Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Trenchard’s ‘Relentless and Incessant Offensive’ - Pt 1

The following begins the second in the series of blogs that examine the evolution of British aviation during the First World War. The focus of this section is the impact of Trenchard’s policy of the ‘relentless and incessant offensive’ on the RFC/RAF's development.


On the 22 September 1916 the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) Headquarters published a memorandum titled ‘FUTURE POLICY IN THE AIR’  (RFC Memorandum 22 Sep 1916, ‘Future Policy in the Air’ – Quoted in: Thomas G. Bradbeer, ‘The Battle for Air Supremacy over the Somme, 1 June – 30 November 1916’, Fort Leavenworth MA Thesis, (2004), Appendix C).  The memorandum written by Captain Maurice Baring, ADC to Brigadier General Hugh Trenchard commander of the RFC in France, captured the distilled experience of the Allies, French and British, in the air to that date.  What it presented was the blueprint which became the RFC/RAF air policy for the remainder of the war.  The policy recognised the offensive nature of airpower, but stumbled when articulating its application.  Hampered by an inflexible organisational structure the RFC applied its policy rigidly, condemning the Corps squadron crews to second rate aircraft and arguably compromising the development of the RFC’s ground attack role, whilst accepting a far higher cost in lives than was necessary.


Trenchard was a strong minded, determined and capable individual with an intuitive yet unsystematic mind who knew his own limitations.  Despite being inarticulate he was able, using the rare gifts of charisma and poise, to inspire individuals to pursue aims that he knew would require a concerted team effort.  J.T.C. Moore-Brabazon, the driving force behind British aerial camera development during the First World War described Trenchard as:  ‘Not a very communicative man, very difficult for a junior officer to talk to in any way, not particularly cleaver, but very wise.’ (Lord Brabazon of Tara, The Brabazon Story (London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1956), p. 93).  Sir Archibald James who retired from the RAF in 1926 as a Wing Commander called Trenchard ‘a totally inarticulate genius’ (Ralph Barker, The Royal Flying Corps in France – From Mons to the Somme (London: Constable, 1994), p. 88).  After learning to fly he became the Central Flying School’s (CFS) Staff Officer and in September 1913 he was made the assistant Commandant of the CFS.  In 1913 Trenchard was a 40 year old Major with few obvious prospects of advancement.  Five years later he was a Major General.  When the RFC went to France in 1914 he was given command of the home RFC where he was responsible for coordinating the Kitchener driven expansion.  In November 1914 as the RFC expanded he was called to France and given command of First Wing, an element allocated to First Army commanded by General Sir Douglas Haig.  At the end of August 1915 with Brigadier General Henderson returning to the War Office and the promotion and posting to Gallipoli of his Chief of Staff Frederick Sykes, Trenchard was promoted to temporary Brigadier General and given command of the RFC in France.  Between August 1915 and his departure to become Chief of the Air Staff in January 1918, Trenchard established the policy by which the RFC and later the RAF operated:

‘Trenchard’s guiding principles were simple and clear cut.  The RFC was part of the British Army, and no call from that army must ever find the RFC wanting [a tactical focus].  Air superiority must be fought for, gained, and retained at any cost, necessitating an aggressive posture even in adversity [the Strategic Offensive].  War could not be conducted effectively without casualties’.  Barker, RFC in France – Mons to the Somme, p 87

The Strategic Offensive

Trenchard has been credited by some, Andrew Boyle his biographer in particular, with originating the concept of the ‘strategic offensive’, captured in his phrase the ‘relentless and incessant offensive’ (RFC Memorandum 22 Sep 1916, ‘Future Policy in the Air’).  The reality is somewhat different.  The RFC that went to war in 1914 was already imbibed with the ‘offensive spirit’.  In the RFC’s pre war training manual Sykes had written:

‘It must be borne in mind that the side whose aircraft show the greater determination to fight on every opportunity will rapidly gain a moral ascendency which will largely contribute to obtaining the command of the air.’  Training Manual, Royal Flying Corps, part II – Quoted in: Eric Ash, Sir Frederick Sykes and the Air Revolution 1912-1918 (London: Frank Cass, 1999), p. 42

Trenchard did not create an offensive policy, but formulated the policy’s finer points.  His views on airpower emerged over time, changing as the war progressed.  Key to this process was his relationship with senior officers in the French air service.  Trenchard’s personal papers, and the Official History, describe the importance of his French opposite numbers, particularly Commandant Paul du Peuty, in the development of his operational and tactical thinking (Peter Dye, ‘France and the Development of British Military Aviation’, Air Power Review, 12 (1) (2009), pp. 1-12).  During a series of meetings in the autumn of 1915, at the height of the Fokker scourge, Trenchard and du Peuty distilled their collective experiences into basic principles covering the use of aircraft in war.

‘The two airmen contributed to a process in which theory, experience and analysis were woven into a new orthodoxy that employed aircraft as a weapon of attack rather than of defence.’  Peter Dye, ‘France and the Development of British Military Aviation’, Air Power Review, 12 (1) (2009), pp. 1-12.

Trenchard’s perception of the opportunity missed by the Germans when they failed to exploit the Fokker’s technical superiority coupled with the French aviation experience at Verdun and the success of the RFC in gaining and retaining air superiority during the first months of the Somme battle, where the offensive principles were applied successfully, served to confirm this ‘new orthodoxy’ reinforcing his views about the need for a ‘relentless and incessant offensive’ in the air.  These views, formally captured in the September 1916 RFC memorandum, were the baseline he applied for the remainder of his tenure in command of the RFC.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

WW1 British Aviation - Online Resources

The lists below serve two purposes.  Firstly, they provide you with a definitive list of, and links to, [in the right hand column] the online sources I used during the production of the 10 part blog ‘British Aviation’.  Secondly, having seen what is available; if you follow the links in the left hand column you will be taken to the entry point for each source.

Cabinet Papers Online (Browse by Theme or search for a word or phrase)

DocumentsOnline (Search by Reference No - ‘Quick Search’ or select ‘Advanced search’ to search for a word or phrase)
If you know the series reference numbers (e.g. CAB 23/2) type it in the ‘Quick Search’ box.
CAB/23/2, Image Reference 0041

CAB/23/2, Image Reference 0052

CAB/23/3, Image Reference 0027

CAB/23/4, Image Reference 0017

CAB/23/5, Image Reference 0053

CAB/23/6, Image Reference 0004

CAB/23/40, Image Reference 0008

CAB/24/2, Image Reference 0037

CAB/24/6, Image Reference 0091

CAB/24/7, Image Reference 0006

CAB/24/10, Image Reference 0068

AWM4, Sub-class 8

Cutlack, F.M.

Baring, Maurice


Raleigh, Walter

Flight Magazine (Flight Global Archive)

Bairstow, Leonard

Editorial Comment

King, H.F.

Sykes, F.H.

Fort Leavenworth Digital Library

Bradbeer, Thomas B.

Rember, Bruce

Boff, Jonathan
‘Air/Land Integration in the 100 Days: The Case of Third Army’, Air Power Review, 12, (3), (Autumn 2009)

Dye, Peter
‘Sustaining Airpower – Influence of Logistics on RAF Doctrine’ Air Power Review, 9, (2), (Autumn 2006)

Dye, Peter
France and the Development of British Military Aviation’, Air Power Review, 12, (1), (Spring 2009)

Jordan, David
‘The Royal Air Force and Air/Land Integration in the 100 Days’, Air Power Review, 11, (2), (Summer 2008)

Price, Alfred
‘Air Power taken to its Limits and Beyond.  The Battle of Amiens’, Air Power Review, 4, (4), (Winter 2001)

Trenchard, Hugh

Slessor, J.C.
‘The Air-Land Battle’. RAF Spirit of the Air Inaugural Edition 1 April 1918 pp. 10 - 11.

Giffard, Hardinge (Viscount Tiverton)
‘Independent Air Power’, RAF Spirit of the Air Inaugural Edition 1 April 1918 pp. 7 - 9.

Royal Air Force


Morley, Robert

British Aviation in the First World War – Pt 10

Back to Part 9

Aerial Bombardment – for strategic effect

Aerial bombing was not invented during WW1, it had a pre-history’ captured in novels like H.G. Well’s ‘War in the Air’ published in 1908.  What these types of novel ignored or glossed over were the hazards and difficulties of this type of warfare.

Official sanction for bombing was given in an RFC memorandum of late October 1914 which called for all pilots doing reconnaissance to carry bombs.  Initial bombing was random and spontaneous, with little official guidance of instruction.  It was not until January 1915 that the RFC made its first ‘organised’ bombing attacks against Lille railway station and airship sheds at Ghistelle.  The RFC began codifying its bombing experiences in a note published on 15 Feb 1915 called ‘Bomb Dropping Attacks’.  It recognized the difficulty of achieving accuracy, there not being any bombsights at this stage, and recommended releasing bombs from an altitude of 500 feet in order to achieve an accuracy of 50 yards.  This point-blank bombing exposed the aircraft to machine-gun and rifle fire from the ground, and resulted in many casualties for minimal gain.

Neuve Chapelle in March 1915 was the first occasion where bombing was planned to have a delaying effect on the bringing up of German reinforcements.  In August 1915, coincident with Trenchard taking command of the RFC, RFCHQ reviewed the results of bombing up to that time.  It was found that of the 141 attacks made on railway objectives, only 3, according to the available evidence, had been successful.  As a result Trenchard called on GHQ to lay down:

‘that the present spasmodic efforts against unsuitable or unimportant objectives will be discontinued.  Aeroplanes will not be used by Armies in attempts to influence local situations by bombing railway stations and junctions.  Sustained attacks with a view to interrupting the enemy’s railway communications will be ordered by G.H.Q. in conjunction with the main operations of the Allied Armies.’

Trenchard was aware of the need to concentrate his bombing resources, achieving this was to prove problematic for the rest of his time in command of the RFC.

At Loos attempts to co-ordinate the efforts of the RFC, RNAS, and the French aviation corps against 37 targets associated with the German railway system resulted in 51/2 tons of bombs being dropped to minimal effect.  The whole 51/2 tons against 1 or 2 of the key targets would probably have been more successful.  In December 1915 RFCHQ issued a paper on bombing policy.  It stated that:

‘the go-as-you-please methods have been abandoned definitely by both the French and by ourselves in favour of attacks carried out by swarms of aeroplanes.  It is now an accepted principle that attacks on all important objectives should be carried out by as many aeroplanes as possible, all the aeroplanes flying together and reaching the objective together.’

By this stage of the war the leader of a ‘swarm’ was equipped with a simple bombsight, the leader dropping his bombs was the key for the rest of the formation to follow suit.

During the Somme battle bombing initiatives were hampered by a theme that was to feature for the rest of the war.  The issue of decentralization left 4th Army on the 1st July with only 28 aircraft to carry of the role of denying German rail access along the whole of the 4th Army Front.  These aircraft operating without escort became easy prey for the German scouts.  Ten aircraft were lost in the first 3 days, forcing a change of tactics.  Later in the battle in an attempt to draw German fighters away from the 4th Army Front Trenchard, unable to call on the resources available to the other Armies, used the only tool he could.  He ordered that the RFC Brigades associated with the disengaged Armies to carry out bombing attacks on their own fronts.  At the time Trenchard wrote:

‘There are very few German aircraft opposite the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Army Fronts but I hope the results of our air work during the last two days will induce the enemy to send some of his fighters back again’.

It did not work.  Trenchard turned to the RNAS for fighter aircraft help, whilst continuing focused but not concentrated bombing on the 4th Army Front, both by day and night.  During the Somme a sense of bombing concentration was achieved by the number of times a target was revisited, however the daily average weight of bombs dropped (2 tons) whilst doubling that at Loos was still insufficient.
[ Loos 37 targets 51/2 tons of bombs – 6 days (23-28 Sep 15)… Somme 298 targets 292 tons of bombs – 140 days]

Amiens 1918 – Bombing for strategic effect

At Amiens in 1918 the RAF employed a greater concentration of aircraft than ever before.  Despite the large number of sorties flown, the RAF day bombers inflicted little physical damage of any importance.  The main reasons for the RAF bombers’ failure to inflict significant damage were the inaccuracy of the bombing and the use of light bombs with feeble explosive power.  After the war Wing Commander (later Marshal of the RAF Sir) John Slessor conducted a detailed study of air operations during the Amiens battle. His candid and perceptive comments on the use of air power during the battle appeared in the 1936 book “Air Power and Armies”.

‘In the event, the RAF made two contributions of great importance to the success of the initial attack on August 8th. First, the complete surprise achieved was largely due to the high degree of air superiority prevailing… Secondly the action of the low-flying fighters on the 8th was a factor of first-class importance in the overwhelming success of the initial break-in. But apart from those two factors it is impossible to assert with any confidence that the result of the battle after about 1400 hours on the 8th [the first day of the offensive] would have been materially different, or that the ultimate line reached and held by our forward troops on the 11th [the last day] would have been materially short of where in fact it was, if not a bomb had been dropped or a round fired by aircraft against ground objectives… If this is so it is a damaging admission, in view of the fact that this battle saw the greatest concentration of air strength in any battle of the War…’  Slessor, J.C. “Air Power and Armies”, Oxford University Press, London, 1936

Coupled with the command problem of decentralization was a perception that pervaded the command staffs, as an RAF officer recalled:

‘Throughout the war staffs who were under no illusions as to the weight of shells required for a given operation, appeared to think that some magic in the air would enable them to gain decisive results with one-hundredth the part of the necessary weights, provided it was in the form of aircraft bombs’


One thing that should be clear is that fitting air power into the battle plan was not accomplished easily or smoothly.  The new arm was so different and its capabilities and limitations so difficult for outsiders to grasp, that friction was inevitable.

Whilst  there is no doubt  that the RFC/RAF’s focus was tactical and ground centric there is some debate over whether this focus hampered the imaginative development of the air arm in other areas.

The lack of success in the area of strategic bombing is held up as an example of this.  Changes in organisation may have facilitated concentration but the reality was that technological limitations of the aeroplane itself determined where and how the nascent airpower had to be applied.

In the next set of Blog's I shall be looking at how Trenchard’s ‘Relentless and Incessant Offensive’ affected the development of the RFC.