Wednesday, June 15, 2011

British Aviation in the First World War – Pt 5

Back to Part 4

Growth of the RFC (Organisation)

At the outset Henderson had tried to keep a tight control of air resources by keeping all reconnaissance strategic at GHQ.  Sir John French had been impressed during the battle of the Marne when the RFC flew tactically for the two BEF Corps commanders Haig and Smith-Dorrien and decided he wanted to decentralize the RFC by attaching units directly to Army Corps.

Henderson argued that the RFC was too specialized a service to be handed over to Army Corps commanders who did not understand air power capabilities or appreciate the risks of flying.  Henderson’s reorganization proposal, accepted by Kitchener, was aimed at maintaining uniformity and flexibility in all flying operations.  An RFC HQ was established to achieve this and during the winter 1914/1915 organisational changes were made that were aimed to ensure equitable distribution and use of the limited RFC resources. The operational Sqn's were formed into 2 Wings each to operate with 1 of the Armies.  With the addition of a 2 further Sqn's a third Wing was formed in March 1915, ready for Neuve Chapelle.

As the RFC continued to expand and the need to specialize became more evident the RFC reorganized again.  Army council letters of 25 Aug and 10 Dec 1915 ordered that the RFC’s 3 Wings be formed into a Brigade, with additional Bde’s formed until there would be one for each Army.  It was this organisation that served the RFC/RAF through to the end of the war.

The exception to this structure was the formation in October 1917 of 41st bombing Wing, which turned into VIII Brigade (the independent air force) in June 1918.

Air power purists have argued that with the arrival of the Wing and then Brigade structure the RFC abandoned the principle of centralized control and independence to one of subordination to the various Army Corps HQ’s.  Each Army commander had gained his own private Air Force.  This decentralisation was to cause a reoccurring theme throughout the war.  The Army in contact with the enemy could only call directly on its own aviation resources and those of the RFCHQ.  Access to the disengaged Armies aviation assets to achieve ‘concentration’ was subject to negotiation and was often refused, flexibility had been lost.

Growth of the RFC (Training)

During 1915 and early 1916 the RFC grew faster than trained personnel both ground and aircrew could be produced.  In the run up to the Somme the casualty rate had highlighted difficulties with the quality as well as the quantity of trained pilots.  The pressures on a badly organized and under resourced training organization meant that pilots were arriving in France less than half trained.  Trenchard complained to some effect and a minimum standard of proficiency was established by mid 1916 at the cost of slowing down the expansion scheme.  As the Somme battle continued and the technological pendulum swung in favor of the Germans the need for replacement pilots swept aside these reforms.  By September 1916 the RFC was caught in a tightening spiral of increasing losses and decreasing training standards which it did not escape from until the summer of 1917.

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