The British Air Power Delusion 1906-1941
In his autobiography The Central Blue Sir John Slessor, the Chief of Air Staff 1950-1952, wrote of the last two years before the outbreak of World War II when he was Director of Plans at the Air Ministry. In that office he played an important part in advising the politicians about the war that was, by then, so clearly impending:
‘One fact that it is essential for anyone to realize . . . is that the war of 1939-1945 was the first air war. In 1914 to 1918 the Air had been in its too early infancy to have any very significant effect.’ [Original italics.]
No few words could better illustrate the failings of British defence planning in the 1930s, nor the complacency with which Britain’s airmen, in particular, looked back on the war when it was over. World War II was not an ‘air war’. It was fought on the land, the sea and in the air, as World War I had been. If, in the 1930s, the country had been preparing realistically for the fighting to come it would have not listened to the airmen such as Slessor, men who insisted at the time that the next war would be an ‘air war’, but would instead have closely studied what actually happened in the previous one.
The popular image of the Battle of Britain is now so firmly entrenched in the British psyche that few now can possibly even imagine that it was actually Sir Thomas Inskip, the oft-derided Minister for Defence Coordination, who persuaded the Air Ministry to give Fighter Command higher priority in 1938. The planners at the ministry, men such as Slessor, were convinced that air defence was a waste of money. Their response to Inskip’s prompting was described by Malcolm Smith:
‘Above all, they argued, the idea that the decisive time and place for the RAF would be over home air space at the beginning of a war was contrary to all experience of warfare and, in the case of air warfare, was nothing short of a form of suicide.’
From what, or where, did their conviction spring? Well, it certainly wasn’t from looking at what actually happened in 1914-18. It wasn’t from the reality of the Spanish Civil War in which, contrary to the myths that persist to the present day, the bombing of Guernica did not slaughter thousands or break the resistance of the Basque people. It was from a series of unfounded speculations, the very same speculations which had inspired the establishment of the RAF and which, even before its establishment, had clearly been shown to be mistaken.
It is necessary to go back to 1908 when Richard Haldane, the Secretary of State for War, expressed the fear that while there was little prospect of the bombing of cities doing great physical damage, it might shatter public morale. A very few years later his fear became the Germans’ hope. From May 1915 to May 1918 London was bombed by German air forces, firstly by airships and later by aeroplanes. The instigator of the campaign, Admiral Paul Behncke, wrote to Tirpitz on 20 August 1914 suggesting that bombing raids:
. . . may be expected whether they involve London or the neighbourhood of London, to cause panic in the population which may possibly render it doubtful that the war can be continued . . .
Behncke was to be disappointed. While German bombing certainly influenced public opinion it provoked demands for revenge, rather than for peace. And that’s what the public got, when the RAF was founded in 1918. Its primary purpose was to bomb Germany. In the meantime, they also got much better air defences. Both the German airships and the bombers were soundly defeated.
In 1917, goaded by public opinion and the press, most particularly the Daily Mail, the politicians decided to amalgamate the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service and make the air force ‘independent’. By ‘independent’ they only meant independent of the army and the navy, of the professional fighting men who had built them up. There was no question of the RAF becoming independent of the politicians.
Altogether, the new force made little difference to the final months of the war. Both the air defence of Britain, which was a great success, and the bombing of Germany, which was a dismal failure, had been initiated before it came into being. The navy was weakened, the army less so, but both too late for many to notice. Some of the more far-sighted soldiers and sailors saw what was going wrong; the politicians, press and public certainly didn’t. Most damagingly, the RAF became the gatekeeper of its own legacy. By the closing months of the war Hugh Trenchard, then heading its strategic bombing command, Independent Force, was feeding the newspapers with boastful propaganda about his achievements. Through the inter-war years both the public’s fear of being bombed and the RAF’s claim that its bombers were the only means by which the nation could fight the next one became entrenched.
In 1940-41 the nation paid a terrible price. While British arms cannot be ‘blamed’ for the fall of France the RAF’s flawed doctrines contributed. The Battle of Britain had little strategic significance; there was never any realistic prospect of Hitler attempting to invade, still less of his succeeding. Britain’s real battle for survival was fought in the Atlantic, where her navy was starved of the air cover that could so easily have been provided. In the Mediterranean and Middle East she came perilously close to defeat, despite holding every advantage. Throughout, Churchill and the RAF’s obsession with bombing squandered the men and resources that could have paid handsome dividends elsewhere.
 John C Slessor. The Central Blue, p 150.
 Malcolm Smith. British Air Strategy Between the Wars, p 185.
 Behncke to Tirpitz, 20 August 1914. Barry D Powers. Strategy Without Slide-Rule, p 12.
Combining extensive research and sharp analysis, Neil Datson’s book gives a thought-provoking description of the RAF’s concentration on strategic bombing after 1918, ignoring the vital air needs of the other Services. Some of the things he reveals are shocking, including quotations from a conference held in 1940 to discuss anti-invasion measures. The Senior Naval Officer present asked for RAF fighters to defend warships as they intercepted German invasion forces. The RAF representative replied that its role was defence of Britain, not ships. Datson concludes with the observation that Churchill mistook air power for a weapon of strategic value that could be separated from the realities of sea and land warfare, a mistaken view he substantiates with numerous examples. This important addition to the historiography of British strategy deserves to be widely read.
David Hobbs, Author of The Royal Navy’s Air Service in the Great War and The Dawn of Carrier Strike