The RAF Staff College and Learning from the French – Sacrebleu!

The RAF Staff College stood up at RAF Andover in November 1921 where it was co-located with its parent headquarters, No. 7 Group. Its formation marked an important step in the evolution of the RAF and its organisational culture. Much of the historiography on the Staff College has focussed on a narrow element of Andover’s purpose, namely its involvement in the development of air power doctrine.[1] Mason writes that Andover, ‘lamentably failed’ in providing a developed air power theory for the RAF while Orange argues that it served, ‘as a disseminating station for approved doctrine, seasoned by essays on riding, hunting and how to cope with the bazaars of Baghdad.’[2]

However, one aspect not often considered is how the RAF went about preparing for the Staff College’s formation. Key to this is the role played by its first Commandant, Air Commodore Robert Brooke-Popham, who C.G. Grey suggested only took the position when shown the list of other candidates and exclaimed that he had better take the position.[3] Brooke-Popham was adamant that the RAF should learn from the teaching methods of both the Army and Royal Navy’s Staff Colleges at Camberley and Greenwich. Indeed, it is significant, that apart from Group Captain Robert Clark-Hall, the Staff College’s Assistant Commandant, Brooke-Popham and the initial Directing Staff were all graduates of Camberley, Quetta or Greenwich. However, more interesting is the fact that Brook-Popham also considered whether anything could be learnt from the methods being utilised by the French Army at its Écoles Supérieures de Guerre in Paris.[4] At this time it was commanded by General Marie Debeny who commanded the French 1st Army in 1918.

Unfortunately, apart from a passing reference to this episode in Brooke-Popham’s papers little is known about this visit. The key source concerning this visit comes in Air Chief Marshal Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferte’s autobiography The Fated Sky. Joubert, was, as a Wing Commander, one of the original Directing Staff at Andover and accompanied Brooke-Popham on his visit to Paris. Joubert’s recollections provide an insight into the teaching methods at the Écoles Supérieures, though it is clear that he was not over impressed with the quality of education present despite the fact that, as he recalled, it was considered, ‘the centre of all military knowledge.’[5] Joubert’s criticisms fall broadly into three categories. Firstly, Joubert was critical of the lack of cooperation with the French Navy and their equivalent school. Second, instructors lack of familiarity with the students they were teaching. Finally, Joubert was not impressed with the formality of the lectures and lack of ‘white space’ in the timetable to allow for reflections and questions.[6]

These criticisms highlight much about differing cultures extent between the militaries of different countries as well as reinforcing some of the similarities concerning the military education present in Britain at this time. As Joubert noted, ‘In the event we did not adopt…the French Staff College methods…We went our own perfectly normal and unspectacular British Way’ and this may say much about his own cultural perceptions as it does the perceived failing of the French system.[7] Nevertheless, the lack of co-operation between the French Army and Navy at staff college level maps many of the problems that plagued the French military in the inter-war period. Conversely, while there were clear problems at the strategic level, the British military did co-operate regularly to combined operations exercises both at the staff colleges and in a practical sense. This perhaps suggests something about the pragmatic view to military culture prevalent within Britain. Individual service cultures certainly existed but when co-operation, and the bending of cultural values, is required, the British military appear to be able do this. It also seems clear that the lack of formality in British Staff Colleges bred willingness to question accepted views while the French military maintained its ‘Maginot’ mentality for much of this period. The final criticism of the lack of ‘white space’ in the timetable is significant as this is considered an important element of the pedagogical process and differentiates higher education from training. The lack of this ‘white space’ in the French Staff College system suggests an unwillingness to allow French officers to think more broadly about their place in their profession and the conduct of war more generally. This raises serious questions concerning leadership development within the French Army such as whether the French system was developing senior leaders or staff officers and whether a process of succession planning existed.

Overall, this episode is interesting for several reasons. Firstly, it shows that the RAF, as a learning organisation, was not unwilling to move outside of its national confines to learn lessons for what was the world’s first Staff College for an independent air force. Second, it highlights issues relating to perceptions of differing methods concerning military education that is constrained by national military cultures. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, is that in this period the RAF was using the so-called French Air Menace as the basis of seeking the expansion of the service in the face of criticisms from both the Army and Royal Navy.[8] Additionally, the ‘French Air Force’ became one of the key lectures at Andover during this period.


[1] See; R.A. Mason, The Royal Air Force Staff College, 1922-1972 (Bracknell: RAF Staff College, 1972); David Ian Hall, Strategy for Victory: The Development of British Tactical Air Power, 1919-1943 (Greenwood, CT: Praeger, 2007) p. 18; Neville Parton, ‘The Impact and Evolution of Royal Air Force Doctrine, 1919-1939’, PhD Thesis (University of Cambridge, 2009), pp. 97-100; Allan English, ‘The RAF Staff College and the Evolution of RAF Strategic Bombing Policy, 1922-1929’, Journal of Strategic Studies Vol. 16, No. 3 (1993), pp. 408-431.

[2] Tony Mason, ‘British Air Power’ in John Andreas Olsen, Global Air Power (Washington D C: Potomac Books, 2011), pp. 26-27; Vincent Orange, Churchill and his Airmen: Relationships, Intrigue and Policy Making, 1914-1945 (London: Grub Street, 2013), p. 87.

[3] C.G. Grey, A History of the Air Ministry (London: Allen and Unwin, 1940), p. 188.

[4] Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, King’s College London, Private Papers of Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, 9/12/52, Draft article on the Formation of the RAF Staff College (N.D.), p. 4; Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferte, The Fated Sky: An Autobiography (London: Hutchinson, 1952), pp. 87-88.

[5] Joubert, The Fated Sky, pp. 87.

[6] Ibid, pp. 87-88.

[7] Ibid, p. 88.

[8] See; John Ferris, ‘The Theory of a ‘French Air Menace’: Anglo‐French Relations and the British Home Defence Air Force Programmes of 1921–25’, Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 10, No. 1 (1987), pp. 62-83.

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One response to “The RAF Staff College and Learning from the French – Sacrebleu!

  1. Hi Ross,

    I’ve only just read this piece as I have started to do some research on GroupThink and wanted to investigate Staff College to see how it may have moulded opinion. I note that Peter Gray also holds the view that Staff College students were exposed to a catholic variety of reading and were encouraged to publish their thoughts. I am less convinced by the idea that free thinking, against perceived wisdom, was welcomed and encouraged. In this context your description of Joubert’s comments are very interesting. I am thinking of writing a piece on the Conceptual Component (using the recent musings of Ray Lock and Mike Harding) and the influence of Staff College in developing it. If you can think of any ‘big hitting brilliant idea’ that emerged in a Staff College paper it would be most helpful?

    All the best

    David

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