Rearming the RAF for Second World War

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Rearming the RAF for Second World War. Poor Strategy and Miscalculation. By Adrian Phillips. Pen and Sword, Barnsley, 2022.

Reviewed by Tim Coyle

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‘Poor strategy and miscalculation’, succinctly sums up this book’s direction and flavour. It is a dismal narrative of air marshal ‘blimps’, naïve and wrongheaded strategies, grasping industry and weak political will. But before we write off this generation of RAF senior officers and politicians as bumbling fools, we must put aside our 21st century wisdom and hindsight and recall that ‘the past is a different country – they do things differently there’.

Adrian Phillips worked as an investment analyst, specialising in political influences on markets before turning to his passion of history. His interests focus on high level government decision-making by examining the nexus between politicians and civil servants. In Rearming the RAF, he has a rich trove to examine.

British military commentators, pre-First and -Second World Wars, feared pre-emptive attack. From the late 1890s it was the ‘bolt from the blue’ – a German amphibious invasion, dramatically laid out in the plot of ‘Riddle of the Sands’ by Erskine Childers and enjoyed enormous sales. Similar foreboding arose from 1936 with the emergence of the Luftwaffe as a threat (the ‘knockout blow’), which the Air Staff insisted only the RAF could counter.

As the first independent air force in the world, the RAF was formed from the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy Air Service. These services developed their air arms independently in accordance with their parent services’ directions; however, political will dictated otherwise and the RAF emerged on 01 April 1918 under the command of Sir Hugh Trenchard. Air power, having opened a new dimension in warfare, had a unique element which Trenchard seized upon. This was strategic bombing exemplified in the German Zeppelin, and later Gotha bombing raids on Britain, and the ‘bloody paralyser’ RNAS Handley Page O/400 bombers operating in Flanders.

As the first Chief of the Air Staff, Trenchard obsessively championed bombing as the pre-eminent RAF role and rendered other branches, such as army cooperation and the fleet air arm, to secondary roles. He had no interest in fighters as a defensive force; the whole presumption was that offensive bombing was the best form of defence. The RAF bombing force would so devastate the enemy’s fighting capability that the army and, most significantly for an island nation, the navy would be largely obsolescent.

Trenchard’s rationale was the innovative use of ‘air control’ in post-war Iraq and the Indian North-West frontier in the 1920s to cower tribal warriors and impose British imperial authority through graduated pressure, ranging from initial warnings to bombing, if the recalcitrants failed to acquiesce. This strategy was successful, saving the expenditure on land forces and logistics. Little wonder that this panacea was the basis of British air power strategy through the 20s and 30s. However, DH9s operating in the far flung reaches of the empire did not necessarily translate into long range strategic bombing in Europe.

Rearming the RAF takes the reader through the interwar period, introducing the air power actors: the Air Staff themselves, politicians, industry leaders, civil servants and various ‘influencers’. Trenchard’s two terms as CAS were followed by the ineffective and complacent Sir Edward Ellington and Sir Cyril Newell who, in addition to supporting bombers, advocated fighters with turrets resulting in the dismal Boulton-Paul Defiant which was decimated, along with its unfortunate bombing cousins, the Fairey Battle and the Bristol Blenheim in the first year of the war.

The 1936 RAF reorganisation into Bomber, Fighter and Coastal Commands did not alter the bomber-dominant philosophy but it did bring Sir Hugh Dowding to lead Fighter Command. Dowding challenged the Trenchard bombing doctrine and advocated the single-seat fighter as the only viable air defence capability against enemy bombing. Amongst other things, he had to fight for hardened runways for fighters against the traditional grass fields and the establishment of radar warning stations. Visitors to Fighter Command bases and command centres were impressed with the level of enthusiasm and professionalism exhibited by all ranks which contrasted to the overall lack of direction and torpor in Bomber Command.

While we may give some leeway to the contemporary thought processes of RAF planners and their political masters regarding the predominance of bombing theory, we really cannot comprehend the sheer lack of operational and technical capability of Bomber Command. Phillips points to the complete lack of realistic training of bomber crews and the ignorance of navigational expertise. The whole personnel rationale of the RAF was the recruitment and training of commissioned pilots; non-pilot aircrew, such as wireless operators and gunners were ground staff who, until the late 1930s, were ad hoc crew members paid a pitiful flying allowance. Navigators, termed ‘observers’ – a professional aircrew specialisation in the RFC and RNAS in World War One – were dispensed with by Trenchard on formation of the RAF, only to be resurrected in the 1936 reorganisation. However, navigation was by dead reckoning, complemented by astro navigation. Although Germany was experimenting with radio navigation aids, the Air Staff spurned these concepts. Dowding’s support to radar (and the recruitment of women to operate it) stood out in stark contrast to the hidebound obstinacy of the Air Staff.

What this lack of navigation capability showed was Bomber Command’s pathetic bombing results well into 1941. Decimated in early daylight raids, the Command soon shifted to night operations which did little to improve the appalling loss rate. Churchill’s scientific advisor, Frederick Lindeman, forced a review of bombing accuracy, known as the Butt Report. This showed that only one in four crews dropped bombs at night within 5 miles of their target. Against heavily defended targets, such as the Ruhr, it was one in ten. But these results were worsened by the fact it was only those crews who claimed to have reached the target. Figures against the total of sorties on a raid showed the number of bombs on target was only 5%.

As we all know, the Battle of Britain was a close-run thing, saved by the gallant ‘few’ and their Spitfires and Hurricanes. These splendid aircraft almost missed the show due to Air Staff complacency and industry lack of interest. It wasn’t until 1943 that Bomber Command came into its own with superior aircraft, such as the Lancaster, and bombing accuracy improved with electronic aids such as Gee, Oboe and H2S and the formation of the Pathfinder Force; however, all this occurred after the period examined by the book. The exigencies of the war, catapulting technology and a new generation of commanders into the war effort, left the dinosaurs of the pre-war Air Staff as remnants of a pre-historic age.

The actors in this dismal drama comprise the political elite of the interwar period, from the unfortunate prime minister Neville Chamberlain down. Additionally, there are the Air Staffs and their acolytes in their eyrie, Adastral House, and the aircraft manufacturers, some of which were little above that of cottage industries. They are all worth meeting in the RAF rearmament saga, but it is not simply to evaluate their performances in this sorry tale. The real value of this book is not just the historical narrative, but a study in military preparedness, innovative thinking versus hidebound bureaucracy and shortfalls in intelligence assessments. There are lessons from the 1930s which are relevant today.

In the ensuing 80 years, the disruptive third military force of the early 20th century, heralding destruction from the air to the exclusion of the older services, has matured to an integral part of military capability. However, progressive thinkers are beginning to question future force structures to the extent that ‘legacy platforms’, such as ‘fighters’ and ‘bombers’ may be supplanted by unmanned vehicles in many forms and capabilities. This also applies in the maritime environment: some doubt the future relevance of surface combatants, from aircraft carriers through destroyers and frigates, and armoured vehicles may be under threat, given their performance in Ukraine. So, if the lessons of Rearming the RAF have applications to today’s military planners, it is to encourage whole-of-service and inter-service interaction and to reject tribalism in specialisations. Indeed, this extends beyond purely military capabilities to whole-of-government (through diplomacy and ‘soft power’) and judicious selection of alliances.

Rearming the RAF is meticulously researched and heavy with political and administrative detail. The Air Staff obsessively counted the projected number of Luftwaffe bombers (using suspect intelligence analysis) and strove mightily to answer this number, bomber for bomber, through tortuous iterations of Plans. However, it didn’t seem to cross their minds it might have been better to work out know many fighters might be needed to engage German bombers over British targets.

An intriguing read. But they did win the war in the end!

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