The Influence of Trenchard on the RAF’s Official Statements on Air Power

It is clear that Marshal of the Royal Air Force Viscount Trenchard played a vital role in the preservation of the RAF as an independent service. However, he also played a crucial role in shaping the organisational culture of the service in the early years of its existence. Not only did his various formal protestations on the subject of air power form a key element of the assumptions and beliefs that underpinned the RAF’s development but he also controlled the production of other sources of organisational culture through his strength of will on the subject of his services survival.

Trenchard rarely wrote or produced anything directly. He did not have an academic mind or the will to develop one. He failed the entry exam to the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth and had to cram for the entry exam to the Royal Military College at Woolwich.[1] Boyle described his failure to spell ‘why’ correctly in the dictation exam, and his continual misspelling of it throughout his life, as being part of his ‘brooding belligerence’ towards the ‘illogicallities of English spellings that baffled him.’[2]  In the modern sense, Trenchard’s view of the ‘illogicallities’ of spelling would be viewed as dyslexia. Squadron Leader C G Burge, who was Trenchard’s Personal Assistant and the founding editor of The Air Force Quarterly, related to Basil Liddell Hart in 1927 that his description of Trenchard ‘as an inarticulate genius, incapable of rational argument or expression’ fitted perfectly.[3] Despite this, he was able, through various plenipotentiaries, to dictate his thoughts and control the production of various sources of organisational culture and a member of the air staff invariably wrote much of what did appear under his name. In terms of public pronouncements, Trenchard produced one article in the course of his terms as Chief of the Air Staff. This appeared in The Army Quarterly in 1921 under the inauspicious title of ‘Aspects of Service Aviation’.[4] Despite this, it encapsulated his views on air power that remained largely consistent throughout his period as CAS. On the development of assumptions and beliefs that underpin an organisation’s culture Trenchard was surprisingly adroit when stating that the principles of war that formed the basis of air strategy were ‘not opinions but facts, and are unchangeable through all the changing types of machines of war.’ Thus, he grasped that the larger hubris of the history of war and military thought could form the core of the evolving belief in ‘Command of the Air’. He noted that while the experience of both the Army and Royal Navy was important it must not be the only source of the RAF’s organisational culture.[5]

While Trenchard made little in the way on public pronouncements on air power this did not mean that writings did not appear in various key sources, most notably in the pages of the Journal of the Royal Services Institute. As Parton has illustrated, over the first five years of the RAF’s existence RAF officers produced fourteen articles on air power related topics out of two-hundred and fifty articles from various sources that appeared in the pages of JRUSI.[6] Given the context of the period, this should be considered an impressive total by a service struggling for its survival. Despite this production of non-official and informal sources about the RAF, Trenchard attempted to control their production and release. In 1923, Trenchard’s Personal Secretary Captain T B Marson wrote to Air Commodore Robert Brooke-Popham, the Commandant of the newly founded Staff College at Andover, that:

the view of the Air Staff is that it is not considered advisable for serving Officers to contribute articles to the public Press. Any article so written would have to be censored, and even after that, the views set forth might have exception taken to them and raise a controversy, which at the present time is greatly to be deprecated, and in any event, there are at present no Officers capable of writing a article in the first place, or to censor it when written in the second place.[7]

Given that up to this point, articles had appeared in various sources such as JRUSI and The Army Quarterly this is a curious statement of control from Trenchard. It highlights his desire to ensure that any statement on air power be approved by himself and the air staff.

The publication of Burge’s book The Princples of Air Warfare highlights Trenchard’s desire to control and influence the RAF’s statements on air power. Burge claimed that the key reason that the book had initial been banned by the Air Ministry was because Trenchard was concerned by any critic that it might generate. According to Burge, he was especially concerned by criticism from Sir Frederick Sykes who had retired in 1922 as an Air Vice-Marshal and Controller of Civil Aviation.[8] At this point Sykes had entered politics as MP for Sheffield Hallam. Boyle relates that in the early 1920s Trenchard was consistently worried by the influence that Sykes wielded in parliament through his father-in-law, the Prime Minister, Sir Andrew Bonar Law.[9] It appears that this remained in Trenchard’s mind when Sykes became an MP. Liddell Hart noted that ‘Trenchard had said he did not wish any officer to write books – as writing, the means to clarity of ideas, was RAF’s weak point in my opinion’ (Emphasis in original).[10] Burge’s book was eventually published, however, it appeared under the pseudonym of ‘Squadron-Leader’ and effectively curtailed his career in the RAF.[11]

Concerning the control of official statements on air power that emanated from the air staff, Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor noted in an in an interview at the Imperial War Museum in 1978 that Trenchards influence was key to sources such as Air Staff Memorandum. He claimed that:

He’d send for you and talk away. Well you’d go and produce the paper that he told you to produce and you bring it back next morning and by that evening you’d be sent for and be told, “this is a very bad paper. You haven’t understood me at all”, and then it would be covered in Lady Trenchard’s writing cause his writing was ineligible. He then would say “now go away and produce another one” and off you go and produce another one and eventually you get the right answer, or more or less the right answer.[12]

Slessor spent two tours serving in the air staff during the 1920s, first in the Directorate of Training and Staff Duties in 1923/24 and then in the Plans Division of the Directorate of Operations and Intelligence between 1928 and 1931, thus, despite the passage of time he was well quailed to recall the influence of Trenchard.[13]

This statement highlights several issues relating to the influence of Trenchard as key factor in the source that framed the RAF’s organisational culture. It makes it clear that ideas about air staff policy emanated from his office and that he directed their production at very personal level of management. This style of management should not be considered unusual as the air staff in the 1920s was not the large organisation that it became in the Second World War. Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir William Dickson, who served as Personal Assistant to Air Commodore John Steel, the Deputy Chief of the Air Staff and Director of Operation and Intelligence, in 1923, recalled the small size of the air staff in this period:

We were on the sixth floor of Ad Astral House…and on this corridor at the end was Lord Trenchard’s office…Opposite him the two civil servants responsible for air staff policy…And then this very small air staff with DCAS and about a dozen staff.[14]

Thus, a very personal style of management in production of statements should be expected in this situation. Indeed, Dickson makes clear from his recollections that he was surrounded by people whom he considered ‘famous’; at this time Dickson was the only Flight Lieutenant serving in the office of the air staff. Additionally, Slessor’s recollection reinforces Liddell Hart’s view of Trenchard as an ‘inarticulate genius’. It is clear that at times Trenchard struggled to enunciate his ideas and that the production of official statements on air power had to go through a rigorous drafting process before a definitive position emerged. Ultimately Slessor’s recollection highlights the control that Trenchard sought to have over both the development of the RAF and it statements on air strategy.


[1] David Jordan, ‘The Battle for the Skies: Sir Hugh Trenchard as Commander of the Royal Flying Corps’ in Matthew Hughes and Matthew Seligmann (Eds.) Leadership in Conflict, 1914-1918 (Barnsley: Leo Cooper, 2000) p. 69.

[2] Andrew Boyle, Trenchard (London: Collins, 1962) p. 23; Jordan, ‘The Battle for the Skies’, p. 69.

[3] Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives (LHCMA), King’s College London, Private Papers of Basil Liddell Hart, LH 11/1927/1, Personal Diary, 9 February 1927.

[4] Air Marshal Sir Hugh Montague Trenchard, ‘Aspects of Service Aviation’, The Army Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 1 (1921), pp. 10-21.

[5] Trenchard, ‘Service Aviation’, p. 18.

[6] Neville Parton, ‘The Evolution and Impact of Royal Air Force Doctrine, 1919-1939’, PhD Thesis (University of Cambridge, 2009) p. 96.

[7] Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon, Private Papers of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Viscount Trenchard, MFC 76/1/140/5, Letter from Captain T B Marson to Air Commodore Robert Brooke-Popham, 19 October 1923.

[8] LHCMA, Liddell Hart Papers, Personal Diary, 9 February 1927.

[9] Boyle, Trenchard, p. 445, 448, 464, 518

[10] LHCMA, Liddell Hart Papers, Personal Diary, 9 February 1927.

[11] Neville Parton, ‘Basic Principles of Air Warfare (Historic Book Review)’, Royal Air Force Air Power Review, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Summer 2007) pp. 94-98.

[12] Imperial War Museum (IWM), Department of Sound (DoS), Interview with Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor, 3 August 1978.

[13] Henry Probert, High Commanders of the Royal Air Force (London: HMSO, 1991) p. 41.

[14] IWM, DoS, Interview with Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir William Dickson, February 1978; Probert, High Commanders, p. 46.

2 responses to “The Influence of Trenchard on the RAF’s Official Statements on Air Power

  1. Incredibly pedantic, here, Ross, but it’s Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, Royal Military College, Sandhurst.

    I also wonder about that Liddell Hart quote about Trenchard not wanting officers to write books, too. Fuller once said that he got into trouble for wanting to publish a book in 1923, but a review of the BLC says that he published seven in 1923, or some ungodly number like that. So what Fuller was actually asking for was permission to finish yet another book before coming off half-pay that year.

    The point being that officers got half-pay furloughs in which they were perfectly welcome to write. It was serving officers who were not supposed to publish, or to publish anonymously.

  2. Pedantic point taken Erik.

    However, concerning the Liddell-Hart quote he is talking about a serving officer. At this point Burge is still Trenchard’s Personal Assistant. Even when on half-pay they were still listed on their respective services list and would have to permission as Fuller’s experience would seem to indicate. Whether the Army could have stopped him is perhaps mute but the fact he asks illustrates that this was to be expected.

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