The Air Force List as a Historical Source

Here is a section of my introduction that discusses the utility of The Air Force List as a historical source. It is linked in places to concepts that are discussed in other parts of the thesis such as leadership and organisational theory. Nonetheless, it highlights the utility of the List as a source and how it is being used as the cornerstone of my methodology.

My thesis makes use of an underused source in the historiography of the RAF, The Air Force List.[1] First published in March 1919, though an edition backdated to April 1918 was produced after its first appearance, the List has become a staple source for historians and genealogists alike in tracing the careers of individual officers. The List consists of a multitude of useful information. It outlines the organisation of the RAF through the Air Ministry and Air Council down to individual squadrons. For example, it is possible to map the evolution of the Air Ministry through the inter-war period and the growth of its various directorates. Information on officers is provided in various ways. First, through the index it is possible to note rank and seniority. At the same time, the index directs the reader to said officers’ current position, whether it is within a staff position or an operational posting. Additionally, officers postings highlights the date at which that position began. It contains a gradation list for all officers in the various branches of the RAF that provides a detailed description of seniority within the List; the majority of RAF officers served in the General Duties branch as Marshal of the Royal Air Force Viscount Trenchard desired that, with the exception of specific trades such as the Medical branch, all serving officer should be pilots. Thus, it is easy to track the course of an individual career. Using the gradation list, which is split up into the RAF’s various branches, it is possible to map the rise and fall of the services strength as the total number of officers are given at the end of each rank in each branch. For example in March 1920, there were no Marshals of the Royal Air Force in the General Duties branch whereas there were four by March 1939.[2]

However, my thesis makes use of the List in an innovative manner. Rather than tracking the career of an individual officer, it uses it to map the careers of three hundred and eighty-four officers that are present in the Army and Navy Lists of March 1918 as either Squadron or Wing Commanders; this divides into two hundred and ninety-three and ninety-one officers respectively.[3] It should be noted that not all of these men held operational commands but would have also held staff positions that were commensurate with the title of Squadron or Wing Commander. They have been utilised as they represent Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory’s peers in the future RAF. Additionally, using the Army and Navy List means that it is possible to track which officers from the RFC and RNAS either pursued careers with the RAF or returned to their original service, or were not granted a permanent commission in 1919 and left the military. Of the officers’ selected seventy-two Squadron Commanders and nineteen Wing Commanders were still listed as active in March 1939; though these figures are distorted by the presence of thirteen officers who had retired but were recalled to service as the outbreak of the Second World War approached. Thus, my thesis’ primary focus is on those seventy-eight officers whose careers had seen them progress through the RAF constantly until 1939. It is recognised that the arbitrary decision to start in March 1918 has left several significant peers of Leigh-Mallory’s out of the sample considered. Key examples such as the future Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor and Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park do not fall into this group. In order to counteract this, several other significant officers’ careers have been mapped, and cited, in order to highlight consistency with the results found.

Using such a cohort in a comparative manner allows my thesis to map the various key markers present in this groups careers and answer the key question surrounding Leigh-Mallory’s career; why did an officer with so many perceived detractors reach a senior command position. Linked to an understanding of leadership and organisational theory it is possible to use this methodology to analyse the process of succession planning in the RAF and highlight the shared experience of the RAF’s officer corps. In identifying key similarities and disjunctions between Leigh-Mallory and his peers it is possible to offer an insight into what factors and processes present in the RAF led to his promotion when placed into a comparative context. These processes are split into education, training, and operational experience as key markers in leadership development. Further information on aspects of selected officers’ lives before joining the military are located in various key primary and secondary sources such as The Times obituaries, The London Gazette, The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, memoirs, biographies, and where possible private papers at institutions such as Royal Air Force Museum, Imperial War Museum and the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives. An additional useful source that highlights First World War operational experience are the reflective essays that selected officers’ produced while attending the RAF Staff College at Andover during the 1920s, though this is limited to those officers who passed through Andover; these essays are located in AIR 1 at The National Archives. This information, combined with the The Air Force List, allows for the construction of a biography of shared experience that provides a firm foundation for analysing the markers laid out above. Thus, The Air Force List can be utilised as a valuable historical source that can be used as more than a simple genealogical tool.


[1] For a brief outline of The Air Force List see; Simon Fowler, Peter Elliott, Roy Conyers Nesbitt and Christina Goulter, RAF Records in the PRO (London: PRO Publications, 1994) p. 30.

[2] The Air Force List, March 1920; The Air Force List, March 1939.

[3] The Army List, March 1918; The Navy List, March 1918.

 

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3 responses to “The Air Force List as a Historical Source

  1. Brett,

    You are right that James makes use of it. However, there is no systematic use of it. Rather is is a reference for key theme, an interesting, and I would suggest, useful way of using it.

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