Adrian Phillips, Rearming the RAF for the Second World War: Poor Strategy and Miscalculation. Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2022. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. xxvi + 350 pp.
Reviewed by Dr Matthew Powell
The history of the rearmament of the Royal Air Force (RAF), and the British aircraft industry in the inter-war period, more generally, has undergone a degree of revision over recent decades, mainly through the works of Sebastian Ritchie and David Edgerton. In this work, Adrian Phillips looks to challenge this new orthodoxy. Phillips seeks to show that the RAF adopted an incorrect way of conceptualising air warfare in the mid-to late-1930s. Phillips claims that the Air Ministry and the wider RAF incorrectly prioritised bombers over fighters when rearmament began in the 1930s. Phillips further contends that this prioritisation can be traced back to the theorising of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Trenchard, the RAF’s Chief of the Air Staff in the 1920s. Despite dispelling several myths about RAF expansion in the inter-war period, Phillips does not provide an overly convincing case for several reasons.
The critical issue with Phillips’ book is that it suffers from a general lack of understanding of the wider historical context of the RAF’s development in this period. Despite a relatively extensive bibliography, it appears that many more recent works in this area have not been consulted. This illustrates a broader bias inherent in Phillips’ work, namely that the RAF was wrong in its thinking.
Several examples sufficiently highlight the problem of understanding present in this work. For instance, in seeking to rehabilitate the argument that the RAF took no interest in supporting the British army or developing its capabilities in this area, this has long been questioned by more recent studies showing the case to be far more complex and nuanced than Phillips is willing to give them credit for. Indeed, Phillips’ would have benefitted from a reading of the work of David Ian Hall or this author’s own research. The lack of engagement with such works suggests a wider lack of contextual knowledge of the inter-war period and the pressures the RAF faced regarding their survival as an independent Service.
Concerning issues related to aircraft development, an examination of the various works of Edgerton, would have aided in providing the wider context of the development of the British aircraft industry. This would allow for a greater understanding of the relationship between the Air Ministry and the aircraft industry to be explored within the book. This lack of understanding is a concern in a work of this length. For instance, the Air Ministry is criticised for its decision to continue authorising the production of obsolescent aircraft such as the Fairey Battle (p. 42). Phillips’ argument, however, does not consider the industrial problems of the British aircraft industry in enough depth to demonstrate the difficulties faced by the Air Ministry. For example, officials at the Air Ministry faced the difficult decision of whether to order aircraft from firms to retain labour and gain large-scale production experience or reduce the potential for losing skilled labour. If the latter option were chosen, the teething problems of ramping up production that had been experienced at the start of the rearmament drive would be experienced again.
Moreover, there also appears to be a further lack of specific understanding of the wider aircraft industry and the challenges the Air Ministry faced in getting aircraft through the design and development programme. This is used, again, as a stick with which to hit the Air Ministry, without taking the time to develop a more nuanced argument by considering the lead times from specifications being issued to the first production batch being delivered (p. 107). Aircraft that emerged from aircraft firms and went on to be household names during the Second World War were going through the design and development process at the time decisions were being made to expand the RAF and fall into the quantity versus quality argument that was had by those in the Air Ministry responsible for this area. Phillips is, however, correct in highlighting that this left Bomber Command with a significant capability gap from the start of the war in 1939 until the introduction of the four-engined Lancaster heavy bomber in 1941.
Combined with the issue of contextual understanding, Phillips’ work suffers from a degree of hindsight bias. Again, this bias is used to illustrate that the RAF were wrong. For example, the RAF and the wider Air Ministry are criticised for not realising the importance of the experiments being conducted by Robert Watson-Watt in developing a basic air defence system (pp. 30, 130-1). This feels like an overly harsh criticism given that the technology was being developed as decisions on arming the RAF were being made. Furthermore, a potential failure in this technology meant facing a similar problem to that of the First World War regarding advanced warning of incoming enemy aircraft.
Despite these criticisms, the chapters analysing the relationship between the wider government and the Air Ministry are the most engaging. They provide a real depth of understanding of the dynamics at play between the two. However, even here, there is a degree of reading history backwards and criticising the RAF on decisions where those looking after the event know what happened, but the protagonists do not.
As well as the areas identified above, several stylistic issues exist with the book’s structure and form. This makes gaining any momentum in the argument and analysis challenging to sustain. The book comprises 38 chapters, which, given the size of the work, means most are relatively short and jump around the topic area, thus making the overall argument and analysis challenging to follow. There is also a lack of analytical consistency tying each chapter together and a tendency to move around chronologically without setting the ideas being discussed in context, especially if they had been mentioned in previous chapters. This truncated style leaves an impression that a tighter structure would have helped with the flow of the argument and would have aided in making the links between developments clearer. In addition, a clearer statement of intent at the beginning of each chapter would have aided readers in understanding what the author wanted them to take away in terms of argument and viewpoint.
Critically, one of the significant issues with this work’s presentation is the lack of references within each chapter. Many statements lack supporting evidence (either primary or secondary), and quotes are also left unsupported. For example, chapter 2, which looks at the period when Sir Hugh Trenchard becomes Chief of the Air Staff for the second time, has only one reference, despite plentiful sources. Additionally, the primary evidence cited has been chosen to suit a particular pre-formed argument rather than the argument formed by the available evidence (of which the files in The National Archives alone are plentiful).
Overall, this attempt at post-revisionism largely fails in presenting a depth of analysis through the poor use of references and available evidence. It feels as if the author had their argument in mind before the research. The traditional bashing of the RAF of the inter-war period has yet to disappear from the annals of history.
Dr Matthew Powell is a Teaching Fellow at Portsmouth Business School at the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell. He holds a PhD in Modern History from the University of Birmingham. His first book The Development of British Tactical Air Power, 1940 1943: A History of Army Co-operation Command, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2016. He has published in War in History, The Journal of the Royal United Services Institute, Air and Space Power Review and the British Journal of Military History. His current research investigates the relationship between the Air Ministry and the British aircraft industry in the inter-war period.
Header image: The prototype Supermarine Spitfire, K5054, c. 1936. (Source: Wikimedia)