Friday, July 15, 2011

Trenchard’s ‘Relentless and Incessant Offensive’ - Pt 5

Back to Part 4

Compromises - The Corps Aircraft

The Corps aircraft operating in their artillery co-operation and photographic roles were arguably the RFC assets that contributed most directly to the success of the British army.

‘Observation for the artillery, visual reconnaissance, air-photography and the ‘contact-sortie’ became, therefore, the principle tasks of the Royal Flying Corps on the Western Front,…’.  Peter Mead, The Eye in the Air (London: HMSO, 1983), p. 62.

Yet these crews were expected to survive in the obsolete B.E.2 during the battle of Arras in 1917.  The replacement of the B.E.2 had begun with a RFC request for a two-seat reconnaissance aircraft that was capable of defending itselfThe result was the Bristol Fighter, introduced in April 1917.  Its robust design, powerful engine, good manoeuvrability and relatively heavy armament enabled it to excel as a fighter aircraft, condemning the Corps crews to fly the uninspiring compromise replacement, the R.E.8, and from June 1917 the F.K.8 until the end of the war.

Compromises - The Ground Attack Role

Arras saw the RFC first start ground attack missions in direct support of the army.  During Third Ypres, although largely uncoordinated and tasked against targets of opportunity, RFC ground attacks had, according to German records, a significant psychological impact on the German soldier.  The first hand accounts captured in Jack Sheldon’s book, The German Army at Passchendaele (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2007), present a reoccurring sense of vulnerability associated with the RFC ground attacks during Third Ypres.  By Amiens in 1918 ground attack had become, subject to weather, an integral element of the BEF’s evolving combined arms battle.  The role proved both unpopular and casualty intensive, a direct result of having to use non-specialist fighter aircraft in the role.  V.M.Yeates’ novel, Winged Victory (London: Granada, 1961), an autobiography in all but name, captures explicitly the sense of dread felt by the RFC pilots tasked with the ground attack role.  Additionally Trenchard, at a War Cabinet meeting on 4 Apr 1918, stated that between 21 Mar and 2 Apr 1918:

‘… 437 British machines had been wrecked on our side of the line, and 113 of our machines were missing.  … that the large number of machines wrecked was owing to the amount of low flying taking place; also that such low flying machines get badly shot about.  … that the casualties had been heavy, primarily due to machine-gun fire from the ground; 210 pilots had been killed, wounded, or missing, and 105 observers killed, wounded, or missing.  National Archives CAB 23/6 Image No 0004.

Unlike the Germans, with their armoured Halberstadt CL.II aircraft specifically designed for ground attack, the British, due in part to the emphasis on fighter production, did not produce a dedicated ground attack aircraft.

Compromises - The Human Cost

The manpower compromises are a little more emotive.  The human cost, whilst not avoidable, could and should have been tempered.  As stated previously the operational tempo generated by Trenchard’s offensive policies placed a strain on the RFC’s training system that led ultimately to higher casualties.  Trenchard was aware of this as is evidenced by his complaints to the War Office concerning the quality of the new pilots and his decision to send Smith-Barry back to England to ‘try out his ideas’.  Trenchard reportedly said to Smith-Barry ‘It’s about time you went home to try out these ideas you’ve been pestering me with.’ (Boyle, Trenchard, p. 202.).  Trenchard’s time at the CFS before the war and his home involvement in the initial RFC expansion during 1914 provided him with a clear insight into the pressures being placed on the training machine.  With this in mind it is perhaps easier to subscribe to Ralph Barker’s view:

‘The failure to impose strict training programmes on new squadrons as they arrived, and to organise routine training programmes on all squadrons in France, surely amounted to culpable if not criminal negligence.’  Barker, Mons to the Somme, p. 220.

Quantifying the degree to which Trenchard’s policy compromised the development of the RFC is problematic, but what is clear is as John H. Morrow states:

‘Trenchard refused to acknowledge that materiel and manpower imposed very real limitations on doctrine.’  John H. Morrow, The Great War in the Air (Washington: Smithsonian, 1993), p. 175.


Primary Sources

National Archives

CAB/23/2, Image Reference 0041
CAB/23/2, Image Reference 0052
War Cabinet Minutes. War Cabinet 134, (8 May 1917)
CAB/23/3, Image Reference 0027
War Cabinet Minutes. War Cabinet 179, (9 July 1917)
CAB/23/4, Image Reference 0017
CAB/23/5, Image Reference 0053
War Cabinet Minutes. War Cabinet 361, (7 March 1918)
CAB/23/6, Image Reference 0004
War Cabinet Minutes. War Cabinet 382, (4 April 1918)
CAB/23/40, Image Reference 0008
War Cabinet Minutes. War Cabinet 6, (5 April 1917)
CAB/24/2, Image Reference 0009
Duties of the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps, (February 1916)
CAB/24/2, Image Reference 0037
CAB/24/6, Image Reference 0091
CAB/24/7, Image Reference 0006
CAB/24/10, Image Reference 0068
CAB/24/11, Image Reference 0096
Air Board, Report to the Cabinet, (26 April 1917)
CAB/24/25, Image Reference 0023
CAB/24/26, Image Reference 0004


Baring, Maurice
R.F.C. H.Q. 1914-1918 (London, Bell & Sons, 1920)
Cutlack, F.M.
Royal Air Force
Raleigh, Walter
The War in the Air Volume 1 (Oxford, Clarenden Press, 1922)


Brooke-Popham, H.R.
‘The Air Force’, RUSI Journal, 65 (Feb./Nov. 1920)
Editorial Comment
Giffard, Hardinge (Viscount Tiverton)
‘Independent Air Power’, RAF Spirit of the Air Inaugural Edition 1 April 1918 pp. 7 - 9.
Sykes, F.H.
‘Further Developments of Military Aviation’ Flight Magazine, 14 February 1914, pp. 170-173
Slessor, J.C.
‘The Air-Land Battle’. RAF Spirit of the Air Inaugural Edition 1 April 1918 pp. 10 - 11.
Trenchard, Hugh
‘Forward’, RAF Spirit of the Air Inaugural Edition 1 April 1918 p. 1.

Secondary Sources


Ash, Eric
Ash, Eric
‘Air Power Leadership: A Study of Sykes and Trenchard’, in Peter W. Gray & Sebastian Cox (eds), Air Power Leadership Theory and Practice (London, The Stationary Office, 2002)
Air Historical Branch
A Short History of the Royal Air Force (Air Ministry, AP 125, 1936)
Barker, Ralph
Barker, Ralph
Bishop, William A
Winged Warfare (New York, Doran Company, 1918)
Boyle, Andrew
Trenchard (London, Collins, 1962)
Brabazon, Lord
The Brabazon Story (London, William Heinemann, 1956)
Cooper, Malcolm
The Birth of Independent Air Power (London, Allen & Unwin, 1986)
Duffy, Christopher
Through German Eyes (London, Phoenix, 2007)
Finnegan, Terrence J.
Shooting the Front – Allied Aerial Reconnaissance and Photographic Interpretation on the Western Front – World War One (Washington, NDIC Press, 2006)
Fischer, William Edward
The Development of Military Night Aviation to 1919 (Washington, US Government Printing Office, 1998)
Franks, Norman; Guest, Russell & Bailey, Frank
Bloody April … Black September (London, Grubb Street, 1995)
Hart, Peter
Somme Success (Barnsley, Pen & Sword, 2001)
Hart, Peter
Bloody April (London, Cassell, 2005)
Hart, Peter
Aces Falling (London, Phoenix, 2008)
Jordan, David
‘The Battle for the Skies: Sir Hugh Trenchard as Commander of the Royal Flying Corps’, in Matthew Hughes & Matthew Seligmann (eds), Leadership in Conflict 1914-1918 (Barnsley, Pen & Sword, 2000)
Jordan, David & Sheffield, Gary
‘The British Army and Air Power’, in Peter W. Gray (ed), British Air Power (London, The Stationary Office, 2003)
Johnson, J.E.
Full Circle (London, Cassell, 2001)
Kennet, Lee
The First Air War 1914-1918 (New York, Macmillan, 1991)
Kilduff, Peter
‘A German airman and his war: Oscar Bechtle’, in Hugh Cecil & Peter Liddle (eds), Facing Armageddon (Barnsley Pen & Sword, 2003)
Lee, A.G.
Levine, Joshua
On a Wing and a Prayer (London, Collins, 2008)
Mead, Peter
The Eye in the Air (London, HMSO, 1983)
Morrow, John H.
The Great War in the Air (Washington, Smithsonian, 1993)
Paris, Michael
Winged Warfare (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1992)
Saundby, Robert
Air Bombardment  (London, Chatto & Windus, 1961)
Sheffield, Gary & Jordan, David
‘Douglas Haig and Air Power’, in Peter W. Gray & Sebastian Cox (eds), Air Power Leadership Theory and Practice (London, The Stationary Office, 2002)
Sheldon, Jack
The German Army at Passchendaele (Barnsley, Pen & Sword, 2007)
Travers, Tim
The Killing Ground (Barnsley, Pen & Sword, 2003)
Turner, Charles C.
The Struggle in the Air 1914-1918 (London, Edward Arnold, 1919)
Winter, Denis
The First of the Few (London, Penguin, 1982)
Yeates, V.M.
Winged Victory (St Albans, Mayflower, 1974)

Journals and Periodicals

Dye, Peter
France and the Development of British Military Aviation’, Air Power Review, 12, (1), (Spring 2009)
Dye, Peter
‘Sustaining Airpower – Influence of Logistics on RAF Doctrine’ USAF Journal of Logistics, 30 (4) & 31 (1), (Winter 2006, Spring 2007)
Echevarria, A.J.
Greenhous, Brereton
Evolution of a Close Ground-Support Role for Aircraft in World War I’, Military Affairs, 39, (1) (February 1975)
Jordan, David
‘The Royal Air Force and Air/Land Integration in the 100 Days’, Air Power Review, 11, (2), (Summer 2008)
Liddle, Peter
‘Aspects of the Employment of the British Air Arm, 1914-1918’, RUSI Journal, 131 (4), (December 1986)
Meilinger, Phillip S.
‘Trenchard and "Morale Bombing": The Evolution of Royal Air Force Doctrine Before World War II’, The Journal of Military History, 60, (2) (April 1996)
Price, Alfred
‘Air Power taken to its Limits and Beyond.  The Battle of Amiens’, Air Power Review, 4, (4), (Winter 2001)
Smythies, B.E.
‘The German Air Force on the Western Front’, RUSI Journal, 69 (Feb./Nov. 1924)
Sutton, B.E.
‘Some Aspects of the Work of the Royal Air Force with the B.E.F. in 1918’ RUSI Journal, 67 (Feb./Nov. 1922)


Bairstow, Leonard
‘Progress of Aviation in the War Period’, Flight Magazine, 26 June 1919, pp. 853-854
Bradbeer, Thomas B.
King, H.F.
‘British Naval Flying’, Flight Magazine, 20 April 1951, pp. 467-471
Rember, Bruce
Operational Lessons from the Dawn of Air Power’, Fort Leavenworth Thesis, (May 1993)
Morley, Robert
Earning their Wings: British Pilot Training, 1912-1918University of Saskatchewan Thesis, (December 2006)

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