Wednesday, June 8, 2011

British Aviation in the First World War – Pt 2

Back to Part 1

The Key Players

HENDERSON: The unknown figure…..

The circumspect conclusion mentioned earlier that military aircraft were essentially a RECONNAISSANCE auxiliary for land armies was drawn by Brig Gen David Henderson who in 1912 was appointed and served as the first commander of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC).  Henderson could see the potential of aviation but was careful to guard his predictions under the guise of ‘speculation’, as such he was not perceived as a radical air power advocate.  He had written the ‘Art of Reconnaissance in 1907’ and was recognised as the Army’s reconnaissance expert.  He was also one of the oldest qualified pilots.  As early aviation was focused on the reconnaissance role he was the natural choice to command the RFC, a safe pair of hands.  In August 1914 as the Director General of Military Aeronautics (DGMA) and GOC the RFC, Henderson took personal command in France, leaving a subordinate, Major Sefton Branker, to deal with matters at the War Office.  Henderson stayed in France until August 1915 when through a combination of ill health and the need for a more senior RFC officer at the War Office he returned to England.  Henderson was one of the key influences behind the Smuts report in 1917 that advocated the formation of an independent air force.

SYKES:  The forgotten figure….

A highly intelligent logical thinking visionary technologist whose keen mind, physical stamina and determination to test his own and by implication others limitations at times caused resentment amongst his peers superiors and subordinates.  In 1912 newly promoted Major Frederick Sykes took control of the newly created Military Wing of the RFC.  There were no manuals, no training texts, no regulations; he was the only expert.  In 1912 the War Office estimated that it would take 4 years to form and organise the RFC.  Sykes was largely responsible for creating the Military Wing that went to war in 1914, just 2 years later.  He was the radical air power advocate.  Sykes had visited Spain Italy and France to study their approaches to aviation.  The report he co-produced with a Capt Fulton on French aviation in 1911 had made him one of Britain’s most acknowledged experts on flying, types of aircraft, training and flying organisation.  Before the war, France was the recognised world leader in flying, and hence Sykes’ report from France should be considered one of the most important pre-war organisational influences on British aviation.  French influence was to continue through much of the war.  Although Henderson took command of Sykes’ Military Wing in August 1914, it was Sykes’ air service and intelligence system that went to war in 1914 and survived the initial tests.  With Henderson overworked and suffering from ill health it was Sykes’ wartime management and intermittent leadership that saw the RFC more than double in size and adapt to the demands of trench warfare with a complete organisational transformation.  In May 1915 he was promoted and sent to the Dardanelles to observe and report on naval flying operations.

TRENCHARD:  The father of the RAF!....

A strong, determined and capable individual with an intuitive but unsystematic mind who knew his own limitations.  Armed with the rare gifts of charisma and poise he was able to inspire others to achieve goals he knew would require a concerted team effort.  Moore-Brabazon, the driving force behind British aerial camera design during WW1 described Trenchard as; ‘Not a very communicative man, very difficult for a junior officer to talk to in any way, not particularly clever, but very wise.’  Sir Archibald James who retired from the RAF in 1926 as a Wg Cdr called Trenchard ‘a totally inarticulate genius’.  Trenchard admitted that he was not especially intellectual.  After learning to fly Trenchard found himself as the Central Flying School’s Staff Officer and in September 1913 he was made the Assistant Commandant of the CFS.  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.  In November 1914 as the RFC expanded Trenchard was called to France and given command of First Wing.  At the end of August 1915, with Henderson returning to the War Office, Trenchard was promoted to temporary Brig Gen and given command of the RFC in France.

There is no doubt that Sykes and Trenchard disliked each other.

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