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.

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