Competing Histories: Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Salmond, John Laffin and the RAF’s Line of Succession

John Laffin is not widely considered one of the best military historians, especially concerning his works on the First World War. Indeed, his British Butchers and Bunglers of World War One (1988) is deeply critical of British generalship in the First World War. Brian Bond described it as a ‘polemic’ and ‘apoplectic’.[1] Nevertheless, this criticism must be taken in context of the wider development of the historiography of the First World War that he clearly did not keep pace with.

For air power historians his most significant work remains his biography of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Salmond, Swifter than Eagles.[2] Salmond is a significant personality in the RAF’s history having played an important part in its development from the inception of the Royal Flying Corps through to the Second World War. For example, on 18 October 1917, Salmond was appointed Director-General of Military Aeronautics and was the youngest officers to have a seat on the Army Council when he took the position over from Lieutenant General Sir David Henderson. This was a vital time in the history of the RAF coming after the Smuts Report and before the formation of the service on 1 April 1918. Salmond acted as Major General Hugh Trenchard’s voice on the Army Council and the relationship between these two men was central to the RAF’s development as evidenced by the former being selected by the latter to take over command of the RFC/RAF in the Field when Trenchard became Chief of the Air Staff. It was obvious to many in the RAF that when Trenchard finally retired in 1929, that Salmond would become CAS.

I finally purchased a copy of Laffin’s biography of Salmond after reading the latter’s papers at the RAF Museum. I had read the book many years before but I never got round to buying it. However, I finally found a reasonably priced copy on Amazon and decided that my ever-growing library required this book to be added to the collection. What is interesting, given the current critiques of Laffin, is that his views were not an issue present in the discussions between Salmond and his publisher, Blackwoods, concerning his selection. It must be remembered this is the period of Alan Clark’s The Donkeys (1961) and criticism of the First World War was not uncommon. Having never read much of Laffin’s work I do wonder how his views changed over time. Did they become more strident as time went on? I cannot imagine an overly critical author being positively received by Salmond. Indeed, Laffin described John Terraine’s biography of Field Marshal Earl Haig, The Educated Soldier (1963), as ‘full and balanced’ in the section on ‘notes on illustration in the book.[3]

Salmond’s biography emerged after he published several short accounts of his early life in the pages of Blackwood’s Magazine and Group Captain (ret’d) F.D. Tredrey, one of the company’s directors, suggested a full length study. Laffin was not the first choice. He was actually the third after Basil Collier and Peter Wykeham. The former turned it down due to family issues and the latter due to his work within the Ministry of Defence. At this point, the latter was serving on the Joint Warfare Staff within the Ministry of Defence.  While not the publisher’s first choice, Laffin was basically employed to write up many of the notes that Salmond had already produced. Salmond’s papers contain a draft autobiography based his diaries and takes his life up to 1918. Laffin simply had to do the rest. While Salmond’s own replies to Laffin’s letters are not in his papers it is clear that they worked closely together and that Salmond had the last word on its production. Given this, I think we need to treat it as we would any autobiography, and as with Andrew Boyle’s biography of Trenchard consider it the subject’s view of their life. However, Boyle did spend longer than Laffin in the production of his book. Boyle started work in 1955 with Trenchard being published in 1962 while Swifter than Eagles was published within a year of Laffin being employed. Indeed, the similarities between Salmond’s drafts and the book itself are quite striking and Laffin’s reliance on them self-evident. Is this an obvious limitation of the book?

One area where there is a key difference between Boyle and Laffin, and by default Trenchard and Salmond, come in their view of the latter’s decision to step aside for his brother Air Chief Marshal Sir Geoffrey Salmond in 1933. Boyle accuses Salmond of damaging what he describes as a line of succession that included the names of several future Chiefs of the Air Staff for the sake of sentiment. The list included the commonly cited Marshal of the Royal Air Force Viscount Portal. Boyle notes, that, ‘Thus, at one improvident stroke, the line of succession prepared by Trenchard…was irrevocably broken’ by Salmond[4] Indeed, this episode led to appointment of Air Chief Marshal Sir Edward Ellington as CAS who Vincent Orange describes as a ‘liability.’[5] However, in a letter to Salmond, Laffin accused Boyle of being incompetent concerning his research of this episode. Laffin writes that:

Salmond’s only reason for retiring was to see younger senior officers brought on. In particular he had Charles Portal in mind…Trenchard himself had stated that the appointment of Chief of the Air Staff should not be held for more than five years, in order, as he put it, ‘that the Air Force would remain a young Service with young ideas’. Not that Trenchard had followed his[6] own dictum; he had held on as CAS for twelve years.

This is interesting given the relationship between Salmond and Trenchard. Would this have been written had Trenchard still been alive? I suspect not. I think Salmond would have vetoed its inclusion. It was clearly a very personal accusation from Boyle. Had Trenchard been alive, I suspect a discussion would have occurred between Salmond and himself over the episode. However, Trenchard died long before the publication of both accounts. Given that only a portion of Trenchard’s own papers are available to view, I do wonder whether there was any discussion of this episode between the two prior to the publication of Boyle’s work. Did Boyle insert this because he knew he could because Trenchard died before its publication? Boyle himself has papers at the University of Cambridge Library that include correspondence with Salmond. As you might be able to tell there is more work to do here at some point. Nevertheless, Anne Baker, the daughter of Geoffrey Salmond, does not refer to sentimentality being a factor in her Uncle’s decision to step down in favour for her father and supports Laffin’s assertion of Salmond standing down in favour of younger officers.[7] Baker also makes an important point concerning responsibility for the appointment of a new CAS, which lay with the Secretary of State for Air, though it was based on the recommendation of the outgoing holder of the position. Of course, there are issues with Baker’s account. It was published many years after the fact and includes Laffin’s work, and Boyle’s, in her bibliography. Perhaps she is relying on Laffin over Boyle. This is made more complicated by the fact that there are no identifiable papers for Geoffrey Salmond in order to give historians his view of the episode. Nonetheless, the significance of this issue for my current writing and me relates to whether the RAF identified possible future senior leaders and how they developed them. It is increasingly becoming clear that they did but not perhaps in the way portrayed in these biographies.

[1] Brian Bond, The Unquiet Western Front: Britain’s Role in Literature and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 76, 78.

[2] John Laffin, Swifter than Eagles: A Biography of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Salmond G.C.B, C.M.G., C.V.O., D.S.O. (London: William Blackwood and Son, 1964).

[3] Laffin, Swifter than Eagles, p. 266.

[4] Andrew Boyle, Trenchard: Man of Vision (London: Collins, 1962), p. 678.

[5] Vincent Orange, Churchill and His Airmen: Relationships, Intrigue and Policy Making, 1914-1945 (London: Grub Street, 2013), p. 109.

[6] Laffin, Swifter than Eagles, p. 222.

[7] Anne Baker, From Biplane to Spitfire: The Life of Air Chief Marshal Sir Geoffrey Salmond KCB, KCMG, DSO (Barnsley: Leo Cooper, 2003), p. 218.


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