Death in the Air: The War Diary and Photographs of a Flying Corps Pilot

Published: December 23rd, 2016     
Product Image
Front Cover
Author: Wesley D Archer
Reviewed by: Frank Landrus - IPMS# 35035
ISBN #: 978-1-84832-878-5
Other Publication Information: Soft Cover, 6.5” x 9.5”, 166 pages
Price: $24.95
Product provided by: Casemate Publishing

Originally published in Hardcover in 1933 by William Heinemann, this diary immediately became a bestseller, largely due to the incredible WWI in action photographs. The publisher was told that the author had been killed in action in 1918 and that the suppliers of the typewritten manuscript wished anonymity. The diary had no named author, and had no dates or any squadron references that could be checked. The spectacular pictures did create some doubt, but in post war Britain, no one wanted to dishonor a WWI hero. Fast forward to 1983 when a collection was donated to the Smithsonian and the contents were recognized by noted WWI historian Peter M. Grosz, who along with Karl Schneide, deduced what had happened. The book was re-printed in October 1985 by Greenhill Press with an Introduction by Karl Schneide of the National Air and Space Museum revealing the details of the hoax.

The author, Wesley D. Archer was an American with Canadian parents who served with the RFC and the RAF. On October 9, 1918, he was downed by ground fire while strafing German infantry in his RAF SE 5. He had been hit in the chest but the bullet was deflected by his Colt pistol. Wesley D. Archer finally returned to the US in 1920 after getting out of the British hospital. He found employment as a model maker and set designer for the movie industry. Moving to New York, he meticulously developed an alter ego that created the pictures used in an art exhibit called the "Gladys Maud Cockburn-Lang' photographic collection. He died in Havana in 1955 and his wife passed in 1959.

So what do you get? You get a novel in the form of a diary by an authentic WWI airman. You also get 47 up front and personal in action photographs of WWI aircraft models in combat. A bonus is a real photo of a typical fighting squadron in France featuring RAF SE5 aircraft and pilots from the Imperial War Museum.

The Chapters include:

  • Introduction
  • Forward
  • Dedicated
  • The Diary [Pages 14, 80, 144, and 152]
  • Explanatory Notes

What this book represents is what is now called a historical novel. Viewing it as that, it's a good read. I can understand if one had purchased this for the real thing, being hurt and disappointed when you found out it was a hoax....but as a historical novel, its fun and can easily be read in one night. The author was at least a real WWI airman that provided a first person perspective. He was also able to build models good enough to fake most of the populace of 1933 to achieve its best seller status. Indeed a photo of an Allied aircraft breaking up in the air is captioned "Must have broken up at instant I pressed the trigger' referring to his camera trigger. Pick it up for a 'jolly good time'! My thanks to Casemate and IPMS/USA for the chance to review this excellent book.

Highly recommended!

  • Back Cover
    Back Cover
  • Sample Page 14
    Sample Page 14
  • Sample Page 80
    Sample Page 80
  • Sample Page 144
    Sample Page 144
  • Sample Page 152
    Sample Page 152

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