#Commentary – Biplanes against Battleships: The Fairey Swordfish Biplane and Lessons for Today’s Air Power

#Commentary – Biplanes against Battleships: The Fairey Swordfish Biplane and Lessons for Today’s Air Power

By Dr Adam Leong Kok Wey

The Fairey Swordfish flew just above the sea waves at about 30 feet while anti-aircraft artillery shells exploded around it, the sea waters splashing high due to the impact. The pilot, Lieutenant M.R. Maund, struggled to keep his plane steady to release his torpedo at an Italian battleship.[1] Maund flew a Swordfish biplane: one of the 20 Swordfish aircraft from HMS Illustrious that took part in the air attack on the Italian Navy’s (Regia Marina) battleship fleet in the harbour of Taranto on the night of 11-12 November 1940. The Italians had six battleships, 14 cruisers and 27 destroyers at Taranto.[2] During this night attack, the Swordfish aircraft dropped torpedoes and bombs and managed to sink a battleship (Conte di Cavour) while severely damaging two more (Caio Duilio and Littorio). Only two Swordfish aircraft were shot down. As a result of the attack, half of the Regia Marina’s capital ship fleet was disabled, giving the Royal Navy (RN) some tactical space and time to conduct its maritime operations in the Mediterranean.[3]

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An aerial view showing the aftermath of the raid on Taranto in November 1940. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

More importantly, the Battle of Taranto signalled a change in naval power and the use of air power.  It demonstrated the value of using aircraft to destroy an enemy’s fleet. The lessons of the Battle of Taranto were not lost on those who observed the effects of the operation. The Japanese Assistant Naval Attaché in Berlin visited Taranto and studied the raid. His findings then fed into the planning process for the massive surprise air raid against the US Navy at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. The use of precision airstrikes against naval targets rendered the fleet-in-being strategy as a highly risky practice, and subsequent Second World War naval battles with air power serve to highlight this point.

The Swordfish aircraft, which was successfully used in the attack against Taranto, was an obsolete aircraft when the Second World War started. It was a fabric wire biplane first flown in 1934 and became operational in July 1936 with the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) of the Royal Air Force, which was later transferred to the control of the Royal Navy. It had a top speed of just 138 mph; a service ceiling of 10,890 feet; a range of 1,028 miles; and it could carry either a 1,600 lb torpedo or a 1,500 lb load of depth charges, mines or bombs.[4]  For self-defence, it was armed with a .303 Vickers machine gun above its engine and another .303 Vickers machine gun operated by the rear gunner. It had a crew of three – a pilot, a navigator-observer, and a radioman-rear gunner – flying in an open cockpit. Due to its fabric skin-cover holding the aircraft together, it was nicknamed the ‘Stringbag.’

FL 2425
HMS Illustrious in 1940. (Source: © IWM (FL 2425))

By the time of the outbreak of the Second World War, the Swordfish was slow and vulnerable to faster and more agile monoplane fighters. Nevertheless, the FAA used it as its primary torpedo and reconnaissance aircraft on the RN’s aircraft carriers during the war. However, its slow speed and crude design allowed it to fly slow and manoeuvre at low altitude. These qualities were crucial to victory at Taranto, when the Swordfish aircraft flew low, almost at sea wave height, enabling them to avoid Italian anti-aircraft artillery. The slow speed also allowed the Swordfish aircraft to fly around some barrage balloons and unleash their ordnance with accuracy. The fabric skin construction of the Swordfish also saved it from light cannon shells armed with contact fuses as the shells shot through the soft fabric.

The anti-battleship feat of the Swordfish was repeated when they took part in the hunt for the German Navy’s (Kriegsmarine) battleship, Bismarck. Swordfish aircraft from HMS Ark Royal launched a torpedo attack against Bismarck on 26 May 1941 and managed to destroy its port-side rudder. This caused the Bismarck to turn in circles.[5] The RN’s surface fleet eventually caught up with the Bismarck and sank it the next day. Ironically, the HMS Prince of Wales, which took part in the sinking of Bismarck, was sunk by Japanese air power on 10 December 1941 off the coast of eastern Malaya.

TR 1138
Close-up of a Fairey Swordfish MkII in flight as seen through the struts of another aircraft, probably while serving with No. 824 Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm, c. 1943-1944. (Source: © IWM (TR 1138))

The Swordfish continued to be manufactured (2,391 were built) and used by the FAA until the end of the Second World War.[6] Despite its obsolescence at the start of the war, it doggedly flew on and even outlived some of its more modern contemporary aircraft. The Swordfish gained a solid reputation as the most successful British naval aircraft with the highest score of Axis ships sunk during the Second World War.[7] The rugged biplane was finally retired from active service in 1946.

The tactical lessons drawn from the experience of the Swordfish in the Second World War should not be lost on modern observers. Many modern countries are looking to procure the latest technologically superior combat aircraft to equip their air forces, at very expensive prices. For example, there are continued debates today on the viability for some air forces to acquire either the F-35 Lightning II or modernised versions of the F/A-18 Super Hornet or the F-16V Viper. Perhaps it might be prudent to understand that sometimes older platforms if used smartly and asymmetrically to offset their disadvantages, can yield some strategic utility as the humble Fairey Swordfish did during the Second World War. After all, it is not the machines that count, but the tactical effects yielding strategic utility that matter.

Dr Adam Leong Kok Wey is an Associate Professor in Strategic Studies, and the Deputy Director of Research in the Centre for Defence and International Security Studies (CDiSS) at the National Defence University of Malaysia. He has a PhD in Strategic Studies from the University of Reading and is the author of two books on military strategy and history, including Killing the Enemy! Assassination operations during World War II published by I.B. Tauris.

Header Image: A Fairey Swordfish Mk.I from the Torpedo Training Unit at RAF Gosport drops a practice torpedo during training in the late-1930s. (Source: © IWM (MH 23))

[1] See David Wragg, Swordfish: The Story of the Taranto Raid (London: Cassell, 2003).

[2] Richard P. Hallion, ‘Dress Rehersal for Pearl Harbor?’, HistoryNet.com, August 2008.

[3] Bernard Ireland, Naval Airpower (London: HarperCollins, 2003), pp.117-8.

[4] Jim Winchester (ed.), Aircraft of World War II (Kent: Grange, 2007), p. 87.

[5] John Moffat, I Sank the Bismarck: Memoirs of a Second World War Navy Pilot (London: Bantam, 2009), pp. 226-7.

[6] Winchester (ed.), Aircraft, p. 87

[7] Justin D. Murphy and Matthew A. McNiece, Military Aircraft, 1919-1945 (Oxford: ABC Clio, 2009), p. 212.

 

Royal Air Force ‘wings’ Brevets in Second World War Propaganda

Royal Air Force ‘wings’ Brevets in Second World War Propaganda

By Liam Barnsdale

The Royal Air Force (RAF) has used various ‘wings’ brevets as identifying symbols for aircrew since its formation, with hotly-contested political debates within the service over their symbolic value dating back to the time of their introduction by the Royal Flying Corps.[1] However, it was during the Second World War that – thanks to the RAF’s actions and resulting fame – the recognition of the insignia was catapulted beyond military circles into the wider public. Much of this recognition is either evidenced in the products, or due to the efforts, of Britain’s propagandists, who frequently included the ‘wings’ brevets in their material. Although an intrinsic component of RAF aviators’ uniforms, ‘wings’ brevets were frequently depicted independently from their associated clothing sets. Indeed, their recognition often transcended the uniforms to which they were irrevocably attached in reality — virtually every piece of uniform, insignia, and flying equipment featured in aviators’ propaganda representations. However, the ‘wings’ brevets were foremost among these symbols, coming to represent not just individual aviators, but the service as a whole.

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An example of a pilot’s ‘wings’ brevet as used during the Second World War. (Source: © IWM (INS 7330))

Following the traditions of the RFC, the RAF recognised individual aircrew roles through brevet patches worn on the service dress and war service dress jackets’ left breast. These took the form of either two outstretched bird’s wings for a pilot or a single wing denoting non-pilot roles in multi-person aircraft. Both forms of brevet were embroidered in white silk for the wings, and bronze silk for the laurels from which they emanated. Contained within these laurels were white letters indicating the wearer’s service in the case of pilots or their role in acronym form for non-pilots. Named for their shape, ‘wings’ brevets received a modicum of public recognition before the Second World War, evidenced by their appearances in popular culture, including Thomas Somerfield likening them to RAF officers’ moustaches in Punch, August 1918. Depicting two aviators, one with a full handlebar moustache and the other with similar facial hair on only the left half of his top lip, Somerfield quipped that:

The growth of decorations, badges and honorific chevrons makes it advisable that fresh space should be found for them. Mr. Punch recommends the above method of distinguishing between an observer and a pilot.[2]

Although this reference to the brevet’s form indicated public knowledge of the insignia, it was during the Second World War that the brevet became truly famous within the British public consciousness.

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The Air Gunner ‘wings’ that were introduced in December 1939. (Source: © IWM (INS 4909))

During the Second World War, a wider variety of ‘wings’ brevets specific to aircrew roles were produced, and their symbolic value increased exponentially, thanks in part to their promotion by the Air Ministry. With the increasing size of bombers, the typical aircrew was no longer simply a pilot and his observer. The new heavy four-engined bombers required a large and diverse range of crewmembers, each with their specially trained skillset and therefore deserving of recognition through their unique brevet. The new ‘wings’, modelled on the earlier observer’s brevet, were individually introduced throughout the war, beginning with the Air Gunner’s in December 1939 and ending with Meteorological Officer, signified by an ‘M’, in April 1945.[3] In many cases, their introduction was announced to the public in newspaper articles, with The Times publishing an article on the Air Gunner brevet’s introduction, complete with information on the wearers’ qualifications, the brevet’s construction, and accompanying photograph.[4]

The ‘wings’ brevets’ promotion was highly effective, leading to them gaining widespread public recognition. Roald Dahl, at this time an RAF fighter pilot, recalled two incidents in his memoir Going Solo in which the ‘wings’ on his jacket acted as ‘a great passport’ in London during 1941, both occurring during the same night.[5] The first instance was impressing a hotel owner into using her telephone; the second was deterring a group of ‘drunken soldiers […] searching for an officer to beat up.’[6] Dahl attributed this recognition to the publicising of fighter and bomber pilots’ activities, and the brevity of his short explanation implies that the brevet’s significance was indeed common knowledge in wartime Britain.[7] By contrast, Flying Officer James Storrar, a Hawker Hurricane pilot during the Battle of Britain, wrote to his mother about the amusement he felt at the reactions he received from non-RAF personnel while on leave in London. Upon his appearance at the Euston Hotel, Storrar wrote that ‘Army Captains look upon my dirty tunic & hat […] with disgust and two waiters titter about something in my dress.’[8] However, it was ‘honestly amusing to meet people and be introduced as a fighter pilot, the different reactions are amazing.’[9] Accordingly, the appearance of RAF aviators’ uniforms and the visibility of their ‘wings’ brevet significantly influenced their reception by the British public. While smartly dressed pilots with visible ‘wings’ brevets, such as Dahl, received positive reactions from the public, those whose dress was too untidy for identification as pilots received derision and scorn.

PST 4095
While appearing chauvanistic by modern standard, this poster was typical of those used during the Second World War. It was created in 1941 by Harold Forster, an artist noted for his illustrations on pre-war Black Magic chocolate boxes. The pilot ‘wing’s are a noticeable feature of this work. (Source: © IWM (Art.IWM PST 4095))

Popular recognition of the pilot’s ‘wings’ brevet is reflected in a variety of propaganda media. These include one of the Air Ministry’s ‘Fly with the RAF’ advertisements published in February 1941, in which it is claimed that ‘you [the reader] know’ RAF pilots ‘by “The Wings” on their tunics.’[10] Further evidence can be found in two posters from the Ministry of Information’s series ‘Keep Mum, She’s Not so dumb!’ In one, an RAF Sergeant is plied for information by his female companion, with the ‘AG’ on his half-brevet delicately legible despite the rough brushstrokes used throughout the remainder of the artwork.[11] In the second poster, officers of the three services crowd around an elegant woman, the only feature distinguishing the RAF officer from his compatriots being his uniform’s colour and ‘wings’.[12] In both of these instances, great care was taken by the artists to ensure that the ‘wings’ brevets were included in their work, clearly indicating the insignia’s symbolic value, both to Britain’s propagandists and within popular culture.

The ‘wings’ brevet also appeared frequently in commercial advertisements. Two Cardinals Luxury Coffee included the brevet in their poster featuring a smiling RAF pilot wearing service dress with visible ‘wings’ brevet.[13] By associating the brand with the heroic defenders of the realm, whose ambassador is identified only by his insignia, the audience is assured of the product’s quality. A similar use of the brevet for ‘authenticating’ a product can be found in newspaper advertisements for Fighter Pilot, Paul Richey’s anonymous Battle of France memoir.[14] First editions of Richey’s book also sported the fêted insignia on its otherwise-image-deprived cover.[15] Other book covers utilising the brevet include Leslie Kark’s novels The Fire Was Bright and Red Rain, both of which used the ‘wings’ as a method of clearly identifying their topics to potential readers.[16] Similarly, the Ministry of Information’s internationally-distributed children’s picture book Britain’s Royal Air Force began beneath a large colour illustration of a pilot’s brevet.[17]

Cinema, however, presented the most prominent recognition of the ‘wings’ brevet’s symbolic power. Although aviation films produced in the war’s formative years merely included the brevet as a part of their actors’ costumes, later films came to place great emphasis on the brevet as a symbol of the characters’ occupation.[18] Exemplifying this is Jack Watling’s character Buster, the RAF fighter pilot briefly included in Carol Reed’s 1944 film The Way Ahead as a token emblem of his service.[19] In every shot depicting the character, his ‘wings’ are clearly visible, continually reminding the audience of his coveted role within his already-glorified service. This careful inclusion is echoed in a brief shot from the Sergeant’s Mess scene in Michael Powell, and Emeric Pressburger’s 1942 Oscar-nominated One of Our Aircraft is Missing wherein the ‘wings’ of the Sergeant pilot leaning against the radio is clearly, but unnecessarily, visible at the bottom of the image.[20] Joseph Lee also utilised this careful framing in his cartoon ‘Smiling Through: Point of View’, published in the Evening News in July 1942. Although the central character’s left arm is raised casually, it is angled just low enough for the artist to include his ‘wings’ in the image.[21] In each of these examples, the characters’ ‘wings’ brevets need not have been included, and their presence; therefore, merely proves their symbolic value to both creators and audience.

The Way Ahead
“Well, shot up a bit…” Buster in The Way Ahead (1944).

A similar reverence is placed upon the ‘wings’ brevet in Anthony Asquith’s 1945 work The Way to the Stars, with the film’s characters wordlessly acknowledging their symbolic value. When encountering John Mills’ character, RAF bomber pilot-turned-controller Peter Penrose, American bomber crewmember Joe Friselli, played by Bonar Colleano, initially took him for a non-flying officer. This assumption is based on Penrose not wearing his War Service Dress jacket and his introducing himself as a controller and “not a flier.”[22] Friselli proceeded to loudly elucidate on his untested expertise in bombing and the qualities of his aircraft. Penrose, meanwhile, took his coat down from the hook on which it was hanging, and Friselli stopped short as he noticed the ‘wings’ brevet just visible to the audience on the jacket’s left breast. Friselli’s tone changed immediately to one of apologetic respect, and humble, yet faintly-dumbfoundedly enquired into Penrose’s experience as a pilot.[23] The brief interaction between Friselli and Penrose was aimed to bring a form of Schadenfreude to the British public, playing on their widespread irritation with the ‘over-paid, over-sexed and over here’ American servicemen based in their country. However, the scene also proves the brevet’s power as a symbol independent of the RAF’s uniform, for unlike Buster’s The Way Ahead, Penrose’s ‘wings’ remain either out-of-focus or partially obscured throughout the scene. Regardless, instant audience recognition is expected of Friselli’s wordless indication to the brevet’s location, just as the brevet’s significance goes unexplained yet remains pivotal to the dialogue.

While incidental inclusions such as these in both film and print were common, the Royal Air Force Film Production Unit went one step further. Under the direction of John Boulting, the Unit’s 1945 film Journey Together dug into the perceived elitism of pilots and dedicated the entire film to promoting the value of non-pilot aircrew, with particular emphasis on the role of navigator. The film tells the story of two fictional RAF trainees, David Wilton and John Ayneswoth played by Richard Attenborough and Jack Watling respectively, both hoping to become pilots. Wilton failed in his endeavour and instead became a navigator, while Ayneswoth achieved his goal, much to the envy of Wilton, until both came to cooperate and accept the equal importance of navigator and pilot. Wilton’s initial envy is communicated most effectively in a mostly non-verbal scene in a Canadian hotel bar, where Aynesorth took off his greatcoat to expose the new ‘wings’ on his service dress. After a moment of tense silence, Wilton showed his support for Aynesworth’s achievement by offering to brush his wings to reduce their dazzle.[24] Throughout this brief but tense scene, the brevet dominated as the object of conversation, both spoken and unspoken, with great emphasis placed on its coveted status and symbolism.

From their repeated use in multiple media formats to identify and promote aviators, the RAF’s ‘wings’ brevets held significant symbolic value within British Second World War society. Be it through intimation of their elite status in cinema, or their inclusion as a service-identifying emblem in printed material, brevets were repeatedly used without accompanying explanation of their meaning, with audiences expected to both recognise them and appreciate the qualifications and accompanying heroic traits they represented. There is limited evidence to support any claim that the insignia was indeed widely-recognised by the British public, and any claim that recognition of ‘wings’ brevets was universal would be almost impossible to prove. However, the material examined in this article indicates that the Air Ministry and Ministry of Information believed public recognition of ‘wings’ brevets to be sufficient to make explanation unnecessary. If their assumptions were correct, which could be argued based on these agencies’ access to public opinion polling, this would indicate that the brevets’ fame was deeply embedded in the British public consciousness, well beyond its earlier and later boundaries within the service. This fame, founded in the propagandised efforts of the RAF, merely exacerbated the ministries’ ability to use them as a propaganda tool to further promote the service. Therefore, RAF ‘wings’ brevets exemplified not only the power of the symbols in wartime propaganda but the reciprocal interaction between propaganda and public opinion, each of which influences the other. Public knowledge of the brevets was due to its use in propaganda, and its use in propaganda was based on expected public knowledge. Regardless of the origins of their fame, the innumerable representations of RAF ‘wings’ brevets in British Second World War propaganda indicated their popularity among the contemporary British public.

Liam Barnsdale has recently completed his Master of Arts thesis at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. His thesis, titled ‘‘The sort of man’: Politics, Clothing and Characteristics in British Propaganda depictions of Royal Air Force Aviators, 1939-1945′, examines depictions of RAF personnel in multiple media during the Second World War, identifying and analysing the symbols and characteristics systematically used in these depictions.

Header Image: Wing Commander Guy Gibson, OC No. 617 Squadron, with members of his crew. Left to right: Wing Commander Guy Gibson, VC, DSO and Bar, DFC and Bar; Pilot Officer P.M. Spafford, bomb aimer; Flight Lieutenant R.E.G. Hutchinson, wireless operator; Pilot Officer G.A. Deering and Flying Officer H.T. Taerum, gunners. Prominent in this picture are the various ‘wings’ worn by the members of the crew. (Source: © IWM (TR 1127))

[1] For further discussion of this historical debate, see C.G. Jefford, Observers and Navigators: And Other Non-Pilot Aircrew Roles in the RFC, RNAS and RAF, Revised Edition (London: Grub Street, 2014), pp. 61, 81, 257.

[2] Thomas Somerfield, ‘The Growth of Decorations…’, Punch, 21 August 1918, p. 124.

[3] Andrew Cormack, The Royal Air Force 1939-45 (London: Osprey Publishing, 1990), p. 7.

[4] ‘New Badge for Air Gunners,’ The Times, 1940, p. 8.

[5] Roald Dahl, Going Solo (London: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 207.

[6] Ibid., pp. 207, 209.

[7] Ibid., p. 207.

[8] Royal Air Force Museum, London, X005-4835/002, Letter from Flying Officer James to his Mother, c. 1940, p. 2.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Air Ministry Information Bureau, ‘Fly with the RAF,’ The Times, 18 February 1941, p. 7.

[11] Imperial War Museum (IWM), Art.IWM PST 13908, ‘Keep Mum – She’s Not So Dumb! – Careless Talk Costs Lives’, 1939-1945.

[12] IWM, Art.IWM PST 4095, ‘Keep Mum – She’s Not So Dumb! – Careless Talk Costs Lives.’

[13] Museum of Brands, Two Cardinals Coffee, ‘Two Cardinals Luxury Coffee is Delicious’, 1939-1945.

[14] ‘Fighter Pilot,’ The Times, 30 August 1941, p. 2

[15] Paul Richie, Fighter Pilot, Fourth Edition (London: B.T. Batsford, 1941), cover.

[16] Leslie Kark, The Fire was Bright (London: Macmillan, 1943), cover; Leslie Kark, Red Rain (London: Macmillan, 1945), cover.

[17] Anonymous, Britain’s Royal Air Force (London: Ministry of Information, 1943), p. 1.

[18] See Michael Powell, Brian Desmond Hurst & Adrian Brunel, The Lion Has Wings (London Films, 1939) as an example of early-war aviation propaganda, in which little to no emphasis is placed upon the pilot’s ‘wings’ on the two lead actors’ uniforms.

[19] Carol Reed, The Way Ahead (Two Cities Films, 1944).

[20] Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, One of Our Aircraft is Missing (The Archers, 1942).

[21] Joseph Lee, ‘Smiling Through: Point of View,’ Evening News, 14 July 1942.

[22] Anthony Asquith, The Way to the Stars (Two Cities Films, 1945).

[23] Ibid.

[24] John Boulting, Journey Together (Royal Air Force Film Production Unit, 1945).

#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.

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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

Royal Air Force Shoulder Patches as a Propaganda Tool during the Second World War

Royal Air Force Shoulder Patches as a Propaganda Tool during the Second World War

By Liam Barnsdale

As a means of acknowledging its increasingly diverse composition, the Royal Air Force (RAF) introduced shoulder patches to its uniforms during the Second World War. These small pieces of cloth, varying widely in construction, not only identified the wearer’s nationality to the viewer, but highlighted the contributions of non-British personnel to the service, and thereby the international scale of the broader conflict. Although Commonwealth aviators had made significant contributions to the RAF’s numbers since its foundation, the service’s diversity was further compounded during the Second World War by an influx of exiled aviators from continental Europe and volunteers from neutral countries such as Ireland and the United States. While many occupied nations’ air arms retained their administrative independence from the RAF, all, save for the Free French, adopted the RAF’s uniform as their own.[1]

Shoulder Patch
A New Zealand shoulder patch on an RAF service dress. (Source: Author’s collection)

Many adapted their uniforms to reflect their original services by altering insignia, such as replacing the RAF’s ‘wings’ brevet with their own air forces’ brevets, or dying their uniforms a darker shade of blue, as Australian aviators did. Despite their differences, however, all adopted the RAF’s shoulder patches as a part of their varying insignia, sewing them just below the shoulder seams of their Service Dress uniform jackets, in a similar fashion to the British Army’s regimental insignia. Their introduction was often at the request of the RAF. Produced for all major nationality groups serving in the RAF, the patches presented the wearer’s original service, such as the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF), or home country either in full, or in acronym, stitched in light blue or white thread on dark blue or black cloth. Introduced at intermittent stages across the conflict’s duration, the patches came in a wide range of shapes and sizes, from single-line titles to the comparatively ostentatious insignia worn by American Eagle Squadron pilots. Regardless of their format, however, all patches made the wearer’s nationality abundantly clear.

Even in the case of the Eagle Squadron patch, omitting written reference to the United States, it nonetheless clearly communicated national identity through a large embroidered replication of the country’s national symbol. Despite their innocuous size, RAF personnel attached great sentimental value to their shoulder patches. Wing Commander ‘Johnnie’ Johnson, the British commander of Canadian No. 144 Wing from 1943 to 1945, was presented a pair by Leslie ‘Syd’ Ford, one of the Wing’s Squadron Leaders, after his first operation with the unit. Johnson recalled Ford stating that ‘the boys would like you to wear these. After all, we’re a Canadian wing and we’ve got to convert you.’[2] This action’s ‘deep significance’ to Johnson reflects the shoulder patches’ extended symbolism beyond that of personal identity, for Johnson was not Canadian, to one of inclusivity and group identity.[3]

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Squadron Leader William Taylor of No. 71 Squadron  RAF (Source: IWM)

Thanks to the Ministry of Information’s (MoI) interest in promoting international support for Britain, particularly before the United States’ entry into the conflict, RAF shoulder patches were frequently included in British domestic propaganda. Among the various media to feature them were newspaper articles, with international airmen serving in the RAF frequently promoted through photographs of specific individuals and their insignia. Exemplifying this is a small pictorial Times article on Squadron Leader William Taylor, ‘the fighting commanding officer of the new R.A.F. Fighter squadron with all American pilots’, in which Taylor is posed side-on to the camera, compelling the audience to notice and recognise his prominent Eagle Squadron patch.[4] Shoulder patches also appear in numerous MoI posters, one example being ‘King George VI Meets Pilots of Fighter Command’ from the ministry’s ‘For Freedom’ series, in which a New Zealand pilot, identifiable by his camera-facing shoulder patch, appears in the centre of the poster’s illustration.[5] In many cases, propagandised aviators appeared as anonymous members of a group, appearing only in close-up shots of their shoulder patches. The November 1943 British Movietone News newsreel story ‘Battle of Berlin – New Phase Opens’ exemplifies this phenomena, dedicating eight seconds of its length to a succession of shots showing the shoulders of a Canadian Air Bomber, an Australian Air Gunner, a New Zealand Navigator, and a Rhodesian Sergeant, each shot excluding the subjects’ faces.[6]

Other stories utilising aviators’ shoulder patches include those covering the influx of immigrant RAF personnel from Empire Air Training Scheme, often before their allocation to nationally-specific units. The October 1941 British Movietone newsreel story ‘King and Queen with Empire Airmen’ exemplifies this theme.[7] As its title suggests, the story, also covered by Pathé Gazette under the title ‘Their Majesties and Airmen from Overseas’, shows King George VI and Queen Elizabeth inspecting foreign RAF personnel newly-arrived in Britain.[8] Most of the segment’s one-minute length is dedicated to a sequence of shots focusing on selected personnel’s shoulder patches. Aviators from Canada, Singapore, South Africa, the USA, New Zealand and Rhodesia receive the camera’s attention in turn, with their identifying shoulder patches appearing in each shot’s centre, often, as in ‘Battle of Berlin’, at the expense of their owners’ faces.

Originally intended as a political concession to overseas governments’ requests for increased autonomy within the RAF, the shoulder patch’s frequent centre-stage appearances reveal that its symbolic value extended beyond its simple cloth constitution. By focusing solely on the unnamed aviators’ shoulder patches, both ‘Battle of Berlin – New Phase Opens’ and ‘King and Queen with Empire Airmen’ eschew all of their subjects’ characteristics save for their nationalities, depicting them as simply their nations’ de facto ambassadors. Commonwealth military historians such as Jeffrey Grey have criticised their nations’ ‘disastrous’ ‘surrender’ of aviators to the RAF under the Empire Air Training Scheme and the subsequent reduction of Commonwealth air arms to ‘training organisation[s] for the RAF’.[9] Similar disdain was voiced by Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris, who opined that:

[a]n ordinary mixed British crew from all parts of the British Isles […] is much better disciplined and certainly better educated than the average colonial and dominion crew.[10]

However, the frequent appearances of the commonwealth and overseas aviators and their national insignia in British domestic propaganda indicate that their value extended beyond strategy and aided significantly in the MoI’s emphasising of the international support for Britain’s war effort.

Liam Barnsdale has recently completed his Master of Arts thesis at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. His thesis, titled ‘‘The sort of man’: Politics, Clothing and Characteristics in British Propaganda depictions of Royal Air Force Aviators, 1939-1945′, examines depictions of RAF personnel in multiple media during the Second World War, identifying and analysing the symbols and characteristics systematically used in these depictions.

Header Image: Airmen from all parts of the world who took part in the Dieppe Raid in front of the Hurricane ‘Urundi’ of No. 43 Squadron at RAF Tangmere, 20 August 1942. From left to right – Pilot Officer Andrzej Malarowski of No. 317 Polish Fighter Squadron, pilots from Australia, Gold Coast, Canada, USA and New Zealand. (Source: © IWM (HU 128191))

[1] Andrew Cormack, The Royal Air Force 1939-45 (London: Osprey Publishing, 1990), p. 19.

[2] Leslie Ford in J.E. Johnson, Wing Leader (London: The Reprint Society, 1958), p. 163.

[3] Johnson, Wing Leader.

[4] ‘Squadron-Leader W.E.G. Taylor’ in ‘The Prime Minister’s Son Enters Parliament,’ The Times, 9 October 1940, p. 6.

[5] Air Force Museum of New Zealand, Ref. No. 2017/131.7, ‘King George VI Meets Pilots of Fighter Command’, 1942-1945.

[6] ‘Battle of Berlin – New Phase Opens’, British Movietone News, 29 November 1943.

[7] ‘King and Queen With Empire Airmen’, British Movietone News, 30 October 1941.

[8] ‘Their Majesties and Airmen from Overseas’, Pathé, 30 October 1941.

[9] Jeffrey Grey, A Military History of Australia, Third Edition (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 150-151.

[10] Arthur Harris, Bomber Offensive (London: Collins, 1947), p. 64.

#BookReview – Be Bold

#BookReview – Be Bold

By Dr Ross Mahoney

Air Chief Marshal Sir Frederick Rosier with David Rosier, Be Bold. London: Grub Street, 2011. Hbk. 256pp.

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Air Chief Marshal Sir Frederick Rosier had a long and distinguished career in the Royal Air Force (RAF). Granted a short service commission in 1935 (p. 19), he was the last Air Officer Commander-in-Chief (AOC-in-C) of RAF Fighter Command before it merged with Bomber Command in 1968 to form Strike Command. This autobiography, written with his son David who finished it after his father’s death in 1998 (p. 10), highlights many interesting facets of service in the RAF during two pivotal events in twentieth-century history; the Second World War and the Cold War. Concerning the former, this book gives us a view from a rising junior officer who served in both frontline and staff positions during the Second World War. Regarding the latter, we have a view of the Cold War and its threats from the perspective of an officer rising to senior command. As such, it illustrates many of the challenges and ambiguities associated with senior leadership.

The genres of autobiographies and memoirs and the associated field of biography remain an ever popular and vital element of military history. While it is often easy to criticise biographers of hagiography and autobiographers of viewing the past through the prism of hindsight, they do offer valuable insight to the past. Indeed, biographies and memoirs/autobiographies are arguably the most commercially viable method of making military history accessible to wider audiences. Additionally, biographies and memoirs/autobiographies are an essential source for historians seeking to understand the period they study. More specifically, with regards to the RAF, there are too few accounts either by or about senior officers who served during the Cold War period. Indeed, for officers who served during the Cold War, we are unlikely to see the type of voluminous personal papers that we see with such former senior officers as Marshal of the Royal Air Force Viscount Trenchard and Admiral of the Fleet Earl Mountbatten. As such, it has become more critical that the service experience of these men be recorded. In this vein, memoirs and autobiographies offer a useful adjunct to the historians’ toolkit as they, just like oral history, can offer a personal view on many of the events that we read about in official archival sources. Thus, Rosier’s account is much welcomed.

Most interesting for this reviewer is that Rosier’s career offers an insight into his career progression and leadership development in the RAF. Rosier’s career illustrated that it was possible for suitable short service officers to be granted a permanent commission. This had been Trenchard’s expectation when the short service scheme had been established. After the Second World War, and granted a permanent commission, Rosier followed the typical route to senior command with attendance at both the RAF Staff College in 1946 (pp.156-162) and the Imperial Defence College (IDC) in 1957 (pp. 208-214). Rosier also spent time as Directing Staff at the recently opened Joint Services Staff College between 1950-52 (pp. 186-190). However, his reminisce about his time as a student at the RAF Staff College highlights a fundamental problem with autobiographies; the issue of confusion. Rosier lamented (p. 156) that the inter-war course at the RAF Staff College had been two years. However, this is inaccurate as they were only a year. As such, we must always be careful about what an auto-biographer recollects.

RAF-T 8374
At the parade to mark the disbanding of RAF Fighter Command held at RAF Bentley Priory on 30 April 1968, Air Marshal Sir Frederick Rosier KCB CBE DSO ADC, the last Air Officer Commander in Chief of the command stands with several of the most famous Second World War aces, from left to right: Air Vice Marshal ‘Johnny’ Johnson CBE DSO** DFC*, Group Captain P.W. Townsend CVO DSO DFC*, Wing Commander R.R.S. Tuck DSO DFC** DFC (US), Air Commodore A.C. Deere OBE DSO DFC* DFC (US) and Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader CBE DSO* DFC*. (Source: © Crown Copyright. IWM (RAF-T 8374))

Rosier’s posting from the Central Fighter Establishment (CFE), to Fighter Command as Group Captain – Plans in 1954 (pp. 200-1) also highlights the process of career management in the RAF. It highlights the influence that seniors officers had in determining someone’s career. Rosier related that he had expected a posting as Group Captain – Operations at Fighter Command. However, this had been changed to a posting to the Royal Aircraft Establishment. This was not to the liking of the AOC-in-C of Fighter Command, Air Marshal Sir Dermot Boyle, who managed to have that posting changed to that of Group Captain – Plans. This was an unexpected turn of events as Rosier had not served in a plans position up to this point in his career.

Nonetheless, it is clear that this posting was designed to give Rosier further experience of working with the other services and with allies; an essential prerequisite for senior command. Rosier recorded (p. 204) of this period as one ‘of broadening my education.’ What is more, this section of this autobiography, and that describing his time at the IDC, comes in a chapter entitled ‘Climbing to the Top.’ Indeed, after his time at Fighter Command as Group Captain – Plans, Rosier went on to be Director of Plans in the Air Ministry in 1958 after having spent time at the IDC. Again, at the Air Ministry, Rosier served under Boyle who by now was Chief of the Air Staff. Importantly, periods of service in staff positions were an essential marker in an officers rise to senior command primarily because this experience not only insured that individuals came into contact with those who could nurture and shape one’s career but also that it further developed ones understanding of the organisation that they would, potentially, one day lead.

In addition to this vital period of staff work, Rosier inter-weaved his career with significant periods as an operational fighter commander. This notably included time in North Africa during the Second World War where he was, alongside the future Air Chief Marshal Sir Kenneth Cross, a key fighter leader in the Western Desert Air Force (pp. 63-114). During this period, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Indeed, except for his time at the Air Ministry and a period as Senior Air Staff Officer at Transport Command, Rosier’s career was very much tied to either fighter aircraft or Fighter Command more specifically.

Finally, and importantly, in the context of the Cold War Rosier also spent time working within the coalition system. Between 1948 and 1950 he served on an exchange tour with the recently formed United States Air Force that also included time at the US Armed Forces Staff College (pp. 171-85). Rosier also served with the Central Treaty Organisation and his final command was as the Deputy Commander-in-Chief of Allied Forces Central Europe.

In conclusion, this is a very valuable autobiography of a senior RAF officer. In addition to the critical facets discussed above this book provides an excellent insight into life in the RAF in both war and peace. It also provides some excellent insights into the important personalities of the period. For example, Rosier recalled his visit to the Soviet Union in 1956 while he was at Fighter Command. His most notable recollection (pp. 205-6) was an incident during an open-air reception at the Kremlin where both Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev got drunk and related in their respective speeches how much they disliked each other. This book is recommended to anyone with an interest in the RAF.

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: Aircraft past and present of the Central Fighter Establishment at RAF West Raynham in October 1962, as the unit moved to RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire. The aircraft pictured here represent the various aircraft used by the constituant organisations which merged to form the CFE. The aircraft are (left to right): Supermarine Spitfire (P5853) of the Central Fighter Establishment, English Electric Lightning F.1 (XM136) of the Air Fighting Development Squadron, Gloster Javelin, Hawker Hunter F.6 (XF515) and Hawker Hunter T.7 (XL595) both of Fighter Combat School. (Source: © IWM (RAF-T 3476))

#ResearchNote – The RAF Staff College and ‘Learning’ from the French

#ResearchNote – The RAF Staff College and ‘Learning’ from the French

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.

#BookReview – Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat

#BookReview – Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat

By Dr Randall Wakelam

Robin Higham and Stephen J. Harris (eds.), Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat, Revised and Expanded Edition. Lexington, KT: University Press of Kentucky, 2016. Images. Footnotes. Bibliography. Index. 454 pp.

Why Air Forces Fail

Editorial Note: In 2006, University Press of Kentucky published an edited volume that sought to examine the question of why air forces fail. Edited by the late Robin Higham and Stephen J. Harris, Why Air Forces Fail has become an essential volume as air power specialists seek to understand the reasons why some air forces are more successful than others. As one reviewer noted in the Journal of Military History regarding the first edition of this work, ‘one of the more interesting and better books on military aviation to appear in the last few years.’[1] As such, does this new edition add anything to the original volume?

When the first edition of Why Air Forces Fail was published in 2006, it immediately caught my attention. The title itself was intriguing for here was a work that was going to look not at why, or how, air forces succeed, but why air power at certain times and in certain places and circumstances has failed to deliver victory. Robin Higham was a greatly respected air power historian and had flown in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in the Second World War, and Stephen Harris was and is the Director of History and Heritage for the Canadian Forces and had authored the Bomber Command section of the official history of the RCAF. It seemed that there were many good reasons in this Canadian reviewer’s mind for looking at the collection they had assembled.

PL 8096
A shot down Dornier ‘flying pencil.’ Two members of the German crew were killed, and two others were taken, prisoner. (Source: © IWM (PL 8096))

Higham’s introduction was particularly thought-provoking. He (1st Ed., p. 1) posited that ‘other things being equal’ it seemed that the best technology generally won. These other things included a series of complex factors which could however greatly impact the effectiveness of air power. Higham looked at and where necessary modified all of the factors upon which A.T. Mahan had conducted his analysis of sea power: national borders, a nation’s physical conformation, aircraft industry, size of the population, characteristics of the population, and nature of government. To these, he added:  location and sufficiency of air bases, the terrain being overflown during operations, capabilities of the aircraft and air weapons, and management of war decisions – ends, ways and means. Once these factors were explained to readers, Higham (1st Ed., p. 5) asked two central questions:

Did the loss of air superiority, if it ever existed, cause the collapse of the nation’s defenses?  And was that the sole cause [of the nation’s defeat]?

Higham drew his introduction to a close with an attempt to identify lessons or trends but did not attempt to present precise deductions. One had to turn to the conclusion of the collection for a summation of the editors’ thinking. There Higham and Harris posited that the simple presence of air assets does not, in fact, guarantee a victory. The last sentence (1st Ed., p. 354) of the book seems both appropriate and applicable to all nations and military services:

These [observations] suggest that the fall of an air force is the result of long-term failings, not an immediate failure ‘on the day’ by an air arm that is essentially ready for its allotted role.

Such was the first edition but what of this volume? Harris has related to me that Higham had negotiated the second edition, but that much of what he intended passed with him and as such there is little for those returning to the work to note that differs from the original. What the returning reader will find is two additional chapters, one by Harris dealing with RAF Bomber Command’s strategic operations against Germany. Harris focuses on the electronic warfare campaigns, including electronic countermeasures and electronic counter-countermeasures, waged by Bomber Command and by the Luftwaffe’s air defenders. This chapter shows that the RAF could not produce enough technicians to offset German capabilities. The second new chapter by Kenneth Werrell deals with the US services application of air power in the Vietnam conflict and how a range of factors prevented the American flying services from achieving the results sought by military and civilian leaders, particularly in the face of effective opposition. Other than these there is nothing new in the second edition other than two short commentaries on Harris’ and Werrell’s chapters. These remarks are added to the original conclusion along with two additional paragraphs commenting on the growing complexity of aircraft design and procurement in one case and the other the implicit failure of those involved in air power decisions to learn from history. Also, there is a very short, easily missed, dedication to Higham in the front piece of the volume. Why the publishers have taken this very understated approach to acknowledge Higham on the one hand, and the changes to the new edition on the other is baffling.

All this to say, I had hoped for more in this new edition. However, for those who have not read the first edition, this expanded version remains a valuable study of air power and of how and why it cannot guarantee success in conflict.

Dr Randall Wakelam teaches military and air power history at the Royal Military College of Canada. After graduating from RMC in 1975 he flew helicopters for the Army, becoming CO of 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron in 1991. Along the way, he also had staff appointments in aircraft procurement and language training policy. Since 1993 he has been an educator, first in uniform at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto and now at RMC. His research and publishing focus on air power and military education.

Header Image: F-100Ds of the 481st Tactical Fighter Squadron over South Vietnam in February 1966. Early F-100s were unpainted when they arrived in Southeast Asia like the foreground aircraft, but all eventually received camouflage paint like the aircraft in the back. (Source: National Museum of the US Air Force)

[1] Kenneth P. Werrell, ‘Book Review – Why Air Forces Fail,’ The Journal of Military History, 70:3 (2006), pp. 887-8.