RAF 1936-39 Part I

The year 1935 was a bad one for democracy, and for peace. In January came the first rumblings of international consequences for a border incident between the Empire of Abyssinia and Italian Somali-land. For the next nine months this dispute would put to test the League of Nations as a peace-keeping organization, the remaining unity of the victors of 1918, Britain, France and Italy, and the true state of British defences, especially naval and air. When the Italians went to war in October, all three were seen to have failed: the League and its half-hearted sanctions were useless, Italy became an enemy of Britain and France, the Fleet had trembled for its safety in its Mediterranean bases, and the RAF had been quite unable to offer it protection – though Ellington starded his fellow Chiefs of Staff by proposing to send 13 squadrons to the South of France in order to attack Northern Italy. The Abyssinian crisis seriously weakened what Correlli Barnett calls “the whole rickety and overstrained structure of imperial defence”; a disastrous long-term result was to offer German cryptanalysts “their first bite at the signal systems used by the British Fleet” – an advantage gladly used by U-boats in the first years of the war. Yet all these omens were overshadowed by matters nearer home in 1935.

On February 26 the German Air Force, proscribed by the Treaty of Versailles, was reborn. Its Commander-in-Chief was Hermann Goering, ex-squadron commander in the famous Richthofen Geschwader of 1918; General Erhard Milch, Secretary of State for Air, was the effective controller of the new Luftwaffe. Its strength was 1,888 aircraft of all types, and some 20,000 officers and men – which was not a bad beginning. Conforming to his normal practice, Hitler picked his moment for announcing this portent with some care. He was not long denied a cue: the British Defence White Paper of March 4 drew particular attention to German rearmament and the consequent peril to peace. Anglo-German relations, momentarily curiously cordial, chilled abruptly, and on March 8 Hitler sprang one of his “Saturday Surprises”; he informed G. Ward Price of the Daily Mail as an “exclusive” of the rebirth of the Luftwaffe. When the paper came out on the Monday morning, releasing the half-guessed secret, its readers awoke to a new fact of power in a bleaker world. Six days later it became bleaker still: Hitler bluntly denounced the military clauses of the Versailles Treaty, and proclaimed the creation of an army of 36 divisions (some 550,000 men) and a return to conscription.

Neither of these matters need have been fatal. Air forces and armies do not arise overnight – it would be a matter of years before either of the two measures announced in 1935 could become militarily effective. All that was required was resolution on the part of Britain and France: resolution to enforce the Versailles Treaty, or at the very least to make such preparations as would ensure the continuation of their preponderance. No such thing took place; resolution was conspicuously absent in both countries. Instead, outright pacifism was reaching its zenith, just as Nazi power began its forward stride. In Britain, in June, a “Peace Ballot” organized by the League of Nations Union registered 11 million votes opposed to war, while in France more millions of signatures were being inscribed in a “Golden Book of Peace”. The parallel with the upsurge of West European neutralism coincidental with Soviet aggression in Afghanistan in the 1980s requires no emphasis.

Meanwhile, from the air point of view, matters looked ominous indeed. In late March 1935 the Foreign Secretary, Sir John Simon, and Anthony Eden visited Berlin, where they were courteously received by Hitler, but made no progress with any discussion of the levels of arms and armament. There was a moment of shock for the English Ministers:

Finally, Simon put the question that to us mattered most: what was the present strength of the German air force? After a moment’s hesitation, Hitler replied that Germany had reached parity with Great Britain. There was no triumph in his tone, but there was grim foreboding in my heart.

“Parity” is a word with, in this context, depressing and confusing overtones and implications which we shall need to examine somewhat later. The immediate effect of Hitler’s boast was to alarm the Government and the Air Ministry into a dramatic revision of its still new-born expansion scheme. In fact, Scheme “A” was scrapped; a cautious Air Staff amended version, based on the proposition that Germany would not be ready and did not intend to go to war until 1942, was put forward as Scheme “B”. It was fiercely attacked by Vansittart, who stated flatly, on the basis of secret information:

Anything that fails to provide security by 1938 is inadequate and blind.

In a sharp memorandum to the DRC, he reminded his colleagues that Baldwin had pledged in March 1934 that Britain would “no longer be in a position inferior to any country within striking distance of our shores”. No one, said Vansittart acidly,

has ever before suggested either to the Foreign Office or to the public that we must wait four years, and even then run the risk of not attaining so simple and vital a requisite. And these four years may well be the most crucial in the history of Europe; indeed, they will probably decide its fate.

Ellington was stung into one of those unanswerable retorts which normally uncommunicative men sometimes produce in moments of justified ire:

The Foreign Office must realize that still more extensive developments cannot be effected by merely expressing a desire for them.

And he added: “What has been lacking is a clear long-dated policy which would have permitted careful and detailed planning.” Which was, of course, only too true, as Vansittart recognized with chagrin. Nevertheless, Scheme “B” was brushed aside; instead, the Government took two characteristic measures. The first was to set up yet another committee, the Air Parity Sub-Committee of the DC(M), to recommend measures by which Baldwin’s pledge might be redeemed; the second, when this body reported, astonishingly, in less than ten days, was Scheme “C”.

If Scheme “A” had deserved the label “panic measures”, Scheme “C” did so even more. It proposed a Metropolitan Air Force of 123 squadrons, containing 1,512 first-line aircraft by March 31, 1937 – which was clearly both a decided increase and a great acceleration. On the other hand, it made no further proposals for overseas establishments or the Fleet Air Arm, both of which were ridiculously weak, and it had even more serious defects:

It was one of the deterrent schemes and an unsound one when analysed… it suffered from the same grave defect [as Scheme “A”] in that it made practically no provision at all for reserves. It would have given us an air force which would have been unable to go on fighting for more than a month or so if, as was quite possible, severe losses were incurred at the outset. The Air Staff were naturally apprehensive about the unsatisfactory position in regard to reserves which any expert analysis of Scheme “C” could not fail to detect. As a matter of fact it probably did not achieve its object of impressing the Germans. The finance of it gave it away. It was altogether too cheap.

However, it didn’t matter; like Schemes “A” and “B”, and later Schemes “D” and “E”, Scheme “C” soon found its way to the dustbin. In this case the precipitant of dissolution and the propellant of the new idea was a General Election – a much healthier point of origin than panic reaction to hostile moves. The National Government won a crushing victory in the election of November 1935, and used it to bring out in February 1936 a Defence White Paper which, says Sir Maurice Dean,

gave Britain its first coherent defence policy for twenty years. By this act Baldwin deserved, but did not receive, the profound gratitude of Britain. So far as the Royal Air Force is concerned the result was Scheme “F”. This provided for a Home Defence Air Force of 124 squadrons by March 1939, and it was the longest lived of all expansion schemes. Sir Kingsley Wood, then Secretary of State for Air, was able to tell the House of Commons in March 1939 that in a few weeks the Scheme would be completed as planned.

Scheme “F” was, in fact, the only one of the 1934-39 expansion schemes which was actually completed. It had two significant features: the first was the elimination of the light bombers (Hawker Harts and Hinds, whose bomb-load was 500 lb) in favour of “mediums” (Blenheims and Hampdens) and “heavy mediums” (Whitleys and Wellingtons). Two points are worth adding here: first, that no specification was issued (nor would be until 1940) for a modern light bomber, a lack which war quickly made apparent. Secondly, we see here an acknowledgment of a tendency for all bombers to become heavy bombers (rather in the way that, in earlier wars, all cavalry tended to become heavy cavalry or all destroyers to grow into light cruisers). Later in 1936 this trend expressed itself very significantly indeed, with the issue of Spec. B. 12/36 in July and P. 13/36 in September. From the former sprang the Short Stirling, the first four-engined bomber to enter RAF service (August 1940), while from the latter came the Handley Page Halifax, the first four-engined bomber to attack Germany (March 1941) and the Avro Manchester which, although itself a failure, fathered the famous Lancaster of 1941-45. So it may be said that 1936 was the year in which the strategic bomber force (in the sense of aircraft possessing the requisite range and bomb load) was born.

The second important feature of Scheme “F” was that, for the first time, it provided for adequate reserves. The Metropolitan Air Force was to consist of 124 squadrons with 1,736 first-line aircraft, the overseas forces were to be built up to 37 squadrons with 468 first line aircraft (not exactly a massive show of strength for an empire stretching from Hong Kong to Gibraltar!), and the Fleet Air Arm was to have 26 squadrons with 312 aircraft. The date of completion was to be March 31, 1939. This was true rearmament, because the equipment of this force would be almost entirely modern (as the word was understood in 1935), giving it much greater real strength. Furthermore, in addition to 75 per cent reserves of aircraft with the squadrons or in servicing or maintenance, a further 150 per cent was allotted to the RAF and 135 per cent to the Fleet Air Arm. This, it was hoped, would meet the likely wastage of four months of war, by which time industry should be able to expand production sufficiently to keep pace. Personnel reserves, both air- and ground-crew, were also catered for. Further schemes and greater expansion would be prescribed as the international scene darkened and the threat of war became more pressing. But Scheme “F” was where RAF policy began to touch firm ground, where “expansion” moved out of the cosmetic stage into reality.

Such, then, were the beginnings of conversion from a peacetime to a wartime air force – what would undoubtedly, in the hands of a more flamboyant and forceful character have been called the “Ellington Schemes”. There is no doubt at all about what they would have been called if Trenchard had still been CAS. But Ellington was definitely not flamboyant, and gave no impression of being forceful (although he could be stubborn). Furthermore, after the departure of Londonderry (a very able aristocrat, but lacking in political “weight”) in June 1935, Ellington worked under Philip Cunliffe-Lister (soon Lord Swinton), a Secretary of State whose “name towers above those of all other ministers who have served the Royal Air Force”. Swinton was a man of great energy, impatient of red tape, and receptive to new ideas; not only that, but he was seen to be all those things – he had the reputation of “husding” things along. Ellington, whose temperament was quite different, was to serve with him for more than two years – years very fruitful for the RAF.

Theoretical expansions might read well as White Papers, enrage an Opposition still devoted (in the teeth of all daily evidence) to dreams of disarmament, and calm the fears of the excitable; but without the actual aircraft – which means the capacity to produce the aircraft – they would remain theoretical, mere paper tigers. When the Defence Requirements Committee presented its third report in November 1935, it grasped this nettle. Prompted by Lord Weir, the Government’s industrial adviser, it recommended the creation of a “shadow” armaments industry, the Government financing the construction of new factories which would be managed by existing firms. For the RAF, of course, such a project was heaven-sent and Swinton and the Air Staff pressed it forward. Without the shadow factories, it would not have been possible for British aircraft production to catch up with Germany’s by the outbreak of war – a leap, in fact, from 158 aircraft a month in April 1938 to nearly 800 in September 1939. As Correlli Barnett says:

It was not until 1937, when the new “shadow factories” came into production by fits and starts, that British rearmament really began to get under way.

The knock-out blow

In the last year of Ellington’s term and the first of Newall’s, the general political and defence situation not only continued to deteriorate, but also became exceedingly confusing. The German menace remained, and no one in their senses could feel anything but apprehension as Nazi energies were poured into the build-up of the armed forces: an army which the British Chiefs of Staff feared would be superior to the French by 1939, and an air force which already showed every sign of being stronger than Britain’s. Hitler’s foreign policy was quieter in 1937 than in the preceding and following years, but sharp-eyed observers took note of ominous Nazi activities in Austria and in the German speaking Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia. In Spain the flyers and aircraft of the German Condor Legion had already established themselves as a major instrument in General Franco’s bid for victory; on April 26 they gave the world a new lesson on the meaning of air power with the destruction of Guernica. Unfortunately, this lesson was so much taken to heart that equally important ones were disregarded. Off the Spanish coasts, the young German Navy was also flexing its muscles; the pocket battleship Deutschland was bombed at Ibiza on May 29 and two days later a German squadron shelled Almeria in retaliation. The realities of reborn German militarism were plain for all to see. Yet it was not Germany herself, but her friends, who held the centre of the stage in 1937.

This was the period when a determination to support good causes, even at the risk of making powerful enemies, went hand in hand with British military impotence. The British lead in promoting worthless sanctions against Italy during the Abyssinian war had had the natural effect of antagonizing that country; constant British pressure for the withdrawal of “volunteers” from Spain (the International Brigades on the Republican side, and on the Nationalist the Condor Legion and some 50,000 Italians in 1937) was another source of friction. British refusal to recognize Italian sovereignty in Abyssinia was a final straw; Mussolini countered with violent anti-British propaganda in the Middle East, exacerbating British difficulties in Palestine, and by substantially increasing the garrison of Libya, threatening Egypt and the Suez Canal. It was precisely at this moment of evidently mounting Italian hostility that Japan set the Far East once more aflame with her attack on China in July; Peking and Tientsin quickly fell, Japanese bombers ranged over Chinese cities, Nanking was heavily bombed in September, Shanghai was occupied two months later. Sir Maurice Hankey summed up the strategic dilemma:

We have our danger in the West [Germany], and our danger in the Far East [Japan], and we simply cannot afford to be on bad terms with a nation which has a stranglehold on our shortest line of communications between the two possible theatres of war.

It is in such recognitions of the nation’s weakness in the face of its increasing tests that we see the true significance of the “locust years”.

The year 1937 was not of unrelieved darkness on the Defence front: in February the Treasury announced a volte-face, abandoning its adamant opposition to financing Defence by borrowing, with the flotation of a £400 million Defence Loan. To many at the time, this seemed a “vast sum”; the Chancellor would shortly refer to “stupendous sums” that he was being asked for for Defence; to modern eyes, and in relation to war costs, the adjective “modest” seems mild. More impressive, but still not measuring up to real needs, was the announcement in the White Paper on February 16 that defence expenditure could be expected to be not less that £1,500 million in the next five years. This did at least indicate that Britain was at last taking rearmament seriously, even if not yet seriously enough. Less encouraging was the quick inclination of the Treasury to treat the sum mentioned as a maximum; old habits the hard. And if a country unused to such measures was impressed by its own new-found virility, we may doubt whether, as some believed, “This vast programme of rearmament made an immense impression throughout the world.” More warships and more RAF squadrons in the Mediterranean would have made an even better impression.