Sunday, July 10, 2011

Trenchard’s ‘Relentless and Incessant Offensive’ - Pt 4


Back to Part 3

Criticism of Trenchard’s Policy

Any criticism of Trenchard’s policy must be contextualised within the realities of the time.  It is impossible to overstate the immaturity of military aviation in 1914.  Every aspect of airpower development was in its infancy and evolved in contact with the enemy.  Precedents were few and ultimately misleading; the best example being the reconnaissance imperative:

‘The reconnaissance role was so obviously of value to the Army that it frequently obscured the offensive potential of aircraft.  This limited perspective raised two particular problems: (1) using aeroplanes only as scouts meant, quite simply, the air service would be totally subordinated to Army needs, and (2) the common belief that an aeroplane had to be inherently stable to be of use in scouting meant that a false trail was laid in the development of military aircraft, leading to machines which were quite unsuitable for any other warlike purpose.’  Michael Paris, Winged Warfare (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), p. 154.

The RFC Wing and Brigade structure was a product of this imperative that facilitated army co-operation, as was the decision towards the end of 1914 to mass produce the B.E.2.c, the aircraft rendered obsolete by the arrival of the Fokker Eindecker in 1915; a decision that was to haunt the army co-operation crews for the remainder of the war.  The B.E.2.c classically illustrates Paris’ point.  It was deliberately designed to have a will of its own and a desire to stay up right, it was unpopular because it was too stable, and called for considerable strength to manoeuvre it in air combat.  With aviation development and manufacture focused on fighter aircraft, its replacement, the R.E.8 whilst better armed and fitted with a more powerful engine came from the same design team, the Royal Aircraft Factory, and was a product of compromise, inheriting many of its predecessor’s faults.  Attempts to replace the R.E.8 with the Bristol Fighter in the last year of the war foundered on the shortage of aero-engines.

Immediate post war criticism of Trenchard's policy focused on its ‘blunt’ application.  To some the offensiveness of a patrol appeared to be judged by the depth it penetrated into German airspace rather than any clearly defined operational or strategic effect (A. G. Lee, No Parachute. A Fighter Pilot in World War I (London: Jarrolds, 1968), pp. 217-18.).  Also, the policy of sending fighting machines across the whole length of the line throughout each day, and at regular times patrolling a predictable front of about 30 miles, played into enemy hands, and allowed the German’s to decide where and when to fight.  Trenchard having correctly appreciated the offensive capabilities of airpower was, without the benefit of hindsight, trying to come to terms with its application.  More recent critics have pointed out that his emphasis on the offensive at any cost contained a ‘single mindedness that bordered on stubbornness’ (Phillip S. Meilinger, ‘Trenchard and "Morale Bombing": The Evolution of Royal Air Force Doctrine Before World War II’, The Journal of Military History, 60, (2) (April 1996), p. 248).  According to Michael Paris:

‘What he had 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’.  Paris, Winged Warfare, p. 237.

Basis for Trenchard’s Air Power Theories

Trenchard’s air power theories were heavily influenced by a British military culture that according to Tim Travers over emphasised the offensive and focused on the concept of the ‘psychological battlefield’, simplistically high morale at the expense of technology (fire-power) (Tim Travers, The Killing Ground, (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 1987), p. 38).  In March 2002 A. J. Echevarria II produced an article that challenged Travers’ views:

‘During the final decade before the First World War especially, the cult’s [cult of the offensive] central argument was not that moral forces alone could overcome material factors, but that the human element must be made strong enough to provide a vigorous complement to the newfound power of military technology……  The idea was not to pit man against machine, but to make man worthy of machine, that is, to set a better trained, more confident soldier against one who, although also armed with near-perfect weapons, was perhaps not as well prepared psychologically as his adversary. Bald statements to the effect that all an attacker needed was a ‘will to conquer’ were merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg beneath which lay a well-developed body of literature that stressed the importance of all the elements of moral force, how to strengthen them by way of realistic training and rigorous drill, and to apply them for tactical, and ultimately, strategic success.’ (Echevarria II, A. J., 'The 'Cult of the Offensive' Revisited: Confronting Technological Change Before the Great War',Journal of Strategic Studies, 25 (1) (2002), p 201-201.).

Trenchard appears to be the epitome of this argument whose interpretation of the ‘cult of the offensive’ parallels that of French Colonel Ardant du Picq, one of the late 19th century military theorists whose contribution to the ‘well developed body of literature’ referred to above included:

‘Engagements were thus fought within the material dimension, but were won in the psychological one, when one side or the other broke or simply lost hope. Hence, if all other factors were equal, superiority within the psychological dimension would prove decisive.’  Echevarria II, A. J., 'The 'Cult of the Offensive' Revisited: Confronting Technological Change Before the Great War',Journal of Strategic Studies, 25 (1) (2002), p 203.

The ‘incessant offensive’ created in Trenchard’s eyes the necessary moral superiority that would give the RFC a higher threshold for taking casualties and suffering hardships.  His concerns over inadequate aircraft and poorly trained aircrew were constantly and forcefully expressed in RFC and GHQ correspondence with the War Office clearly indicating that he understood that technological improvements underpinned the materiel and training was crucial to the moral.

Trenchard’s policy ultimately succeeded, to a degree, in achieving his first two guiding principles:

‘An analysis of British casualty statistics further suggests that the interdiction tactics pursued by the British fighter force often succeeded in their primary objective of protecting army co-operation machines.’ [and in the context of air superiority] … , German records do at least make it clear that units operating in the face of the RFC’s attritional attacks suffered more severely than those deployed against the French.’  Cooper, Independent Air Power, p. 74.

The need to fight for air superiority had, by the summer of 1915 focused aircraft development and manufacturing on fighting machines at the expense of other roles.  Trenchard’s offensive policy coupled with the organisational limitations led the RFC to grow itself out of trouble placing an even greater emphasis on the number of fighters; compromises had to be made.

Next: Part 5 ‘Compromises - The Corps Aircraft

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