AIRCRAFT OF THE FIGHTING POWERS
A few notes for book collectors.
Dustjacket cover of the original Volume 5
The dark days of 1940 saw the start of an extraordinary series of books. "Aircraft of the Fighting Powers" was designed to describe the major combat aircraft of the warring countries along with a three-view diagram of each aircraft in a constant scale (1/72 scale). This made it a vital aid, not only for recognising aircraft but also building models of the aircraft. Models were an invaluable for aircraft recognition and in those days the crew rooms of RAF stations, AA gun sites and Observer Corp posts would have their ceilings festooned with model aircraft, carved from wood, hanging from threads.
The first aircraft in the first volume - the Gloster Gladiator
The first volume, covering aircraft in service in 1940, was to be followed up every year by a new volume (published in December) that covered the new aircraft that had entered service during that year, or the aircraft of powers that had joined the conflict as it spread around the world. It eventually ran to seven volumes (the release date of Volume 7 was bought forward to March 1947).
Produced by the Harborough Publishing Company of Leicester, who specialised in books for aircraft modellers, the work was edited by D A Russell. The text was written by a young Owen G Thetford (who can have been only 17 years old when the project started!) who went on to have a long and distinguished career as an aeronautical writer. Up until volume 5 the aircraft plans were done by Harry Cooper, those for volume 6 were done by C.B. Maycock and those for volume 7 by E J "Eddie" Riding . Notably, the artwork layout for larger aircraft in Volume 7 is different to that in all previous volumes, many of the larger aircraft being to 1/144 scale rather than the usual 1/72 scale and being printed across adjacent pages, rather than as "fold-outs".
One of the splendid fold-out 3 view diagrams, in this case the Handley-Page Halifax.
Fold out plan of the Dornier Do 26 Flying boat from Volume 2. By the time this plan appeared four of the six Do 26 aircraft built had already been destroyed.
One of the things of interest to modern historians is the things they got wrong. Volume 1 features such aircraft as the "propaganda" Heinkel He113 fighter and Messerschmitt "Jaguar" which never saw service. The description of Russian and Japanese aircraft that started in Volume 3 are sometimes way-off in both description and illustration. Types that saw little service are given coverage while other types in widespread use are missed out until later volumes. It is particularly evident that the British knew far less about the aircraft of their allies, the Russians, than their enemy, the Luftwaffe.
A diagram of the Heinkel 113 (Heinkel 100) with an inaccurate wing profile accompanied the description in volume 1. Only a small number of pre-production prototypes were built, which were used briefly as a defence force for the Heinkel factory at Marienehe. The German propoganda ministry had them photographed in numerous settings and guises to make it look as if they were in widespread use. Some British pilots in the Battle of Britain even reported dogfights with Heinkel 113s !
The pages on the Russian I-17 fighter in Volume 2. It reported the aircraft to be in service in "vast numbers". In fact only three prototypes were ever built.
The camouflage colours page from volume 5.
The books were a lavish production, seemingly not constricted by the paper-rationing then in force. Larger aircraft required "fold-out" plans, some of two pages but really large designs required three. There were colour plates, each book usually had at least one plate of a painting of aircraft in flight. The front of each volume also contained pages of advertisements, up to a quarter of each book could be taken up with these. Some of the advertisements were in colour and are often striking works of art. The book covers had embossed lettering and the dust covers were especially vivid and eye-catching. One feature particularly valued by aeromodellers is a page of examples of the then-current RAF camouflage colours in Volume 5. The sale price of Volume 1, when it first came out, was one guinea, which was one pound and one shilling ( ie 21 shillings - or one pound and five pence in modern money). This was at a time when a skilled tradesman would earn about 10 pounds a week. So when originally produced each volume would have cost the equivalent of about 80 pounds today (2019).
Examples of colour plates, sadly today they often end up as framed prints on Ebay! .
Anyone wanting to collect these books needs to understand an important point. The early volumes stayed in print alongside the latest volumes. This means that volumes 1 to 4 are fairly common, as you get to volumes 5, 6 and 7 they become harder to find. This is because less of these volumes were produced because they stayed in print for a much shorter period, and fewer people bought them because there was less need of it for recognition purposes as the war drew to a close.
The later impressions of the earlier volumes differed in detail from when they were first published. The impressions seem to have had far fewer advertisements and missed out the forward if it was no longer appropriate.
Note of impression numbers of a Volume 2 edition.
The second-hand value of the books reached a peak in the 1960s and 1970s, a classic case of middle-aged people buying items they yearned for in their youth. The rarer volumes 7, 6 and 5 were particularly sought after. This trend was noticed and in 1979 the volumes started to be republished by Argus books. Because of the shortage of the later volumes, they started publishing these reprints in reverse order. I think they only got around to republished volumes 7 and 6. These reprints are nowhere near as desirable to a collector as the originals. The advertisement pages were deleted, the colour artwork was omitted and the dustjackets were a drab blue design.
The cover of the reprint of Volume 7 published by Argus Books in 1979.
Presumably, because they cost so much to buy many were kept as treasured possessions and collections turn up in excellent condition, advertised online or in second-hand bookshops. You need to be careful to check none of the plans have been cut out by enthusiastic model makers. However, the fold-out plans were bound into each volume in such a way that a small "runt" length of paper protrudes from the spine elsewhere in the book; this gives the impression that a page has been cut out whereas in fact the book is completely intact.
The way the fold-out pages are bound means that part of them protrude between other pages, giving the impression that pages have been cut out.
The ultimate find for a collector would be a collection of first impressions of the full seven original volumes in their original dustjackets. It is sad to see the dismembered contents of some volumes turn up on ebay as mounted prints.
If you've got any extra information or stories on the production and use of "Aircraft of the Fighting Powers" I'd love to hear from you to update this page. But please DO NOT ask me for valuations or try to sell me any you have. My collection is complete.