Barry D. Powers. Strategy Without Slide-Rule: British Air Strategy 1914-1939. London: Croom Helm, 1976.
NB. The subtitle is inaccurate; the period covered is really more like 1914-1931!
Powers has two objects in mind: firstly, to show that air policy should be 'seen as a complicated interaction of the factors involved — popular conceptions, press campaigns, political thinking and military concerns', rather than purely the latter; and secondly, to 'show the extremely close interconnections between defensive concerns and offensive planning' (that is to say, offence as a form of defence).
Chapter 1 covers the early phase of the Zeppelin attacks on Britain, up until 1916. These created fear out of all proportion to the damage they inflicted — Powers cites some fascinating evidence: proposals for executing captured Germans in reprisal; and spontaneous evacuations of cities under threat as well as rioting. He also discusses the career of Pemberton Billing, whose popularity with the public is further evidence of the fear of the Zeppelin at this time.
The next chapter is about the defences eventually erected to defend against the Zeppelins: AA guns (not very effective), aeroplanes, incendiary bullets (much more so). Blackouts were implemented in London from September 1914; interestingly Powers suggests there was at first an indifference to blackouts on the part of local government due to the public not having realised the Zeppelin threat. The advice given to civilians on the dangers of air raids stressed not the direct effect of the bombs themselves, but fire and gas. William Joynson-Hicks and other MPs called for an Air Minister to take responsibility for air defence; the government responded very slowly, by appointing advisory boards with little power. But due to the improvements in defence, Zeppelins began to be brought down in significant numbers in late 1916.
Chapter 3 covers the Gotha raids, which began in May 1917. These were much more lethal than any of the Zeppelin raids. Reactions were characterised by increased hatred towards Germans, and calls for retributive attacks on German cities – the Daily Mail published a 'Reprisal Map' next to photographs of the children killed in one attack. It was now that the Tube stations first began to be used as shelters, particularly in the East End slums which were the hardest hit. The government felt it had to respond to public pressure and increase the defences of London, so as to show the working classes that they were being protected. Various improvements were made to air defences: unified command, barrage zones, balloons, improved searchlights for the night raids, sound locators, and rangefinders. By the last raid in May 1918, these measures were having some effect.
Powers next moves on to the birth of the RAF and the beginnings of bombardment of Germany. The Cabinet still resisted calls for reprisals, even after the second Gotha raid on London, but appointed Jan Smuts to consider air policy. In August 1917, he recommended the formation of a separate air ministry and an air service with the capacity for independent operations — a strategic bombing force — and predicted that air supremacy might one day be as important as sea supremacy for the safety of the Empire. However, it took further debate, cajoling and press attention before an Air Minister was appointed (in November 1917 – formally President of the Air Council); the RAF was finally founded in April 1918. From October 1917 a new strategic bombing unit operating in France commanded by Hugh Trenchard, the Independent Air Force, made its first raids on Germany. These had an impact similar to that of the Gotha raids in Britain. Trenchard planned to expand the IAF from 10 squadrons in July 1918 to around 100 by autumn 1919, equipped with the giant Handley-Page 1500 bombers which would have attacked Berlin and other cities with bombs, incendiaries and the new blistering gas, Lewisite. But the war ended before the IAF could really operate as intended and so its effectiveness remained unknown.
Chapter 5 deals with non-military conceptions of air warfare, up until 1931. These were already tending towards the apocalyptic by 1918: H.G. Wells thought that air attacks could cause mass panic, and that they would be devastating for nations and civilisation generally, while Claude Grahame-White and Harry Harper thought that the aerial destruction of cities, including by gas and bacteriological means, was not too far distant. In 1924, the Comittee of Imperial Defence established an Air Raid Precautions subcommittee, to discuss plans to be carried out by the Home Office in the event of air attack. Its brief was to find ways of keeping the home area secure – that is, to avoid losing the war. Based on WWI data, it estimated that there would be 50 casualties (a third fatal) per ton of bombs dropped. This led to a prediction of nearly 80000 casualties in London in the first month of war alone. Full evacuation was deemed impossible, but a partial and organised one was preferable to a panicked flight; consideration was given to the imposition of a police or military cordon to keep people in. Powers ties this fear of civil unrest to the 'red scare' in the years following the Russian revolution.
Powers then discusses some of the more influential 'paramilitary prophets' of airpower. Basil Liddell Hart wrote that WWI showed that war was now a moral contest more than a military one, and that therefore strategic bombing could well decide the outcome of a future war, by breaking the morale on the home front. P.R.C. Groves thought that wars were now about 'areas' rather than 'fronts', and that the rear area would be the major target. J.M. Spaight was more sceptical of knock-out blows; although he accepted that cities could be destroyed from the air, he thought this might stiffen morale rather than undermine it. In the political realm, the three air ministers of the 1920s (Churchill, Hoare, Thomson) were all firm believers in the knock-out blow (Churchill wrote that another war could see the end of civilisation). In 1927, Stanley Baldwin asserted that gas would be widely employed and compared the next air war to the fall of Rome. Powers analyses the annual parliamentary debates on the Air Estimates (essentially the RAF's budget) between 1919 and 1931 in some detail. In these, the theory of the knock-out blow was almost universally accepted, but MPs generally responded to this threat in one of two ways — to plead for collective security and disarmament, or to rely on a strong RAF for deterrence and retaliation. To some degree, this cut across party-lines. The occasional critic of the theory of the knock-out blow had little effect on the course of the debates.
The final chapter is on the post-war RAF and its survival as a separate service. Trenchard returned to the post of Chief of Air Staff in 1919, where he was to remain for another decade. He concentrated on building infrastructure and training capabilities rather than front-line strength, while emphasising the RAF's striking role. The result was a small RAF, theoretically committed to strategic bombing – but without the means to carry it out. Also important was the RAF's role in Imperial policing ('air control'), first in Afghanistan and Somaliland, and then even more successfully in Iraq. This cut costs in Iraq by huge sums; however, it also raised concerns over morality. Air control became linked with the idea of substitution — that the air force would progressively (and cheaply) replace the older services, who responded by attempting to regain control of naval and army co-operation aviation, or even to disband the RAF altogether. They failed partly because politicians bought into the airpower mentality, but also because of Trenchard's skill in bureaucratic infighting.
A good example of this was the French 'threat' of 1922-3. The testy relations at the time between the entente partners lent some credence to the threat posed by France's air force, then much larger than Britain's. In response, an expansion of the RAF was authorised in 1923 (though this was delayed well into the 1930s). The same fears prompted the beginnings of ARP and air defence planning in 1923-4, which were also delayed by financial stringencies. Significantly, it was decided not to initiate a public ARP campaign at this time, as it was felt this would only frighten the public. Next, Powers looks at articles from several military journals through 1931, to assess the debate about strategic bombing within and between the services. Most writers, including Army and Navy officers, accepted the view that a future air war would be devastating, and that the possibility of defence was limited at best. The final few pages very briefly look at the later 1930s — most interesting here are Baldwin's fears during the Abyssinian crisis in 1936 about the Italian bomber threat, and plans made during Munich to station troops very visibly around London during air raids, to calm the populace.
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