By Dr Ross Mahoney

Editorial note: Defence-in-Depth, the blog of King’s College London’s Defence Studies Department based at the Joint Services Command and Staff College and The Wavell Room have been running a series of interesting articles about military education. The author has read these articles with some interest given his interest in the education of air forces. This research note covers an interesting episode in the process of the establishment of the Royal Air Force (RAF) Staff College in the early 1920s.

The opening of the RAF Staff College at Andover in 1922 marked a crucial step in the early development of the RAF. Andover gave the RAF its own institution that provided higher education tailored towards the needs of the Service. However, many historians have been critical of Andover. For example, Tony Mason, the RAF’s first Director of Defence Studies, suggested that Andover ‘lamentably failed’ in providing a developed air power theory for the RAF while Vincent Orange argued that the Staff College served, ‘as a disseminating station for approved doctrine, seasoned by essays on riding, hunting and how to cope with the bazaars of Baghdad.’[1]

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 was adamant that the RAF should learn from the teaching methods used by both the British Army and Royal Navy at their Staff Colleges at Camberley and Greenwich.[2] Brooke-Popham was a pre-First World War graduate of Camberley, and it is clear that this educational experience played a role in how he approached his position as Commandant. More broadly, before the opening of Andover, it was to the Army and Royal Navy that the RAF looked to provide a staff college education for nurtured officers. Indeed, it is significant that, apart from Group Captain Robert Clark-Hall, the initial Directing Staff – Wing Commanders Philip Joubert de la Ferte, Wilfrid Freeman and C.H.K. Edmonds and Squadron Leader Bertine Sutton – were all graduates of Camberley or Greenwich. However, while the British experience of higher military education was a significant influence, it was not the only source of information.

LD 764
A half-length portrait of Air Marshal Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferté in uniform by James Gunn, c. 1940 (Source: © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 764))

More interesting is that Brooke-Popham also considered whether anything could be learnt from the methods utilised by the French Army at the Écoles Supérieures de Guerre in Paris, which in the early 1920s was commanded by General Marie Debeney.[3] Before the opening of Andover, Brooke-Popham and Joubert visited Paris to examine French pedagogical methods, and the critical source concerning this visit comes in the latter’s 1952 autobiography The Fated Sky.[4] Joubert’s recollections provide an insight into the teaching methods at the Écoles Supérieures de Guerre. However, it is clear that he was not impressed with the quality of education present although, as he recalled, the Écoles Supérieures de Guerre was considered, ‘the centre of all military knowledge.’[5]

Joubert’s criticisms fell broadly into three categories. First, Joubert was critical of the lack of cooperation with the French Navy and their equivalent school for higher education. Second, instructors lacked familiarity with the students they were teaching. Finally, Joubert was not impressed with the formality of the lectures and lack of what in modern teaching is often referred to as ‘white space’ in the timetable to allow for reflections and questions.[6]

Joubert’s criticisms raise several interesting observations about the differences between the British and French militaries in this period. Notably, the lack of co-operation between the French Army and Navy at the staff college level maps to many of the problems that plagued the French military in the interwar period. Joubert recalled Debeney’s ‘look of blank amazement’ when asked about co-operation with his naval counterpart.[7] Conversely, while there were definite problems at the strategic level, the British military regularly co-operated via combined operations exercises at the staff colleges that Joubert himself described as ‘one of the most pleasant periods’ of his time at Camberley, which he attended in 1920.[8] This perhaps suggests something about Britain’s pragmatic military culture in this period. Individual service cultures certainly existed, but when co-operation was required, the British military appeared to be able to do this.

Furthermore, Joubert recalled of his time at Camberley that while heated discussions between students occurred, ‘it was always possible to come to an agreement over a round of pink gins in the Mess’ thus highlighting the importance of socialisation between the services as means of breeding understanding between them.[9] It also seems clear that Joubert’s perception of the lack of formality in British Staff Colleges bred a willingness to question accepted views while the French military maintained a ‘Maginot’ mentality for much of this period. However, even this must be understood within the context of differing service cultures. Joubert himself reflected on these differences when he wrote that:

Naval officers would discuss Naval affairs freely amongst themselves and before members of another service and would unhesitatingly attack any ideas which they thought themselves were wrong. But let an outsider in the audience offer a criticism and Naval ranks closed up solidly. The Army seldom, if ever, discussed their problems in the open. If they were asked for a statement of policy Field Service Regulations and Army Council Instructions were solemnly quoted. As for the Air Force, they would fight amongst themselves in private and in the open, and would quite ruthlessly disagree with their instructors before a mixed audience. Nothing was sacrosanct.[10]

The final criticism of the lack of ‘white space’ in the timetable is significant as this is considered a crucial element of the pedagogical process and differentiates higher education from training. The lack of this ‘white space’ in the French Staff College system suggested an unwillingness to allow French officers to think more broadly about their place within the profession of arms and the conduct of war more generally. This raises fundamental questions concerning leadership development within the French Army such as whether the French system was developing senior leaders or staff officers. Moreover, it is clear that the French system differed from the British with the existence of the Centre des Hautes Études; a war college, which existed to educate senior Colonels and Brigadiers.[11] A ‘war college’ was something the RAF lacked, and as such an exact comparison between the two systems is fraught with challenges.

While Joubert’s recollection should, as with any autobiography, be treated with some care, from the perspective of the provision and development of military education in the RAF they are useful. This is primarily because of Joubert’s affiliation with education in the RAF. As noted, he attended Camberley and was Directing Staff at Andover. However, he would also go on to be the first RAF member of the Directing Staff at the Imperial Defence College as well as going on to being Commandant at Andover in the early 1930s. As such, he was well placed to comment on such issues.

In conclusion, this episode shows that the RAF was willing to move outside of national confines to learn lessons for what was the world’s first air force Staff College. However, that the methods examined in France were not adopted also highlights issues related to how militaries perceive themselves. As Joubert himself noted, ‘[i]n the event we did not adopt […] the French Staff College methods [and] [w]e went our own perfectly normal and unspectacular British Way.’[12] This reflection says as much about the RAF and its culture as it does the perceived failings of the French system of higher military education. The final important point is that in looking to other Staff Colleges, whether in Britain or France, the RAF were looking to similar institutions with similar objectives – the education and nurturing of future senior leaders – but axiomatically these educational establishments were not similar. Putting aside national proclivities, the critical difference was the military service these institutions served. The Écoles Supérieures de Guerre served the French Army, not an air force, though of course at this time, the French air service formed part of the army. Similarly, Camberley and Greenwich served the British Army and Royal Navy respectively. As such, while the RAF could, and did learn from their counterparts, it still had specific service challenges that it would have to solve on its terms. Indeed, the focus of Brooke-Popham and Joubert’s visit to Paris was more on ‘how’ to teach rather than ‘what.’

Dr Ross Mahoney is a contract Historian at the Departments of Veterans’ Affairs in Australia as well as the owner and Editor of From Balloons to Drones. He is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (PGCE and BA). His research interests include the history of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, air power and the history of air warfare, and the social and cultural history of armed forces. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and a Vice-President of the Second World War Research Group. He can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.

Header image: The modern day Ecole Militaire, which previously housed the Écoles Supérieures de Guerre (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] 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.

[2] Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, ‘The Formation of The Royal Air Force Staff College,’ The Hawk, 12 (1950), p. 19.

[3] For a British overview of the Écoles Supérieures de Guerre, see: ‘The “Ecole Superieure De Guerre,” Paris,’ Journal of the Royal United Services Institution, 70:477 (1925), pp. 1-7.

[4] Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferte, The Fated Sky: An Autobiography (London: Hutchinson, 1952), pp. 87-88. Joubert also recollected that Brooke-Popham also considered ‘Madam Montessori’s ideas.

[5] Ibid., pp. 87

[6] Ibid., pp. 87-88

[7] Ibid., p. 87.

[8] Ibid., p. 84.

[9] Ibid., p. 83.

[10] Ibid., p. 88.

[11] ‘The “Ecole Superieure De Guerre,” Paris,’ p. 1.

[12] Joubert, The Fated Sky, p. 88.

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