Air of Authority - A History of RAF Organisation
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services are usually the servants of political masters and the British Army and
Royal Navy are no exceptions, being responsible to the Admiralty and the War
Office respectively. Therefore
before Britain was able to establish an independent air force, there needed to
be an appropriate ministry to control it, equal to the Admiralty and War Office.
In this chapter we shall examine how the political side of this story
developed. The Admiralty and War
Office as we mentioned earlier, had invariably acted in isolation, each
operating within a strict area of expertise with very little need to consult and
liaise with each other. Occasionally
joint operations had been carried out involving the landing of troops from the
sea, but even here the lines of responsibility were clearly definable. The mastery of the air and the use of aircraft by the
existing armed services brought with it new problems.
The air in which the new machines operated extended over both of the
traditional territories of the existing services.
Sailors could now fly over the land and sailors over the sea.
traditionalists saw no problems whatsoever, with the Navy using aircraft to
protect the fleet and shipping lanes and the Army using them to supplement or
replace the cavalry in the reconnaissance role.
Others, meanwhile, particularly those directed involved in aviation,
realised the sooner rather than later the traditional boundaries between the
Army and Navy would become blared if not disappearing altogether.
Less than two weeks after the formation of the RFC on 13 April 1912 an
attempt to provide a central co-ordinating body between the two War Ministries
was made. This took the form of the
Air Committee, the establishment of which was approved by the 116th
meeting of the Committee of Imperial Defence on 25 April 1912.
main problem for the RFC was that operational control of each Wing was still the
responsibility of the Admiralty and War Office, therefore the role of the Air
Committee was defined as being to ‘arbitrate on behalf of the Admiralty and
the War Office, at their request’. Composed
of representatives of both the Admiralty and War Office, it met approximately
once a month but could only make recommendations, lacking any executive powers.
The Air Committee was never really effective in that its recommendations
always had to be ratified by the Board of Admiralty and the Imperial General
Staff. As early as the 121st
meeting of the CID (7 January 1913) a suggestion was made that there should be
an ‘Air Department’ separate from the Admiralty and the War Office, but the
Fist Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, was very much against such a
move. It appeared that whilst the
two Wings of the RFC continued to be administered by separate bodies and the
personnel wore different uniforms they would increasingly act independently.
next eighteen months before the outbreak of World War 1 saw the continued break
away from the RFC of the Naval Wing into the Royal Naval Air Service, a term
used freely well before the official formation of such a unit.
1 July 1914 is often quoted as the official formation date of the RNAS,
but this was actually the date of an Admiralty circular letter (CW.13964/14)
announcing that ‘the RNAS will form part of the Military Branch of the Royal
Navy’. The formation of the RNAS was formalised in Admiralty Weekly
Order No 1204/15 dated 29 July 1915, the RFC and the RNAS were now well an truly
separated and independent.
this independence had been obvious for some time and from the very earliest days
each Wing had carried out its own requisitioning and administration.
This eventually led to serious supply problems, particularly in the
demand for engines, which at that that time were accounted for separately to
airframes. The RNAS’s development
of seaplanes, had put heavy demands on the larger, more powerful engines
(150hp+) needed to lift these machines from the sea, thereby leaving the RFC
access to only low powered units, usually of less than 100hp.
By 1915 this situation was resulting in losses mounting on the Western
Front due to RFC aircraft being seriously under-powered for the demands being
made upon them. Also whilst the RFC
had relied on the products of the Royal Aircraft Factory, the RNAS had cast its
net further a field, acquiring its aircraft from the private sector, so that by
the time the RFC expansion got underway, these alternative sources of supply
were already well tapped. The original Air Committee never met after the
outbreak, increasing these problems still further.
was this major conflict in supply and not operational matters that restarted the
debate which, eventually resulted in a unified air service.
Possibly the first suggestion that this could be the solution was made in
a memo to Churchill on 10 June 1915, probably written by the then Director of
the Air Department, Commodore Murray Sueter.
He later expounded his thoughts about a ‘Royal Air Service’ in an
article for ‘The Globe’ published on 13 October 1915, a measure which was
probably responsible for his eventual ‘exile’ to the Middle East.
further factor in the eventual unification of Britain’s air arms was the
defence of Great Britain. Traditionally
defence of the mainland had been invested in the Army with the Navy responsible
for protection of the sea routes around the coast as well as between Britain and
the Empire. The Wings of the RFC,
as originally envisaged, were intended to support their parent services in these
two functions, however, when the British Expeditionary Force went to France in
1914, the five squadrons of the Military Wing accompanied it, leaving no
aircraft to carry out defensive duties in Britain.
As a consequence, the Royal Navy was requested to supply units for home
defence duties. Some of these units
were actually sent to the continent in order to conduct offensive operations as
a defence against airship attack. By
the end of 1915, this brought further criticism of the RNAS and Admiralty which,
were seen by many as conducting operations without consideration of the overall
war effort. Consequently, the War
Committee on 10 February 1916 decided that responsibility for Home Defence
should revert to the War Office.
home defence issue once again highlighted the supply problems created by having
two separate air services and measures were soon taken to address the situation.
Only four days after the War office assumed responsibility for home defence,
Lord Curzon, the Lord Privy Seal, proposed an Air Ministry which, he put forward
at the 71st War Committee meeting on 15 February 1916.
At this meeting it was decided to establish immediately a Standing Joint
Naval and Military Committee to co-ordinate the design and supply of materiel
for the two air services to be known as the Joint War Air Committee.
again, however, this committee was to suffer from the problems encountered by
its pre-war predecessor, the Air Committee, by not having any executive powers
and on 3 April 1916, after only eight sittings, Lord Derby resigned for this
very reason. To many people it was
becoming increasingly obvious that the solution was an Air Ministry, ultimately
equal in status to the Admiralty and War Office, but this was still some off.
The next step towards this was the first Air Board formed on 15 May 1916
under the chairmanship of Lord Curzon. Still
only an advisory body, it was hoped that the inclusion of a Cabinet Minister
(Lord Curzon) and other political figures would give it greater status.
months later, the Air Board published its first report following extensive
investigations by the chairman and the two civilian members, Lord Sydenham and
Major Baird. Their findings were
extremely critical of the existing situation within the air services and
particularly the attitude of the Admiralty in regard to aerial matters.
They found the Military authorities only too willing and able to take
part in meetings and to furnish information whilst the Admiralty were unable to
attend a majority of the Board’s meetings and refused to furnish any details
of the use of aircraft at sea for ‘security’ reasons.
They also found that measures taken to ensure the fair distribution of
engines to both the RFC and RNAS were not working satisfactorily.
of the major deficiencies noted was the status of the respective heads of the
two air services. Lieutenant-General
Sir David Henderson, Director-General of Military Aeronautics, being a member of
the Army Council was able to speak and make decisions with authority.
On the other hand Rear-Admiral C L Vaughn Lee, Director of Air Services
at the Admiralty, not being a member of the Board of Admiralty needed to submit
all Air Board recommendations to the Sea Lords before giving his answer. The Air
Board found that whilst leading developments in the air at the beginning of the
war, this lead had now been taken by the RFC and the Army and that if anything
the Admiralty was stifling naval aviation.
The conclusion of this first report was that the general consensus within
the air services themselves was that the Supply Departments of the two air
services should be amalgamated under the Air Board.
lengthy discussions in the War Committee, and later War Cabinet after the change
in government, final decisions were made at the meeting held on 22 December
1916, which if anything further complicated the situation rather than simplify
it. Instead of giving
responsibility for design and supply of all aero-engines and airframes to the
Air Board, this was invested in the Ministry of Munitions.
A representative of this Ministry was added to the Air Board and the
Board itself merely became a third ‘cog’ in the decision making machinery
alongside the Admiralty and War Office. One
major effect of the ‘Curzon Report’, however, was the Admiralty’s somewhat
reluctant decision to add a Fifth Sea Lord to the Board of Admiralty,
responsible solely for aeronautical matters.
At the same time Lord Cowdrey replaced Lord Curzon and the Air Board
new Air Board attempted to carry out its various functions but the previous
problems failed to be fully resolved. At
the same time public pressure was also building for something to be done against
the growing number and intensity of German air raids against Britain.
As a result the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, appointed a committee
composed of himself and General Jan Smuts, who ultimately undertook the whole
work, to look into both problems. Smuts
issued two reports, the first dealing with his suggestions for improving the air
defences of the country and the second concentrating on the other aspects of the
problem. Smuts recommended that the
solution to both problems lay in a unified Air Ministry, a view strongly
supported by Lord Cowdrey, senior RFC and RNAS officers and perhaps
surprisingly, Admiral Beatty, C in C Grand Fleet.
by the War Cabinet on 24 August 1917, the scene was now set for the
establishment of a separate Ministry and unified air service.
For the first time in British history an Act of Parliament was passed
which, brought about the formation of an armed service.
The Air Force (Constitution) Act of 29 November 1917 provided the first
step in setting up of an Air Council to organise and plan the amalgamation of
the RFC and RNAS and the transfer of administrative functions from the Admiralty
and War Office. Coming into
operation on 3 January 1918 the new Air Council, under Major-General Sir Hugh
Trenchard, was confronted with a myriad of problems to solve.
These included the conditions of service of personnel to be transferred
to the RAF, the organisational structure, rank structure and the command and
disciplinary procedures of RAF personnel attached to the Royal Navy and Army.
he had given full support to Smuts and had fulfilled the role to some extent as
President of the Air Board, Lord Cowdrey was not destined to become the first
Secretary of State for Air. On 16
November 1916, a letter was printed in The
Times from Lord Northcliffe rejecting the post of Air Minister.
This, not unsurprisingly, rankled Lord Cowdrey who tended his resignation
immediately. As a result the post
was offered to Northcliffe’s brother, Lord Rothermere.
Unfortunately Trenchard and Rothermere failed to get on and on 19 March
1918 Trenchard resigned, although the announcement of the fact was delayed until
12 April when Major-General Frederick Sykes was appointed.
However, within a week Lieutenant-General Sir David Henderson,
Vice-President of the Air Council had also resigned and Rothermere himself left
on the 25th. Rothermere’s
successor was Sir William Weir who had been the Ministry of Munitions
Representative on the Air Board. The
stormy start to the life of the new Air Ministry now subsided and it was able to
get down to the difficult task of controlling, what had become on the 1st
April 1918, the World’s largest and first independent air force, the Royal Air
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