From the just-because-I-can department.

RAF growth, 1920-39

As an ex-physicist, I like to see numerical data plotted in a graph, as well as in tabular form - it's much easier to visualise what's going on. I don't have any particular need for this right now, but I've been playing around with a few plotting packages anyway. The figure above was made with pro Fit (OS X only), which has a free trial version, limited in the number of graphs, data points, etc, that can be in use at one time. It's easy to use and the end result is pleasing enough to the eye. The main problem I found is that the legend isn't a separate object to the graph, so I can't shift it to make room for a longer axis label. But I like it otherwise, so I think I will stick with it for the moment.

The data itself is taken from the tables in the back of John James, The Paladins: A Social History of the RAF up to the Outbreak of World War II (London and Sydney: Macdonald, 1990) - tables 5 (for the Air Estimates, ie the Air Ministry's, and effectively the RAF's, budget), 9 (UK squadrons only) and 15 (from which I derived the number of squadrons in 1939). A few remarks: the number of squadrons tracks the budget fairly closely. I would have expected there to be a year or two lag, because as James points out, men have to be trained, aircraft orders placed and land for airfields purchased well in advance of a squadron coming into being. I guess the squadrons may not have been effective initially, though. Secondly, despite the deterrence policy of Trenchard's RAF, and the authorisation of 35 bomber to 17 fighter squadrons for the Home Defence Air Force in 1923, there were actually slightly more fighter squadrons than bombers right up to 1935. Finally, the graph shows how weak the RAF was in fighters at the time of Munich in 1938 (and just plotting raw numbers actually understates this, as Fighter Command mostly had obscolescent types at the time).

Addendum: I forgot to mention that James doesn't say if the Air Estimate figures are in adjusted pounds or not - so I assume they are not.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at

5 thoughts on “Climbing

  1. Top stuff that: how about one with the competing sets of estimates of German air strength plotted as well? Or comparative tables with the Royal Navy and the Army?

  2. Chris Williams

    The best book in the world, that one. But if you've read the whole thing, you'll know that some of the moves in numbers of squadrons are actually conjuring tricks with nameplates: notably the creation of OTUs.

    On the subject of graphing, I find Excel a right PITA nowadays - too clever by half, and too complex to teach to cold undergrads. I remember the great days of Cricket Graph, which gave you so little control of the format that it forced you to spend time thinking about what you were graphing and why.

  3. Brett Holman

    Post author


    I was thinking of maybe putting up plots like these on a semi-regular basis ... so I'll think about those ones! The comparisons with the Army and Royal Navy would be easy to do. The one with estimates of the Luftwaffe's strength would be very interesting, but a bit trickier for various reasons. The RAF squadrons would have to be turned into numbers of aircraft (as that's what the estimates of Luftwaffe strength were), and then you get into the vexed question of what constitutes "frontline" aircraft, and whether or not to include reserves, and so on. (This would be instructive in itself, since these questions were equally vexed at the time - and like was often not being compared with like.) Also, many of the estimates were actually projections for some future date, which could vary a lot as time went by. I'd want to think of a way of showing that ...

  4. Brett Holman

    Post author


    I didn't read the whole thing, I stopped at page 17 where he says "These Tables [ie the appendices] are the book. If you do not read the text but simply read and digest the Tables, then you will have done all that I ask of you". So by naively plotting the data I am just taking him at his word :D

    Seriously, yes I did read the whole thing and I know there's variation in how "real" these squadrons were (for one thing the Cabinet didn't much care much whether they were effective or not, they just wanted more frontline aircraft so they could claim parity with the Germans). That's why I find his insistence that "Figures are neutral. They have no emotional content other than the one we bring to them; they need only common sense to be understood" to be rather strange (even, or perhaps particularly, as a former physicist). Admittedly, he goes on to say that the text "gives the background against which [the Tables] must be interpreted", but this seems pretty feeble when set against his disdain for most primary sources other than the Air Force Lists and the Air Estimates - especially when he keeps saying "we may assume that ..." when there must be primary sources that will tell him one way or the other, if only he had looked ...

    I don't mean to be completely negative about The Paladins, because it's actually a fascinating book with masses of useful information that I haven't seen anywhere else. And James is no doubt right to say that historians can take official documents (like official minutes etc) at face value without realising that there is so much that doesn't get written down - while simultaneously neglecting sources like the Air Force Lists. I just feel he goes too far in the other direction. But maybe I am taking his attacks on professional historians too personally, since I'm now investing much in the effort of becoming one myself.

    Well, that was more ranty than I expected! About plotting, I've never actually seriously used Excel for that. My main reasons for not using it are that (1) as a unix sysadmin, detesting Microsoft products is part of the professional code of conduct; and (2) the plots themselves just don't look nice to me, for reasons I can't quite put my finger on. Back in the day, I used to use PGPLOT but I don't think I have the patience these days for even the simple FORTRAN coding required ...

  5. Pingback:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *