Sykes’s lost imperial squadrons

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

Dominion
Type
Squadrons, cadre
CanadaFighter and corps reconnaissance2
CanadaFighters2
CanadaLarge day bombers2
Canada (naval co-operation)Ships' fighter reconnaissance and ships' fighters2
Canada (naval co-operation)Large flying-boats2
Canada (naval co-operation)Large day bombers2
AustraliaFighter and corps reconnaissance2
AustraliaFighters2
AustraliaLarge day bombers2
Australia (naval co-operation)Ships' fighter reconnaissance and ships' fighters1
Australia (naval co-operation)Torpedo-planes and ships' bombers1
Australia (naval co-operation)Large flying-boats1
Australia (naval co-operation)Large day bombers1
New ZealandCorps and fighter reconnaissance1
New ZealandLarge day bombers1
New ZealandNight bombers1
New Zealand (naval co-operation)Torpedo-planes and ships' bombers1
New Zealand (naval co-operation)Large flying-boats1
New Zealand (naval co-operation)Large day bombers1
South AfricaFighters2
South AfricaFighter and corps reconnaissance1
South AfricaDay bombers1
South AfricaNight bombers1
South Africa (naval co-operation)Ships' fighters and fighter reconnaissance1
South Africa (naval co-operation)Large flying-boats2
South Africa (naval co-operation)Large day bombers1

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.


  1. F. H. Sykes, From Many Angles: An Autobiography (London: George G. Harrap & Company, 1942), 558-74. 

  2. Ibid., 566. 

  3. Ibid., 566. 

  4. Ibid., 567. 

  5. Ibid. 

  6. 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. 

  7. Sykes, From Many Angles, 567. 

  8. Ibid. 

  9. Ibid. 

  10. Ibid., 568. 

  11. Ibid. 

  12. Ibid. 

  13. Ibid., 265. 

  14. Ibid., 569. 

  15. Ibid., 570. 

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7 thoughts on “Sykes’s lost imperial squadrons

  1. It's funny that Sykes, who I think is out to lunch in his picture of the future of metropolitan aviation, hits the nail on the head with respect to Canadian. The RCAF was more or less called into existence by the self-evident need for aerial mapping, in parallel with a domestic industry that was making a killing flying miners in and out of remote strikes.

  2. Post author

    Well, predicting the future is especially hard, and lots of people got their predictions about aviation wrong. I don't think Sykes was particularly out to lunch in the context of most other prognostications at the time. But by the same token I don't think he was particularly visionary in picking geography as the main motivation for developing Canadian aviation. Conquering distance is what aeroplanes are for, and Canada has a lot of distance to conquer. In the absence of any immediate defence concerns nation-building was the next best argument for air force-building, and that was surely his primary concern.

  3. TF Smith

    Couldn't the "Imperial Air Staff" simply be the "air-minded" variant of the Imperial General Staff?

  4. Post author

    Yes, you're right: Sykes even says this himself (560):

    The Dominions should be approached with a view to assistances in reconstituting the air staff into an Imperial Air Staff on the lines of the Imperial General Staff; civil and commercial aviation should be represented on this staff.

    From what I know of it, the Imperial General Staff did operate in a similar way to Sykes's 'Imperial Air Staff', at least initially (i.e. before 1914), with permanent (?) representatives from the Dominions (as opposed to seconded officers); and certainly as late as the 1930s there are references to the 'Australian Section, Imperial General Staff'. It seems to have been more 'imperial' than the RAF's Air Staff turned out to be. Sykes had himself been to staff college (Quetta, 1908), of course, so it was a natural model for him.

    I do think, though, that Sykes wanted the RAF to be even imperialer than the Army. His use of the capitalised term 'Imperial Air Force' hints at this as well as his discussion of the interoperability and mutual assistance of the Dominion air forces (though this could fit an 'expeditionary' military precedent too). But admittedly I'm also basing my opinion on things not in the Memo, particularly his support for the Inter-Allied Independent Force and that might be a stretch.

  5. TF Smith

    I like "Imperialer"....

    From the Australian perspective, and thinking as to why the forces raised for overseas service in the world wars were "Imperial Forces" while the Canadians and New Zealanders were (IIRC) "Expeditionary Forces"? Was Australia more "imperial" than Canada, at this point?

    Having said that, other than the Imperial General Staff, Imperial Service Force (the "princely state" forces detailed to the Army of India in wartime), the Imperial Light Horse, and Imperial Light Infantry (the latter two on the South African establishment), I don't think there was much use of "Imperial" as a designation, was there? Lots of "Royal" whatevers (navies, air forces, regiments of various arms) but not many "Imperial" whatevers...

    It does have sort of a Teutonic ring, doesn't it?

    Add in the IJA and IJN, and I'm surprised there wa any "Imperial" anything, actually.

  6. Post author

    I like "Imperialer"….

    Appropriately enough given the discussion, inspired by the Imperial Maritime League, which was said to be 'navier' than the Navy League its members seceded from!

    From the Australian perspective, and thinking as to why the forces raised for overseas service in the world wars were "Imperial Forces" while the Canadians and New Zealanders were (IIRC) "Expeditionary Forces"? Was Australia more "imperial" than Canada, at this point?

    There's something in that -- Canada had been a Dominion for nearly half a century by this point, whereas Australia was still very new by comparison; Canada had more people than us, so perhaps felt a bit more independent and self-confident; we were much further away, more isolated and hence I think more anxious to assert imperial ties. A bit later, Australia declined to ratify the 1931 Statute of Westminster giving us virtual independence until 1942, so we weren't in a rush to assert ourselves in that sense.

    But it's also possible to read too much into particular examples. The choice of name for the Australian Imperial Force was apparently made by its first commander, Major-General Bridges, who was an imperialist (in this sense), but it doesn't seem it was given any probing thought by his political masters. That is to say, it was a personal choice and not necessarily reflective of anything else. Conversely I don't know how the NZEF's name was chosen, but my understanding is that the Kiwis placed even more faith in the imperial relationship than we did (everything I said above about Australia vs Canada goes double for NZ). It could be argued that they were slavishly imitating the Mother Country, in fact (i.e. after 'British Expeditionary Force') whereas we did our own thing :P

    I don't think there was much use of "Imperial" as a designation, was there? Lots of "Royal" whatevers (navies, air forces, regiments of various arms) but not many "Imperial" whatevers…

    I've touched on this before, I think there was a fair bit of that going on, actually. Even before 1914 there was the first Imperial Conference and the Committee of Imperial Defence, and during the war the Imperial War Cabinet. But the high tide of using "Imperial" or "Empire" in the names of things came between the wars: the Empire Marketing Board, British Empire Games, Empire Day, Empire Air Day, Imperial Airways, Short Empires, Imperial Preference, the Imperial Airship Programme... makes sense in some ways, the British Empire did reach its greatest extent then and was one of the last empires still standing, so confidence could come with that; though conversely the writing was on the wall and parts were starting to go their own ways, so then symbolically asserting unity makes sense.

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