In my discussion of the ill-fated Sykes Memo, I noted that it included proposed force levels for the Dominion air forces, which I haven't seen discussed before. This is interesting because it came at an interesting moment. It's early December 1918, with the Empire was in the flush of victory and all things seeming possible (at least they did to Sykes, which is why he lost his job as Chief of the Air Staff). But it's before any of the Dominions had actually created their own independent air forces (SAAF: 1920; RAAF: 1921; RCAF: 1924; RNZAF: 1937 — though those dates are inevitably contentious; see Pathfinder 114 for a RAAF perspective). Their decisions to do so inevitably reflected local concerns and conditions, but they also took advice from the RAF, as the Empire's 'mother' air force. So Sykes's proposals provides some insight into how the centre viewed the periphery in an airpower sense at this cusp between war and peace, and what advice he might have given the fledging air forces had he not been ejected from command of the RAF.
So, as before, I've tabulated the squadron numbers from the Sykes Memo in From Many Angles, and added some comments after.1
|Canada||Fighter and corps reconnaissance||2|
|Canada||Large day bombers||2|
|Canada (naval co-operation)||Ships' fighter reconnaissance and ships' fighters||2|
|Canada (naval co-operation)||Large flying-boats||2|
|Canada (naval co-operation)||Large day bombers||2|
|Australia||Fighter and corps reconnaissance||2|
|Australia||Large day bombers||2|
|Australia (naval co-operation)||Ships' fighter reconnaissance and ships' fighters||1|
|Australia (naval co-operation)||Torpedo-planes and ships' bombers||1|
|Australia (naval co-operation)||Large flying-boats||1|
|Australia (naval co-operation)||Large day bombers||1|
|New Zealand||Corps and fighter reconnaissance||1|
|New Zealand||Large day bombers||1|
|New Zealand||Night bombers||1|
|New Zealand (naval co-operation)||Torpedo-planes and ships' bombers||1|
|New Zealand (naval co-operation)||Large flying-boats||1|
|New Zealand (naval co-operation)||Large day bombers||1|
|South Africa||Fighter and corps reconnaissance||1|
|South Africa||Day bombers||1|
|South Africa||Night bombers||1|
|South Africa (naval co-operation)||Ships' fighters and fighter reconnaissance||1|
|South Africa (naval co-operation)||Large flying-boats||2|
|South Africa (naval co-operation)||Large day bombers||1|
The first thing to note is that whereas Sykes's ideal RAF would be composed of a mixture of full and cadre squadrons, all of the Dominion squadrons were to have been cadres. He doesn't explain this other than to say
the possibilities of air warfare render it vitally important that the several portions of the British Empire should be in a state of readiness, not only to protect themselves from sudden aerial attack, but also to render immediate mutual assistance. For this purpose air fleets will require to be maintained by the Dominions in a state of constant efficiency, and provision made for the rapid expansion and mobilization of their aerial resources.2
It's hard to see how the ability to respond instantly to threats and the ability to expand in wartime could be reconciled. Nor how the Dominions, Australia and New Zealand apart, could do much to help each other given the enormous distances involved; the RAF squadrons stationed in various parts of the Empire would be much closer to any trouble spot. But Sykes was big on Imperial unity and standardisation, which he believed had been fostered by the war:
During the war the Dominions have generously responded to the call of the Mother Country, and their forces have worked in the closest co-operation with those from the British Isles. A bond of union has been established which both sides must make every effort to strengthen until a state of perfect and efficient co-operation exists between the various components of the British Empire.3
Aircraft, training, doctrine would all be standardised as much as possible. Sykes's idea was that this would mean that 'reinforcements can be transferred from one quarter of the globe to another, and on arrival at their destination will fit automatically into their appointed places and carry out their appointed duties'.4 He even refers to 'the Imperial Air Force' and 'an Imperial Air Staff, upon which should be representatives of all the Dominions'.5 This sounds very much like an imperial version of the international air force, a concept which hadn't really been articulated by this point. Perhaps not surprisingly, for apart from the aforementioned wartime co-operation between the Dominions which Sykes was well aware of as CAS, another root of the international air force idea was the Inter-Allied Independent Force formed only a couple of weeks before the Armistice from British, French, Italian and American bomber squadrons.6
Sykes allocates Canada the greatest number of squadrons: 12 to Australia's 10, South Africa's 9, and New Zealand's 6 (a total of 37, a useful addition to his proposed RAF of 157 (not 154!) squadrons). As he doesn't think Canada would have a large peacetime army, he suggests that they could partly be used 'for Government purposes, such as police work, aerial mail work, and surveys'.7 He suggested that its air bases 'not be situated more than four hundred miles north of the Canada-United States boundary', not so much because the US was a threat (though it kinda was), I think, but because that's where the people where and that's where aerial transportation was needed.8 Similarly, the naval co-operation squadrons would be used for 'flying over the inland lakes' as well as for more traditional (if you count less than a decade of naval air history as tradition) maritime roles.9
Sykes gives economic development much less emphasis in his recommendations for Australia. While he does note that Australia too has 'great distances' and a 'comparative lack of railways', and he does propose what seems to be a similar but more formal 'civil transport service' (but still part of the air force?) than was the case with Canada.10 He also suggests potential air routes (Singapore to Wyndham in northern Western Australia, from there across the top to Normanton in Queensland, and then essentially following rail lines right around the east and south coasts to Perth, where a final link to Wyndham would complete the circle). But, as with the British part of the Sykes Plan, the main purpose of all this would be strategic, not commercial:
This [civil transport service] would form the general reserve of pilots and personnel, all such as are willing to serve when called upon being earmarked for that purpose and required to go through a periodical refresher course with a Service squadron. The Machines employed should be specially constructed so that they could rapidly be transformed into Service machines in case of need.11
In other words, commercial bombers. Apart from the aeroplane squadrons, Sykes recommended that Australia acquire '3 units of S.S. airships and 6 kite balloons', where he only proposed 'a small experimental lighter-than-air service station' as 'the cadre of an airship unit' for Canada (and, apparently, no airships at all for Britain, though he may have left those for the Royal Navy).
It's interesting that Sykes goes into so much detail, relatively speaking, for Australia than he did for the bigger Canadian air force. Part of the reason for this may have been that unlike Canada, Australia faced a plausible (though unnamed *cough*Japan*cough*) threat:
While it is desired in any way to accentuate Eastern political complexities, the pressure of unrest in this sphere must be faced. In the past the fears of Australia resulted in the formation of the nucleus of the Australian Navy, and Australia has already inaugurated her own Air Service which her distance from the Mother Country renders all important.12
But read that last part again: 'Australia has already inaugurated her own Air Service'. Sykes seems to be saying that Australia had already formed an air force, which might indeed make proposals for its structure more urgent. But this is 1918, and the RAAF was not formed until 1921, so what is he talking about? I think he's referring to Australia's intention to form an air force, as proposed by the Chief of the (Australian) General Staff, Major-General James Legge, on 29 April 1918 and confirmed by Cabinet on 1 May (right at the height of the mystery aeroplane scare, which I don't think is a coincidence). The Royal Australian Navy was already interested in a (naval) air service, and to this end had secured the attachment of Commander O. H. K. Maguire RNAS (or rather Lieutenant-Colonel O. H. K. Maguire RAF, since the RNAS and RFC had just merged) to provide advice. A number of further proposals followed — Maguire recommended a single service over Legge's opposition, and won out — and in January 1919 an Aviation Service Committee was formed (with Legge and Maguire as two of the members) to oversee the new service's creation, with a budget of £500,000 for buildings and so on. So Australia was clearly on the verge of taking concrete steps when Sykes presented his memo to his minister, and it probably seemed more likely that his recommendations for Australian airpower would be taken up. Having said that, there already was a Canadian Air Force in existence, a group (well, a pair) of Canadian squadrons formed in Britain in the last months of the war. While the Canadian government decided in June 1919 to disband this organisation (only to form another CAF in 1920, a militia force rather than a permanent one, which in turn was finally established in 1924), Sykes wouldn't have known this in December 1918, and so it could be argued that he should have been encouraging the Canadians just as much as the Australians. (He did in fact discuss his proposals with Billy Hughes and Robert Borden, who he claimed both were in favour.)13
Sykes's advice for New Zealand is that it stick closely to Australia:
The possibility of unrest in the East affects New Zealand equally with Australia. The length of her coast-line makes her peculiarly vulnerable to attack, and her distance from the Mother Country makes it necessary for her to be able to hold her own until the arrival of available reinforcements.14
Presumably those reinforcements would come from Australia in the first instance, though if the Kiwis were under attack we might have had our hands full too. He adds that flying boats and wireless stations would be especially important for keeping in communication with Australia. One odd point: he suggests that New Zealand form a squadron of night bombers. He does the same for South Africa, but not for Australia or Canada. I wonder why? Maybe he was thinking that in addition to the generic squadrons that each air force would have to carry out its normal roles, that each one would have some specialty that could be used if the Imperial Air Force were ever assembled in Britain again to fight another Great War. I don't know.
Finally, to South Africa, where (like Canada) Sykes emphasises the 'main factors of distance and scattered population and the consequent openings for rapid mail and transport service and for commercial aviation' rather than preparing for war-fighting:
It is improbable that South Africa will be the scene of war between European nations; nevertheless, South Africa shouid maintain her quota of cadre Service squadrons.15
He also pays attention to Cape Town's likely status as 'the terminus of the service to the Cape via Egypt' [from London], and presciently suggests that large flying boats might be used with advantage, given Britain's possessions of ports on both the east and west coasts of Africa.
The imperial part of the Sykes Plan had a bit more success than the British part, but only to the extent that each air force did have roughly the same tasks (such as maritime reconnaissance and weather forecasting) and so ended up having to do many of the things Sykes suggested. The daughter air forces did model themselves closely on the mother service and co-operated very closely with it, in a myriad of ways; when the next war came squadrons from all the Dominions fought, effectively, as part of part of the RAF. But then so did the various 'Free' air forces, refugees from conquered Europe. There was nothing like Sykes's Imperial Air Staff or Imperial Air Force as a formal organisation in the interwar period; but the RCAF, RAAF, RNZAF and SAAF developed compatible organisations and cultures anyway, due to the more ad hoc sorts of collaboration envisaged in his plan. Sykes probably would have been happy enough with that.
- F. H. Sykes, From Many Angles: An Autobiography (London: George G. Harrap & Company, 1942), 558-74.
- Ibid., 566.
- Ibid., 566.
- Ibid., 567.
- Brett Holman, 'World police for world peace: British internationalism and the threat of a knock-out blow from the air, 1919-1945', War in History 17 (2010), 313-32.
- Sykes, From Many Angles, 567.
- Ibid., 568.
- Ibid., 265.
- Ibid., 569.
- Ibid., 570.
This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License. Terms and conditions beyond the scope of this license may be available at airminded.org.