Chapter LXVI: An Independent Service.
The Royal Air Force was very much the junior service, not just chronologically but in terms of political clout and influence. This lack of political support had seen the RAF fighting for survival for much of the 1920s, while the Royal Navy and Army could call upon Admirals and Generals in the House of Lords to fight their corner the RAF would have to wait until 1930 for Marshall Trenchard to be created Baron Wolfeton to get the first 'Air Peer'. While the RAF survived as an independent force it had left an unfortunate legacy of mistrust, any suggestion for closer co-ordination between the other services and the RAF army or navy co-operation squadrons were viewed with deep suspicion, the Air Staff wary of giving up any hint of control in case the scheme was a prelude to abolishing the service. This had a predictably poor effect on operational efficiency which, as we shall see later, even the Air Staff were forced to acknowledge. This lack of influence was also evident in the form of the post war review, while the Royal Navy was able to present it's own finding to the politicians and the Army managed to get a dominant position in it's formal review, the Air Staff were limited to 'advising' the Air Council who were then entirely free to draw their own conclusions, a liberty they took full advantage of, much to the frustration of the RAF hierarchy.
The other important point to remember is that the RAF was still very much Trenchard's service, despite having retired as Chief of the Air Staff at the end of 1929 his influence could be seen in almost all aspects of the service. Mostly this was of benefit; the RAFs organisational structure of squadrons, stations and groups was flexible and rapidly expandable for instance while the many training and apprentice schemes he started were producing the technically skilled ground and air crew the service required in ever increasing numbers. On the negative side however his attitudes had helped fuel the inter-service mistrust, indeed many blame Trenchard for the problems with naval aviation due to his wilful misleading of the then First Sea Lord Admiral Beatty in the immediate post war years. More seriously he was fixated on the power of strategic bombing and not just through self interest (though for many in the RAF that was it's main attraction; a mission that was theirs alone). While this attraction to strategic bombing was common among many air forces, particularly those like the US Army Air Corps that hankered for independence through their own, unique, mission, Trenchard took things a step further. Despite originally being sceptical of the abilities of aircraft to wage war alone, indeed under his direction the RAF Air Staff College dismissed Giulio Douhet's "The Command of the Air" (a hugely influential book across Europe and in America) as fanciful, he experienced a fundamental conversion during the mid and late 1920s.
The cause of this volte face was the policy of "aerial policing" of the Empire, using aircraft to bomb rebellions into submission rather than extensive, and expensive, ground campaigns. After good success during the annual North West Frontier troubles in India the policy produced spectacular results in Mesopotamia, a success that influenced not only Trenchard and the Air Staff of the time but also a then young squadron leader Arthur Harris. With the zeal of a convert Trenchard became convinced of strategic bombing as a war winning method, producing evidence and doctrines to support this argument, most famously his entirely unsupported assertion that the morale effect of bombing was 20 times greater than any physical damage. Despite no hard evidence, and indeed very little anecdotal evidence, this statement became an article of doctrinal faith in the RAF and would prove very hard for successive Air Ministers to dislodge.
Air Chief Marshall Sir Edward Ellington, Chief of the Air Staff since 1933. Along with his colleagues Ellington had high hope that the appointment of Winston Churchill as Secretary of State for Air. While Churchill fought hard for extra funding for the service and undoubtedly raised it's political profile he did not implement the management 'reforms' the professionals wished for. Indeed far from giving the Air Staff more power and independence Churchill used his 'double hatted' position as President of the Air Council to delve into the detail of the RAFs plans or 'meddle incessantly' as exasperated senior officers complained.
The pre-eminence of the heavy bomber can be seen in the major RAF re-organisation instituted at the start of the year. Prior to 1936 all aircraft based in the Home Islands (The 'Metropolitan RAF') were under control of the umbrella Air Defence of Great Britain, an arrangement that was proving increasingly unwieldy for the growing number of aircraft in service. The decision was made to break up ADGB into a series of new commands; Fighter, Bomber, Coastal and Training. While the last three covered what one would expect, Fighter Command was something of a dumping ground, being made responsible for not only fighter squadrons but also the army co-operation squadrons, the observer/reconnaissance squadrons and some of the light bomber squadrons. This neatly demonstrates the priority of the 'bomber men' at the top of the RAF, indeed the only reason Coastal Command got it's own HQ and organisation was to make sure the resourcing of the Command could be kept tightly under Air Staff control. It is fair to say that at the start of 1936 the RAF was in the process of cementing the bomber offensive at the heart of their strategic thinking, with almost everything else relegated to a supporting role or secondary priority.
With a better understanding of the RAF of the time we move onto the service's war experience, something of a contentious issue given the very different conclusions drawn by those involved. Objectively, and in purely military terms, the RAF had the 'worst' war of any of the services, not managing to make the same decisive contribution that either the Army or the Royal Navy managed. For a service looking to establish itself as a vital cog of defence policy this was not promising material, hence the Air Staff's focus on the Rome raid, an attack that was cited as proof of the 'morale effect' of heavy bombers and presented as the vital coup de grace on the Italian leadership. Outside the RAF this was seen as yet another unverifiable claim by the Air Staff and one that was vigorously opposed by the other services who wished to preserve the credit for victory for themselves. It was, however, broadly in tune with the political and public view of the all powerful bomber that could not be stopped from levelling whole cities and, therefore, found more support than the facts alone could perhaps support. Sadly for the RAF leadership the Air Council, having accepted the Air Staff view of the Rome raid, drew completely different conclusions; rather than ordering more bomber squadrons, they instead declared the heavy bomber force 'sufficient' for predicted needs and instead increasing funding for Fighter Command and accelerating the radar programme, the aim being to stop similarly 'devastating' bomber raids threatening Britain.
The Armstrong Whitworth A.W.38 Whitely, note it's distinctive 'nose down' attitude when in flight. Originally ordered as a heavy night bomber the ~7,000lb bomb load carried by the Whitely made it the heaviest bomber since the Great War era Handley Page V/1500. Rushed into service to replace ancient biplanes the Whitely itself would be obsolete by the end of the decade, newer designs surpassing it in speed, defence capability and bomb capacity. Though the Bomber force was declared sufficient by the Air Council that view was caveated by the continuation of all existing bomber orders and research projects, evidence of the Air Ministry hedging their bets and giving in to the strong views of the RAFs hierarchy.
After this initial disappointment for the RAF the review moved rapidly downhill, despite the odd high spot (the new Hurricane was picked out for praise, as was the smooth and rapid expansion of RAF Luqa from a quiet station to a main base operate everything from fighters to heavy bombers) the report found far more negatives than positives. In particular the Air Council was alarmed that many in the Army rated the contribution from the Royal Australian Air Force as equal, or better, than that from the RAF during the early and mid stages of the conflict. Given the relative budgets and sizes of the two services the RAF should have been dominant, yet the RAAF contingent had more than held it's own in the Desert Air Force for much of the conflict. The reasons were quite simple; The RAAF has sent the cream of their officers and crews in their best airframes while the RAF forces had been taken from the various local commands that made up RAF Middle East, commands that despite (or perhaps because of) regular activity on 'Aerial Policing' operations were very low on the priority list for new equipment. As newer aircraft began to flow into theatre from Britain the situation improved, though it was not until the Blenheim and Wellesley equipped squadrons arrived in strength that the RAF's contribution became markedly larger. However the many Hawker Hart variants and RAAF Westland Wapitis remained on operations till the end of the conflict, the old biplanes soldiering on in the 'light' bomber role that the newer, larger aircraft were unsuited to.
For the RAF hierarchy, already suffering from wounded pride at being shown up by a service they saw mainly as a source of aircrew, the upshot of this was particularly galling. The Air Council, not immune to the general fears of having the air force disbanded, and very worried by the precedent of the Navy regaining control of the FAA, decided to make air-army co-operation one of their post-war priorities in order to pre-empt any Army 'coup' attempts. The headline decision was the extension of the earlier 'Command Decision', reforming the light and army co-operation squadrons into the new 'Strike Command', separate from both Bomber and Fighter Command and with the head sitting on the Air Staff along side the other Chiefs. The report also instructed all home based Commands to work on their large scale redeployment plans, specifically focusing on the rapid movement of the vital ground based support elements that had been the sticking point for the squadron transfers during the war. Internally the most recent Air Staff expansion plan, Scheme E, was knocked back entirely and the Staff ordered to prepare a new scheme that reflected the revised priorities of the service. Scheme F was to reverse the 'scrapping' of light bombers, build up Strike Command and speed up the expansion of Fighter Command. In stark contrast to the Army and Navy, services that struggled with the speed of aircraft development, the Air Ministry found the speed of development too slow. As we shall see despite the change in focus the aircraft 'pipeline' of new designs still reflected old priorities, with not entirely unfortunate results.