A Dominion of the air

I've recently been reading Peter Ewer's Wounded Eagle: The Bombing of Darwin and Australia's Air Defence Scandal, which I found to be unexpectedly interesting, but not always in a good way. Wounded Eagle has much less about the Second World War than I'd thought: much of the early part of the book is taken up with a detailed analysis of the origins of the Empire Air Mail Scheme (EAMS) in the 1930s, and then there's a long account of the Royal Australian Air Force's pre-war procurement policy. There's a lot of interesting stuff here: one particular surprise for me was the accidental way in which British radar research was accidentally revealed to the Australian government by a young physicist returning home from studying at Cambridge. The Australians asked if this was true, and the British sheepishly said that it was and only then began sharing its data with the Dominions! Even more surprising, perhaps, is that the RAAF, having got its hands on some British radar sets in 1940, showed next to no interest in them. Only the Australian Army did anything with them, for use with coastal defence batteries.

Ewer's book is full of such pointed criticisms, and that's the problem. This polemic has two targets: the British, and pro-British Australian politicians. The latter are outside my area, though I'll talk about them later. But I like to think I know a bit about the British by now, particularly when it comes to aeroplanes, so let's start there.

Relations between the Dominion and the Mother Country were not always easy, that much is true. British air force officers, civil servants and cabinet ministers were often contemptuous of their colonial counterparts. The wrangling over the procurement of aircraft for the RAAF does not show them to best advantage, as Ewer shows. They were often not often honest -- that is to say, they lied -- about the shortcomings of the aircraft and engine types they tried (mostly successfully) to push onto the RAAF. Indeed, on Ewer's account British aviation technology was inherently outdated, the product of a lazy, complacent engineering and business culture. He points to the Society of British Aircraft Constructors (SBAC) as a major cause of this, describing it as a 'cartel':

While Conservative Governments [sic] railed through the 1920s against the greed of trade unions, the racket operated by SBAC ensured good profits for its members, regardless of aircraft performance or the cost of construction.1

He cites as a source Sebastian Ritchie's Industry and Air Power: The Expansion of British Aircraft Production, 1935-1941. But Ritchie paints a very different picture of SBAC. Profitability for its members was mixed, the competition between them for orders was tough, market leaders of the 1920s such as Handley Page became also-rans in the 1930s. And if SBAC was a cartel, it was a pretty weak one. In 1931 it did indeed try to act in concert to undermine the competitive tendering process, but the Air Ministry held firm. The result was that Hawker's bid to build its Harts at £2300 per aeroplane was undercut by fellow SBAC member Vickers, which quoted at £1800 for the same aircraft. In later contracts the price fell to £1475.2 This is hardly the sign of a powerful cartel. That aside, it's certainly true the backwardness of the British aviation is something which reasonable people can and do argue about, but Ewer shows no awareness that there's even a debate about this at all (it would have been nice to see some references to David Edgerton for the case against, or even Correlli Barnett for the case for).

For Ewer, the story is one of greedy British capitalists, with Air Ministry collusion, wanting to capture the Australian market for themselves. That may well have been part of the story, but he does not seem to consider that, from the British point of view, there might have been other considerations. For example, the need to preserve, and then to expand, Britain's aircraft production capacity to meet its rearmament and then wartime needs. This was the rationale for SBAC's monopoly on Air Ministry orders in the first place. The RAF itself had to accept designs ordered almost off the drawing board and (often in consequence) large numbers of obsolescent aircraft for these reasons (see, e.g., the Fairey Battle). Why should the RAAF, itself a second-rate air force at the time, have been treated any differently?

Ewer might respond to this that if the British had been upfront about what they wanted, the Australians would have had the freedom to choose alternative American or even Australian designs (Lawrence Wackett is one of his heroes, though he concedes one who needed careful handling). The Bristol Beaufort and its Taurus engines are the villains here.3 But again there's a bigger picture. He notes but dismisses the British argument that standardisation of types (airframes and/or engines) across the Empire would be an advantage in wartime.4 Yet he himself is highly critical of the abandonment of a proposed Australian Air Expeditionary Force (AAEF) early in the war. This would have comprised six RAAF squadrons, to accompany the 2nd AIF to the Middle East. But how could such a force have been maintained in the field, on the other side of the world and dependent on the RAF's supply system, if it had been using some weird Wackett fighter or American engines? They would have to be supplied from Australia or (worse) America, something which couldn't be guaranteed in wartime anyway. Using British products was the safer choice.

On EAMS, Ewer again comes down strongly on the Australian side. The British wanted to use flying boats on the route from Singapore to Sydney; the Australians argued that landplanes would be better, as they would have a longer range and be able to carry a greater weight of cargo, making them more economical and hence more profitable to run. (The connection with Australian air defence seems to be that the landplane proposal would have led to more and more useful aerodromes to Australia's north.) On this analysis, the decision to use flying boats does seem pretty stupid. But once again the British point of view is neglected. They weren't just setting up an air route from Singapore to Sydney, but, sensibly or not, a network of air routes linking Britain with the Empire. In his Air Empire: British Imperial Civil Aviation, 1919-39, Gordon Pirie, another ex-colonial (South African this time) explains the attraction of flying boats for the EAMS:

In the face of demand for increasingly large civilian aircraft [...] flying boats of a new 'Empire' design promised considerable savings for passengers and airline operator [...] Constructing landplanes with undercarriages strong enough to bear additional weight was expensive, and the increased dead weight of aircraft diminished their payload [...] Additional financial savings would accrue from using flying boats rather than landplanes because it would not be necessary to strengthen aprons and landing strips so they could bear the weight of increasingly heavy airframes [...] A final consideration was the high cost of aircraft fuel at inland aerodromes compared with the seaboard price that was half as high at many points on the Empire routes.

And then there was safety: flying boats could land on the open sea in an emergency, whether it be technical or political.5 The British undoubtedly pressured the Australian government, and the resulting scheme was not ideally suited for Australian conditions; but the Australian point of view was not the only one which we should consider.

Ewer is highly critical of the Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS), too. He makes the valid point that in 1939-40 the RAAF was essentially turned into a cadre force, not a fighting one: instead of being posted to Europe or the Middle East and gaining combat and leadership experience, most of its pilots and senior officers had to stay home as flight instructors or airfield commanders to churn out aircrew for Bomber Command and the war over Europe. Air Marshal Richard Williams, three-times former RAAF Chief of the Air Staff, was reduced to surveying for good spots for EATS airfields. Ewer thinks the RAAF should instead have been a fighting force right from the start of the war, sending the AAEF to fight overseas and setting up an air defence system to protect the 'indispensible' Sydney-Wollongong-Newcastle industrial area from Japanese carrier strikes.6 But again, seen in a bigger context EATS played a vital role in sustaining the RAF's war effort: it otherwise would have found it hard to find the airmen to crew its heavy bombers for the offensive against Germany, and the open skies to train them in. Of course, the strategic bombing offensive, and Australia's contribution to it, can be criticised, but Ewer doesn't do this either, merely criticising the watered-down Australian Article XV squadrons and lack of an Australian air group within Bomber Command.7 By these lights it would seem the only Australian contributions which should be counted were those made by national formations. Perhaps it would have been better for Australia to have more national formations in the fight. Would it have been better for the Allies, though?

More subtly, there seems to be an Anglophobic strain running through Wounded Eagle. Australian achievements are lauded (Australians, especially Williams, always seem to be writing 'brilliant' memoranda on this or that) while any British ones are passed over in silence. Britons themselves are never portrayed in a positive light. In fact, there's often a bit of what might in cricket be called sledging going on. Here are three examples. The captain and crew of the first EAMS flight to Sydney is said to have only 'modest achievements' to their credit. Marshal of the RAF Sir Edward Ellington, a former RAF Chief of the Air Staff who conducted a review of the RAAF in 1938, is casually described as 'dyspeptic'. And RAF Squadron Leader Harper's air combat victories against the Luftwaffe are qualified with the word 'allegedly'.8 None of this is necessary; none of this is supported.9 Perhaps it's because all of them criticised or slighted Australians or Australian institutions (refusing to let an Australian official inspect his aeroplane, pointing out RAAF shortcomings, and being an admittedly appalling and anti-Australian commander of an Australian (albeit RAF/EATS) fighter squadron in Malaya, respectively) and so deserve a bit of rubbishing in return. But I'm Australian myself and can't get too worked up about what the Poms thought of us back then. Ewer cites Babette Smith's book, Australia's Birthstain (i.e. its convict origins), at a couple of points and no doubt many of them did look down on us. But as I said above, the reality was that the RAAF was a small, second-rank air force from a small, remote, not-very-industrialised country and it's to be expected that the British would think they knew better. It's not worth getting upset about.

Which brings me to the real targets of Ewer's attack: those Australians who agreed that the British knew better. He singles out three in particular: S. M. Bruce, a former prime minister who was essentially Australia's first High Commissioner in London (or ambassador, in effect); R. G. Casey, Treasurer from 1935 to 1940, and Robert Menzies, first Attorney-General and then Prime Minister from 1939 to 1941 (and again from 1949 to 1966). In Ewer's view these men were deceitful in their relations with their Australian colleagues while colluding with the British on issues such as the EAMS and RAAF procurement. And I think he's right. He even goes so far as to describe Casey's actions as 'betrayal', while he says of Menzies that 'he delivered up Australian interests to London'.10 But I would suggest (without, admittedly, knowing any of the secondary literature on the topic) that to use such loaded terms is ahistorical. Australia was not yet a truly independent nation, either legally (the Statute of Westminster, promulgated in 1931, was not enacted here until 1942) or culturally. It is natural enough that there would be those who felt that Britain's interests and Australia's were identical, that defending the Motherland was protecting their homeland, that serving the Empire was a higher duty than just serving the Commonwealth. Ewer himself admits as much when he writes of those who believed in a '"British Australia" as a viable half-way house between colonial life and Mother England"'.11 As such it is simplistic to view the actions of Bruce, Casey and Menzies in narrowly nationalistic terms: I doubt they thought they were being disloyal to Australia in any way, even if they recognised they were being duplicitous. (Ewer pointedly prefaces each chapter with a quote from The Prince, though I'm not sure if he's thinking of the British or the pro-British as the Machiavellians.) In terms of air policy, Australia was no longer part of Britain's air empire, but it was still a Dominion of the air, so to speak, not yet a republic.

On that note, it's interesting that the National Library of Australia's Cataloguing in Publication service has assigned Wounded Eagle to (among more obvious choices) the subject 'Republicanism -- Australia'. The issue of an Australian republic is not mentioned once in the book, but as I've argued it's a very nationalistic work, and it does seem to be that way inclined. Not that there's anything wrong with that, per se; I'm a republican myself, I voted for an Australian republic in 1999 and hope to see one come to pass in my lifetime. But wanting to cut constitutional ties with Britain need not entail Anglophobia, at least not in my book. (If I ever write one, that is.)

For an excellent example of a national-but-not-nationalistic aviation history, see Michael Molkentin's The Australian Flying Corps in the First World War (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2010), which even covers some of the same ground as Wounded Eagle in its account of the destruction of the Turkish 7th Army by the RAF and the Australian Flying Corps. Molkentin shows that Australians can write military history which incorporates a wider view, as I've called for before; Ewer, I'm sorry to say, does not.

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  1. Peter Ewer, Wounded Eagle: The Bombing of Darwin and Australia's Air Defence Scandal (Chatswood: New Holland, 2009), 100. []
  2. Sebastian Ritchie, Industry and Air Power: The Expansion of British Aircraft Production, 1935-1941 (London and Portland: Frank Cass, 1997), 17. []
  3. Ewer seems to misread a 1937 Air Ministry minute as saying that the Beaufort was 'never designed to meet a "first class air power"', whereas in fact it says that it would be acceptable in that situation because there would be enough long runways for it to use, i.e. because it would be fighting from Britain not out in the Empire. Ewer, ibid., 128. []
  4. Ibid., 99. []
  5. Gordon Pirie, Air Empire: British Imperial Civil Aviation, 1919-39 (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2009), 198-9. []
  6. Ewer, ibid., 166, 180. I find it hard to believe that, as Ewer implies, an AAEF would have made any appreciable difference to the Greek campaign, faulty RAF close support doctrine or not. And let's not mention his odd obsession with the RAAF's declining the British offer 20 B-17s in September 1940. Okay, let's -- what difference would 20 Fortresses have made against the Japanese onslaught? The USAAF had more than twice that in the Philippines where they did nothing much, nor were they much use in the 1942 Pacific battles. Ibid., 175, 177. []
  7. Ibid., 161-3. []
  8. Ibid., 83, 116, 197. []
  9. It does seem clear that Harper did fake his combat record of six German kills: JDK kindly looked up Ewer's source here -- John Bennett, Defeat to Victory: No. 453 Squadron RAAF (Point Cook: RAAF Museum, 1994) and posted a query on the Key Publishing Aviation Forum. (Thanks James!) But I still think it's the sort of thing you shouldn't just throw out there without explanation. []
  10. Ewer, ibid., 96, 219. []
  11. Ibid., 19. []

12 thoughts on “A Dominion of the air

  1. Very interesting Brett, and a great review. What role was the RAAF seen to have more generally in the interwar period? Was it to be an adjunct to the RAF in a major conflict, a home defence force for the Dominion, or an instrument of imperial power projection? (Presumably the answer is 'all of the above,' which would explain at least some of the muddle.)

    On the point about a cadre force: I get the impresson from _The Paladins_ that the RAF was in a similar state in 1939, certainly in the bomber squadrons.

  2. Post author

    Thanks, Jakob! Though I'd probably call it a critique -- if it was a proper review I would have said more about the book's strengths. (It is worth reading if the subject intrigues.)

    Good question about the RAAF's role. JDK could probably say better than me, but my impression is that it was viewed mainly as a home defence force (which in turn I would say meant supporting the Royal Australian Navy more than air defence), but that included the possibility of sending squadrons to help defend Singapore, which was seen as the lynchpin of Australia's defence. (Yes, oops!) But now that you mention an imperial role -- Australia effectively had a colony of its own, the New Guinea mandated territory. I wonder if the RAAF ever carried out (or at least thought about carrying out) anything like air control there? Perhaps not; relations with the Papuans were good, as far as I know.

  3. Fascinating post, Brett. Since you (sort of) brought it up, I'm curious as to whether academic British historians in Australia run into the difficulty of being perceived (fairly or unfairly) as apologists for the Mother Country, or of implicitly endorsing a conservative nostalgia for 'British Australia'. I'm interested partly because I teach British history in a former British colony myself; but the British colony in my case is the United States of America, which has a very different constitutional and historical relationship to its former metropole.

  4. Great post, Brett.

    I should add that thanks to responses to the question I posted on the Key publishing forum, it seems that the unfortunate (in both senses) Harper certainly made claims of enemy aircraft shot down during the Battle of Britain, but the details of his record I've found so far in a brief look raise as many questions as one gets answers. However, as to his 'kills' painted on his Buffalo, it seems Bennett may have done him a partial injustice by stating he had no right to any, although it seems highly unlikely he actually had six legitimate claims of any mix.

    But then the researcher Bennett didn't have the internet crossed with Battle of Britain enthusiasts! As I've had my interest piqued in the Harper story, and I'll probably see what else I can find, if time allows.

    As to the purpose of the inter-war RAAF, something like the RCAF, bigger than the RNZAF cadre, but essentially a core to expand for war if/when necessary. It did that adequately, but much of the process was hijacked/perverted/diverted by the Article 15 Squadrons, not a best use of Australian resources for Australian interests. But then the dual nature of the Australians of the time as 'remote Britons' as much as Australian natives didn't make 'Australian interests' an obvious item for protection anyway.

    Claims were made of the RAAF being an effective defence force, but knowing the equipment and numbers, I'm sceptical as to any meaningful efficacy. As to inter-service co-operation, I'm sure it was on the paperwork, but the main energies were put into fighting over the existence (or removal) of a Fleet Air Arm and avoiding doing army co-op.

    However the RAAF did undertake a good array of aerial surveys, a thing of benefit right down to today's resources, I'm told, using Seagull III and V (Walruses) from Queensland and into the protectorates and stations west.

    More flippant, but just as accurate, of course it was 'the best flying club in the world' with an extra 'A' in the name; or something that 'added tone to what would otherwise be the brawl' of the (future) Australian Defence Forces (ADF).

  5. Neil Datson

    I have read this critique and the comments with great interest.

    The RAAF between the wars and in WW2 are subjects about which I know almost as close to nothing as is possible. I'm therefore dipping my toe very cautiously into alien waters.

    The point I would make is that having a parent service (the RAF) that was obsessed by a strategic bomber doctrine in the 1930s must have made it very hard to justify spending any money on the RAAF. What strategic targets were the RAAF ever going to bomb? Even if they operated from Singapore as an advanced base? In a sense, taking the 1930s bomber doctrine to its extreme conclusion argued against Australia spending anything on home defence, beyond a bit of 'heavy policing' in New Guinea etc.

  6. Hi Neil,
    The relationship between the RAAF and the RAF was not so much of 'parent' or the RAN as the RN's 'local station force' as a local copy for local purposes, I'd suggest. Without checking sources (and reading between the lines) the 1920s and '30s RAAF was an air force without an obvious role, maintaining flying skills with a small cadre of officers and (like the 1919 RAF) fighting hard to be independent rather than subsumed. Generally air force doctrine (and official and unofficial histories) doesn't say "We aren't sure what we are for, but we are going to do stuff that seems militarily cool".

    Stage 1 was a postwar Flying Corps with no role (there were no wars to come remember). I think this may have not even been a paper formation, or just left-over cadre from the Central Flying School of W.W.I at Point Cook.

    Then there was an Imperial Gift of obsolete W.W.I aircraft to Canada, Australia, South Africa, India and New Zealand. The Kiwis (not surprisingly) didn't know what to do with them, the Canadians and Australians decided they'd better create an 'air force' with them ('a bunch of chaps messing about in kites' would be a better description).

    Then there was the AAF (quickly RAAF) which attempted to find a role and get good at flying with some very problematic Great War attitudes and occasional patronisation from senior RAF visitors.

    And finally Article 15 skewed the development of the W.W.II Australian air force into part of an Empire-wide air force. In 1941 the domestic and Pacific RAAF found itself thoughroughly ill-equipped to defend the continent or to attack anyone. Some of that was loaning maritime squadrons like No.10 RAAF (Sunderlands) to the British as well as the rest of the active / frontline, elements, developed jointly and structured and directed by Britain.

    The RAAF's Air Power Development Centre has a regular paper on RAAF policy and history (Pathfinder) and other publications, and would be the best source for RAAF history like this.


    Probably a bit mysterious without context, but at a quick look "#54 Air Power in Defence of Australia – Early Thoughts "; "#101 Flying Safety: The RAAF Record"; "#56 “N.Z.3” – First Joint Exercise for the RAAF" all flesh out aspects of the pre-W.W.II RAAF.


    They also publish the book 'How not to run an air force' an examination of the remarkably critical failures of W.W.II RAAF management and policy (failures well beyond coping with a differently shaped war all military leadership gets to face).


    How much that goes into the pre-war situation I don't know, but I want to check now!

    This was meant to be a brief response, and if off the cuff rather than researched, so comes with no guarantees!

  7. Post author


    I don't think there is such a feeling against British historians, but to be honest I've never detected any animus against military historians either and everybody says it exists :) So maybe I'm just insensitive to such things. Of course I'm not privy to what is said on job search committees or in departmental meetings about British historians, so who knows. I will point out that when I started studying history, it was possible to take a sequence of subjects covering Britain from the Civil Wars up to 'today'; whereas now there isn't a single subject in the curriculum which is devoted to British history. Of course, departmental strengths change over the years, but it's a bit sad that there's nothing.

  8. Brett: interesting (though a little sad). So British history isn't seen as controversial so much as increasingly irrelevant ... that's sort of the drift over here, too.

  9. I can't comment on the teaching of British history at university level in Australia, but one notable disjunction is the British (visitor) expectation of the importance of Britain and its history in Australia, against the fact that to most young Australians it's "just another foreign country".

    Since Prime Minister Curtin's 1941 'Australia looks to America' speech, Britain's significance in Australian life and politics has declined in steps signalled by ruptures of common policy or ground (Vietnam, the EEC, etc.) to where I see it as stated above. My mother's university generation was one of the first to have Malay rather than French as a second language option in the 1960s - more signalling a realisation that France wasn't 20 miles away, than the decline of French Pacific power.

    Much as it's often understandably resented, Australian overseas policy slipstreams the US (sometimes ridiculously closely) and (as far as I can recall) hasn't been influenced in any way directly by British action for many years now. I'd expect tertiary history funding and demands perhaps to reflect that?

    [Bev adds that as she recalls there were no specifically British courses when she was going to Uni in Canada in 1990.]

  10. Post author


    Sure, it can be argued that Britain isn't that relevant to Australians today. And that's true enough. But it wasn't always so -- and so I would argue that modern British history will always be relevant to the study of Australian history itself (up to, say 1950 or 1960). So we ought to be giving the next generation of Australian historians a grounding in it. But it looks like we aren't.

  11. Certainly, Brett. On the other hand, having studied and literally lived and worked in British history, I don't think there's any danger of it being lost or overlooked, whereas I'd strongly suggest a bigger emphasis on Australia's Aboriginal history and pre-history might have a worthwhile effect on modern Australia's future. I would suggest that vacancy in modern Australian's self- and national- awareness if far more crucial today. And a necessary change of understanding from the 'we've got no history' view that several Australians have shared with me. Not only is that wrong, it shows the problem of the previous generations focussing on someone else's history rather than their own. Thankfully history is now seen as more than kings, battles and the Magna Carta; and there's still a lot to be done on even the basics of Australia's own story.

    As ever, I guess, it's prioritising too much history in too little time. Nice to not have to do that (or fund it.)

  12. Post author

    Well, I don't think there's any danger of Australian history being overlooked either: it's very healthy at the tertiary level and looks to be well-entrenched in the new national curriculum in the schools. Nor would I want history teaching to be dominated by British history (as it was for a long time here). There must be some happy medium. I think I was about the last PhD graduate in modern British history at Melbourne and will be for a long time -- and it was only a few years ago that a volume of essays on the history of the history department (!) had a whole chapter on the proud tradition of British history teaching here. Now, not so much.

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