Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Heinkel He 111 - An Illustrated History

[Full title: Heinkel He 111 - An Illustrated History. Design, Development, Variants, Operations, Equipment] Robert Forsyth with Eddie J. Creek, Chevron Publishing Limited/Ian Allan Publishing Ltd., Hersham, England, 2014, Classic 25, ISBN 978 1 90653 747 0. Illustrated, hardcover, published in English.

Cover image © by Chevron Publishing Limited/Ian Allan Publishing Ltd., 2014.

What is, and what could have been...

It is astonishing that, to this day, no landmark study on the Heinkel He 111 exists, even after decades of serious research into German aviation of the 1930s and 1940s. It is equally astonishing that a book on a topic of this of this magnitude, by authors and a publishing house of such standing, no less, comes as a single volume of a mere 328 pages, and opens with a disclaimer. A disclaimer which reads almost like an admission of defeat or, worse, an apology for attempting to generate some business with a minimum of original research.

In 1996, when Classic Publications (the precursor of the publishing arrangement behind this release) first appeared on the scene with their book on JV 44 (JV 44 - The Galland Circus), they easily set a new standard for World War II German aviation publications. In addition to a flawless, professional, and thoroughly beautiful presentation, their books were crammed full of information, research, photos, and profiles. At the time, it was overdue that a publisher would take the topic of World War II-era German aviation to the next level and dedicate such attention to its product. I myself have often enthusiastically embraced their ventures (see the reviews elsewhere in this blog).

I am well aware, of course, that the landscape of publishing has changed dramatically since Classic's inception, rendering the conception and trade of such specialist books an extremely challenging and risky proposition. But why be so utterly boastful, then, in this new book's subtitle and in its advertising? Perhaps Heinkel He 111 - An Illustrated History actually is "the single most comprehensive study of the He 111 ever published", if compared to existing books about the He 111. But does it really fulfill that claim on its own? I personally have my doubts. There is room for much more. Volumes more. Hence the above mentioned disclaimer in the book, in the guise of "Introduction and Acknowledgments", and opening, literally, with a confession to this effect.

Make no mistake, Forsyth's Heinkel He 111 - An Illustrated History is a beautiful, high-quality book, as can be expected from the Classic series. But what really is its purpose? A compendium of as much previously published material on the He 111 as possible? In all of my years of studying German aviation of the 1920s to 1940s, I have amassed something like this myself. As Forsyth himself frankly states, access to original documentary material was limited during the gestation of the book, and he thus resorted to a great extent to secondary, published, sources. And, more than once, Forsyth openly points to the fact that the touted "comprehensive study of the He 111" actually still remains to be written, by another author.

That's all a bit of a shame. After the initial book announcement, it was reasonable to instinctively assume that this would be Classic's customary attempt at creating a landmark study, by necessity in a multi-volume format, for yet another German aircraft type currently surprisingly under-represented. I sincerely hope that this isn't a further sign of a mounting lack of dedication on the part of Chevron/Classic, as evidenced, in the past, by an increasing number of somewhat unsatisfactory publications, such as Fernández-Sommerau's Messerschmitt Bf 109 Recognition Manual, Salgado's Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor, or Medcalf's Junkers Ju 88 series. Or, indeed, by the recent proliferation of misinterpretations or outright spelling errors of German language terms, something that simply should not occur in proofread specialist publications on German aircraft, several of which were co-written, not least, by an author of German descent (Eddie J. Creek, née Helmut Rudolf Nielinger). If such errors by the authors appear in text and captions after final editing, what are the implications with regard to the interpretation of original German sources and documents that are, not least, the very foundation of any serious publication on these topics? There have been indications, on other platforms, that this might indeed be a problem.

So what do we actually have in Heinkel He 111 - An Illustrated History?

The promises contained in the book's pretentious subtitle are only superficially fulfilled. Like many others, I was hoping for a detailed description and assessment of the aircraft's gestation, design, and variants, but after a cursory look at these topics, Forsyth instead focuses on the operational career of the He 111. And there again, how would it ever be possible to cover this aspect adequately within just over 300 pages? It would have served the book better to actually indeed focus on said gestation, design, and variants instead. It would have fit a single volume perfectly. In my opinion, this is the most significant missed opportunity with regard to this publication.

The book opens with the customary introduction to the aircraft manufacturer, Heinkel. A further chapter sheds light on the path which led to the design of the He 111, segueing into a look at the He 111 as an airliner. These pages are arguably the most rewarding of the book. Not only has this aircraft been under-represented in its airliner guise in many previous magazine features and publications, but the clean, pure lines of an aircraft still unencumbered by wartime requirements highlight how utterly advanced and aesthetic its design was for its time. Chevron/Classic's penchant for beautiful book layouts and lavish photographic coverage really does the book's subject justice here. Wonderful!

From chapter four on, the narrative focuses on the He 111 at war, and the technical development of the aircraft is now relegated to a mere occasional sentence or drawing. As has been noted elsewhere, a more appropriate (and honest) subtitle for the boom would have been "An Operational History". Color profiles are interspersed throughout, although upon close examination, they don't always correspond in every detail to the photos of the real aircraft portrayed.

The true value of this book lies in the photos, of which there is an abundance to be found. Many of them are beautiful with regard to scene and detail, such as the photo of the Hansa Luftbild He 111 B on page 38, the hangar shot on top of page 100, or the compilation of He 111s with anti balloon cable fenders on pages 239 and 240, to name but three examples. Much like the aforementioned spelling errors, a certain lack of an adequate quality control has crept in here, too, unfortunately. Perhaps the most glaring examples: the "He 111 test aircraft" on page 276 is actually a Focke-Wulf Fw 200. And the "He 111" cockpit gun installation on page 187, bottom right, is in fact the rear gun installation of a Focke-Wulf Fw 189 reconnaissance aircraft.

Heinkel He 111 - An Illustrated History is really a lavish, large and beautiful book. Its shortfalls, for the serious student of German aviation at least, certainly aren't its layout or photo content. Upon making the decision to indeed produce just one single volume covering a mass-produced and omni-operational aircraft such as the Heinkel He 111, Forsyth should probably have focused as much as possible on the trails less taken so far. The lack of a detailed examination of the He 111's design, technical details, variants, and capabilities is a true shame. The He 111 is of course not as exciting a topic as an Fw 190 or a Bf 109. But in a perfect world (i.e., one not driven by a decreasing book market), its existence would have warranted at least a four-volume series, if not more.

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