Strategy Without Slide-Rule

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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13 thoughts on “Strategy Without Slide-Rule

  1. A thorough survey, clearly. It's an interesting case study in the link between ideas and practice - the "knockout blow/mob on the streets" meme was, interestingly enough, both a justification for a strategic bombing-led strategy *and also* an appeasement plus 10 year rule politics that denied the RAF the means to carry it out. The same doctrine justified two mutually incompatible policies.

    In the same way, Trenchard's choice of institution-building over maximising aircraft numbers was justified by the bombs-equal-mob-revolution theology, on the assumption that strategic bombing demanded an independent air force and an independent air force required its own infrastructure and doctrine. But, despite the historic failure of the Airpower Theorists , it was a spectacularly right choice - where the Luftwaffe was strong in front-line numbers, but lacking in sustainment, the RAF of 1939 had the infrastructure to sustain a much bigger force at better serviceability rates, including a huge flying and technical training system, a boosted civilian production capacity and a complex maintenance command.

    Everything was assimilated to the Airpower School's ideas - Air Control, for example, was tactically and technically speaking much more like CAS than strategic bombing, but it was rolled up in airpower doctrine - which may explain why the RAF had a tac-air blind sport until 1942.

  2. Chris Williams

    As John James put it in The Paladins: (from memory, so probably slightly wrong): "There are two ways of looking at an air force. You can think of it as something that only exists between the three-minute warning and the arrival of the first missiles, or you can think of it as something solid and permanent, like the Church of England." He has Sykes as the 'three-minute man', but I suppose Goering was one also. The classic example of this doctrine was the IJN.

    Brett, have you read John Buckley's book yet? If so, what did you think of it?

  3. Brett Holman

    Post author


    Certainly, Trenchard's going for the cadre option was amply justified by how events turned out. But I wonder if was necessary to tie this to an offensive strategic bombing doctrine? I can think of at least two alternative strategies: army/navy co-operation, or air defence (ie fighters). Both would have had advantages for the long-term survival of the RAF, too: the former would have helped defend it against the predatory senior services; the latter would have been very popular in the pacifist 1920s - at least that's my naive impression. Having said that, I can't see Trenchard going for any strategy so inoffensive!

    I think air control is a very interesting subject. Most accounts I've read so far seem to downplay its influence on air doctrine, but as the major operational activity of the RAF between the wars, surely it was more important than that. But as you say, it didn't seem to help with close air support any!

  4. Chris Williams

    But if Trenchard had created an RAF with close-support military and naval wings, it would have been far easier for the other two service ministries to gobble the wings back up. Far better from his point of view to stress the virtues of strategic bombing, since that was something that only an air force could do. London's air defence was an RFC creation: it had defeated the Gothas quite happily when the RAF was only two months old. It couldn't be credibly dressed up as something that only the RAF could do.

    Mulling over my in mind, the fruit of an off-the-cuff claim on soc.history.what-if some years ago, is the counterfactual where the RAF was never created. Personally, I think that it's been a disaster for the British state.

  5. Brett Holman

    Post author


    Yes, I did read Buckley's book ... but it was a few years ago now, before I started 4th year even, I think. As I recall, it was an admirably concise survey, but I must confess I haven't looked at it much recently. I should do, my interests have broadened a lot since then.

  6. Brett Holman

    Post author

    Hmmm, but part of the army and navy's argument was that the RAF wasn't doing its job in co-operation - so therefore they should have their own air arms so they could do it properly (an argument the RN partly won when it got back control of carrier aviation). I guess there's nothing to say they would have to been consistent in their arguments though ...

    About fighter defence, that's a fair point. But if it comes to that, there was no real evidence that an independent air force was better at strategic bombing anyway (the Germans carried out their attacks on Britain without one) - it was a matter of faith. Another faith-based belief could have been to argue that it would be better to entrust air defence to a dedicated, independent organisation, that wouldn't be distracted by the Army's other missions. I dunno, I'm just making stuff up ...

    Do you really think the RAF has been a disaster for Britain? How so? (Oh, I've just found your soc.history.what-if post ... will have to mull that one over!)

  7. Was a bit b0rken earlier today?

    Certainly, Trenchers could have used a pure air defence view to justify his institution-building...if it hadn't been for the fact that the RFC and RNAS could both claim the credit for doing in the Gothas and Zeppelins, and also that the Airpower School let him portray it as a deterrent on the cheap, rather in the way some people call the British nuclear deterrent "cost effective".

    Regarding yr. what-if, I think you need to give more consideration to carriers and forget about the rigid airships already (flying boats, though, float my boat a bit more).

    I've just been blogging about a visit to the Battle Box bunkers that were Percival's HQ in Singapore - your whatif missed the bit where the Japanese fleet lost the battle of the Malacca Straits to the RN with its vast carrier airpower. The Pathe newsreel of the Royal Marines landing from the William Pitt to relieve the 8th Australian Division in its trenches in the suburbs of Singapore was pretty cool, becoming an icon of Commonwealth unity. The empire held together for another forty years, with the 1935 Government of India Act (which was intended to make the subcontinent a Dominion with Australian/Canadian status) going into force as planned.

    With this new and democratising influence, the Commonwealth stays neutral between the US and USSR as Ernest Bevin had suggested and the Europeans join the free trade agreement. Nobody cares about communist blackmailers, and when Alan Turing is betrayed as a homosexual to MI5, they don't bother to pull his security clearance. Instead he moves to Bangalore as the first director of the CCMRO (Commonwealth Computing Machines Research Organisation).

    Their work enables dramatic progress in other fields..In 1960, Roland Beamont of the RFC, the first astronaut, goes to space from Woomera atop a Hawker Siddeley rocket controlled by Lyons software developed at CCMRO. Later that year, Prime Minister Bevin, close to retirement, sends a De Havilland Comet to fetch President John F. Kennedy for secret talks. Bevin makes Kennedy an offer - access to computer technology in exchange for nuclear disarmament....

  8. Brett Holman

    Post author

    Yes, was sadly very ill ... no idea why. It was pingable but otherwise non-responsive.

    Sure the RFC could claim credit, but then again, the Independent Air Force was technically set up under the Army's watch as well. The RAF proper was only around for what, 7 months of the war? It couldn't legitimately claim credit for initiating anything much, so claiming any strategy as its very own was a bit of a fib. Although to be sure, strategic bombing was a huge part of the rationale for the RAF's creation, so it would have been hard to discard. Anyway, as I said, I don't think Trenchard could have picked a different strategy. It wasn't in his nature (after his conversion, anyway!), so it would have needed somebody else in the role (Ashmore would be the logical choice, but he was probably too junior). I guess it comes down to the question of why offence was felt (by politicians and the public) to be the best form of defence, which of course is the eternally recurring question ... but given that belief, Trenchard was the man to embody it.

    I will leave it to Chris to defend the details of his what-if. But I will just say that (a) airships and flying boats are both way cool - there's no need to choose between them! And (b) your CCMRO reminds me of CSIRAC, the fifth digital computer ever made and the oldest still in existence (it's in the Melbourne Museum). Also way cool.

  9. Another point: the RNAS, you could say, invented it all - flying the first offensive missions (against the Cuxhafen and Friedrichshafen/Zeppelinheim airship sheds), doing the first air defence stuff and flying the first antishipping missions...whatif the Navy had been left in charge?

  10. Chris Williams

    The RNAS also managed to invent the tank. That wacky Churchill, eh?

    We could always take this discussion back to soc.history.what-if - there are people there who'd take an informed interest in it.

  11. Brett Holman

    Post author

    Heh, it's been a while since I posted to alt/soc.history.what-if ... by the looks of things, the last time was in May 1997! Usenet helped to keep me sane during my MSc ... and probably prolonged it by a month or two :)

  12. Chris Williams

    Usenet added at least six months to my doctorate... Don't do it kids - it screws you up. And educates you, I'll grant.

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