Sykes’s lost squadrons

The Sykes Plan (or Memo, I'll use them interchangeably here) is an infamous document, at least among those airpower historians interested in the early RAF. Major-General Frederick Sykes was the second Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), that is the professional head of the RAF; the Plan is infamous because it cost him his job. He took up the position less than two weeks after the RAF was formed on 1 April 1918, succeeding Major-General Trenchard who had had an unhappy tenure due to clashes with the Air Minister, Lord Rothermere (who ended up resigning himself). Sykes was a key figure in the prewar RFC, commanding its Military Wing, and had played an important role as chief of staff (and sometimes commander) of the RFC in France. After that he had his own field command, of the RNAS in the Dardanelles. Thereafter he served in a number of non-aviation administrative roles, organising the Machine Gun Corps and serving as General Wilson's deputy at the Supreme War Council.

Sykes was CAS for most of the dramatic events of 1918: he took charge when the German spring offensive was at its most threatening and was still in office when the Armistice was signed in November. When peace threatened, Sykes had to consider what form the postwar RAF would take. With the help of Lieutenant-Colonel P. R. C. Groves, his friend and Director of Flying Operations, by early December he produced a 'Memorandum by the Chief of the Air Staff on air-power requirements of the Empire', AKA the Sykes Memo.1 It proved far too ambitious, and more to the point, costly. Churchill, the new Air Minister, needed economy and was not impressed. Sykes was out and Trenchard was back in, and this time he stayed there for more than a decade.

So how did Sykes cut his own throat? Above all he wanted a big RAF, keeping as much as possible of its wartime strength. In fact, at first he proposed 348 squadrons, which was optimistic considering that in March 1918 the RFC and RNAS combined had only 168 squadrons.2 However, I haven't seen that plan and I wonder if those 348 squadrons were actually intended to be mostly cadres in peacetime, say flights rather than whole squadrons, to facilitate rapid expansion in an emergency. In that case it might only be about the same size as the 1918 RAF (though of course the extra aircraft and men required would need to be got from somewhere). The final version of the Plan did use cadre squadrons for just this purpose. But even so it was still larger than Trenchard's more palatable proposal of only 82 squadrons.

As for just how big the Sykes Plan's RAF was, well, the usual figure given is 154 squadrons, sometimes broken down into 62 full-strength and 92 cadres. For example, Eric Ash (who wrote the definite book on Sykes, near enough) says:

Churchill was under extreme pressure from the Treasury to cut Army and Air Force spending, while Sykes was asking for a cost-prohibitive program of 154 service squadrons, world-wide aerial routes and subsidies for the civil manufacturing industry.3

The thing is, and it's admittedly a very small thing, I can't make the numbers come out to anything other than 157 squadrons.

Here are the raw numbers, taken from the Sykes Memo as reproduced in his 1942 autobiography, From Many Angles.4

LocationTypeSquadrons, fullSquadrons, cadre
Britain (home defence)(Fighters)20
Britain (striking force)Day bombers8
Britain (striking force)Night bombers9
Britain (striking force)Flying boats3
Britain/Grand Fleet (navy co-operation)Ships' fighters and fighter reconnaissance4
Britain/Grand Fleet (navy co-operation)Day bombers4
Britain/Grand Fleet (navy co-operation)Torpedo-planes and ships' bombers4
Britain/Grand Fleet (navy co-operation)Large flying boats5
Britain/Grand Fleet (navy co-operation)Large day bombers6
MediterraneanShips' fighters and fighter reconnaissance1
MediterraneanTorpedo-planes and ships' bombers2
MediterraneanLarge flying boats1
PacificShips' fighters and fighter reconnaissance1
PacificTorpedo-planes and ships' bombers2
PacificLarge flying boats2
Hong KongLarge day bombers1
SingaporeLarge day bombers1
North Borneo areaDay bombers1
Eastern Imperial basesDay bombers1
Eastern Imperial basesLarge day bombers2
Britain (army co-operation)Day and night fighters21
Britain (army co-operation)Low fighters8
Britain (army co-operation)Fighter reconnaissance4
Britain (army co-operation)Corps and fighter reconnaissance8
Britain (army co-operation)Day bombers8
Britain (army co-operation)Night bombers8
EgyptComposite corps and fighter reconnaissance1
EgyptDay bombers1
EgyptLarge day bombers1
MesopotamiaComposite corps and fighter reconnaissance1
MesopotamiaDay bombers1
MesopotamiaLarge day bombers1
IndiaFighters and fighter reconnaissance4
IndiaCorps reconnaissance for co-operation with infantry, cavalry, and artillery4
IndiaDay bombers2
IndiaLarge day bombers2
East Africa, Uganda, and NyasalandLarge day bombers1
West AfricaLarge day bombers1

Assuming I haven't made any mistakes in collating these numbers (and I've been through them twice now), and assuming both my arithmetic and my spreadsheets' are accurate (and you can check for yourself using the export buttons above the table), this comes to 65 full squadrons and 92 cadre squadrons, for a total of 157 squadrons.

Where does the 154 figure come from, then? I suspect it's a case of somebody making the error early on and everybody else copying it without checking -- it wouldn't be the first time. Perhaps Andrew Boyle's Trenchard biography. It's also possible that there has been some confusion with an earlier version of the Sykes Plan. Ash himself mentions that 'Air Council records of 13 November 1918 show a proposal of 154 squadrons', which is not the Sykes Memo because that's dated 9 December, more than two [edit: actually, nearly four] weeks later.

Or maybe it's me who made the mistake somewhere, after all...

Some notes on the table: The allocation of full vs cadre squadrons shows what threats Sykes thought Britain might face in the future: mostly in the colonies (as their squadrons are all full strength), another great war wouldn't happen suddenly (giving time for all those army and navy co-operation cadres to expand), and deterrence would be Britain's main defence against a sudden aerial attack, since the bomber squadrons were to be kept at full strength whereas the 'home defence' ones were only cadres. He doesn't specify what type these home defence squadrons would be, but I think it's safe to assume they were fighters. Under the Grand Fleet, I've omitted an entry for 'kite balloons' (!) because no squadrons are listed. He seems to neglect airships altogether, except for his proposals for the Dominion air forces which I might discuss in a future post as they aren't usually mentioned in discussions of the Sykes Plan.

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  1. F. H. Sykes, From Many Angles: An Autobiography (London: George G. Harrap & Company, 1942), 558-74. []
  2. John Robert Ferris, Men, Money and Diplomacy: The Evolution of British Strategic Foreign Policy, 1919-26 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), 68; John James, The Paladins: A Social History of the RAF up to the Outbreak of World War II (London and Sydney: Macdonald, 1990), 243. []
  3. Eric Ash, Sir Frederick Sykes and the Air Revolution, 1912-1918 (London and Portland: Frank Cass, 1999), 176. See also, e.g., Andrew Boyle, Trenchard (London: Collins, 1962), 329; Barry D. Powers, Strategy Without Slide-Rule: British Air Strategy 1914-1939 (London: Croom Helm, 1976), 162; Phillip S. Meilinger, 'Trenchard, Slessor, and Royal Air Force Doctrine before World War II', in Meilinger, ed., The Paths of Heaven: The Evolution of Airpower Theory (Maxwell Air Force Base: Air University Press, 1997), 48. []
  4. Sykes, From Many Angles, 558-74. []

19 thoughts on “Sykes’s lost squadrons

  1. The idea of the RAF having cadre squadrons in 1918 is more than just an issue of spending. It implies the existence of large reserve classes with annual exercises. Where would all of these reservists come from?

    WWI veterans? It's hard to imagine this being on. Army and navy veterans weren't going to be enrolled into the Territorials, after all.

    Volunteers? Pull the other one. It plays something by the Real McKenzies.

    Conscription of future annual classes by the armed forces in general, much less the air force only? That's one very different Britain that you are imagining, General, and very probably this is the one that he's proposing, so no wonder he got the sack.

    From an RAF Reserve, formed in much the same way that the various army reserves were? Fine, once the peacetime intake had been given a chance to pass through the service. In other words, at some point in the future, which is pretty much where Trenchard put the various RAF reserve forces to be created under his scheme.

    I would also add that the idea of expanding an armed service by calling up masses of trained mechanics is very different --crazy different-- from calling up a mass of schoolboys and issuing them rifles.

  2. Neil Datson

    I find figures that don't tally deeply irritating. I've just been reading The Most Dangerous Enemy, in which (Chap 18) Bungay tells the reader that in the middle of Aug Fighter Command had 1,438 serviceable fighters. This was apparently made up of 855 with the squadrons, 84 with training units and 289 at storage units.

    Doubtless there's a simple explanation, there were 210 somewhere else or there were only 1,228 in total or one of the other figures is wrong. Bungay cites The Hardest Day by Alfred Price as his source, but if I were to check in that would it be correct anyway? To my mind this sort of problem is especially annoying when it's only tangenital to what one is trying to research. I really don't want to waste time chasing up a mite of detail that I don't regard as terribly important, against which if I were to actually want to use it I want to get it right.

    What's needed is an Extremely Big Book of Incontrovertible Historical Facts & Figures.

  3. Post author


    There's no question Sykes was politically and perhaps practically unrealistic; after all that's why he got the chop. But it seems unlikely that he was unaware of these problems. In his 'wilderness years' in 1916-8 after leaving aviation he in fact became a manpower specialist: with the MGC (in a very practical way, since he was setting it up manpower was a key problem), the War Office (Deputy Director of Organization in charge of manpower) and the SWC (director of M Branch, Man-Power and Materiel -- Allied, not just British). Ash argues that it was this experience, and his memo in early 1918 on the manpower problem (which argued that airpower, especially strategic bombing, should be used to substitute for manpower) that got him the job as CAS, more than his aviation background (which was a bit stale by 1918 anyway).

    Having said that, in the Memo Sykes never actually discusses how the cadres were to be expanded, as far as I can see. He does, though, talk about reserves and training in the context of replacing wastage. One of things he was big on (and Groves was even bigger) was civil aviation as a reserve, for both personnel and aircraft (which is one reason why he went from CAS to be Controller of Civil Aviation) (572):

    To meet the general reserve all necessary types of personnel in the commercial aerial transport service would be earmarked, and records of their training and qualifications carefully preserved.

    This is in addition to ex-service personnel passing into the reserves and undertaking periodic refresher training. Of course, he wanted as big a civil aviation industry as possible for this purpose, with ample subsidies and coordination with the RAF. As for recruitment, the question of conscription was evidently an open one because he considers both compulsory and voluntary enlistment. In the former case he envisaged cadets from ages 16-20 followed by 1 year of full-time service, and the option to stay on for 7 years full-time and 12 in the reserves (with attractive conditions and pay). He doesn't express a preference for one or the other, only saying that all three services should use the same system for recruiting, as far as possible. The war was less than a month in the past; these things weren't settled yet. Of course, if he'd stayed on as CAS his own views might have evolved too.


    Yes, it's very annoying! In the particular case I'm discussing here it's quite trivial, since it's only 3 squadrons different and the plan was never put into effect anyway. But it's as well to get it right, and moreover it shows that it's a good idea for somebody to take a second look at these things every once in a while, so the errors aren't endlessly perpetuated.

    If you write that book, I will buy it!

  4. From Alfred Price, The Battle of Britain: The Hardest Day, 18 August 1940 (London: Cassels Military Reprints, 1998; Originally published London: Janes, 1979): 190: Aircraft Strengths and Locations of Units of Fighter Command, 6 PM 17 August 1940

    (Squadron aircraft are given serviceable+ unserviceable)
    10 Group

    234 Sq 9+1 Spitfires
    609 Sq 13+5 Spitfires
    604 Sq 9+8 Blenheims
    152 Sq 13+2 Spitfires
    249 Sq 15+5 Hurricanes
    92 Sq 16+2 Spits
    87 Sq 15+4 Hurr
    213 Sq 20+4 Hurr
    238 Sq 19+3 Hurr
    238 Sq 19+3 Hurr
    247 Sq 5+4 gladiators

    11 Group

    64 Sq 12+4 Spit
    615 Sq 16+6 Hurr
    111 Sq 14+7 Hurr
    32 Sq 13+9 Hurr
    610 Sq 19+1 Spit
    501 Sq 15+7 Hurr
    1 Sq 16+4 Hurr
    1(401) Sq RCAF 22 Hurr
    303 Sq 15+2 Hurr
    54 Sq 12+7 Spit
    266 Sq 7+2 Spit; 10 Spit delivered 2 hours after count.
    65 Sq 13+7 Spit
    600 Sq 7+5 Blen
    56 Sq 17+2 Hurr
    151 Sq 17+3 Hurr
    85 Sq 19+3 Hurr
    257 Sq 16+6 Hurr
    17 Sq 16+5 Hurr
    25 Sq 10+7 Blen
    43 Sq 13+1 Hurr
    601 Sq 13+3 Hurr
    Fighter Interception Unit: 2 Hurr
    602 Sq 18+3 Spit

    12 Group

    66 Sq 15+3 Spit
    242 Sq 21+1 Hurr
    19 Sq 15+4 Spit
    310 Sq 15+3 Hurr
    23 Sq 7+7 blen
    74 Sq 17+5 Spit
    229 Sq 18+2 Hurr
    46 Sq 21+1 Hurr
    611 Sq 24+3 Spit
    29 Sq 14+5 Blen
    141 Sq 14+4 Defiants
    222 Sq 16+3 Spit
    264 Sq 16+5 Defiants
    73 Sq 19+3 Hurr
    302 Sq 12+5 Hurr
    616 Sq 13+4 Spit
    41 Sq 16+2 Spit
    219 Sq 11+5 Blen
    607 Sq 19+5 Hurr
    72 Sq 14+4 Spit
    79 Sq 18+4 Hurr
    253 Sq 22+2 Hurr
    603 Sq 14+8 Spit
    145 Sq 8+6 Spit
    605 Sq 15+5 Hurr
    263 Sq (nonoperational) 8+5 Hurr; 0+5 Whirlwinds
    3 Sq 18+3 Hurricanes
    504 Sq 20+3 Hurr
    232 Sq 8+0 Hurr
    245 Sq 14+8 Hurr

    Fighters at Operational Training Unites

    36+19 spitfires
    49+25 Hurricanes
    15+7 Blenheims

    Fighters Held at Maintenance Units (Ready for Immediate Issue+ Ready in Four Days)

    118+34 Spitfires
    98+17 Hurricanes
    73+1 Defiants

    Price also appends production figures for the week prior without indicating whether they had been received by the RAF yet.

    31 Spitfires
    43 Hurricanes
    11 Defiants
    0 Whirlwinds
    5 Beaufighters.

    Just for giggles, here is Price's summary (192) of the notorious Luftwaffe intelligence appreciation ahead of Eagle Day: The enemy has lost 373 Spitfires, 180 Hurricanes, 9 Curtisses, and 12 Defiants 1/07--15/08; total of 574. Another 196 may be added due to wastage, for a loss of 770 enemy fighters. Enemy production in this time has been 270--300 fighters.

    On 1 July, the enemy had 900 serviceable modern fighters. Therefore, on the morning of 16 August they have 430; at 70% serviceability, they have now 300 combat-ready fighters. These are distributed 200 in the south, 70 in the Midlands, and 30 in the North.

    Heh. I've been managed that way.

  5. TF Smith

    You and me both....

    Thanks; mobilization and order of battle planning is always interesting.

    One thing that jumps out at me are the "Britain/Grand Fleet (navy cooperation)" day bomber squadrons; these were (I take it) supposed to be land-based squadrons; were they envisaged as multi-engined aircraft (Vimys, I guess) or simply land-based DH-9s or the equivalent?

    The reason I ask is it sort of suggests something along the lines of the IJNAF's land-based bombardment groups that ended up equipped with G3Ms and G4Ms by the 1930s and 1940s...interesting if that concept goes back to the British.


  6. Neil Datson

    Gosh, thanks Erik.

    I make that 1,336 serviceable & 361 unserviceable (just Hurricanes & Spitfires 1,165 & 305). With the squadrons 947 serviceable & 258 unserviceable (864 & 210). But those figures include 263 Squadron, the 'extra' 10 at 266 Squadron and the Fighter Interception Unit as being a squadron. So this summary is hardly fit material to go into the extremely big book.

    T F, it's almost certain that the concept goes back to the RNAS. Trenchard knew better than to utilize its experience, and the British had to apologize in some way or other for breaking the Anglo-Japanese alliance, hence the Sempill Mission and subsequent shenanigans.

    Having mounted my hobby horse, I'll charge onward. It's my impression from the list of required squadrons above that Sykes was thinking about the sundry roles of air power. Trenchard, for his part, set about building an institution with his desk at the centre of it. He wasn't too stressed about what the RAF actually did or he couldn't have become an advocate of independent air power. Sykes as the 'father of the RAF' is one of history's intriguing what ifs.

  7. Trenchard said that he aimed to lay the foundations of a mighty air force, leaving it to the politicians to decide how his foundations would be used. He saw those foundations to be the cadet college at Cranwell and the apprentice school at Halton. I find it hard to disagree with his priorities.

  8. TF Smith

    Neil - Interesting link.

    One of the issues in terms of the development of air power in the interwar period is the question of land-based or flying boat maritime reconnaisance and strike, particularly in nations that had dedicated naval air arms. Part of the answer was technical maturity; given the choice of something like the NC flying boats or a Martin or Keystone in the 1920s, the USN made the right choice - by the 1930s, when aircraft like the B-17 were in the offing, the roles and missions issue between the USN and USAAF was in full cry. Of course, when the balloon went up, effectiveness, rather than theory, came into play, and the USN flew multi-engine land-based aircraft from as early as 1941 (Lockheed PBO Hudsons).

    Independent air forces (RAF, RA, Luftwaffe) are one question, but a corrollary to that are the naval air arms that adopted land-based strike; the IJNAAF of course; I think the Red Navy had twin-engined bombers in service in the 1930s, and the Argentine Navy got about a third of the Martin B-10s purchased in the 1930s...can anyone think of any other naval air arms with multi-engined, land-based patrol/bombardment aircraft prior to WW II?


  9. Chris Williams

    In _The Paladins_ (which thratens to become a biography of Sykes, but ends up a lot better than that because, unlike Ash, the author doesn't fall in love with his subject) John James summed up the difference between Trenchard and Sykes thus (from memory):

    There are two ways of looking at an air force. The first is to see it as existing only in the three minutes between the early warning and the arrival of the missiles. The second is to see it as something solid and immovable, like the Church of England. Sykes was a three-minute man: Trenchard was a supporter of the Church Militant.

  10. Other new British institutions of the 1920s dedicated to generating their future specialist trades in-house: the BBC and the Royal Ballet. There's probably a Bench Grass post in that.

  11. Well. I've already done the (pre-WWI) Stoker Scheme. RAF Halton: where you were expected to graduate, and could anticipate being given a job.

    You know what? Never mind putting that on a blog post. I think I'll just go graffiti it over the walls at the UBC Old Admissions Office. "RAF Halton, 1925: Come to Halton, and we'll get you a job, because the country needs more fitters. State University, 2012: Now that you've graduated, you'd better learn to network or something."

  12. Chris Williams

    BBC inherited a large number of wireless mechanics from the RAF and RN, wrote my old boss in 'The Deluge'. Not sure if the Royal Ballet was similarly boosted or if they just got caught up in the skill autarky mood of the moment.

  13. Neil Datson

    Surely there must be a Dance of the wireless telegraphists joyously volunteering their help to harvest the Motherland's bumper crop somewhere in a justly obscure Soviet Realist ballet?

  14. Post author


    Sykes doesn't say but yes, I'd guess the 'large day bombers' something like Vimys, the 'day bombers' would be something like DH.9as (I was thinking maybe torpedo bombers like the Cuckoo -- he mentions 'the protection of minesweepers by torpedo-carrying and fighting aeroplanes, etc' -- but he has a separate category for that). Since they are cadre squadrons I suspect they are land-based, the obviously sea-going ones are full-strength (presumably on the basis that they may be far from home when war threatens so there would be no time to get them up to full strength). He doesn't spell out the role of the large day bombers either, saying only that 'the development of which warrants their consideration for substitution purposes in the near future'. That does suggest a naval strike role, i.e. substitution of bombers for battleships.


    Geez, you've got a good memory! Here's the quote from James (83-4):

    There are two ways of looking at an Air Force. The first is to see it as existing only in the four minutes between the declaration of war and the arrival of the missiles. The second is to see it as something permanent and stable, like the Church of England. Sykes was by nature a three-minute man: Trenchard was clearly a Church of England partisan. But even the Church Militant, the poet tells us, although it looks so firm to us is only flesh and blood.

    Very close. I think that's a pretty fair summary of their respective positions, though again with the proviso that I don't think it was necessarily inherent in their personalities. If their positions were reversed their overall responses might not have been so different (well, Sykes would have had more reliance on civil aviation…) Anyway, Trenchard was right, at that time. Sykes might have been the better war or war-in-sight CAS. (Also, a star destroyer would totally beat the USS Enterprise.)

  15. Thinking about naval air arms with land-based aircraft; the Dutch Marine-Luchtvaartdienst had multi-engined Fokker seaplanes, which were AFAIK operated in a coastal defence role; I think they may have also been used in the Dutch East Indies. Large seaplanes and flying boats are perhaps semi-land-based; they don't operate from ships, but can be deployed anywhere with sheltered moorings and a depot ship.

  16. Post author

    Thanks, Jakob, it's easy to forget about the Dutch, being as they were noncombatants. Seaplanes would make a lot of sense for the NEI, especially -- not much infrastructure but lots and lots of islands.

    Nobody has risen to the defence of the 154 squadron figure, so I will assume that we can safely dump it in the dustbin of history :)

  17. TF Smith

    Good point on the Dutch, although as far as the NEI goes, the NEI Army air arm acquired more than 100 export versions of the Martin B-10, so presumably the infrastructure was available; granted, flying boats, amphibians, or seaplanes presumably made for sense the for RNN air arm.

    I wonder how the Argentine Navy planned to use their B-10s; as horizontal bombers? Torpedo aircraft? Both?

    This is about all I found "offficially" anywhere:

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