Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Trenchard’s ‘Relentless and Incessant Offensive’ - Pt 3



Back to Part 2

The British Aviation Industry and Procurement System

Haig’s letter was not an isolated plea but was a part of an ongoing competition for aviation resources being played out between the RFC and RNAS.  On the eve of war the British aviation industry was fragmented, disorganised, and underdeveloped well behind that of France and Germany.  Significantly the majority of the aircraft were powered by French made aero-engines as British aero-engines were unreliable and in very short supply.  Attempts to catch up and meet the demands of the RFC and RNAS were exacerbated by inter-service rivalry.  Friction between the War Office and the Admiralty over aviation had begun as early as October 1914.  Both were competing with the same suppliers, in the case of the French produced aero-engines the Admiralty outbid the War Office on several occasions and successfully increased the market price.  This competition came to a head at the end of 1916 as the army chased aerial superiority on the Western Front and the navy planned a bombing campaign to attack the German war industry.  Both services depended on a large number of different aircraft and engine types, produced in small quantities by a large number of underdeveloped firms.  In early 1917 the RFC had 48 different aircraft designs in the field.  (Cooper, Independent Air Power, p. 87).  The limiting factor on meeting both the RFC and RNAS demands was aero-engine production.  Aero-engine production required an industrial base that was almost nonexistent in Britain in 1914 and remained underdeveloped even at the end of the war.  The supply of aircraft improved significantly in 1917, with the transfer of aeronautical supply to the Ministry of Munitions and although aero-engine production also increased, Britain relied on supplies from overseas, mostly French, to make up the shortfalls.  Overseas aero-engine supply represented 40% of the total wartime production.  (Dye, ‘Development of British Military Aviation’, p. 6.).  The RNAS ultimately gave way, dropping their bombing campaign plans and even loaning the RFC RNAS fighting Squadrons to ease the pressure on the Western Front.  The confusion and purposeless drifting endemic in RNAS policy during the war had prevented the navy from defending its plans.

‘In 1917 Admiral Beatty, then commanding the Grand Fleet, said that if a policy [for the RNAS] had been decided on, he would like one of the Naval Staff to visit him and explain it.’  H.F.King, ‘British Naval Flying’, Flight Magazine, 2204 (LIX) (20 Apr 1951), p. 470.

Trenchard and Haig had succeeded in ensuring that air superiority over the Western Front dominated British air policy.  As the demand for new fighting aircraft grew sacrifices had to be made elsewhere.  The RNAS bombing force had been one sacrifice; another was the RFC home establishment where inadequate resourcing was partly to blame for a low level of training.

British Pilot Training

When established in 1912, the RFC entered unknown territory in every aspect of its operational development, most of which was to be played out during wartime.  In 1912 there was no training blueprint and little precedent on which to base flying training.  The decision to deploy all but 20 officers to France at the start of the war nearly paralyzed the RFC's future development and undermined a still immature training structure.  Despite this initial setback, the RFC adapted and changed its training programme to meet the demands of the field service throughout the war.  The training provided to recruits in 1914 would have been almost unrecognizable to those instructed in 1918.  By the end of the war British pilot training had become more efficient than that of France.  There were problems though manifested by a hasty expansion and the uncompromising application of an offensive doctrine.  Between the battle of Loos in 1915 and the Somme in 1916 the RFC in France more than doubled in size.  In an effort to provide pilots for the new aircraft and provide battle casualty replacements, an overstressed RFC training programme placed an emphasis on quantity over quality, producing hundreds of inadequately trained pilots:

‘Forty-nine RFC pilots and observers were lost in action in the last two months of the year [1915], partly owing to the standard of the replacements, who usually arrived with no more than twenty hours’ solo flying, often less, and who displayed a woeful lack of flying expertise.  They had no idea how to avoid trouble, or how to extricate themselves when they got into it.  Barker, Mons to the Somme, p. 116.

Trenchard complained to the War Office to some effect and a minimum standard of proficiency was established by mid 1916; this caused the expansion scheme to slow down.  During the first days of the Somme RFC casualties reached hitherto unmatched levels, and as the Somme battle continued and the technological pendulum swung in favour of the Germans the need for replacement pilots brushed aside these reforms.  A letter from Colonel Brancker (Director of Air Organisation) on 10 September 1916 linked the personnel problems directly to the ongoing shortage of aircraft:

‘I am not quite happy about the output of pilots: your demands of late have been big, and we have not quite come up to them.  The main reason is that so many machines were sent out to you in the first week of September that training was absolutely starved in war machines.’  Brancker, quoted in: Cooper, Independent Air Power, p. 79.

Trenchard’s uncompromising application of his offensive policy between September 1916 and mid 1917, when the new generation of British fighters began arriving in sufficient numbers to wrestle back air superiority, left the RFC, and by proxy its training programme, at a serious disadvantage:

‘The aim of our offensive will therefore be to force the enemy to fight well behind, and not on, the lines.  This aim will only be successfully achieved if offensive patrols are pushed well out to the limits of army reconnaissance areas, and the general officer commanding looks to brigadiers to carry out this policy and not to give way to requests for close protection of corps machines except in special cases when such machines are proceeding on work at an abnormal distance over the lines.  The aerial ascendancy which was gained by our pilots and observers on the Somme last year was a direct result of the policy outlined above.’  Trenchard, quoted in: Peter Hart, Bloody April (London: Cassell, 2006), p. 131.

During April 1917 the RFC experience its highest casualty rate of the war with 151 machines brought down and 316 aircrew dead or missing.  The life expectancy for a new pilot in April 1917 had fallen to 17 days.  (Ralph Barker, The Royal Flying Corps in France from Bloody April 1917 to Final Victory (London: Constable, 1996), p. 48.).  According to Malcolm Cooper:

‘… the RFC squadrons which received such a mauling over Arras …. were arguably at their lowest state of operational effectiveness of the last two years of the war.’  Cooper, Independent Air Power, p. 81

From September 1916 the RFC found itself in a spiral of increasing losses and decreasing training standards which it did not escape from until the effects of the wider implementation of Major Smith-Barry’s revolutionary ‘Gosport’ flying training system and the expansion of pilot training abroad, particularly Canada, were felt during the summer of 1917.

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