One of the unstated assumptions that underpins the historiography of the inter-war RAF is that unless you specialised in bombers you were barred access to senior command positions. This is largely because the historiography has revolved around the concept of strategic bombing and its development. John Terraine best represents the view that the RAF was wedded to the doctrine of strategic bombing when he 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.’[i]
This view is indicative of the misunderstanding that is inherent in much of the writing on the RAF’s early development. However, it is clear that the evolution of the RAF’s views on the application of air power was focussed on the much more nuanced view of ‘Command of the Air’. While bombing formed an inherent part of this strategy, it was not the only method discussed.
This has important ramifications when considering leadership development in the RAF as it raises questions concerning its succession planning. The view noted above transposes the argument that unless your career surrounded bombers and the development of strategic bombing then you was unlikely to rise to senior command. This is a highly tendentious argument. Indeed, by looking at the Commandants of the School of Army Co-Operation it can be illustrated that working in this supposedly underdeveloped and neglected field did not actually act as a bar to rising to senior comman. Here is a list of the Commandants from 1920 to the outbreak of the Second World War with their date of appointment and rank:
- Wing Commander Arthur Burdett – 2 December 1920
- Wing Commander Leslie Gossage – 24 Janaury 1921
- Wing Commander Owen Boyd – 23 February 1923
- Wing Commander Arthur Barratt – 14 January 1926
- Wing Commander Trafford Leigh-Mallory – 10 April 1927
- Wing Commander Richard Saul – 1 January 1930
- Group Captain Charles Blount – 3 April 1933
- Group Captain Arthur Capel – 29 July 1936[ii]
The first interesting thing about this list is the rank held by the commandant increases from an OF-4 position to that of an OF-5. This is indicative of the increasing importance of the school in the RAF. However, the key issue concerning succession planning, is where these officers completed their careers. Burdett retires in the inter-war period and does not reach air rank. However, from Gossage onwards we have a group of commanders who reach a minimum rank of Air Vice-Marshal. Below is a list of the final ranks and their final significant position:
- Air Marshal Leslie Gossage – AOC-in-C Balloon Command
- Air Marshal Owen Boyd – AOC-in-C No. 93 Group, Bomber Command
- Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Barratt – Inspector-General of the Royal Air Force
- Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory – Air C-in-C Allied Expeditionary Air Force
- Air Vice-Marshal Richard Saul – AOC-in-C, Air Defences Eastern Mediterranean
- Air Vice-Marshal Charles Blount – AOC-in-C, No 22 (Army Co-Operation) Group
- Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Capel – Air Officer, Training, HQ Bomber Command[iii]
The first thing to note is that as noted as a group they rise to senior rank and they obtained significant commands by the end of their careers. Of course, the most notable is Leigh-Mallory’s command of the AEAF; however, other commanders served in senior posts. For example, Barrett serves as Inspector-General of the RAF; a not inconsiderable position in the structure of the service. The Inspector-General was responsible for the inspection of RAF facilities. Such luminaries such as Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham and Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Edward Ellington had held this position. Indeed, Ellington held the position just after he served as Chief of the Air Staff. It is also worth noting that both Blount and Boyd skew the sample, as the former died on 23 October 1940 when his plane crashes at Hendon on a scheduled visit to Belfast, and the latter is captured when flying a Wellington from No. 216 Squadron that’s suffers a navigational error and lands in Sicily instead of Malta. He escaped with General Sir Richard O’Connor, and in a parallel with O’Connor his career perhaps never reaches the level it may have had he not been captured. Boyd had been designated the new deputy AOC-in-C of RAF Middle East on 8 November 1940; a position that Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Tedder assumes in his place.
If this group of officers reach senior command in what is a pyramidal command structure the question exists as to what was it that allowed them to reach senior command. Capel, who never rose to as significant a command as the rest of this group, identified a key issue concerning his own career when he was interviewed by the Imperial War Museum in 1978. He noted, when asked if he thought specialising in army co-operation had caused problems for his career, that:
I think it was. My whole career from 1923 to the outbreak of the war was army co-operation or attending army course and during the whole time I never served at the Air Ministry at all and I think it was a slight handicap to rising to the top in the RAF but I never resented that in any way as I enjoyed it thoroughly through all those years.[iv]
While Capel thought that his specialisation was a hinderance the actually key marker that he identified was the fact that he never served in the Air Ministry in a staff position. He actual never served in a staff position more widely. Several key markers can be identified in the RAF’s development of leaders and succession planning in this period. The most important markers for officers who were awarded permanent commissions in the RAF in 1919 appears to consists of having significant operational experience, staff experience, attendance at the RAF Staff College or one of the other service staff colleges, and the Imperial Defence College. This entire group had operational experience in the First World War with numerous awards for bravery. They all attended staff college at some point. Gossage attended in the Army Staff College in 1923 and then moved on to be part of the Directing Staff in 1925. Leigh-Mallory attended Andover in 1925 and then went onto be a member of the DS at Camberley in 1930. Both Leigh-Mallory and Capel attended the Imperial Defence College.
However, staff experience was the key issue in both senior leadership development and succession planning in the RAF. Apart from Capel, each of this group had staff experience of some form. Saul, whose career is the least successful after Capel, served several tours as a staff officer in operational commands but importantly not in the Air Ministry. Conversely, the most successful officer, Leigh-Mallory, served five terms in the Air Ministry. The obvious conclusion is that it was not specialising in army co-operation that withheld ones career but a lack of a full-rounded career that included the key elements that the RAF perceived as necessary in developing future senior leaders. Indeed, understanding the Air Ministry appears to be a vitally important consideration in gaining promotion. For example, while there remains a question over the lack of honours given to Air Marshal Sir Arthur Conningham, it is clear that, as Vincent Orange notes, that his lack of ‘Staff College, Imperial Defence College or Air Ministry experience’ barred any future employment of him in the post-Second World War RAF.[v] Indeed Orange notes that he was lucky to receive any post-war employment. Thus, following a well-trodden path and being involved in the development of the ‘Air Force Spirit’ was the key to success in the RAF.
[i] 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 (Oxford: Berg, 1992) p. 470.
[ii] Data from the Air Force List.
[iii] Data from the Air Force List.
[iv] Imperial War Museum, Department of Collection, Interview with Air Vice-Marshal John Arthur Capel (3166), 21 February 1978.
[v] Vincent Orange, Coningham: A Biography of Air Marshal Sir Arthur Conningham (London: Methuen, 1990) p. 247