The Battle for History Inform's Today's Fight

First published: 22nd November 2015 | Dr. Anthony J Cumming

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Can air power alone deter a potential foe? Viewed from the perspective of the air force lobby, the primary defence of the United Kingdom today is provided by fighter jets sallying forth to deter occasional Russian intruders. No stranger to stirring up controversy, Dr Anthony J. Cumming suggests various lessons of history have been ignored and that it may be time for the RAF to be absorbed into the Navy and Army.

 

There have in recent months been several intimidating incursions into British airspace by Bear bombers of the Russian air force. Photographs of its Typhoon fighters escorting intruders away helps the RAF’s image, suggesting that the service has it all under control. Press coverage hardly mentions that such Russian aircraft do not need to drop bombs. Their function is to release air-launched cruise missiles outside British airspace and well away from intercepting fighters. The UK’s Secretary of State for Defence has lavished praise on the intercepting Typhoon pilots but does he understand the true nature of the threat or has he been unduly influenced by the story of the Battle of Britain?

My point of view, also outlined in a recent internet blog, has provoked RAF outrage. Responding, ‘John (RAF Officer)’ attempted to undermine it by pointing out: ‘The whole point of the aircraft releasing weapons at distance (much like our Storm Shadow) is to do it away from ground based at [sic] defence. The RAF faced this threat throughout the Cold War and dealt with it with the use of Early Warning Radar [AEW], AWAC and CAPs over the North Sea. This was hugely successful and is the only sensible way to deal with the threat…’ However, during the 1980s, Britain’s multi-million Tornado fighters (F1/3) did not have a working Beyond Visual Range (BVR) weapon system - their radar and Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM) could not talk to each other and so were inoperable. Hence, Britain was defenceless against long-range air strikes. Furthermore, both Airborne Warning and Control (AWC) and relevant Combat Air Patrols (CAPs) were developed by the US Navy and Royal Navy and only accepted very reluctantly by the RAF when they saw how effective they were. The RAF had no interest in AEW/AWAC in the early 1960s and refused to participate in the project to replace the Gannet AEW3. After 1966, when the UK’s carrier force was being run down the Navy had to pay the RAF to fit AN/APS-20 radars taken from RN stock into obsolescent Shackleton Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA). The RAF’s Shackleton aircrews soon realised the system’s true worth.

Sadly, the general public is at the media’s mercy with regard to defence matters and coverage is rarely comprehensive or objective, but the falsehoods propagated can be very damaging and long-lasting. Daily Mail proprietor Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe, made enormous efforts to aggrandise the potential of aircraft following Louis Bleriot’s lone cross-Channel flight in 1909. Northcliffe also tried to diminish the role of the Royal Navy to make his point. Energetically led by Winston Churchill, the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) soon found itself at the cutting edge of military aviation. Later, two German Gotha daylight bomber raids on London in the summer of 1917 had far-reaching consequences as The Times berated Lloyd George’s government for alleged inaction. They claimed the air defences had been neglected; cooperation between the army’s Royal Flying Corp (RFC) and the RNAS was lacking. Counter-strikes against the German homeland were now the best way of securing victory. A panic-stricken government, wary of potential public unrest in the wake of Russia’s recent revolution responded with alacrity. In a matter of weeks, a government enquiry heard evidence behind closed doors from aviation proponents and on the basis of what later turned out to be inaccurate and fallacious intelligence recommended the two air forces be merged, a strategic bombing force created and made independent from army and naval control. Aviation enthusiasts from both services had snatched the ball without sufficient political scrutiny but the rest of the war saw little change in the way airpower was deployed. The war in the air over the Western Front had been almost a private affair with no real impact on the land fighting. But still, the aviators cut colourful and romantic figures in a war dominated by squalor, mechanised slaughter and alleged monumental incompetence of British military leadership. Later, Sir Hugh Trenchard, Chief of Air Staff, kept the RAF in business with the help of publicity stunts such as the Empire Air Days at Hendon. By making extravagant and inaccurate claims for policing the British Empire ‘on the cheap’, Trenchard won the support of Air Minister, Sir Samuel Hoare.

The idea of a sudden knock-out blow from an enemy air force had by the late 1920s also become a credible and frightening idea in British minds. By 1938 the RAF was, for the first time, the biggest spender of all three services. This did not assist the RAF in making much impact upon the battlefield in the early ground campaigns of WW2 as army cooperation had been neglected owing to the joint indifference of the War Office and Air Ministry between the wars.

Naval airpower fared better, but due to Admiralty and Air Ministry neglect - and the fact that the carrier aircraft did not return to full naval control until 1939 - equipment was obsolete and many lessons had to be re-learned. This apathy - though unforgivable - was understandable given the Air Ministry had controlled the means of production and were obsessed with strategic bombing. This was a situation that also handicapped Fighter and Coastal Commands in the early phases of WW2. The sorry state of British airpower in 1940 was disguised by the heroic actions of ‘The Few’ during the Battle of Britain. The pilots fought valiantly despite great challenges, including the loss of many experienced flight commanders in the earlier Battle of France; the need to condense new pilot training within a short time frame; flawed tactics and dissention within the Fighter Command leadership. They also faced enemy fighter pilots who mostly possessed more hours of training, higher levels of combat experience and greater firepower. Fortunately, the courage and dedication of ‘The Few’ were skilfully publicised by British and American correspondents; used to sustain British morale and convince a nervous American public that Britain was worth supporting with logistical aid. Stirring exploits of American pilots in British service became popular in the USA, something Foreign Office officials naturally encouraged, in order to influence the aid Britain was hoping to receive from America.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill identified with the pilots and his famous speeches were influenced by American press editor, William Simms, who told Churchill to say that Britain would fight to the end and the whole existence of world civilization was now at stake. Churchill obviously could not admit that he thought an invasion was unlikely until publication of his memoirs after the war. However, by then, the concept of an invasion thwarted by airpower alone had become part of the ‘Finest Hour’ narrative. Churchill’s scepticism and Hitler’s prevarication were both rooted in knowing that the German surface fleet had been decimated in the earlier Norway campaign. British naval resources in and around the English Channel crossing area were overwhelming. If these weren’t enough, then the heavy ships of the Home Fleet, waiting at Rosyth and elsewhere, could swiftly reinforce them. Although the Luftwaffe had shown itself capable of inflicting heavy damage on smaller warships in some situations, neither the Luftwaffe nor RAF could inflict sufficient damage on shipping as they lacked training and equipment for the purpose.

As the Germans planned to sail at night, aircraft could play little part. The Royal Navy had amply demonstrated its command of the Channel at night by repeatedly bombarding invasion ports without losing a single ship. This then, represents the unappreciated but less colourful reality of the 1940 invasion crisis. Seventy-five years on the romantic hype surrounding some of these early airpower achievements must not be allowed to affect decisions on the future of a service whose main function is now to support the army and navy. No disrespect is intended to aircrew but if their leaders cannot provide convincing evidence of RAF ability to defend the nation from real air threats, then maybe we should be asking what justification there is for allowing it to stay as a separate entity?

 

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