Sunday, June 12, 2011

British Aviation in the First World War – Pt 4

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‘Cult of the Offensive’

Trenchard has been credited by some [Boyle his biographer in particular] with originating the concept of the ‘strategic offensive’, captured in his phrase the ‘relentless and incessant offensive’.  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.’

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.  Central to this process was his relationship with the Service Aéronautique and, in particular, its senior officers.  Both Trenchard’s personal papers, and the Official History, describe the importance of his French opposite numbers, notably du Peuty, in the development of his thinking on operational and tactical matters.  Neither airman was fluent in the other’s language, but through Maurice Baring they were able to develop a shared view of how air power should be employed in support of the ground battle.  In the autumn of 1915, Trenchard and du Peuty met to distil their collective experience into fundamental principles governing the employment 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.  The French experience at Verdun served to confirm this orthodoxy reinforcing Trenchard’s views about the need for a continuous offensive in the air.  These lessons were incorporated in the RFC’s planning for the Battle of the Somme, which saw the German air services severely handled, conceding air superiority to the British for several months.

Trenchard’s critics have pointed out that his emphasis on the offensive at any cost contained a single mindedness that bordered on stubbornness.  What he failed to realize was that command of the air was gained by technological superiority, more and better aircraft, armament innovations and superior training of aircrew, materiel and manpower imposed very real limitations on doctrine.  While he complained vociferously and constantly about inadequate aircraft and poorly trained crews, he persisted in an offensive policy that severely strained those inadequate resources.

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