AIR in the AJCP

Australian Air Squadrons Fund leaflet

This is the cover of a leaflet produced in 1916 by the Australian Air Squadrons Fund, the Australian arm of the Imperial Air Flotilla which raised funds around the British Empire for presentation 'battle-planes' for the Royal Flying Corps. My interest in it is not so much for its own sake, though I am struck by the slightly confusing promise that this aircraft 'will carry your name and message of sympathy and support over the heads of our troops into the enemy capitals', as well as the sadly forlorn hope that 'This is, please God, the only war in which we will be able to take part'. Rather, it's here as an example of the aviation records to be found in the Australian Joint Copying Project (AJCP), which is being digitised and made freely available through Trove.

In its original form, the AJCP is a collection of microfilm reels containing copies of British archival records relating to Australia, as well as New Zealand and the Pacific, mostly from The National Archives (TNA; the Public Records Office, as was) but also from other sources. Begun in 1945, the idea was to save Australian historians the time and expense of travelling to Britain when researching their own country. By the time the project ended in 1997, the number of reels was over 10,000, spanning documents from 1560 to 1984. Obviously, most of the records relate to the colonial period before 1901, but there are still many which relate to the 20th century, especially Australia's participation in the two World Wars and other defence matters. And that includes aviation! The AJCP contains 456 items from AIR, TNA's records created or inherited by the Air Ministry and the RAF. More specifically:

  • AIR 1: Air Historical Branch, 1913-1931. Subjects include: 'Australian Flying Corps; Royal Naval Air Serivice; Gallipoli; No. 1 Squandron [sic], Australian Flying Corps; No. 2 Squandron [sic], Australian Flying Corps; No. 4 Squandron [sic], Australian Flying Corps; No. 67 Squandron [sic], Australian Flying Corps; No. 68 Squandron [sic], Australian Flying Corps; No. 69 Squandron [sic], Australian Flying Corps; No. 71 Squandron [sic], Australian Flying Corps; 5th Wing Royal Flying Corps; 10th Wing Royal Flying Corps; 51st Wing Royal Flying Corps; 80th Wing Royal Flying Corps; World War I (1914-1918; Aerial Operations'
  • AIR 2: Air Boards and Air Ministry, 1918-1958. Subjects include: 'Great Britain: Air Boards and Air Ministry; Aerial postal service; Aircraft Production (Australia); Australian Aircraft Factory; Awards for Australian Air Operations; Batten, Jean; British Commonwealth Air Training Plan; Military Awards; New Zealand Air Force; Royal Australian Air Force; Smith, Ross. Captain; World War II (1939-1945)'
  • AIR 5: Air Historical Branch, 1923-1929. Subjects include: 'Great Britain: Air Ministry; Airships; Domonions Air Force; Royal Australian Air Force; Salmond, Sir John'
  • AIR 8: Chief of the Air Staff, 1939-1953. Subjects include: 'Great Britain: Ministry of Air; Aircraft Production (Australia); British Commonwealth Air Training Plan; Dominion Air Training Scheme; New Zealand; Pacific; Royal Australian Air Force; Royal New Zealand Air Force; World War II (1939-1945) '
  • AIR 9: Chief of the Air Staff - Directorate Of Plans, 1926-1944. Subjects include: 'Great Britain: Air Minisry; 1926 Imperial Conference; World War II (1939-1945; Pacific; War Effort (Australia, 1943-1945)'

The Australian Air Squadrons Fund leaflet above, for example, is from AJCP reel number 6877, one of 234 images of AIR 1/142/15/40/314, 'Presentation aircraft from overseas - Dominions, etc.', in its entirety. The equivalent file at TNA isn't digitised and isn't free; at Trove, it is.

Digitisation of the AJCP reels is still continuing, but it looks like its AIR holdings are already completely online. There's no OCR, so you'll need to search the record descriptions and then browse. There are plenty of operational records, mostly to do with the First World War: squadron record books (AIR 1/1519/204/64/1, covering No. 4 Squadron AFC for January 1918), wing record books (AIR 1/1541/204/77/18, 10th Wing, which included Nos. 2 and 4 Squadron AFC, for February 1918), HMS Ark Royal's operations at the Dardanelles (AIR 1/2099/207/20/7), the war experiences of Squadron Leader W.H. Anderson (AIR 1/2389/228/11/101, an essay written at the RAF Staff College at Andover). On the origins of Australasian air forces, there are such items as:

  • AIR 1/1607/204/85/17: the response to a plea in 1911 from the Australian Chief of the General Staff for information on setting up an aviation school, as 'We have been forced to make a start in avation'
  • AIR 1/654/17/122/501: a response to a rather less reluctant request in 1913 for assistance on setting up 'three naval aviation units', which included 'A complete set of plans of the Felixstowe [seaplane] base' (unfortunately, forwarded separately)
  • AIR 2/122/B9951: the postwar organisation of an Australian air force, which includes a mysterious note that RAF airship and kite balloon officers would not be required as these units would not be formed 'in the immediate future' -- mysterious because two years later the nascent RAAF was looking for airship riggers and balloon basket makers, but again decided it didn't need them
  • AIR 2/114/A32030: a report on an 'Aerial defence scheme for New Zealand' by Colonel A.V. Bettington, which actually is almost exclusively concerned with the economic prospects of civil aviation partly on the basis that 'a Postal and Passenger service from Dunedin to Auckland via Christchurch, Blenheim, Wellington and Wanganui' comprising 14 twin-engine aircraft would form 'the nucleus of a Defence Force and training scheme for the future' -- in other words, as commercial bombers

Some fascinating files relate to the 1927 mission sent out to scout for bases for the Imperial Airship Scheme (AIR 2/305/521866/27 for Australia, AIR 2/305/521869/27 for New Zealand, AIR 5/1053 for correspondence). This was quite a thorough process. The main requirement was for a base at Perth in advance of an eventual demonstration flight by R100, R101, and/or R102, which also necessitated the creation of a network of meteorological stations. But there was also the possibility of further flights to New Zealand, regular international services (monthly, from 1933 or 1934) and even a network of routes between Australian state capitals. A letter from Group Captain Fellowes reveals that in Tasmania alone -- 'very keen to have a service as their ship communication is bad' -- the mission had visited 'Hobart, Launceston, Devonport and Bernie [sic]', were 'met by the Civic Bodies in each place and have addressed them; we have also addressed the Chamber of Commerce in Hobart'. At Melbourne they focused their attention on two areas, one to the southwest of the city at Truganina or Tarneit (reasonably close to existing RAAF bases at Laverton and Point Cook, though this is not mentioned as a factor), the other to the southeast, south of Dandenong. Of course, none of this happened, after the R101 disaster put an end to imperial airship dreams. It wasn't the end of imperial aeroplane dreams, though, as two files from 1938 attest: a report from Qantas Empire Airways on the Singapore-Sydney airmail route (AIR 2/8703) and another on the press arrangements for the RAF's nonstop Egypt-Australia flight (AIR 2/3489).

Of course, there's a lot more on imperial defence cooperation. For example, a file on Dominion air defences (AIR 9/56) includes a 1926 (I think) RAAF appreciation of the likely scale of enemy air attack on Australian ports, which concludes that

in view of the vulnerability of aircraft carriers to all forms of seaborne attack and their great value to operations of the Main Fleet, Japan would be most unlikely to risk these vessels in sporadic attacks against any Australian ports.

Which was almost correct. Also in this file is a 1926 report of 'a bombing and machine gunning display' by the South African Air Force, which sheds light on the potential uses of aerial theatre:

Such demonstrations are apparently given on every convenient opportunity for propaganda purposes and to impress the natives. The bombing by some 12 machines [was] very accurate, but carried out in a very close formation that would have meant disaster in war. However it made the display spectacular which was probably what was aimed at.

Emphasis added! Another file contains discussion of the release of highly secret information about RDF (radar) to the Domions (AIR 2/3020). In February 1939, for example, the Principal Secretary to the Chief of Air Staff noted that Australia and Canada had both requested information about RDF, and that 'it would be impossible politically to refuse to give any information to the Dominions in regard to a defence weapon on which we place great value ourselves'. Conversely, it was not considered wise to reveal the exist of RDF to the public, since 'the RDF chain is not yet complete' and 'the active and passive defence measures of stations and anti-jamming measures are not yet complete' -- but 'when produced at the appropriate moment, could be of very great value'. In the event, the public reveal of RDF wasn't until June 1941 -- after the end of the Blitz. In contrast to the First World War, the Second World War files have less to do with operations: there's the Empire Air Training Scheme (e.g. AIR 2/3159), planning for the defence of the Far East against Japan (e.g. AIR 2/7176), and the expansion of the RAAF (AIR 8/996). There are also compilations of aerial orders of battle for Dominion and foreign air forces for the entire war: for example, for 1940-42 (AIR 8/392) there's the United States, Germany, Japan, Italy, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand... I'm sure Australia is in there somewhere but there are 378 pages to go through and I haven't seen it yet!

Looking towards the postwar world, from 1943 there is a frank discussion by William Hildred, Director-General of Civil Aviation, of an Australian proposal regarding the old problem of the militarisation of civil aviation, which he feels 'contains a lot of sense':

It may be that military forces will be strong enough to remove any danger of misue of Civil Air Transport. In that case attention can be concentrated on the economic and political side of civil aviation. The trouble is that no one seems able to give a lead on the military policy.

Hildred notes that the Foreign Office was

very keen to put forward full internationalisation [of civil aviation] to USA as a counter-slogan to the freedom of the air slogan which so far has issued with most noise. That is one view point. But there is a real danger, as Australia points out, that a scheme for full internationalisation would be regarded by USA as a deliberate attempt by us to curb the otherwise certain USA expansion - which, indeed, is one of our motives for advocating it.

Again, emphasis added! Finally, a file on the 1953 London-Christchurch air race (AIR 2/11819) reveals that if 'Darwin is to be substituted for Djakarta for political reasons' as a stopover (but why not Singapore?) for the Vickers Valiant, then it was proposed to defray the extra cost by selling 'open line refuellers' to the RAAF at £8000. In the end the race didn't go through either but through the Cocos Islands, and the Valiant didn't take part either; I'm not sure what happened to the refuellers.

That's just a semi-random smattering, but there's plenty more AIR, CAB, ADM, and WO where that came from!

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