L. E. O. Charlton

L. E. O. Charlton

CHARLTON, Air Commodore Lionel Evelyn Oswald. C.B. 1919; C.M.G. 1916; D.S.O. 1900; late R.A.F.; b. 7 July 1879; s. of late William O. Charlton of Hesleyside, Northumberland. Educ.: Brighton Coll. Served South Africa, 1899-1902 (twice wounded, despatches, Queen's medal 5 clasps, King's medal 2 clasps, D.S.O.); served W.A.F.F., 1902-7; European War, 1914-17 (wounded); Air Attaché, British Embassy, Washington, 1919-22; Chief Staff Officer, Iraq Command, 1923-24; retired list, 1928; Officier, Legion of Honour. Publications: A Hausa Reading Book; Charlton; War from the Air; and other works. Address: 18 Randolph Crescent, W.9. T. Abercorn 3691.

Who's Who 1937. London: A & C Black, 1937.

L. E. O. Charlton (1879-1958) was one of the most prominent prophets of aerial armageddon in 1930s Britain. His distinguished career in the RFC/RAF ranged from observing the presence of von Kluck's army from the air, which led to the BEF's retreat from Mons in August 1914, to chief of staff in Iraq in the early 1920s, when the RAF was experimenting with "air control" policies to pacify tribal opposition. But he opposed the bombing of Iraqi villages and eventually retired early, turning to writing; by this time he was becoming interested in socialism as well as the prevention of cruelty to animals. His books on air defence include War from the Air (1935), War over England (1936), The Menace of the Clouds (1937), The Next War (1937; actually a reprint of the account of a massive German air attack on London from War over England), and part of the Penguin Special The Air Defence of Britain (1938).

See also Air of Authority; Oxford DNB. Image source: Wikipedia.

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29 thoughts on “L. E. O. Charlton

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  3. Brett does his book mention anything significant about his First World War service as he is Leigh-Mallory’s superior at V Brigade in 1918.

  4. Post author

    I doubt there’s much to interest you: the second paragraph of his chapter on 1915-8 starts like this: ‘Of his experiences in France there is nothing of note to relate’ (although it’s an autobiography, it’s written in the 3rd person). Most of the rest of the chapter is about his distaste for women on the prowl. Most of the book is about his experiences in the regular army, especially the Boer War. His second volume of autobiography, More Charlton (1940), might have more details but I doubt it.

  5. Chris Williams

    I wouldn’t rely on the DNB for that kind of negative info. It’s a right pain trying to compact a life into 1200 words. You’ve got to work out what they were famous for / good at / ineresting at, and concentrate on that. So their flower-arranging prowess might never make the DNB, thus deluding all subsequent historians that their life had no flower-arranging in it. In other words, keep looking.

    Guess what I’m trying to write right now…

  6. Chris Williams

    Getting closer…

    Actually, it’s a DNB entry for a man whose love for flowers* and nature’s round (as revealed in the book of poems he published in 1978) is going to stay on the floor, because I need the words for his impact on six police forces and four armies in five countries. But where are the flower-arrangers in the DNB? (pauses to look it up)? There are only five of them, out of 55k entries. Pretty poor.

    *NB, I’m not sure if he arranged them.

  7. Post author

    Yeah, and perhaps I was too hasty about More Charlton. It does go into a bit more detail about some of his postwar RAF career than does Charlton, so maybe that’s true for his wartime experiences too.

  8. I believe Charlton was a life-long bachelor. He and his younger male partner were part of the E.M. Forster circle and are mentioned in some studies of Forster. He wrote several boys’ adventure stories.

  9. Chevaune Taylor

    Erm….thank you. Well that put an end to search I was doing. Thank you so much for taking the trouble to reply.

  10. Must now remember that “wrote boys’ adventure stories” is the aeronautic specialist term for “a friend of Dorothy”. Or maybe an innocent specialisation is getting over euphemised?

  11. Post author

    Yes, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Charlton never married, though it doesn’t say anything (either way) about children. He apparently had a relationship with Noël Coward at one point. He’s is reasonably candid about his sexuality in his autobiography — though you do have to read between the lines.

  12. Chevaune Taylor

    I was trying to find out about my late ‘uncle’ Oscar who ws known as Oscar but his actual name was Oswald Charlton, lived in Northumberland and told me that he was a Pathfinder and flew in the Peenemunde raid. Its hard to know where to start with such limited information, but I thought that LEO Charlton as he had links with Northumberland could be a relative, but you have answered that question!

  13. Post author

    Could be they were uncle/nephew or something along those lines. Charlton’s family did stay in Northumberland, or so I assume — he died in a hospital at Hexham. But no, I think we can be fairly sure they weren’t father and son!

  14. Chevaune Taylor

    Yes, that could be a possibility. A friend of mine is going to try and find out the names of the Pathfinder crews for me and I can go from there! Thanks so much for your help and ideas!

  15. Chevaune, Bomber Command and its crews is remarkably well documented, if you know how to go about it. The National Archives at Kew in the UK publishes free leaflets and a number of other items advising how to track much of it down, if you want to go it alone and teach yourself. Alternatively, there are some very helpful people who usually ferret out a great deal of data on crews on the Key forum ( http://forum.keypublishing.co.uk/forumdisplay.php?s=&daysprune=&f=4 )and RAF Commands ( http://www.rafcommands.com/cgi-bin/dcforum/dcboard.cgi ). If you register at these forums and post the details you do have, you’ll normally get a great deal of useful data and helpful guidance.

    Good luck!

  16. Chevaune Taylor

    Thank you so much, thats really very helpfull. I will have a look at the site you suggested.

  17. Paul

    Ackerley, J.R. My Father and Myself.

    pp184-185 deals with LEO Charlton and his Male Companion/Secretary.

  18. Brett,

    Which of these are his Lees Knowles Lectures. He gave them in 1934 under the title, ‘Military aeronautics applied to modern warfare’. I suspect it is ‘War from the Air’. I compiling a list of those lectures published for a future project.

  19. Post author

    That’s right, it’s War from the Air: Past Present Future (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1935). A ‘Prefatory note’ on p. 3 says:

    This book is based on a course of lectures, delivered at Trinity College, Cambridge, in the Michaelmas term of last year, with the title ‘Military Aeronautics applied to Modern Warfare.’

    I didn’t myself realise until recently that these were Lees Knowles lectures. I wonder how he came to be asked to give them; his military career had not made him famous and the lectures themselves were, as far as I know, his first foray into airpower punditry. It may be, as you mentioned on Twitter, that the connection is your man Leigh-Mallory, one of Charlton’s squadron commanders in the later stages of WWI and related to Lees Knowles through marriage. Charlton himself suggests it was due to the modest success of his first book, his autobiography Charlton (1931) (it went into a second edition but didn’t get him into the literary set). In More Charlton (London, New York and Toronto: Longmans, Green and Co., 1940), 111, he says:

    It did have one result, however, of a gratifying tendency. He was asked to deliver a course of lectures at Cambridge University on any subject of his choice which had a military texture.

    There’s actually about 4 or 5 pages in More Charlton about his experience giving the lectures, which may interest you.

  20. Brett that is interesting. Cheers for digging it out. Just to clarify Lees Knowles was L-M’s godfather. I haven’t looked at Knowles papers but may end up looking at them for this future project on the importance of the Lees Knowles lectures. It is curious how Charlton cam to give them and not someone like Groves or Spaight. Perhaps there is something in the connection but as I mentioned on Twitter Knowles died in 1928 so it is a long connection but it does not preclude some connection with whomever makes the decision of who is to give the lectures. That is something I may have to look into.

    Ah, another project to work on…I have lost track of what I have on the go!

  21. Post author

    Thanks, that will teach me not to rely on my memory! Now that you mention it, Grove’s Behind the Smoke Screen had just come out, in January 1934, and was already into a second impression by February. He would seem an ideal candidate if they wanted somebody to talk about airpower, rather than a novice (as far as being a military intellectual is concerned) like Charlton.

  22. Wayne Johnston

    I have a copy of L.E.O Charlton’s 1935 “War from the Air” and it holds up surprisingly well on a re-read. It came with a nice bookmark, “Application for permission for the consumption of liquor after 6 O’Clock on special occasions” (The licensing act, 1932, Schedule IV).

    Although conforming to the Douhet type orthodoxies of the period, it is actually pretty thoughtful and admits to a fair amount of doubt about future predictions based on WWI air strategy. I think the main problem for thoughtful pundits of the period is not knowing that RDF/radar was not far along the track…making the problem of bomber interception not as impossible as it appeared at the time. He made a pretty good prediction of the cruise missile with a description of something like a V1, but didn’t see bomber interceptors having more than 2 rifle caliber machine guns. Some of the slang certainly stands out (Tod Sloan jockey crouch, anyone?) giving it the feel of the 1930s lectures it started as.

  23. Post author

    Thanks, Wayne, interesting comments (and I do love found objects in books!) I agree that Charlton stands up better than many of his contemporaries (though inevitably he had his own dogmas). You’re right that he was basically Douhetian, though I have to point out that the development of similar ideas in Britain owed little to Douhet (and in fact, War from the Air was one of the earlier published mentions of him in Britain). Also, Douhet would have disapproved of his advocacy of an international air force as the solution to the problem of the bomber. You’re quite right about the interception problem; it was the basis of the tenet that the bomber will always get through. Finally, and perhaps surprisingly, Charlton was not alone in predicting something like V-1s; in fact the idea was quite common among airpower intellectuals at this time.

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