The superweapon and the Anglo-American imagination — IV

So we've seen American claims of a British secret air defence weapon in the Battle of Britain; American claims of British secret air defence weapons in the mid-1930s; and American ideas for superweapons to break the deadlock of the First World War. What do I mean suggest by these examples? Why have I called these posts 'The superweapon and the Anglo-American imagination'?

Actually, the phrase 'Anglo-American imagination' is misleading, because I think the British and the American imaginations were significantly different, at least when it comes to technology and war. And the difference is this: at least in the period of the two world wars, Americans found it much easier to imagine that technology could help them win wars than the British, who were more pessimistic and tended to see new technologies as a threat. It's easy to get into trouble with big generalisations like this, and I definitely can't quantify it in any useful way. But I don't think it's accidental that it American journalists imagined British superweapons more readily than British journalists, or that American science magazines had superweapons on their covers, and British ones didn't.

My argument on the American side is mainly from secondary sources. The inspiration for the title is a book by H. Bruce Franklin which has the subtitle 'The Superweapon and the American Imagination'.1 Franklin covers a broad swathe of cultural and polical history from Fulton's submarine through to SDI and shows how embedded the idea of better security through higher technology is in American culture. Complementing this is Joseph Corn's The Winged Gospel.2 Here the argument is that Americans generally believed that aircraft -- and the new connections they would create between people and peoples -- would bring about a golden age of peace and prosperity. The same could not be said of the British (at least, not in general).

Having hesitantly asserted a bold generalisation, I probably ought to try and explain it. Here are some possibilities, none of them particularly compelling:

  1. Time. The First World War was much more traumatic for Britain than for US. Technology didn't make things better. Artillery, gas, machine guns, barbed wire, brought stalemate on the Western front, not victory. Britain's lead in dreadnoughts didn't help much against U-boats. And so on. But America entered the war as a fresh force; and its army had only recently become seriously engaged in combat by the time of the Armistice. So even though it had its own learning curve to follow, it had no time to become embittered with the apparent fruitlessness of military technology.
  2. Space. Britain is both geographically smaller than the United States, and closer to its neighbours (in terms of the distance between population centres, at least). It had less need for faster transportation internally, and as for for bringing Europe closer, this has not always been a universally cherished ideal in Britain (cf. Channel Tunnel, European Union, Napoleon, Wilhelm II, Hitler). America is far bigger and more dispersed; it's easy to see why it would embrace aviation.
  3. Power. When you're on top, every direction is down. Britain was a status quo power: it had everything it wanted, pretty much. So why embrace change? This is why there were some dissenting voices when HMS Dreadnought was launched: Britain's heavy investments in ironclads would be set at nought, and rival powers given a chance to catch up. America was, by contrast, a rising power, and change was to its advantage.

As I said, none of these explanations are particularly compelling. The United States didn't abandon pursuit of hi-tech weapons just because they didn't help it win in Vietnam. Who (aside from inhabitants of the Foreign Office) would internalise a concern about preserving Britain's global status quo? And different parts of Britain placed different values on better transport: the Scotsman, for example, regularly ran stories about how regional airlines were bringing rural and island Scottish communities into closer contact with civilisation. But I think the difference between British and American attitudes towards the 'superweapon' is, or was, real, so an explanation there must be!

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

  1. H. Bruce Franklin, War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988). []
  2. Joseph J. Corn, The Winged Gospel: America’s Romance with Aviation, 1900-1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983). []

100 thoughts on “The superweapon and the Anglo-American imagination — IV

  1. Christopher Amano-Langtree

    Unfortunately it's not really important whether Jackson was an electrical engineer or not. He certainly wasn't appointed because of this factor which would have been peripheral. Probably he was felt to be a safe pair of hands in wartime.
    Your second question is interesting and I believe that Victorian society was discovering how much it could learn. Here the imagination is based on commentators like Samuel Smiles (self improvement) - there is a tremendous energy in the Victorians which overcomes the natural caution and conservatism of the British. Things HAVE to improve. This is a gross simplification but there is a lot of literature on this. Wells and Conan Doyle have been mentioned as exemplars of British technological fiction but they were essentially Victorian authors. The Victorian empire was expanding, driven as much as anything by private enterprise but after World War 1 scope for expansion was suddenly limited. The best brains among the decision making class have been taken by the war (at least this is the mythology) but to be honest Victorian expansion was running out of steam before the start of World War 1. Britain didn't have a big enough base to maintain its flow of new ideas and never dealt with the innate conservatism of its society. The brakes started to be applied in the Edwardian period and even in the Victorian period we had seen the phenomenan of character being more important than intellectual capacity. By 1922 the Empire had run out of steam and was already decaying. In this phase the ideas that have driven expansion are subsumed in conservative values - holding what you have is more important than expanding. Quite simply the Empire had gotten too big and no one could cope with this. Where this matters for imagination is that you are too busy holding onto what you have got to think of new things. Your imagination does not extend to technology unless it has to. Other people have to compete but Britain has the Empire - it can ignore competiton and go for staid solutions. Literature doesn't have to innovate and the imagination does not imagine. This really is a fantastic topic and kudos to Brett for providing it.

  2. It is interesting that Biggles author W.E. Johns, despite being keen for a strong air force and air action, was remarkably out of touch with aviation developments in the 1930s, particularly considering he was editor of Popular Flying. A flying-phobic editor of an aviation magazine seems odd, and Britain had C.G. Grey too. What you could make of it, I don't know, I'm a lifelong fan of Johns, shortcomings and all. How much flying he did after his Great War service as an instructor and with 55 Squadron (DH-4s) seems to have been very little as well, or evaded his biographers. There's no doubt that his is one of the great unwritten autobiographies.

    However the leading children's aviation author in the Empire became more and more out of touch with the reality of his subject until it became positively embarrassing by W.W.II. (Particularly odd when you consider he was sent, as an editor, free data on new aircraft, and in a prior role as well as recruiting for the RAF painted posters for the RAF's Hendon Pageant, where he must've looked at the aircraft at least!) His aero-imagination - as documented in the Biggles books was a mix of the outré and the anachronistic. The other children's literature of the era that I've tried to read has been poor to indigestible, so how accurate or technically imaginative it is, I don't know. Johns could at least write.

    I can't speak for Brett (who has talked about the latter W.W.I to W.W.II) but the Victorian era seems to be quite different to the inter-war period, which I'd say would be where I'd be interested in seeing some analysis.

    I don't think, by the way, anyone is suggesting the British or the Empire was 'technophobic' - so let's dump that straw target too, please. What I'm told, consistently, by people maintaining British designed aircraft is that they do tend to be over-complex, and many of the engineering processes are bizarre, and usability - as in how easy they are to maintain is often awful, usually poor - in comparison with other aircraft of the era. (As some are groping towards - there are national characteristics in aircraft of the '30s, beyond the standard widgets and the local requirements (like signature fin designs by manufacterer, but writ larger) and, like Brett's questions of the imaginations it's an interesting area to explore. But perhaps not by those who have it all worked out, though.)

    Of course engineers and pilots have a particular understanding (and perhaps biases) of what they do, and I've certainly been told some tall tales - mostly caught - but across three continents? Maybe there's something in it? There's always more to learn. Like where people find the right metals and material for spars to put aircraft like the Blenheim back in the air.


  3. JDK: National styles are I think a useful and under-used notion; I've seen some work on national styles in science, but I haven't seen too much comparative work on the technology side. Out of interest, what are the comparators? Are there enough French/German/Italian/Japanese aircraft flying to start to discern patterns in their design?

  4. Neil Datson

    I've been following these exchanges with some interest. Knowing nothing whatsoever about metallurgy, but somethings about literature and history I offer the following observations.

    1 Sir Henry Jackson. Marder commented (Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, vol ii): 'not a particularly happy choice, (as First Sea Lord) though perhaps the best possible one at the time.' He was a scientist, not a war leader, but being a scientist did not make him a technophile. Fisher was no scientist but he was a techno-fanatic. While his appointment proves nothing, his rising through the ranks does imply something about the Edwardian Navy's flexibility.

    2 Brett, I'm shocked that you're not familiar with that classic work, The Invisible Plane (1937), by Percy Westerman's son, John F C! Anybody who can imagine the sort of technological nonsense therein can imagine anything.

    3 Erik, I think that you make a strong point concerning the specialisation in RN warships in the 1930s. That said, here are a few more comments about destroyers and HA/LA gun mounts.
    The US 5in/38 was an exceptionally good weapon in DP mounts. Perhaps that shows great American technological thinking compared with the backward Brits, but on the whole that's probably too simplistic. Where the RN certainly went wrong in the 1930s was in having too many calibres. In that range there was the 4in, 4.5in, 4.7in and 5.25in; and also the 5.5in on the Mighty 'Ood etc. Come WWII they also had some US 5in/38s as well, of course.
    However, comparing the destroyers of the 1930s and WWII, what do we see? The US destroyers were generally larger, and heavier (they had to be, carrying DP mounts) but carried a weaker main armament for their displacement. The US destroyer DP mounts were all singles until the Allen M Sumner class (none laid down until 1943), and those ships were giants of 2,200 tonnes. The earlier US destroyers with twin mounts, the Porter and Somers classes, had their 5in/38s in LA mounts. Against that, the British L and M classes had twin 4.7in DP mounts, and they entered service in 1940. They also came in at under 2,000 tons, with essentially the same main armament as the Allen M Sumners (3 X twin mounts). Does that show that the British were more advanced? Well no, not really, especially as those mounts weren't very successful anyway.
    British destroyers, in general, had a reputation for being good sea boats compared with those of other powers - by no means a trivial advantage. Some of the US destroyers were reckoned top heavy, and German destroyers were notoriously unstable.

    4 In the 1930s the RN failed to equip its ships with enough, and good enough, AA guns. But it was labouring under a huge disadvantage compared with the USN and IJN; it had no air arm. Probably not even Fisher could have displayed the sort of leadership needed to sort out its air problem in the 1930s. It depended for its air component on the RAF, who insisted it was irrelevant anyway, and whose level bombers were almost completely incapable of hitting destroyers at sea. When space and weight are at a premium, why burden your ship with AA guns to shoot at something that can't hurt you?

    5 The RN was faced with a massive problem of strategic overstrech. After the Anglo-Japanese alliance was ditched in 1921 it was always at least one modern fleet short of its needs. It never had enough ships of any class. So what should its priority have been in the 1930s? US style destroyers, with a DP armament but less LA firepower to displacement? Bigger but fewer destroyers, with high DP firepower? Should it never have built the Tribals, which were probably the world's most effective high LA firepower destroyers when they were built, but built a greater number of ships with 4 main guns like the 'A' to 'I' classes? The RN needed better destroyers, bigger destroyers and more destroyers. They couldn't have them. They were bound to get some of their decisions wrong.

  5. Erik Lund

    There's things I disagree with Christopher about --no, really, it's true-- but I think he's bang on about anxiety over the Empire being a crucial issue. We can even talk about "conservatism," a desperate desire to hang on to a desireable status quo.
    Where we part is that I think that this leads some minds to a flight to the future, as opposed to a retreat into an imagined past. One of the commentators on the talk that laid out Trenchard's vision for Halton said, "if I were young, I would run away to the air," and this implication of flight and fear is where the British imagination and the American part ways. American science fiction is an escape from a difficult reality. For the British technical imagination, "the air" just might be a safe place in which to take refuge from a frightening future. Threats to that imagined safety are doubly dangerous.
    And if I wanted to unpack this as practical psychology, I would point to economic uncertainty. On the one hand, gritty unemployment, on the other, a suburban house (or whatever you call them in Britain) on a separated grade commuter rail line, with work at an engineering plant two stops in towards High Street --at least for a thirty-something who has compromised with his youthful idealism. If we want to talk about youth, on the other hand, don't we need to talk about differing demographic profiles? If there are fewer British youth, there's less youth literature, and more of it is produced by stodgy old folks, because there isn't the labour shortage that gets teenagers into the industry.

  6. Erik Lund

    Hmm. Well, the USN managed to build what, 15 cruisers, 40 or so destroyers, and 4 aircraft carriers in the interwar, and still managed to have 2 different 5" guns in service, with a third on order at the outbreak of the war. Standardisation has its logistics virtues, but that does not mean that it is wise to impose standardisation at the expense of function. There's even the famous story about Stalin ordering that all Red Army guns have a different nominal calibre, even when identical in ballistics, so that ammunition supply chains didn't get cross up.
    The Royal Navy did not lack an air arm. it had to let the Air Force be its contractor for a few years. And it didn't neglect AA defence. all British ships _except_ destroyers had the same AA outfit as foreign counterparts, and the British close AA weapon systems were the earliest in the world, and, of course, showing their age in 1939. It's the DP thing that is at the heart of the issue, and I'll stand on my earlier position. The Admiralty would not give up on having a big destroyer gun with a big danger space, and that made it impossible to put it in a satisfactory AA mounting. On the bright side, imagine using the 5.9"s the Germans put on (some) destroyers as an AA gun in a Norwegian Sea swell!

    The L/Ms are fascinating precisely because when the Admiralty asked the RCNC for a destroyer with a 4.7"/50 in a DP mounting with a complement of 180 men and a two-boiler configuration, the constructor's answer was, to paraphrase, "sure, as long as you give me m. . .a....a...gic boilers," and the Engineer Vice-Admiral's office set out to do just that. 24,000hp from a single boiler? Correct me if I'm wrong, but that's just totally unprecedented in World War II. Even the _New Jersey_ plant only managed to draw 16,000hp/boiler, and that with a separate superheater with its own fireroom!
    And, of course, it apparently didn't work out. Any Turkish Navy veterans out there to tell us about how their M-class boats aged?

  7. Chris Williams

    I think that Erik's got the nail bang on in the next comment up but one. 'Flight to the future' - I like it. Explains giant swathes of the USSR, too.

  8. Christopher Amano-Langtree

    Destroyers, destroyers, destroyers - they caused a lot of problems, squeezing a quart into a pint pot. Size is a function of several factors but DP armament is not one of them. You need size for speed - bigger engines and faster ships (the French choice). Survivability - unit machinery ensures that if you're hit you can escape but the price is a bigger ship (this was the US approach). Finally fuel capacity, American destroyers were big because of the distances they had to sail. British destroyers could have done with more fuel capacity and were notoriously short ranged. Japanese destroyers were also built with that in mind - they had to travel long distances and for that you need a lot of fuel. All destroyers suffered from topweight issues (though some more than others) and most would require ballasting at some time or landing of torpedoes at some time in their careers. However, the L and M class mounts were not DP, the elevation was only 50 degrees and a 62lb shell would have made the rate of fire problematical. The only true DP destroyers the RN possessed at the beginning of the second world war were the 4 Ls fitted with 4" guns.
    I feel I need to clarify my thoughts about empire though. I am not suggesting technophobia or even fear of the new. Rather an inability to innovate because of inertia and a distrust of the new. It is no accident that the derogatory term 'new fangled' was a British invention. You stick with the tried and trusted because it is easier. It is also familiar and familiarity is a very nice feeling. You promote Jackson because he's familiar and not likely to rock the boat, not because he's a scientist. You take the path of least resistance. The 'empire upon which the sun never sets' has a complacency which doesn't encourage change. Remember change for an empire frequently means dissolution. This is not to be encouraged. If you're growing or expanding anything that helps you do so is welcome (The Greater Asia Co-prosperity sphere) and the imagination reflects this. If your stable or decaying you, as Erik says, want to hang on to it. You need to reinforce your image and this means repeating. Innovation is slow because too much change will create radical ideas. The decision makers don't want the boat rocked - it's an interesting psychology. Military technology looks the same - it's reassuring. How else do you explain America developing the Douglas Devastator, Japan the B5N and Britain the Vickers Vildebeest and Fairey Swordfish in the same period?
    One thing we haven't covered in this discussion even though it has an enormous impact on popular imagination is film. How does this tie in with the literature? Are there any parallels we can draw and does it enlighten the debate?

  9. I'd agree with Christopher, who said, "This really is a fantastic topic and kudos to Brett for providing it." It has been most thought provoking and after I've done the writing I'm supposed to be doing right now, I'm off to produce 'Fabric Covering in W.W.II as an aspect of British Engineering Conservatism' and 'What went wrong with British rotary wings in W.W.II?' the latter inspired by just finishing the editing and proofing of our new book on W.W.II Allied rotorcraft by a Polish author: Allied Rotorcraft of the WW2 period by Ryszard Witkowski.

    It interesting to see the way rotorcraft in the UK and US developed in W.W.II from autogiros of great expectations but no delivery, to the squallying shaking babies of the helicopter, the UK's being abandoned (although sound in design and concept) the US innovating four different control configurations, and made by major companies to college kids testing in barns and off parent's swimming pools.

    The immortal Bell 47 started life as a young man's flying model out of his shed, and any way you cut it is a poster-child for technical imagination and innovation. Anyone got a British example to match it?

    My third essay, which will happen shortly, is going to be 'Dzus vs Fairey Fastenings: An educational tale of engineering efficacy & complexity, starring a cast of thousands (of parts)'. All I need now is someone to pay me.

    Ah, well...

    More seriously Jacob asked about national styles in aircraft design. I'm no expert, and like 'imaginations' one might be able to match an aeroplane or it's construction to its nation when you see it, but how does that work? Examples are easy, defining criteria, tricky. Anyone can call a 30s Hawker or de Havilland tail, but does that translate to an elegance of design? The P-51D was a classic 'designed for production' shape with few compound curves and sweeps, yet the best of the period's high-speed theory, yet the P-51A didn't look like that, really. The Spitfire was elegent to almost everyone, but that shape was a horror to mass produce; what was going on with the under-fuselage gull-wing?

    There are obvious elements - light aircraft in the 30s, where US types have radials of greater size and hp to the relatively inevitable four-pot inlines in British machines; I have a feeling that Waco and others were more open about wing planform shapes, whereas Britain did planks with round tips which would be more economical to make, with identical ribs. It's a joke that all British aircraft contain bits of structural wood - certainly up to the EE Canberra, but while that's a stand-out what's the American equivalent? Ashtrays in the cockpit? Some are given - standard kit and where and how it fits was nationally driven, and with Army/Air Force vs Navy variations, relatively common; from guns, radios, oxygen, personal-equipment fittings and more.

    Jakob said "Are there enough French/German/Italian/Japanese aircraft flying to start to discern patterns in their design?"
    Sadly there are too few early war military types flying and few axis examples. Flying isn't crucial, but access - through restoration or recent recovery of wrecks, often reveals aspects that aren't evident from two-dimensional secondary sources - although they will help with the 'what the hell's this?' element.

    Open cockpits and the over-emphasis on manoeuvrability rather than armament in Italian types is well known, having some parallel to the famously lightweight and therefore under-protected Japanese fighter and bomber types. National characteristics or strategic technological choices? I'd suggest the former for the Italians, the latter for the Japanese.

    A modern Hurricane restoration takes about twice the person-hours of a modern Spitfire restoration; yet the Hurricane was probably quicker to build at the time, Hawker being geared for that construction - they certainly produced enough of them in time when it counted, when Spitfire production was snarled. Again, the choices made in Hurricane design and the inherited engineering compromises afterwards resulting in the following Typhoon and Tempest (thick wings in the former, and mixed, rather than stressed skin construction on both) would be an interesting case to explore.

    The Hurricane was an effective aircraft at the time it was needed, Hawker's forte, and fitted the air force's understanding of technology and repair, but it was over-engineered and over-complex because Hawker couldn't make a simpler machine. (That rear fuselage was 'easy to repair' as it is so often correctly pointed out - but supply chain for the warren-truss metal fuselage under wooden formers and fabric is not 'good engineering practice' by 1940.) It's simplistic to call it a success, it certainly wasn't a failure, and in answer to Erik's question, I'd say developing two new wing designs for one aircraft type (the fabric covered wing was a challenge to develop as well as the replacement all-metal example) indicates poor choices and wasting of time. Maybe they 'had' to do it that way - but why?

    The well documented Blenheim (Bollingbroke) restorations by ARC at IWM Duxford address some of the engineering issues of Bristol's approach - the notorious poor control layout, modified in Canada, the issues of finding spar material, and the evidence of external finishing on the crankcases of the expansion-period and wartime Mercury engines - effort wasted and evidence of an emphasis on wonderful classy craft and finishing against the requirements of speeding production for war.

    If I was asked to point out a fundamental of 1930s British aircraft design core in this discussion, as I see it, it would be a reluctance to let go of previously satisfactory design concepts and methods - conservative engineering, in an era where innovation wasn't desirable but crucial - top to bottom, side to side. The general trend what yesterday's techniques and technology for tomorrow.

    Unarguably Britain produced enough good enough aircraft to prevail when it counted, although we mustn't forget the shortfalls made up in blood of keen young men. Lots of good examples of innovation can be offered to counter my criticism, but there's no point chucking examples or exceptions to prove a point of view; what's the big picture? 'No problems here' or the end-of-term report 'could have done better'?


  10. Neil Datson


    In broad terms we surely agree - but: 'the Royal Navy did not lack an air arm, it had to let the Air Force be its contractor for a few years.'

    That's one way to put it! Between the wars it even had to fight a long and damaging battle with the RAF to build a cadre of specialist observer officers. Compared with the USN and the IJN it was at a disadvantage in all air matters. And yes, it started work on close AA armament before other navies. So in 1940, and even more in 1941, its close AA armament proved to be inadequate. That was more than unfortunate. It is my contention that had it retained full control over its air arm between the wars it is probable that it would have entered WWII with better AA armament, especially close AA armament. But I suspect that its destroyers would still have had LA guns for their main firepower, as the US style DP armament would have been thought just too expensive on destroyers in terms of space and weight.

  11. Like everyone else, I'm finding this a valuable and fascinating discussion - Brett has a great bunch of commenters.


    Anyone got a British example to match it?
    Maybe the Rotodyne or some of the Hafner choppers? Or is that too late?

    On the big picture, I'd say the report was 'could have done better, but did well enough'; this is no worse than any other country in the period, and better than most.

    At this point we seem to be in more or less vigorous agreement I suspect that our differences in approach are due to our environment. In my case (and, I suspect, Erik's), I am arguing against a historiographic strand that compares UK economic and technological performance against a standard of perfection, so in this discussion what might seem like straw men to yourself are positions that I have had to engage with in the past.

  12. I think JKD is Bruce Lee's martial arts system, or maybe a more advanced version of mad cow disease. Either way I'll stick to JDK. ;-)

    I do like the Rotodyne, but it's about as far away from the success that the Bell 47 is as you can get without staying on the drawing board. The Bell 47 let's remember, was developed in W.W.II by a young mathematics graduate - essentially on his own initiative, using rubber and electric models pre-and during W.W.II. Picked up by Bell, the original rotor concept was developed and the Bell 47, first helicopter to be certified for civil operations in the world, just after the war. Bell 47s, still essentially the same design, albeit upgraded, but with the original rotor design are still working today. That took a lot of imagination - not to say vision by Arthur M Young and Larry Bell. The Rotodyne never carried a paying passenger. While Britain's Weir W5 and 6 were great pioneering efforts, they were abandoned - no prizes for that, sadly.

    I don't know where it fits in, but to follow C A-L's comment re-obsolete RN FAA aircraft, the Swordfish is perhaps proof that if you are obsolete enough you can become catch efficacy from behind; the remarkable survival and hits at Taranto, the use on short-deck MAC ships and so forth. Of course when the enemy has fighters, you get the Channel Dash debacle. Not so much 'wooden ships and iron men' as canvas aircraft and all too-vulnerable men of spirit.

    Let's look at two thirties Naval aviation decisions: firstly the decision that RN FAA fighter pilots needed a navigator (or observer - however you cut it there's a multi-tasking expectation shortfall in the modern jargon) to carry about certainly had far reaching consequences. While the RN expected to operate in Pacific size oceans occasionally, the USN and IJN expected to only operate in the big oceans, yet they dispensed with navigators.

    Meanwhile the IJN figured out that fuel and engine management was a key to increasing range, something that everyone else took remarkable time to learn or re-learn apparently.

    In both cases, while they were decisions with strategic consequences for the overall capability of the respective navies, those decisions were based on the imagination - creative thinking (or lack of) - of their organisational thinkers...


  13. Erik Lund

    Unlike some, I find little that is either mysterious or deleterious in the way that the Fleet Air Arm was handled in the interwar. We just have to assume --radical notion as it is-- that decision makers were being a little more judicious than the journalists who criticised them.

    So you want to hire a navy pilot. What do you offer him? An enlisted rank? No: he needs to be a high school graduate, and that means he can be an officer in the surface navy or army. But hold it. The Navy already has as many officers as it can handle. Get a bunch of young RN officers together, and all they can talk about is promotion chances. It's already hard enough to get good men for branches that have a poor "league standing" for Staff College. Diluting the pool with a bunch of pilots would be disastrous.
    So what's the alternative? A short-term commission where you have to muster out before you can qualify for Staff College billets? That's not very nice to the candidate, but, more to the point, the air force already offers one, with promotions to regular officer status for the best short-term candidates, and the RAF is slated for steady expansion going forward, unlike the RN. An RN short-term officer programme would be at a severe disadvantage.
    But wait, there's more! Strategically speaking, the government is committed to fighting either Japan; or Italy; or (pick one from Column C), Russia, Germany or France. That is, it has a choice of a primarily a land war in Europe, or a sea war on the open ocean. Air superiority is key to victory in modern war. Britain must strain every nerve to out-compete the maritime powers in over-ocean aviation, and in land-based strategic air power. But when war breaks out, it will have a hypertrophied, unemployed metropolitan air force, or naval air arm, whichever scenario applies.
    Conclusion: you need a naval air arm that can fight on land, and an air force that can project at least some of its power at sea. Given that an airfield is just a special, unusually commodious and steady sort of aircraft carrier, you see where this is going.
    There are other arguments I could deploy here about the inherent infrastructural efficiencies of grouping support functions under a single government ministry. You will note that for all of its insistence on bringing the FAA home, the Admiralty never elected to split the materiels procurement branch with the RAF even-stevens, just as no-one complained that the RAF was in charge of engine development for all three services, or that the Army was in charge of POL and explosives.
    The fact is that the deployment of RAF pilots to carriers can be understood as a force multiplier. As a study Norman Friedman dug up shows, British strategists expected to be able cram RAF planes onto RN carriers and conduct a "special combined operation" against a naval base 1500 miles from Hong Kong with very little warning. Looking at the number of RAF pilots attached to the RN carriers in the Med during the Abyssinian crisis as uncovered by James, I suspect that this planning had real-world applications, too. (Although here it was pretty clearly telegraphed in the press.)

  14. Erik Lund

    Now, to take another tack, I don't think that any apology is possible for the Swordfish. We have an aircraft designed almost a decade before the outbreak of the war, whose most punishing design criteria was the ability to take off from a warship catapult in floatplane configuration, being used in a frontline combat role from carriers in _1942_? Yes, it operated from short-deck MACs. I don't see any reason why the Albacore, with a more modern engine and a cs prop, couldn't have done the same. And we are still talking a biplane here, easy meat for fighters, however the pilots deluded themselves about the advantages of low-speed manouevre.
    The fact is that the FAA had 600 Swordfish (and another 200 Sharks) on hand in 1939 to accommodate the rapid expansion of the FAA, which in turn was largely due to the introduction of a short-service officer's commission. (It turns out that the threat of imminent conscription works just as well as vague promises of a career and pension in motivating 19 year-olds to sign up.) They didn't take up limited production capacity for, yes, stressed-skin planes, and they bolstered the Government's strategy of deterence. They were supposed to be phased out in 1940/1 by the Albacore, whose advantages over the Swordfish would have been even more marked if its engine and all up weight had ever been uprated, and even the Albacore was an interim design, to be replaced by the Barracuda.
    The reason this didn't happen was that war limited options. The Albacore was a stressed skin type, and Bristol dropped its engine, a fate that also delayed the Barracuda.
    Fighters are another matter. Going into 1936, the Fleet Air Arm had two: the Nimrod single seat fleet fighter, and the two seat fighter/reconnaissance Osprey. Writing in the October 11th, 1944 issue of _Flight_, "Catapult," who was probably John D. Cunningham, explained that the Osprey, and presumably early radar experiments, opened up new operational possibilities of radio-guided interception of enemy reconaissance aircraft before they made touch with the Fleet. The operational implications were overwhelming, and the Admiralty commissioned a modification of the best existing type, the Fairey P.4/34, as an interim Osprey replacement, presumably making some kind of sweetheart deal with the Danes to persuade them to order a "marine fighter" version as cover for the development work. Fulmars were available by the time fighting broke out in the Med, and performed in exactly the role described. Obviously they weren't ideal for the role, but the Firefly followed as quickly as Fairy could reasonably supply it. If only Phillips had had _Victorious_ and a few two-seaters --they, unlike single-seat fleet defence fighters, conceivably might have saved Force Z!

  15. Erik Lund

    So as the Fairey Fulmar specification rolled out the door, the Admiralty Board turned to the question of the Nimrod replacement. People were angling for the contract, no doubt about it. When Commander(A) Casper Johns showed up at Supermarine to pick up the Sea Otter replacement, Reginald Mitchell instead showed him the brand new Spitfire, and, IIRC and it wasn't Joseph Smith by that time, offered him a spin. No harm in trying to impress the navy pilot on the fastest rocket to the top!

    That said, the big guys on the board were Chatfield and Reginald Henderson, both men out of Beatty's old following. Henderson, before he became Second Sea Lord, had been the first Rear Admiral (Aircraft Carriers) after the reign of the old wartime _Furious_ boys as RA (Aircraft), and for him the change of title was all-important. It started with the ship. Talk of how aircraft carriers would avoid trouble by striking first and harder brought back a traumatic day in May to those old veterans, and they were adamant that carriers had to be designed to take damage before they dealt it. Fleet defence fighters might try, but one had to assume that they would fail, and that the outcome of the battle would be left to as many aircraft as could be stored in an armoured hangar.
    Torpedo bombers would strike low, and preferably, like destroyers, out of night or smoke. That wasn't enough, though. Dive bombers were the coming thing, and they were interceptable. Fighter escorts would be ideal, but there were a host of practical problems, hence, self-escorting fighter dive-bombers: the Skua. (The Roc was designed for a Jutland with air spotting, where planes would be simultaneously calling shots and shooting at each other.)
    "Catapult" says that he was out of the loop by this time (one of the reasons I think that he is John D., who went to sea in 1938). He adds, though, that the Nimrod replacement did eventually appear: the Sea Gladiator. It gets short shrift in writing about the period, but, hey, and
    I believe that only 1 (out of 15)* shipborne FAA squadrons was equipped with Gladiators at the outbreak of war, but that would be the _Ark Royal_, semi-prototype of a new generation of CVs that, on the morning of 31 August 1939 couldn't come fast enough to replace 20+ year-old barges, even if the First Lord had promised Parliament 600 carrier aircraft by the beginning of 1942, and the Board 15 carriers to operate them.
    Now, an order for 100 fighters might be enough under peacetime conditions, but was sadly inadequate to wartime needs. The Board, by now convinced that radar offered the fleet defence fighter a new lease on life, had ordered the Firebrand for delivery in 1943ish. In the meantime, it wanted the Spitfire, while the Air Ministry offered the Hurricane. Sometime after the excitement of September had passed, someone had called their pet journalist, and a new phase of the most important battle in British military history --the Battle of Whitehall-- had begun. Reality is what it is; but what it seems to be in the minds of voters and politicians, that's another matter entirely.

    *Everyone interested in this subject knows about this great resource, right?

  16. Christopher Amano-Langtree

    Roskill (Naval Strategy between the Wars Vols 1 and 2) is very good on the Fleet Air Arm issue. What emerges from his account is the complete lack of understanding of the role of air power at sea by the decision makers of the Air Ministry. Beatty in a moment of what seems to be gay abandon merrily signed the FAA over to the air ministry and then the Royal Navy spent 20 years trying to get it back. For the air ministry carriers were not important - the strategic bomber was the thing.

  17. I am truly impressed Erik. All that ink and pixels trying to get around the simple fact that the RN was given second rate aircraft by the British aero-industry throughout W.W.II, and had to buy American types to get them out of trouble. I don't actually want to return to the American aircraft's superiority and availability here, but it is an unavoidable aspect of the FAA's war.

  18. Everyone deserves some detail in response to the huge swathes of stuff Erik's posted above, all of which avoids the big, basic picture, so here's a start.

    The Swordfish was obsolete, the Albacore no improvement and the Barracuda a developmental nightmare - maybe with a good aircraft struggling to get out, but the war was nigh-on over before they started to get it right, and that goes for the British aircraft supplied to the RN throughout.

    I'm so glad you mentioned the Firebrand. What a comprehensive disaster, much as I enjoy its looks, it was a waste of metal and test pilots. It did enter service (postwar - too late, like the rest) and it would've been better if it hadn't.

    "We just have to assume –radical notion as it is– that decision makers were being a little more judicious than the journalists who criticised them."

    Journalists weren't the problem, lack of speed was.

    We don't "have to assume" anything, either, thanks, I'd rather follow the evidence which is simple - despite your vast acreage above (think you might need a blog) - the RN was supplied with unsuitable, overweight, under-performing aircraft that were simply too slow - in the case of the fighters - too slow to catch the enemy.

    So they had to impress fighters of various (un-)suitability to make up for the shortfall - the Gladiator, obsolete, the Hurricane, heading towards obsolete, didn't have folding wings - the Seafire - not a good design for carriers, and the Corsair that the USN had decided was not carrier suitable, but the RN was desperate enough to make it work. The Fulmar was a nice aircraft, it was just too slow and too heavy to catch enemy bombers. The Firefly (late again, Faireys) was a good multi-role aircraft and the flaps helped improve manoeuvrability, but it was lucky the cream of enemy fighter pilots weren't available to demonstrate why it wasn't going to cut it in air superiority Combat Air Patrol by the time they (finally) arrived for combat.

    Our book on the Blackburn Skua and Roc by Matt Willis goes into the way that the RN squandered the one possibly near-useful type they had in service at the war's start, the Skua, and again, it was the best of a bad bunch - not a good match to the reality of the war, nor even to what the Navy thought they wanted! (Despite your arguments above.)

    I'm sorry Erik, but it takes a remarkable one-eyed fan to ignore the fact that essentially all the RN's best aircraft of W.W.II were American - Martlet/Wildcat, Corsair, Tarpon/Avenger. Of all the active Naval air arms of W.W.II, the RN were unarguably the worst served by their domestic industry.

    If you want an evaluation of what aircraft could do what, see the comprehensive test pilot's evaluations of all the main W.W.II naval types by Captain Eric 'Winkle' Brown in his books. Whatever convoluted excuses you may wish to offer, there's no excuse big enough for the stream of dogs the RN was given from the UK's manufacturers, matching - or not - the RN's mixed-up requirements.

    'Reality is what it is' and the FAA pilots were well aware of the inadequacy of their aircraft. (My citations are simply, again, the actual aircraft's performance and record - in the case of the Seafire the accident rate when you use an unsuitable type on carriers.) Neither any journalists attack, nor your spirited defence had anything to do with the failure of the aircraft in comparison to everyone else's naval air arms. As I alluded to above, it was the remarkably brave men of the FAA who bridged the gap between their aircraft's poor performance and the necessary achievements of their air arm. Usually paying with lives.

    I'm sure you'll have an explanation how that's not so, but that is the reality, I'm afraid.

  19. Christopher Amano-Langtree

    A correction - Roskill's book was Naval POLICY between the wars. It's a very good read on all the maneouverings and doesn't pull its punches with either side.
    JDK is 100% right about the paucity of British naval aviation. The Spitfire (sorry Seafire) was the best British aircraft they had and even then wasn't really a naval aircraft. One gets the impression here of decision makers who aren't conservative but really don't know what they are doing. The sea seems to be too alien for the Air Ministry to understand.

  20. PS - I think I own Erik an apology in that I read that he though the Swordfish needed no apology rather than what he said which was: "I don’t think that any apology is possible for the Swordfish." Agreed. Remarkable though the Swordfish men's achievements were, sometimes they were thanks to the aircraft's remarkable obsolescence.

    Likewise I'd agree that the Sea Gladiator was outclassed by its peers; to plug another one of our books, Alex Crawford's expanded magnum-opus on the Glad has part one out and part two to come. ( and ) My favourite Gladiator ace pilot would be Commander Keighly-Peach DSO, RN. While the RN's airmen were badly let down by their equippers, they certainly made do with remarkable aplomb.


  21. Chris Williams

    At last something that we can (nearly) agree on. I thank Erik for having shown that there were _reasons_ for the FAA's technical backwardness in 1940. One very large overarching one was that procuring air power is a zero-sum game, and if you're going to build up a naval air arm, a fighter force, a bomber force, and an army co-operation force all at the same time, something's got to have second priority. Assuming that everything can have top priority all the time is all a bit Udet - and whatever you think about UK aircraft procurement in WW2, it's hard to deny that it was better than anything that the Germans. The US did best, but they had far more resources to throw at the problem, and no perceived need to solve problems which were very high on the UK agenda, notably interception and point defence of carriers.

    Geoffrey Till's book on interwar air power and the RN is good here. He shows that the problem with the decision in the early 1930s to focus everything on the TSR and the fighter/dive-bomber was a result of paying too much attention to what the pilots said they wanted - in most circumstances, ignoring the what the pilots want is the kiss of death in the tecchie press, of course. Till also makes the point that BuAer had about three times the budget of the FAA from (IIRC) the late 1920s onwards.

    The whole thing was summed up admirably well to my mind by John James in _The Paladins_, in which the nautical is covered in a chapter aptly entitled "Worse things happen at sea".

  22. Erik Lund

    No-one's disagreeing that development was a problem with the Fleet Air Arm's aircraft stable. If we look through sepia-coloured glasses at the 1942 that should have been (at least in Biggle's mind) and imagine Somerville closing on Nagumo off Colombo, flag flying from _Ark Royal_ steaming ahead of 4 sister ships, and our minds turn to imagine the planes flying off the decks.... that's where things start getting _really_ implausible.

    the question is: why? The answer, I think, isn't managerial incompetence, but that for Britain, the war broke out in 1939, as opposed to 1941. (Although we might also want to blame Beaverbrook. Lord knows, everyone else does.)
    Yes, it it is implausible to imagine the Firefly or Firebrand being ready for that imaginary battle; but an Exe-powered Barracuda? A virtual lock. A navalised Hawker Tornado? No reason not.

    And as for 4 _Ark Royals_ off Japan in the summer of 1947.... Now we have a remarkable suite of aircraft. So did everyone get incompetent in 1940--2, and stop being incompetent in 1943? Or is this a question of allocation of resources?

  23. Chris Williams

    I think that the problem was the RAF. Take it away, and you've still got air defence (RFC developed LADA), but with enough pilots, and a cadre of middle-ranking officers (Longmore, Salmonds etc) , the RNAS can punch its weight in the Admiralty, and keep a rather larger establishment. The New Carrier doesn't slip, so the armoured carriers are ready in 1939. WW2 starts on the dot at 11am, as the RN Copenhagens Kiel. No German navy worth noticing means no Norway campaign - and a swift transfer of RN airpower to the Med will keep Italy out of the war. Meanwhile, the RFC will put up a rather better show against any advance in the Low Countries than the RAF managed. Save France, and, although you've not got a hope of bomber offensive (the RFC might want one, but the Army isn't going to let it tool up in the 1930s), you don't need one to win. Merely sit back and wait for the OKH coup....

    Essentially, it all boils down to the fact that Murray Sueter was such an idiot that for about five months in 1917, the Admiralty were relaxed at the prospect of being shot of the RNAS.

  24. Chris said: "I thank Erik for having shown that there were _reasons_ for the FAA’s technical backwardness in 1940."

    No one has ever given me a military force to direct, organise or plan for (apart from small plastic ones!) but my management training regarded it as crucial to differentiate between reasons and excuses and how to adapt to achieve the required results.

    (Just as an aside, the RN FAA achievements at Taranto and the Bismark chase were remarkable for achieving blueprint Naval aviation results as per the expectation - while the sinking of the Königsberg by Skua dive-bombers was a usually ignored example completing the 'set'. One can say that the RN's FAA actually did what was expected of it, at least in the early war.)

  25. Chris Williams

    'sright - Till's pretty good on that, as well. OTOH, the point that he also makes is that in 1940 the FAA might have won a few tactically, but they were comprehensively defeated strategically by Fleigerkorps (?)V. There just wasn't enough FAA.

    With regard to decisions, the demarcation between reason and excuse is important, but in the 1930s the British Empire was facing three different strategic threats, and the expectation that if it kicked off in one theatre the other two would join in given half a chance. There were a number of wrong answers to the problem, but I'm not sure that there was a right one for them, given that they appreciated the genuine problems of (a) re-arming too early - which is what Italy did in the 1930s, with sub-optimal results, and (b) spending all your cash on guns at the expense of productive investment, which is what the USSR ended up doing.

    [by the way, those readers who can convince the BBC iplayer that they are in the UK can, til Monday, hear this argument reprised, very slightly, in an episode of 'The Things We Forgot To Remember' dealing with the Sudeten Crisis.]

  26. Christopher Amano-Langtree

    I am always very cautious about 'what ifs' and about assertions that wars come at the wrong time. I would say that no war comes 'at the right time' even if you plan to go to war. To paraphrase Clauswitz - no plan survives first contact with the enemy. Certainly, the second word war was too early for the Kriegsmarine and found the Luftwaffe with inadequate equipment for the role they were called upon to perform. Keeping abreast of the latest developments and ensuring that your equipment is up to date at the cost of numbers would seem to be a better option. The British Empire failed to do this and as a result stagnated in all fields. Because of the more forward looking attitude of the Americans and the Japanese their technological level was more in tune with the requirements of the war though the Japanese would eventually run out of steam.

  27. Post author

    Chris, I knew that if this thread went on long enough you'd get a chance to expound your RAF-was-a-huge-mistake theory :) I blame the Gothas. They led to the bomber-will-always-get-through dogma, which led to the devaluing of air defence, which meant that counter-bombing was the only defence, which greatly strengthened the arguments for an independent air arm.

    That Things We Forgot To Remember episode is here:

    I don't think it is UK-only, I didn't have any problems with it anyway. It's quite good, an Antipodean contribution might have improved it though ;)

  28. Neil Datson

    Chris, thanks for the tip about the radio programme. And yes, it was obviously all the RAF's fault.

    To return to the matter in hand, there's a question about British warplanes that's been bugging me for a while, which I hope somebody can take up:
    Was the Westland Whirlwind a very good plane, even a minor breakthrough, but sadly starved of the time and resources needed to develop it properly, or was it a dead end?

    On the general issue of whether the Americans showed more technological imagination in the mid-twentieth century than the British, my gut feeling is that they did. But once you've discounted the greater resources of the US (very hard to assess in realition to the 'quality' of imagination) there seems very little empirical evidence. And one can come up with a list of British breakthroughs etc.

    The empire probably stultified British creativity in the inter-war years, but I'm not sure that complacency had much to do with it. More anxiety. British resources were obviously stretched too thin. As Chris observed, while there were clearly some wrong answers to the country's defence problems, it's probably impossible to think of a right one.

    But Britain was in relative decline in the late nineteenth century, and a respectable number of decision makers at least sensed as much. Hence the Anglo-Japanese alliance, which signalled the end of Pax Britannica. Even so, Fisher was appointed as First Sea Lord in 1904. Fisher was (when he entered the Navy) without friends or influence, so he had to make his own way in the service. He had some cranky ideas, but he positively fizzed with enthusiasm for anything that was new. A moribund system, always wanting a safe pair of hands, could not have appointed him. (Nor, come to that, could it have allowed Churchill into any Cabinet job before WWI.) (And the officers that Fisher favoured - the 'Fishpond' - tended to be technophiles like Scott and Jellicoe.)

    Now contrast that appointment with the Chief of Air Staff in the 1920s. Chalk and cheese doesn't come into it. Imagine what Trenchard's legacy would have been if he hadn't done a Biggles, and learned to fly. Obviously we'd probably have never heard of him. But if we had, it could likely be as the general who insisted with his dying breath that the Somme offensive failed because the men simply didn't show enough pluck. Trenchard was the archetypal late Victorian soldier.

    So why did such wildly different characters get appointed to key defence jobs - and so have such huge influences on defence policy - only fifteen years apart? Obviously chance - who is available - is a big factor.

    But I suspect there's more to it than chance. Any ideas?

  29. Neil: A very interesting question; the facile answer would be that navies tend to place a higher value on materiél and technological considerations than armies, but that begs the question. Sykes was certainly more of a technocrat than Trenchard, and he was almost the first CAS.

    On the Whirlwind, I think it was mainly the troubles with the Peregrine engines; as it was the only platform for them, there was no great incentive for R-R to expend great development effort on them, and the aircraft wasn't a great candidate for re-engining.

    Chris W: Might a seperate RFC not have gone the way of the Air Corps Tactical School and formed a strategic bomber mafia nonetheless?

  30. Chris Williams

    I tried to get you on the radio, Brett, but the thing was done in a massive hurry, once RM Douglas's article on the non-gassing of the Kurds rendered the planned episode for that slot (working title: "Hey, we gassed the Kurds") suddenly obsolete. Then there's this planet and these time-zones, which meant that the line of least resistance (interview people who work in London, raid the archives for eyewitness stuff) was the default option. Soz.

    I think that the RFC (and perhaps bits of the RNAS, who'd have custody of the long-range flying boats) would have been highly likely to develop a bomber mafia, and perhapd got a few prototypes built: but would the War Office and the Admiralty have been minded to put them into production in anything like the scale the Air Ministry was advocating?

  31. Jakob that is an interesting question about whether or not the RFC would have gone down the same route as the Americans. Trenchard as a British Billy Mitchell. I have to say not though as Trenchard is a duplicitous during his career. In 1917 when the idea of an independent air force was mooted he flatly refused to have anything to do with it. He argued that the RFC's role was to support the army on the ground. Even when offered command of the Independent Force he felt it a slight, he wanted to return to command the RFC in the field. He felt that the IF was a lesser form. Of course once he returns to become CAS for a second time and the war ends he realises that the RAF needs a role and returns to the idea of an independent strategic force as it raison d'etre. He was ever the pragmatist and fought his ground to keep the RAF independent. Had that independence not happened I think he would have returned to type. Is there other candidates. Indeed, possibly Sykes but he had problems dealing with politicians, maybe the ideal British Billy Mitchell, or maybe Salmond. However, if there was to be a cabal on strategic bombing I think it would have come from the RNAS, they were the first to dabble in it in Britain, pushed along by Churchill. Having not lost its independence the RNAS may have continued to investigate further as a means of projecting British imperial power.

  32. Chris Williams

    Duplicitous? When in the RFC he advanced the interests of the RFC. Ditto the IAF, ditto the RAF. Indeed, ditto the Met, when his short-service commission idea was probably detracting from the pool of men who'd otherwise have joined the RAF.

    It's not the man, it's the desk.

  33. Sorry Chris you are right. Wrong word there;) Long day.

    I meant the opposite. You are right he is dedicated, single-minded. Hence, why is the RFC had not gained it independence Trenchard is unlikely to have been pushed it in that direction.

  34. Christopher Amano-Langtree

    Trenchard's main mistake was to insist on the indivisibility of air - that is that all air warfare functions must be performed by the Independent Air Force. Of course this was a device to ensure the survival of his organisation and he did later admit his mistake (to his biographer but not publicly). Couple this with the strategic bomber mythos and we have a neglect of other services needs. The Independent Air Force must have priority in all areas and everything else is subsumed to this requirement. It is instructive that neither the US or Japan went with indivisibility of air.

  35. Post author

    Thanks for trying, Chris -- I definitely wasn't having a go at you! It was interesting to have a peek into the production side of things, anyway.

    I can see an interwar RNAS having a "strike hard, strike fast" kind of mentality. As Ross says they started it in WWI, and Tiverton was an RNAS man, for example. On the other hand, that kind of enthusiasm would probably have been diverted to carriers which aren't much use for strategic bombing; unless there was some sort of political agreement between the Army and the Navy giving responsibility for strategic bombing to the Navy (which sounds unlikely, but then so does the Navy giving up control of the FAA). And there still would have been those inside the RFC who would want to get into bombing, the same pressures driving a search for an independent role. (Not least career prospects for the top air officers.) While an air defence and ground support oriented RFC is easy to envisage, some its personnel always would have yearned for a more "positive" role. But they may just have been one school of thought among several, just as in the USAAC.

  36. Concentration on carriers does not mean that the RNAS, or FAA as it may have become, would have ignored strategic bombing. Indeed as a method of projecting power they may have linked the two concepts together. Indeed the US Navy develops a strategic nuclear bomber, the A-3 Skywarrior, in the 1950's for just that purpose. Is there any archival or documentry evidence of the carrier as a superweapon in this period?

    On advantage of the RAF being independent as early as it was that there was no need for agreements on the use of air assests as there was in Americas such as the Key West Agreement of 1948, which confirmed the role of air power in each service as:

    1. The Navy would be allowed to retain its own combat air arm " conduct air operations as necessary for the accomplishment of objectives in a naval campaign..."
    2. The Army would be allowed to retain aviation assets for reconnaissance and medical evacuation purposes.
    3. The Air Force would have control of all strategic air assets, and most tactical and logistic functions as well.

    There was also the Pace-Finletter MOU in 1952, which built upon Key West by further defining weight limits on helicopters in the army. Finally there was the Johnson-McConnell agreement of 1966 where the army gave up fixed wing aviation in return for control of most forms of rotary winged assests. Would an RAF who had had to fight for gaining independence had to have had similar agreement in order to define its role?

    In placing all assests there was wrangling for control of air assests but there was also a degree of centralised development in the use of air power. Of course the Second World War would illustate the need for a degree of seperation, though of course that has been reversed today with the concept of Jointness.

  37. Christopher Amano-Langtree

    An issue with an independent air force is its purpose. The RAF developed a strategic focus which excluded other considerations. The strategic focus was the be all and end all and naval and tactical aviation suffered badly. Conversely the Luftwaffe became a wholly tactical air force but was incapable of performing the strategic role to any satisfactory degree. However, naval aviation also suffered under German direction - indivisibility of air is not a sustainable concept in real life but a convienent structure for bureaucratic empire builders. As Ross notes there are advantages for an independent air force but they are mainly administrative. Certainly the Americans had to define specific force functions but note Marine aviation - specifically aligned to amphibious assault troops which indicates that specialisation is the correct route. British aviation took a big mistep between the wars with the all encompassing air force. That this vision was flawed should have been apparent by study of other countries experience and solutions. However, the British have always been adept at ignoring others experiences.

  38. Christopher your contention the the RAF was a strategic air force and the Luftwaffe was a tactical air force is highly contentious. Yes the RAF believed in the efficacy of the bomber but it did not ignore other areas as has commonly been argued but I disagree the british avaition took a 'big mistep' in the inter-war years. The RAF's key concern for much of the 20's was imperial policing and many of the methods emplyed filtered into other areas of the service. In the realm of tactical air power it had two key theorists in the shape of Leigh-Mallory and Slessor. Yes there were problems, the key one being that being an independent air force struggling for survival in the face of finanacial cuts while being pulled in several doctrinal directions. On the issue of air support the RAF participated fully in the development of doctrine and actually called for a wholistic Joint Doctrine as they saw all war as Combined Operations with the primary concern of air power being the maintanance of air superiority before any other form of air power could be applied. In this they were correct. The Americans suffered from the problem of penny packeting their air power, see the failure of US tactical at Kasserine Pass after which they adopt British doctrine. It is not until the middle of the war that they realise that the key advanatge of a ir power is concentration at any one point and that trying to even it out across various forces meant the most they could achieve was a degree of local air superiority. As for the Germans being a tactical air force again this is not true. German doctrine operated at the operational level, hence its name the Operational Air War, it was designed to be able to be a jack of all trades in many respects, therefore, problems were encoutered in many areas. It problem with strategic sir power stems from a lack of suitable aircraft and a decision by Udet and Jeschonnek to make all aircraft dive bombers and retarded the prodcution of four engined bombers. Indeed the HE-177 was redesigned with this in mind. Thankfully recent shifts in the historiography of air power has started to disprove these orthodox opinion of the inter-war history of bothe the RAF and Luftwaffe. Indeed we have started to shift to a middle ground where it is recognised that both air force took time to consider the application of air power's role in war and who it could influence the conduct of war. The indivisibility of air is not sustainable but the instution utlising air power must remeber its core tenants of use such as concentration of power to achieve air superiority from which all other application can flow.

  39. Christopher Amano-Langtree

    I am not suggesting things in such stark terms - rather that the RAF between the wars focused on the strategic function and that this continued into WW2. The RAF literally had to be forced to allocate resources to the tactical bombing needed before the D-Day landings. Imperial policing was a rather serendipitous discovery which allowed the RAF to survive. As a practical policy it was a complete failure causing resentment and weakening Imperial authority.
    There is ample evidence for the Luftwaffe focus on the tactical element to the exclusion of th strategic element. On looks at the campaigns in Poland, the Low Countries and the Battle of France for examples. Strategic bombing was not a concern and the main drive was away from this area. Consequently when the Luftwaffe tried this they failed.

  40. The RAF does not simply focus on 'strategic' air power in the inter-war years. A closer look at the archival evidence and writing of the period indicates that. The RAF's operating doctrine of the period, AP 1300, covers all forms of aerial operations and indeed in the section dealing with bomberdment does not use the term 'strategic' but discusses aerial bombardment. As to the RAF, in particular Bomber Command, not supporting D-Day yes Harris was difficult to work with and did argue his point but once ordered to cooperate he did. This was the same for the Americans/ The key reason they were more co-operative is becuase the target set for the 'heavies' in preperation for D-Day i.e. the transportation network, fitted in the the industrial web theory that was popular at the ACTS during the inter-war years. If it had not then Spaatz would have put up more resistance. As for the Luftwaffe the key reason that the main drive of the Operational Air War doctrine moves away from strategic bombing has more to do with the mismanagement of Jeschonnek and Udet than doctrine. Indeed Corum's work on the Lufwaffe argues that the Luftwaffe does not reject strategic bombing and that it only after the death of Wever that ideas are diluted. Strategic bombing as an adjunct to the land battle reamerges in Russia when the Luftwaffe is used to bomb Russian oilfields. This is where the impact of Udet/Jeschonnek is realy felt. The Luftwaffe has a comprehensive doctrine at the outbreak of the war and in regards to bombing has much better navigational aids than the RAF. Much of the Luftwaffe in the early campaigns is directed at operational level target such of airfield and transportation systems and not utilised in the tactical zone of operations. The key unit that supported german mobile operations was VIII Flieger Corps but the rest of the German Army suffered from a lack of support as the rest of the Luftwaffe was employed elsewhere attacking targets inside enemy territory.

  41. Neil Datson

    All very interesting, but I'm not clear how closely the development of differing strands of air doctrine relates to Brett's topic.

    But perhaps it does:

    As I understand it, in the 1930s Britain was involved in an arms race to build more bombers than Nazi Germany. But the Nazis declined to join in the race. However, the British were undeterred, and raced them nevertheless.

    In the Dreadnought era, there was a race between Britain and Germany to build . . . Dreadnoughts. Each new class of battleships or battlecruisers was compared for easily measurable qualities, especially the main armament and weight of broadside. These comparisons were celebrated - or lamented - in the popular press. (In Britain at least.) Did the same thing happen with the bombers, or was it merely a numbers game?

    A country whose populace puts its faith in a means of defence (in this case bombers) but whose populace has no obvious interest in the relative efficacy of that means, seems a strange country to me.

    Come the 1930s, did the British think that warplanes were, of themselves, a super weapon, and there was no point in looking for an even more super weapon?

  42. Christopher Amano-Langtree

    Indeed we have drifted off the topic of imagination slightly but how air power is used is a function of imagination I would suggest. Take the Luftwaffe - this was a tactical airforce as its early experiences had been of that nature (the rebuilding and Spain in particular). It never really developed a strategic vision even though there were attempts to do so. Throughout the war it remained tactical in nature and its ventures into the strategic realm were half hearted. Nazi propaganda (from what I have seen) emphasised this aspect to the exclusion of the strategic and the bureaucracy. The Royal Air Force however did develop a strategic vision but without ever really definining it. Admittedly with the dullards who were in charge between the wars this might have been beyond their capacity but also things were rather new (Budiansky is very good on this problem). When it came for the RAF to perform a tactical role this was resisted (See Neilllands - The Bomber War). Harris had to be forced to give up his strategic bombers for tactical purposes and did so very grudgingly.
    Between the wars Churchill did play the numbers game and did it well. But there was a certain amount of naivity to this. German figures were accepted a bit too readily. I have argued that I believe that conservatism was at the base of this issue. If one watches film of the Hendon air pagents one does not see a modern airforce - in fact it all looks like it would have fitted nicely into the First World War environment. What I have seen of the British imagination with regard to super weapons only really begins to develop in the late '30s when the threat from Germany and the fascist dictatorships was becoming more difficult to ignore.

  43. Neil Datson

    Certainly Christopher, the imagination is always relevant to air power. (Probably much more in the inter-war years than after WWII.) Imagination clearly plays a vital role in understanding its impact on popular perceptions.

    Perhaps the problem with British inter-war air doctrine was this: British policy makers and planners used too much imagination in assessing its uses. They didn't look for empirical evidence. (In Higham's The Military Intellectuals in Britain there is an off-hand and rather snide reference to the RAF Staff College - 'its hard to find any evidence of any thinking being done' - I paraphrase from memory.) Possibly they were imagining and dreaming, but not thinking.

    Here's a thought. The speed of warplanes, the 'Flying Pencil' etc, caused a stir. Why should it have mattered a damn if the bomber was always going to get through? Why not simply focus on their payload?

  44. Post author


    I don't know about archival sources, but I can't recall any published sources talking about the carrier as a superweapon in that sense. E. F. Spanner (Armaments and the Non-combatanat, 1927) wanted the whole air arm to be given to the RN so it would give up its battleship fixation and concentrate on carrier and other naval aviation, but even he thought only in terms of blockades and, at most, bombing enemy air and naval bases. I doubt the British would have been the ones to think along those lines: the bombers vs battleships debate was often couched in terms of cost, and if you are going to have a huge carrier fleet to carry a useful amount of bombers you've just lost the cost argument. Better to launch them off your unsinkable aircraft carrier! And while I haven't read much on the post-WW2 USN, I'd suspect that their thinking was shaped by the special circumstances of 1945: (i) Japan's air (and sea) defences were overwhelmed which meant that US carriers could cruise up and down the coast launching attacks on industrial targets with impunity; and (ii) the atomic bomb came along, raising the prospect of being able to do massive damage to industrial targets with only a carrier wing. The RN in 1919-1939 couldn't envisage operating in such an environment.


    '[I]magining and dreaming, but not thinking' -- I like that! I think that's about right (though they did think they had empirical evidence for, e.g., the casualty multiplier per ton of bombs dropped). If operational research (which, on some accounts, got its start in WW1 with, among other things, AA research) had been developed in the interwar years, the Air Staff might have had to re-examine their assumptions from time to time.

    And yes, parity was largely a numbers game, or at least it often was. The first RAF expansion programmes in 1934-5 were announced in terms of numbers of front-line aircraft being added, without any mention of what kind of aircraft they were -- not even whether they were bombers or fighters. Partly that was because numbers would demonstrate resolve to the Germans, partly because they would sooth public anxieties, and partly I think because it was just assumed that the majority of them would be bombers (which was in fact true), otherwise what would be the point?

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  46. I have a 'please explain' for Eric.

    He said:
    "The He-178 was a stunt. See Constant on the turbojet revolution, or Schabel on _Illusionen der Wunderwaffen_, which I think has been translated now."

    I think calling the first ever successful turbojet aircraft to fly - acknowledged as such in general - 'a stunt' is a bit of an odd thing.

    By the criteria I presume you are implying (hence my request for clarification) any other 'first' is a 'stunt', such as the Wrights, the Montgolfiers, Lindbergh or Alcock & Brown - and so on. Or are you suggesting it was a bit of a sleight of hand rather like some Nazi sponsored records?

    If the criteria is that the design of engine was in some way a dead end, that doesn't stack up either, I suggest, as Heinkel did chose to persist with the jet - and despite discouragement and disinterest by the RLM developed the perfectly viable Heinkel He 280 and jet engines for the same.

    While the He 178 was a dedicated test-bed and the Gloster E28/39 had pretentious to being a fighter in the specification and design stage, they were both used as proof of concept and test beds in the end, and neither should be ignored, or casually dismissed as 'a stunt' in the history of the jet in the way that true dead-ends such as the Italian work with the Caproni Campini N.1 can perhaps justifiably be (interesting though that is as well).

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