picture margins; and Oughten, Frederick, in The Aces (New York: Putnam, 1960)Google Scholar, credits the painter Robert T. Handville with narrowly specific journalistic painting of dated events — “September 1917. Werner Voss in his Fokker triplane DR-1 fights seven “SE-5's,” for example — from the “Historical Aviation Collection of the Phillips Petroleum Company” (p. 192); Jackson, Robert, Aerial Combat: The World's Greatest Air Battles (New York, 1976), pp. 4748Google Scholar, uses works by George Davis but without the attribution of a museum or the inclusion of dates of execution; Taylor, John W. R., Jane's Fighting Aircraft 1914–1918 (New York: Military Press, 1990)Google Scholar; and telephone interview with Tony Armour, Chicago photographer and owner of a print of a Cockburn-Lange picture, December 1990; Newsweek, 05 17, 1982, pp. 108–9.Google Scholar

38. Bowen, Ezra, Knights of the Air, a volume in “The Epic of Flight” (Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1980).Google Scholar

39. Taylor, A. J. P., Illustrated History of the First World War (New York: Putnam, 1964), p. 54Google Scholar, in which credit is given to Ullstein Bilddienst, Berlin.

40. Terraine, John, The Great War 1914–1918: A Pictorial History (London: Hutchinson, 1965), p. 289Google Scholar, in which credit is given to Ullstein Bilddienst, Berlin.

41. Winter, J. M., The Experience of World War I (London: Macmillan, 1988), p. 109.Google Scholar

42. Jablonski, Edward, Pictorial History of World War I (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979)Google Scholar, n.p. Jablonski, unlike other authors, credits the “Jarrett Collection” for his Cockburn-Lange shots, Jarrett being a late Colonel (ret.) USAF, last resident in Aberdeen, Maryland. There is some evidence that the Cockburn-Lange photographs were used in languages other than English for much the same purposes. See Otto, Helmut, Schmiedel, Karl, Schnitter, Helmut, Die Erste Krieg: Militärische Abriβ (Berlin, n.d.), pp. 9697Google Scholar, a product of the Deutscher Militärverlag; and Aguirre, José Fernando, La Gran Guerra y la Revolucion Rusa (Barcelona, 1966), p. 260.Google Scholar

43. Lane, Frederic C., Goldman, Eric F., and Hunt, Erling M., The World's History (1947; rept. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1950), p. 602.Google Scholar

44. Anderson, Eugene N., Modern Europe in World Perspective: 1914 to the Present (New York: Rinehart, 1958)Google Scholar, credited a domestic archive, Bettmann, with the Cockburn-Lange photographs, as did Wallbank, T. Walter and Schreier, Arnold's Twentieth Century World (1969; rept. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1974).Google Scholar

45. Wallbank, T. Walter, Taylor, Alastair M., Bailkey, Nels M., and Jewsbury, George F., Civilization Past & Present (1962; Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1978), 5th ed., p. 690.Google Scholar

46. Burns, et al. , World Civilizations, p. 1229.Google Scholar

47. Snyder, Louis L., World War I: A First Book (1958; rept. New York: Franklin Watts, 1981), pp. 3233.Google Scholar

48. Miquel, Pierre, World War I, translation by Kossman, Charlotte M. of his Au temps de la grande guerre (Morristown, N.J.: Silver Burdett, ca. 1985), illust. Jacques Poirer.Google Scholar

49. On Benjamin, Brecht, and theater, see Carroll, Nöel, Mystifying Movies: Fads and Fallacies in Contemporary Film Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), p. 53Google Scholar; and on Benjamin on captioning of photography as a means to “rescue it from the ravages of modishness,” see Sontag, , On Photography, p. 107.Google Scholar

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