#BookReview – Early Naval Air Power: British and German Approaches

#BookReview – Early Naval Air Power: British and German Approaches

By Ashleigh Brown

Dennis Haslop, Early Naval Air Power: British and German Approaches. Abingdon: Routledge, 2018. Notes. Index. Bibliography. Illustrations. Tables. 226 pp.

51QeMuaPhqL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

The First World War was the first significant conflict which employed the use of aircraft. Aviation was in its infancy, but by the end of 1918, it had proven its worth for warfare, with many nations moving to continue technological and tactical developments and creating air forces as a separate branch of the military. Britain was the only nation to achieve this during the war, with the Royal Air Force (RAF) being formed on 1 April 1918. This was the culmination of two branches which had, to that point, been quite deliberately separate since the start of the First World War; the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS).

Dennis Haslop’s Early Naval Air Power: British and German Approaches aims to present a comparative study of the organisation and air power doctrine in the RNAS and the Imperial German Naval Air Service (IGNAS) (p. 1). This is a unique approach to First World War naval aviation historiography, and it proves a very effective way of illuminating striking similarities in the experiences of the two enemy forces. For scholars primarily and, to a lesser extent, general readers, this provides valuable insight into the parallel development of British and German air power, drawing attention to the significant effect on both by common external factors.

Haslop acknowledges his limitations: while British sources are abundant, the same cannot be said for German sources, he argues. Many documents are missing or misclassified, and there is considerably less in terms of the secondary source material, resulting in a significant gap (p. 202). This makes presenting a balanced view of the two understandably difficult. Even so, the volume and quality of detail and analysis of the IGNAS Haslop includes are impressive. Haslop demonstrates command over the German literature and available archives. This is perhaps one of the greatest strengths of this work. The juxtaposition of the two services made possible by the author’s understanding of the relevant archives provides a convincing argument that the two were experiencing very similar pressures and issues in terms of organisation and doctrine while facing one another in total war. Haslop draws the obvious conclusion that external factors of the time, while not wholly responsible, had a role to play.

Felixstowe_F.2A_-_RNAS_1914-1918_Q27501
A Felixstowe F.2A in flight during an anti-submarine patrol. The dazzle camouflage schemes adopted by these aircraft aided identification in the air during combat and on the water in the event of being forced down. (Source: © IWM (Q 27501))

Another recent work in this field is David Hobbs’ informative study, The Royal Navy’s Air Service in the Great War (2017), which covered many of the same issues as Haslop’s work, but through the single lens of the RNAS experience. Haslop takes a more analytical approach than Hobbs, whose principal aim is to document the RNAS history. This may make Haslop less appealing to general readers, but his work is far more valuable for scholars. The major downfall of Hobbs’ work is that he too often plays into the inter-service rivalry between the army and navy, with heavy bias evident when considering issues such as home defence, RNAS provision of assistance to the RFC on the Western Front, and the creation of the RAF.[1] Haslop, on the other hand, manages to provide a more balanced approach to these issues while also effectively presenting the RNAS position. Importantly, context is provided throughout by also discussing the RFC.

The growing use of aircraft in the war led to logistical issues with the supply of aircraft – and, in particular, aero-engines – rarely being able to keep up with the demand. With two separate wings to support, Britain’s industry struggled, and the army and navy continuously wrestled over resources throughout the conflict. On this issue, Haslop contends that the RFC wanted to ‘stem the flow’ of resources to the Admiralty, under the logic that the RNAS was ‘gaining advantage out of proportion to its justifiable needs’ (p. 114). The RNAS, of course, disagreed and insisted on the issue being referred back to the government, as the two seemed unable to reach an amicable decision without political intervention. Haslop refers back to the need for a joint air war doctrine to be developed for the progression of air power, noting that this rivalry over resources achieved nothing but to prevent this from happening (p. 114).

The subsequent chapter then demonstrates that, around the same time, the inter-service rivalry in Germany was also intensifying as a result of the struggle over resources (p. 158). This issue was an external factor inherent to the widespread use of new technology to which neither Britain nor Germany was immune. This, combined with the wider issue of inter-service rivalry, Haslop argues, acted as a roadblock to the development of a common air war doctrine in each of the forces (p. 114).

The British and German armies and navies were well-established military services with existing traditions and an existing rivalry. Adding a third capability to the already volatile mix inevitably sparked competitiveness with both ‘constantly vying for dominance over the other’ (p. 203). Haslop argues that inter-service rivalry, primarily over resources, intensified in Germany to the point where the head of the Imperial German Army Air Service (IGAAS) proposed the unification of the two services to create an independent air force, mirroring Britain’s movement towards the creation of the RAF (p. 158). Unlike in Britain, this proposal failed to get approval, but Haslop contends that it affected, nonetheless. The German army was given greater responsibility for resource procurement, virtually ‘ensuring that the navy had to negotiate with the army for supplies’ (p. 158). Despite the proposal not being successful, the fact that a very similar path was being followed in both militaries at the same time is significant.

Hansa-Brandenburg_W.19_prototype_side
The prototype of the Hansa-Brandenburg W.19. (Source: Wikimedia)

The rejected proposal seemingly brought the intense inter-service rivalry to an end in Germany, with the two air arms drawing closer together and developing a common doctrine (p. 159). In Britain, Haslop argues, ‘elements of the RFC, government and members of the press were openly calling for the unification’ and formation of an independent air service (p. 111). Public and government anxiety over German bombing raids, combined with the recommendations of the Smuts report, eventually prompted the government to create the RAF. The popular naval story of this event would have readers believe that this was a hostile takeover of the RNAS by the RFC ‘at the stroke of a politician’s pen’, with military ranks ‘imposed and the proud achievements and traditions built up by the RNAS swept away, literally overnight’.[2]

Haslop, however, contends that the amalgamation of the two into the RAF actually had very little noticeable effect on naval aviation for the remainder of the war (p. 144). Rather than being outraged by the Royal Navy ‘losing’ its air arm, Haslop appears to concede that this was a necessary step for the progression of military aviation which was bound to occur sooner or later in any case. By avoiding heavy naval bias, Haslop contributes greatly to a more holistic understanding of the political and tactical developments which took place to reach the point where, by the end of the First World War, Britain was the only nation in the world to boast an independent air service.

Haslop’s ability to place RNAS/IGNAS developments in the broader context of First World War aviation development, political and public pressures, doctrine and overall tactical issues make this book valuable not only to the understanding of naval air power, but also to a comprehensive understanding of the political, social and economic context in which it developed. The intricacies of the external factors are emphasised throughout Early Naval Air Power, and this is one of its greatest strengths. Not only has Haslop effectively demonstrated the development of both naval air services, but he has also done so in a way that does not leave the reader guessing as to why and how they developed in the way that they did.

Ashleigh Brown is a PhD candidate with the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at UNSW Canberra. Her current research is on the development of aviation leadership and command during the First World War. Ashleigh previously completed a Master of Philosophy with UNSW Canberra focused on brigade commanders of the Australian Imperial Force on the Western Front, 1914-1918.

Header Image: Squadron Commander E.H. Dunning attempting to land his Sopwith Pup on the flying-off deck of HMS Furious at Scapa Flow, 7 August 1917. He was killed when his aircraft veered off the flight deck and into the sea. (Source: © IWM (Q 20637))

[1] David Hobbs, The Royal Navy’s Air Service in the Great War (Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing, 2017), p. 56, pp. 267-268, pp. 356-357.

[2] Ibid., p. 477