The Sykes Plan (or Memo, I'll use them interchangeably here) is an infamous document, at least among those airpower historians interested in the early RAF. Major-General Frederick Sykes was the second Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), that is the professional head of the RAF; the Plan is infamous because it cost him his job. He took up the position less than two weeks after the RAF was formed on 1 April 1918, succeeding Major-General Trenchard who had had an unhappy tenure due to clashes with the Air Minister, Lord Rothermere (who ended up resigning himself). Sykes was a key figure in the prewar RFC, commanding its Military Wing, and had played an important role as chief of staff (and sometimes commander) of the RFC in France. After that he had his own field command, of the RNAS in the Dardanelles. Thereafter he served in a number of non-aviation administrative roles, organising the Machine Gun Corps and serving as General Wilson's deputy at the Supreme War Council.
Sykes was CAS for most of the dramatic events of 1918: he took charge when the German spring offensive was at its most threatening and was still in office when the Armistice was signed in November. When peace threatened, Sykes had to consider what form the postwar RAF would take. With the help of Lieutenant-Colonel P. R. C. Groves, his friend and Director of Flying Operations, by early December he produced a 'Memorandum by the Chief of the Air Staff on air-power requirements of the Empire', AKA the Sykes Memo.1 It proved far too ambitious, and more to the point, costly. Churchill, the new Air Minister, needed economy and was not impressed. Sykes was out and Trenchard was back in, and this time he stayed there for more than a decade.
So how did Sykes cut his own throat? Above all he wanted a big RAF, keeping as much as possible of its wartime strength. In fact, at first he proposed 348 squadrons, which was optimistic considering that in March 1918 the RFC and RNAS combined had only 168 squadrons.2 However, I haven't seen that plan and I wonder if those 348 squadrons were actually intended to be mostly cadres in peacetime, say flights rather than whole squadrons, to facilitate rapid expansion in an emergency. In that case it might only be about the same size as the 1918 RAF (though of course the extra aircraft and men required would need to be got from somewhere). The final version of the Plan did use cadre squadrons for just this purpose. But even so it was still larger than Trenchard's more palatable proposal of only 82 squadrons.
As for just how big the Sykes Plan's RAF was, well, the usual figure given is 154 squadrons, sometimes broken down into 62 full-strength and 92 cadres. For example, Eric Ash (who write the definite book on Sykes, near enough) says:
Churchill was under extreme pressure from the Treasury to cut Army and Air Force spending, while Sykes was asking for a cost-prohibitive program of 154 service squadrons, world-wide aerial routes and subsidies for the civil manufacturing industry.3
The thing is, and it's admittedly a very small thing, I can't make the numbers come out to anything other than 157 squadrons.
Here are the raw numbers, taken from the Sykes Memo as reproduced in his 1942 autobiography, From Many Angles.4
|Britain (home defence)||(Fighters)||20|
|Britain (striking force)||Day bombers||8|
|Britain (striking force)||Night bombers||9|
|Britain (striking force)||Flying boats||3|
|Britain/Grand Fleet (navy co-operation)||Ships' fighters and fighter reconnaissance||4|
|Britain/Grand Fleet (navy co-operation)||Day bombers||4|
|Britain/Grand Fleet (navy co-operation)||Torpedo-planes and ships' bombers||4|
|Britain/Grand Fleet (navy co-operation)||Large flying boats||5|
|Britain/Grand Fleet (navy co-operation)||Large day bombers||6|
|Mediterranean||Ships' fighters and fighter reconnaissance||1|
|Mediterranean||Torpedo-planes and ships' bombers||2|
|Mediterranean||Large flying boats||1|
|Pacific||Ships' fighters and fighter reconnaissance||1|
|Pacific||Torpedo-planes and ships' bombers||2|
|Pacific||Large flying boats||2|
|Hong Kong||Large day bombers||1|
|Singapore||Large day bombers||1|
|North Borneo area||Day bombers||1|
|Eastern Imperial bases||Day bombers||1|
|Eastern Imperial bases||Large day bombers||2|
|Britain (army co-operation)||Day and night fighters||21|
|Britain (army co-operation)||Low fighters||8|
|Britain (army co-operation)||Fighter reconnaissance||4|
|Britain (army co-operation)||Corps and fighter reconnaissance||8|
|Britain (army co-operation)||Day bombers||8|
|Britain (army co-operation)||Night bombers||8|
|Egypt||Composite corps and fighter reconnaissance||1|
|Egypt||Large day bombers||1|
|Mesopotamia||Composite corps and fighter reconnaissance||1|
|Mesopotamia||Large day bombers||1|
|India||Fighters and fighter reconnaissance||4|
|India||Corps reconnaissance for co-operation with infantry, cavalry, and artillery||4|
|India||Large day bombers||2|
|East Africa, Uganda, and Nyasaland||Large day bombers||1|
|West Africa||Large day bombers||1|
Assuming I haven't made any mistakes in collating these numbers (and I've been through them twice now), and assuming both my arithmetic and my spreadsheets' are accurate (and you can check for yourself using the export buttons above the table), this comes to 65 full squadrons and 92 cadre squadrons, for a total of 157 squadrons.
Where does the 154 figure come from, then? I suspect it's a case of somebody making the error early on and everybody else copying it without checking — it wouldn't be the first time. Perhaps Andrew Boyle's Trenchard biography. It's also possible that there has been some confusion with an earlier version of the Sykes Plan. Ash himself mentions that 'Air Council records of 13 November 1918 show a proposal of 154 squadrons', which is not the Sykes Memo because that's dated 9 December, more than two weeks later.
Or maybe it's me who made the mistake somewhere, after all…
Some notes on the table: The allocation of full vs cadre squadrons shows what threats Sykes thought Britain might face in the future: mostly in the colonies (as their squadrons are all full strength), another great war wouldn't happen suddenly (giving time for all those army and navy co-operation cadres to expand), and deterrence would be Britain's main defence against a sudden aerial attack, since the bomber squadrons were to be kept at full strength whereas the 'home defence' ones were only cadres. He doesn't specify what type these home defence squadrons would be, but I think it's safe to assume they were fighters. Under the Grand Fleet, I've omitted an entry for 'kite balloons' (!) because no squadrons are listed. He seems to neglect airships altogether, except for his proposals for the Dominion air forces which I might discuss in a future post as they aren't usually mentioned in discussions of the Sykes Plan.
- F. H. Sykes, From Many Angles: An Autobiography (London: George G. Harrap & Company, 1942), 558-74.
- John Robert Ferris, Men, Money and Diplomacy: The Evolution of British Strategic Foreign Policy, 1919-26 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), 68; John James, The Paladins: A Social History of the RAF up to the Outbreak of World War II (London and Sydney: Macdonald, 1990), 243.
- Eric Ash, Sir Frederick Sykes and the Air Revolution, 1912-1918 (London and Portland: Frank Cass, 1999), 176. See also, e.g., Andrew Boyle, Trenchard (London: Collins, 1962), 329; Barry D. Powers, Strategy Without Slide-Rule: British Air Strategy 1914-1939 (London: Croom Helm, 1976), 162; Phillip S. Meilinger, 'Trenchard, Slessor, and Royal Air Force Doctrine before World War II', in Meilinger, ed., The Paths of Heaven: The Evolution of Airpower Theory (Maxwell Air Force Base: Air University Press, 1997), 48.
- Sykes, From Many Angles, 558-74.
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