The Royal Air Force and the Problems of the Inter-War Years

I have not posted much lately. The key reason for this is that I have been trying to finish the first chapter of my thesis. I have to admit it has been a bit of a slog. The pressures of work has not left me with the motivation needed to get it done. I’m ok once I have started but I find the starting bit a challenge. However, despite this I am almost done. This is a section of the first chapter, which examines some of the economic and operational issues that faced the RAF in the inter-war years. By explaining these problems it will help to contextualise the RAF role in developing Combined Operations doctrine. On the financial side I would like to thank Dan Todman for his suggestion on sources. As always any thoughts or ideas are wanted and welcomed.

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The RAF finished the First World War as the world’s first independent air force with strength of 293,532 officers and men and a self-confidence of its own capabilities as shown by its actions during the final campaigns of the war.[1] However, despite the fact the RAF did not face the introspective analysis of the war that was required by both the Army and RN in terms of their roles in future wars it did begin to analyse the potential role that air power would play in the future.[2] In January 1919 Air Marshal Sir Hugh Trenchard, now Chief of the Air Staff, had the Air Ministry produce a synopsis of the role that the air force had played in the First World War.[3] This piece laid out four principles that were to form the core of RAF thinking for much of the inter-war period. The most important of these was the argument that central to the effective application of air power in the battle space was the attainment of ‘Command of the Air’ or air superiority.[4]

However, before Trenchard could forge a future for the newly formed RAF he first had to defend it from budgetary constraints that were being placed upon each of the three services in the early post-war years. The RAF’s budget went from £52.5 million in 1920 to £9.4 million in 1923, a drop of some eighty-three percent and in the same period it saw its strength drop to some 27,000 officers and men and just twenty-five squadrons.[5] Each of the three services had to contend with a smaller pot of money and deal with the Treasury’s contention of the ten-year rule as a basis for military spending, which caused serious issues for the planners of each the services.[6] The rule also did not help the already prevalent hostility that existed between the newborn RAF and the older branches of the military. Both the Army and RN argued that they should have control of their own air assets and for much of the inter-war period both branches made concerted efforts to bring their assets back into their respective folds.[7]

It is useful to note the personal effect that budgetary constraints had upon the service. For example, in 1920, the future Marshal of the Royal Air Force, then Squadron Leader Arthur Travers Harris who as Officer Commanding No. 3 Flying Training School had to do battle with the bureaucracy of Whitehall when an issue arose over the disposal of redundant supplies, in this case excess cans of petrol. Harris in his usual effective manner stored the cans behind barbed wire and he soon discovered that some had evaporated. He quickly reported this and in return, he received an abusive letter informing him that he now had to pay for the shortage.[8] This illustrates the problems that were faced by the service in the early post-war years and the length that would be taken to save money. Luckily, for Harris he used his ingenuity and checked with a local petrol company as to how much petrol could evaporate over a period of a year, the answer to which was 100%. He proceeded to tell the air ministry that he was owed money and the matter was dropped.[9] Harris noted to his official biographer, Dudley Saward that ‘Serving in the services in the immediate aftermath of a war is not an exciting or particularly pleasant experience.’[10] In other areas too, the service faced serious financial problems and more often than not officers found themselves doing jobs that at any other time would have been done by at least two officers. For example, Squadron Leader Alec Haslam at the School of Army Co-Operation in 1921 noted that the reason for this was the fear of the Geddes Axe and, therefore, he noted that, ‘We doubled every job we needed except the Wing Commander.’[11] Thankfully, for Haslam the ‘Axe’ did not fall on the school and soon after he was able to suggest the posting of Squadron Leader Trafford Leigh Mallory to the School as No. 2 Squadron Leader.[12]

Alongside its budgetary figures it is useful to examine the expenditure of the various services in this period, table 1.1 shows that RAF expenditure on armaments and various war stores compared favourably with the army but not so well in comparison to the RN and its capital ship building program.

Source: David Edgerton Warfare State: Britain, 1920 – 1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) table 1.1, p. 22 and M Postan British War Production (London: HMSO, 1952) table 1, p. 2

In viewing these figures David Edgerton has suggested that the fall in overall naval expenditure and in the naval-industrial complex was because of the rise of a new military-industrial complex, the aero industry and its major recipient, the RAF, a service that Edgerton describes as a ‘…procurement intensive force.’[13] For example, in 1923 the RAF’s expenditure on airframes equalled fifty-two percent of its annual budget.[14] This expenditure helped finance a growing aircraft industry in Britain. However, despite the growing expenditure of the RAF it did not overtake the overall budget of the Army until 1937 and the Navy in 1938, a period when the British government became more reliant on the promise of air power.[15] It has been noted that in the inter-war period the RAF re-equipped itself several times with new airframes and that by the early 1930’s RAF expenditure on airframes exceeded the RN’s spending on capital ships.[16] Despite providing an apparent picture of a service able to spend freely on new aircraft the figures do not, however, take into account the pace of technological change in aircraft design during the inter-war years and the constantly changing operational requirements of the air force, which forced it to spend such a high proportion of the its budget on airframes.[17] For example, in terms of engine horsepower, output increased from around 225 hp in 1918 to 500 hp in the early 1930’s and then finally to a figure in excess of 1,000 hp in the RAF latest monoplane fighters, the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire.[18]

The issue of perception was anther matter that was to trouble the service throughout the inter-war years as well as in much of the post war historiography. In reality, Trenchard’s and the RAF’s perceived infatuation with strategic bombing was to provide the backdrop for many of the discussions that took place on tactical matters during the period. Williamson Murray has gone so far as to suggest that ‘…senior [RAF] air leaders held fast to Trenchard’s ideological belief in the bomber. This approach rejected co-operation with the other services.’[19] John Terraine has supported this view by echoing similar sentiments as he has noted that:

It may be said, without straining verity, that bombing was what the RAF was all about…It is chiefly for that reason…that cooperating with the army and navy went right out of fashion between the wars.[20]

These interpretations are not helped by the elucidation of then serving RAF officers. Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor wrote in his memoirs, The Central Blue, that ‘Our belief in the bomber, in fact, was intuitive – a matter of faith.’[21] This comment has been echoed by many historians down the years and along with Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s glum protestation in 1932 that the ‘…bomber would always get through…’[22] this has produced what Tami Davis Biddle has described as the ‘Seeds of later troubles.’[23] This is further supported by the declaration of the RAF Staff College Commandant Philip Joubert de la Ferte, who in a debate on war aims at a staff exercise at the Wessex Bombing Area Headquarters of the Air Defence Great Britain in 1933 noted that there were five main misconceptions about the RAF. The key of these was:

4. that the RAF will not direct its effort to what the other services argue should be the common aim: the attack on the enemy armed forces

5. that the RAF is advocating a form of military action that no,…government will…put into effect…[24]

He was willing to confess that the RAF may have been to blame for this issue but it does highlight the lack of clear understanding between the services that characterised this period.[25] However, this interpretation does not give the RAF and its leaders their due respect in their attempts to think about the nature of war and how air power could be applied to this new form of warfare. A considerable amount of time, considering the financial constraints placed upon the service and the need to defend its independence, was placed upon thinking about how the RAF could apply air power to other facets of warfare. Slessor, while serving on the staff of the ASC, spent a considerable amount of time producing work on the inter-relationship between air and land power and this eventual found its way into written form in his treatise Air Power and Armies.[26] Slessor earned a well-deserved reputation as a tactical expert at the ASC as the RAF instructor. This was because the previous holder of that position had not been able to discuss the broader aspects of air power and Trenchard had promised the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), Field Marshal George Milne a more capable officer.[27] Previously Slessor had been tasked by Trenchard to re-write the RAF’s manual on co-operation with land forces. His work was forward thinking for the time and, for example, in thinking about how to isolate enemy forces on the battlefield he concluded that a ‘…carefully organized attack on the enemy system of supply…’ would produced positive results as this is where they are ‘…vulnerable…’ especially if the enemy is a highly organised force.[28] In this manual, AP 1176, we can see the basis of theories on air interdiction operations in support of land forces. Slessor would continue to expand on these ideas in Air Power and Armies while on his tour of duty in India. Slessor was not the only one to make arguments for the use of air power in support of the other services as much important work appeared in the pages of the Journal of the Royal United Services Institute in the inter-war period. For example, the key RAF officer in the planning for JUBILEE, Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh Mallory, spent considerable time thinking about the relationship between the services.[29] As Leigh-Mallory commented in his lecture on co-operation between aircraft and mechanised forces:

While…aircraft may influence the operations of armoured forces…armoured forces may exercise considerable influence over air operations [thus] it is evident that these two modern arms can exercise a considerable influence on the…other.[30]

Apart from the issues of financial constraints and perception, the RAF faced another problem in the inter-war years and that was one of operational priorities. As the RAF, in line with all the services, had less money to spend, it had to decide where to spend that money in the face of the operations it was being called on to perform. Squadron Leader John C Slessor in his 1931 essay on the development of the RAF in the Journal of the Royal United Service Institution outlined the key roles that the RAF had been called on to perform since its formation in 1918.[31] Slessor outlined several key developments that he saw as vitally important to the RAF. Notable amongst these were the relations with the navy and army, home defence, imperial air reserves, the Fleet Air Arm, army co-operation squadrons and regional control.[32] The latter development, otherwise referred to as colonial control, was an extremely important aspect of the RAF’s role in the period.[33] It emerged in the wake of the budgetary constraints of the early post-war years in an attempt to provide an alternative and cheaper option to the issue of imperial policing. The best example of this policy was the actions of the RAF in Iraq between 1922 and 1925 when Trenchard formulated a plan for controlling the rebellion that had broken out in the aftermath of the First World War. The plan was a success in both operational and financial terms as not only did the policy of imperial policing help eventually restore control to Iraq it did it with considerably less expense than previous attempts. By 1923, expenditure had reduced to £7.81 million from a figure of £23.36 million in 1921 and by 1927; this figure had shrunk even further to £3.9 million.[34] The success of operations in Iraq led to the use of colonial control in other areas of the empire such as on the North-West Frontier of India and many future high-ranking RAF officers of the Second World War would spend parts of their early careers serving in the imperial policing role within the empire.[35]

The RAF also had to deal with the gradually changing geo-strategic situation in Europe. For example, in the mid-twenties, in a period of deteriorating relation with France, the RAF had to deal with the potential threat of what has been described as the French air menace.[36] This, coupled with the emergence of the threat of Germany in the 1930’s led to the materialisation of a distinct home fighter force based around the concept of strategic air defence. This force starting out in 1923 as the Home Defence Air Force with a projected strength of 52 squadrons would eventually emerge as RAF Fighter Command.[37] Fighter Command would eventually take on the role of the defence of the United Kingdom and deploy a sophisticated command and control network that would come to fruition in 1940. The changing relations in Europe also led to a considerable degree of reorganisation for the RAF in the late 1930’s. The need to expand and re-arm in this period led to the formation of four functional commands in 1936, Fighter, Bomber, Coastal and Training Command and the introduction of modern aircraft.[38]

As well as major operational issues such as rearmament and preparation for war, the service also had other issues to deal with. For example, the formation of the RAF in 1918 had led the service in command of naval aviation and this led to the need for effective relations with the navy who had command of the aircraft carriers. However, this co-operation was not always friendly and became a contentious issue in 1923 when the navy fought for the return of the Fleet Air Arm. Had the navy been successful in this respect it could well have led to the return of army co-operation squadrons to the army.[39] Despite these inter-service rivalries, the RAF did attempt to think about the issue of co-operation as exemplified by Slessor’s Air Power and Armies.[40] Eventually the issue of control of the Fleet Air Arm was solved in 1937 when its operational control was handed over to the admiralty when Coastal Command was formed. There were attempts to examine the issue of maritime aviation and the effect of air power on the issue of trade defence.[41] Alongside these developments were the extensive writings about the issue of army co-operation and the application of air power on the battlefield.[42]

Thus, in the inter-war years the RAF faced major issues surrounding the problems of perception, contemporary and historical, financial and operational dilemmas. While the financial problems were clearly not insurmountable despite the constantly changing technological and operational factors, the major problem facing the RAF was its operational conditions. For a service that in its early years struggled for survival it eventual developed into a major service with many varied roles, which while not all receiving the same priorities, did push it in many varied directions. It is within this context the RAF’s involvement with the combined operations doctrine should be understood. A major development for the RAF in developing its operational thinking was the emergence of the staff college and the role its officers played in both the RAF’s institution and the other services establishments especially within the realms of combined operations.


[1] John Buckley Air Power in the Age of Total War (London: UCL Press, 1999) p. 101

[2] For a detailed analysis of the early years of the RAF see Malcolm Cooper’s extensive tomes on the subject ‘Blueprint for Confusion: The Administrative Background to the Formation of the Royal Air Force, 1912 – 1919’ Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 22 (1987) pp. 437 – 453; The Birth of Independent Air Power (London: Allen and Unwin, 1986) and ‘British Air Policy on the Western Front, 1914 – 1918’ DPhil Thesis (University of Oxford, 1982)

[3] TNA, AIR 8/13 ‘Cmd. Paper 100: Synopsis of British Air Effort during the War’ (1919); David Ian Hall Strategy for Victory: The Development of British Tactical Air Power, 1919 – 1943 (Greenwood, CT: Praeger, 2007) pp. 14 – 16. The key lessons drawn from the war can also be seen in Sutton RUSI

[4] Ibid

[5] David Ian Hall Strategy for Victory, p. 17; B R Mitchell Abstract of British Historical Statistics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962) pp. 398 – 400. In the same period, it should be noted that spending on the army went down seventy-five percent from £181.5 million to £45.4 million. Considering the imperial policing role that the army was to perform this was a large drop for the service to cope with.

[6] The basis of this rule was that ‘…the British Empire will not be involved in any large war over the next ten year…’ W. D. Gruner, ‘The British Political, Social and Economic System and the Decision for Peace or War’, British Journal of International Studies, 6 (1980), p. 212. Also see Stephen Roskill ‘The Ten Year Rule – The Historical Facts’ Royal United Service Institute Journal, 117:1 (1972: Mar)

[7] For one of the best treatments of the inter-service disputes between the RAF and the Army see; Derek Waldie ‘Relations Between the Army and the Royal Air Force, 1918 – 1939’ PhD Thesis (University of London, 1980)

[8] Henry Probert Bomber Harris: His Life and Times (London: Greenhill, 2001) p. 47

[9] Henry Probert Bomber Harris, p.47

[10] Cited in Henry Probert Bomber Harris, p. 47. This quote is from the Saward tapes of interviews with Harris in preparation for Saward’s biography Bomber Harris (London: Buchanen and Enright, 1984).

[11] Cited in Bill Newton Dunn Big Wing: A Biography of Air Chief Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory (London: Airlife, 1992) p. 50

[12] Bill Newton Dunn Big Wing, p. 50

[13] David Edgerton Warfare State: Britain, 1920 – 1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) p. 21

[14] David Ian Hall Strategy for Victory, p. 17; B R Mitchell Abstract of British Historical Statistics pp. 398 – 400 and David Edgerton Warfare State p. 22

[15] David Edgerton Warfare State p. 43

[16] David Edgerton Warfare State p. 43

[17] Colin Sinnott The RAF and Aircraft Design, 1923-1939: Air Staff Operational Requirements (London: Frank Cass, 2001) passim

[18] John Buckley Air Power, pp. 109 – 110

[19] Williamson Murray War in the Air 1914 – 45 (London: Cassell, 1999) p. 88

[20] John Terraine ‘Theory and Practice of Air War: The Royal Air Force’ in Horst Boog (Ed.) The Conduct of the Air War in the Second World War: An International Comparison (Berg: Oxford, 1992) p. 470

[21] John Slessor The Central Blue: Recollections and Reflections (London: Cassell, 1956) p. 204

[22] John Terraine The Right of the Line, p. 13

[23] Tami Davis-Biddle Rhetoric and Reality: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914 – 1945 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002) pp. 88 – 94

[24] TNA, AIR 2/675 ‘P.B. Joubert de la Ferte The Aim of the Royal Air Force, May 1933′; Tami Davis Biddle Rhetoric and Reality, p. 100

[25] Tami Davis Biddle Rhetoric and Reality, p. 100

[26] John C. Slessor Air Power, and Armies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936)

[27] ‘John C. Slessor and the Genesis of Air Interdiction’ in Philip S. Meilinger Airwar: Theory and Practice (London: Frank Cass, 2003) pp. 66-67

[28] RAF Museum (RAFM), Hendon, File 8951 ‘Employment of Army Co-Operation Squadrons’ RAF Manual AP 1176, 1932, Ch. V

[29] Trafford Leigh-Mallory, Wing Commander, DSO ‘Air Co-Operation with Mechanized Forces’ Journal of the Royal United Services Institution, 75 (1930: Feb/Nov) pp. 565 – 577

[30] Trafford Leigh-Mallory, Wing Commander, DSO ‘Air Co-Operation with Mechanized Forces’ pp. 576 – 577

[31] John C Slessor ‘The Development of the Royal Air Force’ Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, Vol. 76 (Feb/Nov: 1931) pp. 324 – 334

[32] John C Slessor ‘The Development of the Royal Air Force’ passim

[33] For the best treatment of the policy of Colonial Control see; David Omissi Air Power and Colonial Control: The RAF, 1919 – 1939 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990)

[34] John Buckley Air Power, p. 103

[35] Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh Mallory served in Iraq between 1935 and 1937 ending up as AOC Iraq Command; Bill Newton Dunn Big Wing, pp. 59 – 61. Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris served in the Middle East and India no less than four times starting off as OC 31 Squadron in India in 1921, then moving to Group Headquarters in Basra, Iraq in 1922 and then later in that year taking over as OC 45 Squadron in country. After a return to the UK Harris returned to Iraq as Senior Air Staff Officer in 1930 and, finally, in 1938 he took over as AOC Palestine and Transjordan; Henry Probert Bomber Harris, pp. 419 – 420. Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor also served in India in 1921/1922 with 20 Squadron on the North-West Frontier. His experience were to help frame some of his ideas on the role of air power; Vincent Orange Slessor: Bomber Champion – The Life of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor, GCB, DSO, MC (London: Grub Street, 2006) pp. 25 – 36

[36] John Ferris ‘The Theory of a “French Air Menace”, Anglo-French Relations and the British Home Defence Air Force Programmes of 1921 – 1925’ Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 10 (1987) pp. 62 – 83

[37] John Ferris ‘Achieving Air Ascendancy: Challenge and Response in British Strategic Air Defence, 1915 – 1940’ in Sebastian Cox and Peter Gray (Eds.) Air Power History: Turning Points from Kitty Hawk to Kosovo (London: Frank Cass, 2002) p. 26

[38] Anon A Short History  of the Royal Air Force (London: RAF) p. 87

[39] Anon A Short History of the Royal Air Force, p. 59

[40] John C. Slessor Air Power, and Armies, passim

[41] For an examination of inter-war policy in regards of maritime aviation see; John Buckley The RAF and Trade Defence, 1919 – 45: Constant Endeavour (Keele: Keele University Press, 1995) and Christina Goulter A Forgotten Offensive: Royal Air Force Coastal Command’s Anti-Shipping Campaign, 1939 – 1945 (London: Frank Cass, 1995) esp. Chap. 1 – 3

[42] See David Ian Hall Strategy for Victory, passim

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