The Place to Find All Things Churchill

Cover Story – Churchill, the RAF and Naval

Finest Hour 127, Summer 2005

Page 22

By Robert A. Courts

CHURCHILL’S VIEW on interchangeability of service equipment is still something that Western air forces are implementing today….The RAF and USAF seek to achieve as great a spread of mission roles as possible by using the same aircraft types.

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed, by so many, to so few,”1 Winston Churchill exclaimed in his famous tribute to Fighter Command. The phrase came to him as he was driving home in silence after witnessing, at Uxbridge,2 the high drama of the Luftwaffe’s massive attack on southern England in August 1940. “Do not speak to me. I have never been so moved,” was Churchill’s first comment on getting into the car, and, as he reflected on the bravery of the young men who fought and wheeled and died above his head, he realised quite how much Britain, and the free world, owed to them.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is interesting to consider how how much the Royal Air Force owed to Winston Churchill, without whose patronage the service would have had a much harder job in surviving, and whose world-famous legend would certainly not be as great as it is now. For when, as Secretary of State for War and Air in the early Twenties, Winston Churchill was speaking of “strangling Bolshevism in its cradle,” senior figures in the Army and Navy were thinking the same unfriendly thoughts towards the nascent RAF, then only a few years old.3

Churchill’s support of military aviation goes back over ten years before even that point. When at the Board of Trade, and a member of the Committee for Imperial Defence in 1909, he intervened in one of the first debates about aviation to say that the problem was a “most important one, and we should place ourselves in communication with Mr. Wright [Orville] and avail ourselves of his knowledge.”4

When he arrived at the Admiralty in 1911, this interest continued. With his usual unquenchable relish for new technology and ideas, he used his tenure to set up and foster the Royal Naval Air Service: a project that took him three attempts in the face of determined opposition from the Treasury. Churchill’s doggedness was rewarded. In the run-up to the First World War, the Royal Flying Corps claimed entire responsibility for aerial home defence. As Churchill explained in The World Crisis: “When asked how they proposed to discharge their duty, they admitted sorrowfully that they had not got the machines and could not get the money.”5

Thus arrived the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), which Churchill set up using his Admiralty budget to undertake the vital task of protecting Britain from air attack, especially the Navy’s vital dockyards and oil refineries. The RFC’s airplanes, meanwhile, were almost exclusively allocated to reconnaissance tasks for the British Expeditionary Force. In the light of Churchill’s determination that the new weapon of the air should be an aggressive one, it is not surprising that Sir Martin Gilbert, his official biographer, found that “the Naval Wing paid more attention than was paid by the Military Wing to the use of the aeroplane as a fighting machine.”6 Clearly Churchill must gain some of the credit for fostering the use of the aircraft in such a way that it was to become the dominant weapon in modern warfare.

Churchill’s involvement in the formation of the RNAS was deep and sincere. With his usual attention to detail, he wrote a number of minutes, dealing with everything from aircraft design to the buildings on Naval Air Stations. He even turned his attention to the effect of the word “canteen” on “strict Scottish bosoms”!7

Opinions differ on whether Churchill’s tendency to micro-manage was a help or a hindrance, but it seems likely that his interest in his brainchild was apt to keep the department in charge “on their toes.”8 In any case, as Randolph Churchill claims in the official biography, “the First Lord’s attention to detail scarcely needs vindication, since the whole project was his own conception, and without him it would never have taken flight.”9

It is worth noting in any case that Churchill’s view on interchangeability of service equipment is still something that Western air forces are implementing today. For example, in his minutes of this period,10 Churchill was keen to stress that engines and wirelesses ought to be uniform between aircraft, and indeed that the aircraft should be the same types, wherever possible. And today the RAF and USAF seek to achieve as great a spread of mission roles as possible by using the same aircraft types.

And who can argue with the foresight expressed when Churchill claimed that “seaplanes…when they carry torpedoes, may prove capable of playing a decisive part in operations against capital ships”?11 Recall for example the part that Fleet Air Arm Swordfish played in the sinking of the Bismarck. But some would argue that Churchill forgot his predictions when Prince of Wales and Repulse were sunk by Japanese air power in 1941.12

Churchill’s enthusiasm for promoting private enterprise, and for urging the most from his services, was responsible for demonstrating the folly of the existing War Office policy of having only one aircraft designer for the Royal Flying Corps: the Royal Aircraft Factory. At the beginning of the First World War, it became clear that the Royal Aircraft Factory was not capable of mass production. The RFC’s major aircraft type, the BE2c, had therefore to be placed with civilian contractors. However, most of the other new aircraft manufacturers (including Shorts, Sopwith, and Avros) were busy with orders placed by the Admiralty. When the War Office did begin to branch out into other types, one of the successful new designs, the Vickers Gunbus, had only survived as a viable prospect because of an order from the RNAS—not through any action by the War Office. Churchill’s policy of ordering from civilian contractors, and of setting them to compete against each other, played its part in the development of the great British aircraft designers of later years.13

Churchill’s championing of the RNAS was not, however, due to any antipathy to the Royal Flying Corps. It was a part of the departmental territorialism that inevitably occurs when people have their own corners to fight, especially against the permanent scythe of budget cuts. Indeed Churchill soon began to urge the creation of a unified air force, in order to reconcile the competing demands of the two air services. As early as 1912 he had stressed how the “connection between the Army and Navy work must be close and harmonious.”14 In the tradition of inter-service rivalry, this did not happen, and the progress of military aviation was impeded by in-fighting between the two air services. Then, just after his departure from the Admiralty, in May 1915, Churchill advocated the formation of an Air Ministry, and submitted a paper to that effect to Prime Minister Asquith. Nothing was done immediately, though an Air Ministry was eventually formed within two years—and so, in 1918, was the unified Royal Air Force.

The RAF was lucky that, at the most dangerous time of its young life, Churchill returned to office as Secretary of State for War and Air, thus giving the new service a great ally in government at this vital time. Despite his dual role, and much criticism, Churchill refused to compromise the RAF’s independence: “There is no question of subordinating the Royal Air Force to the Army or to the Navy,” he said, “or of splitting it into two and dividing it between the Army and the Navy.”15 Churchill put much time and effort into the ranks and uniforms of the new service to ensure that it had the separate identity which it deserved.

Churchill’s influence also extended to the shape of the new service. He followed up and encouraged Major General Hugh Trenchard’s suggestion regarding introducing “something of the regimental system of the Army into the RAF, thus preserving the identities of the more famous squadrons.”16 Thus the system was laid where such famous squadrons as 1, 56, and 111 could survive and can trace their ancestry from the First World War down to the present day.

Churchill’s first act as Air Minister was to recall Trenchard, the RAF’s first service head, to become chief of Air Staff. The partnership of the enthusiastic politician and the “father of the Royal Air Force” was to prove an inspired choice.

In the early Twenties, with her finances well in the red, Britain was looking to reduce spending on the huge armies that had hitherto always been used to quell rebellious tribesmen in far-flung places around the Empire. At Churchill’s suggestion, the two men came up with the idea17 of using the RAF as a form of aerial cavalry, a flying police force that could quell revolts at a fraction of the time and cost taken by the cumbersome land forces. Britain would then be able to reduce her garrisons, and reap a form of “peace dividend.” Furthermore, Churchill suggested the idea of the RAF being able to move “two or three companies of men to any threatened point…and to maintain them.” For this, “the construction of special aeroplanes…must be the subject of special study.”18 The details were worked out by Trenchard and built upon by succeeding airmen, but the genesis of the strategic airlift capability of the C-130 Hercules and C-17 Globemasters of today—so vital for all modern Allied efforts—was laid by Churchill in the 1920s.

The new plans for the RAF’s colonial role, which were built on Trenchard’s long-held views regarding aerial bombing, were encapsulated in the White Paper put to Parliament by Churchill in November 1919. The document, “An Outline of the Scheme for the Permanent Organisation of the Royal Air Force,”19 was to have a great effect on RAF policy for decades to come. The paper contained the suggestion that “before long it will prove possible to regard Royal Air Force units not as an addition to the military garrison but as a substitute for it.” Little did they realise quite how pregnant that comment would turn out to be, eighty years later. Debate still rages to this day, especially with regard to the recent operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo, about the efficacy of air power alone as a method of warfare. So too is it a matter of debate as to how effective the relatively lightly armed Westland Wapitis of the interwar RAF were in permanently quelling tribal rebellions.20

One thing is however clear: the role of colonial policeman gave the RAF a reason for existing at a time when the older services were trying to regain control of their own air forces. They could not rival the RAF in speed or cost-efficiency. This was to prove decisive, and the service has Churchill as well as Trenchard to thank for not only tirelessly fighting its corner, but for the creative imagination that gave the service an unarguable raison d’être at a time when the knives were drawn in so many quarters.21

This policy was expanded and continued when Churchill moved to the Colonial Office in 1921, where the RAF was responsible for policing Iraq (Mesopotamia), a part of the old Ottoman Empire administered by Britain as a League of Nations mandate. As part of his Colonial Office duties, Churchill was responsible for the setting up of foreign air bases, in easy reach of areas of possible tribal unrest. This colonial network, and the staging posts that were necessary to reach them, meant going over the borders of other countries. Post-carrying aircraft followed, and not far behind, civil aviation.22

The policy of the RAF as colonial policeman was not always successful, of course, but it largely was in Iraq, where Britain was able to withdraw tens of thousands of troops, and left the area peaceful and pacified. It is interesting to speculate that this operation arguably laid an early blueprint for the current Allied “battle-lite” tactic, and remarkable that Iraq should have been the laboratory on both occasions.

The Churchill/Trenchard plan was carried out against “a backdrop of bitter inter-service disputes and backbiting,”23 to the extent that senior British Army figures refused to cooperate with the RAF, so furious were they at being deprived of their role as colonial enforcers. It is to Churchill’s credit that he persevered in his support of the RAF, both at the Air Ministry and Colonial Office, against the ferocious attacks of old-school generals.

Churchill’s next major phase of involvement with the RAF came from the outside. In the 1930s he argued that Britain’s air power was not strong enough to resist an onslaught from Hitler’s Luftwaffe, and that much more must be spent to maintain a credible air defence. His air defence warnings had actually started as far back as 1924, not long after he had left the Air Ministry, and continued all the way up until 1939.

As Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1924, Churchill did not follow the usual policy of cutting back in all areas. The RAF, he accepted, needed to expand; so he sought to Xachieve the economies that were now his job to achieve by making greater, not less, use of the air force (much the same policy as pursued during his stay as Air Minister regarding the Middle East). For example, in preference to the Admiralty’s expensive scheme for the defence of Singapore, which involved submarines and two huge gun batteries (which were to prove useless in 1941), Churchill recommended “heavy bombing machines” that would be mobile and not “tied up forever to one spot.”24

As Chancellor, Churchill was of course responsible for cutbacks, too, and he pressed the Air Ministry for these as with other departments. The “Ten Year Rule” in particular is one area where Churchill has come in for criticism. The rule assumed, for the purposes of defence expenditure, that there would be no major European war for the next ten years, and that the military need not prepare for one. It has been charged at Churchill that this rule was partly responsible for the deficiencies in Britain’s armed forces by the time of the Second World War.

However, this is unfair, as the rule was intended by Churchill to be reviewed every year by the Committee of Imperial Defence.25 Moreover, it was intended to be a check on the mass production of armaments that would be unused and obsolete by the time war came, not on the development of new ideas. When Churchill left the Exchequer in early 1929 the rule was still correct, for war did not break out for over a decade hence. But after leaving his control the policy became a rolling one, renewed without review by the Treasury each year, and used as a stall on any rearming whatsoever. This was an unhappy by-product of Churchill’s tenure, but he cannot be held responsible for the twisting of what was a sensible rule of thumb at the time it was drawn up.

Churchill’s campaign for stronger air defences began more seriously around 1932 and gathered pace after that. In 1934 he wrote to Sir Samuel Hoare, who had been the Air Minister when Churchill was at the Exchequer: “The situation has changed entirely [from what it was in the 1920s], and no time should be lost in doubling the Air Force.”26

Times change, and Churchill in the 1930s cannot be taxed with his views in the 1920s. From this time onwards, he argued consistently for stronger air defences; but it was not until the 1940s that his final, and arguably greatest involvement with the RAF happened.

During the 1940 evacuation of Allied soldiers at Dunkirk, there was (as is often the case with ground troops for the following reason) a great deal of resentment of the RAF by the Army. Churchill, in his famous speech of 4 June 1940,27 made the point that: “Many of our soldiers coming back have not seen the Air Force at work; they saw only the bombers which escaped its protective attack. They underrate its achievements…that is why I go out of my way to say this…all our pilots have been vindicated as superior to what they have at present to face.”

Not only did the Prime Minister stand up for and explain what the RAF was doing, but he began the legend that was to make the Royal Air Force, its pilots, and their Spitfire and Hurricane airplanes household words throughout the world. The legend continued through the Battle of Britain, when the fighter pilots received the Churchillian accolade with which this article started. Nor did he forget the bombers who “night after night, month after month…travel far into Germany,” recognising that “on no part of the Royal Air Force does the weight of the war fall more heavily.”

But Churchill’s wartime involvement with the RAF was more than that of a public-relations spokesman. All services are prone to infighting and separatism, and this was never more true than of the Middle East Command in the months before El Alamein. As Prof. Richard Holmes has pointed out,28 the RAF in this period operated in a very separate way from the rest of the services. For example, it refused to take Army observers aloft for artillery, and was “culpably slow” in developing the close air support techniques that were later to prove so effective in Normandy, because this smacked of being “airborne artillery” and of being subordinate to the Army. Noting this, Churchill issued a memoranda to his Middle East operational commanders: “Upon the C-in-C Middle East announcing that a battle is in prospect, the AOC-in-C [Air Officer Commander-in-Chief] will give him all possible aid and irrespective of other targets, however attractive. The Army C-in-C will specify to the AOC-in-C the tasks he requires to be performed. It will be for the AOC-in-C to use his maximum force against those targets in the manner most effective.”29 Despite the criticism by Prof. Holmes that this showed how little had been learned, as it was only effective when a battle was in prospect (as opposed to as a matter of general practice), Churchill was here responsible for trying to break down the tiresome inter-service rivalry that so often dogs military operations.

As Tedder, the officer in command, said, from Churchill’s pronouncement “emerged a new dimension in the Middle East struggle, air warfare in its own right.”30 This was, in John Terraine’s words, the “authoritative definition of the “combined operation,”31 where the roles of bomber and fighter were spelled out, and the significance of local air superiority established. Thus, from this memorandum, Churchill can claim part of the credit for returning the RAF to Trenchard’s old position of cooperation with the Army, and for inventing a new form of warfare: air power, which has grown to the dominance that it enjoys today.

More controversially, Churchill was involved in the concept of area bombing: the strategic bombing of German cities in an effort to break civilian morale. This is not the place to attempt a detailed assessment of the campaign, but it is worth answering some of the more common criticisms of Churchill’s involvement in this area of air power. It has been the criticism of some that the area bombing campaign was morally indefensible, and that Churchill, as Prime Minister, was responsible. As the overall leader of the war effort, he was. However, he was following a long-held Air Ministry policy that had been started under Trenchard, indeed in the First World War, and developed in the inter-war years.

Furthermore, as Professor Holmes has stated,32 once the decision to fight on in 1940 had been taken, the strategic bombing campaign became virtually inevitable, since Britain had nothing else to fight back with for many years. This was the only way that she could take the fight directly to the Germans. Few would today argue with Churchill’s decision to fight on in 1940, and the area bombing campaign, in the absence of the precise bombing aids that we enjoy today, must therefore be accepted as a logical consequence of that decision.

It is indeed true that Churchill did, upon observing the results of the bombing of Hamburg, leap to his feet and exclaim “Are we beasts? Are we taking this too far?” and did send out a draft memorandum questioning the continuation of the bombing campaign after Dresden. However, Arthur Harris’s (C-in-C Bomber Command) cold reply to that communication put an end to this questioning—as indeed it should have done, for the RAF was only delivering what had been promised in 1940, and the campaign could not be abandoned precisely when it was at last achieving its full potential. Churchill, wisely and honestly, stuck to the government’s previously expressed policy.

Churchill’s involvement with military aviation started with the dawn of the airplane, and ended with the birth of the jet age. It was indeed fitting that, as his funeral barge moved slowly up the Thames, four RAF Lightnings roared over—machines utterly different than the aircraft in which Churchill had learned to fly before World War I—an activity that undoubtedly spurred his early interest in military aviation. Their service had been fostered and supported by the man who briefly lay below. The RAF deserved Churchill’s rich praise in 1940, but it could well also be said that, “never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by one service to one man.”

FH’s deputy editor, Mr. Courts is a barrister living in Winchester, Hampshire, and has applied to become an RAF reservist.


References to “Official Biography” pertain to Winston S. Churchill by Randolph S. Churchill (vols. 1-2) and Sir Martin Gilbert (vols. 3-8) and their associated Companion (document) volumes, London: Cassell: 1966-2001.

1. Speech, 20 August 1940 in Churchill, Into Battle (London: Cassell, 1941), 252.

2. HQ 11 Group. The PM sat for a whole afternoon with 11 Group’s OC, Keith Park, and watched as the waves of incoming German bombers roared over the shore of Southern England. At one point he asked “what reserves have we?” The impassive Park replied: “There are none.”

3. For further information, see John Parker, Strike Command (London: Headline Book Publishing, 2002). This period was rife with service and departmental intrigue to see the RAF abolished and air power returned to the two original services.

4. Report of the Sub-Committee on Aerial Navigation, 25 February 1909. Official biography II, 688. The official biography is particularly good on this aspect of Churchill and aviation, and of course has space for much more information than can be fitted here.

5. Churchill, The World Crisis, London: Odhams, 1938, 265.

6. “Of the Air Force, not Churchill.” Quoted from the official biography II, 696.

7. Minute, 11 February 1914, official biography II 691.

8. Ibid., 690. 9. Ibid., 690.

10. 21 December 1913, official biography II, 690; 18 May 1914, official biography II, 693 in particular.

11. Minute, 10 February 1914, official biography II, 691.

12. There is more to this issue than is usually realised, and Churchill is usually given more of the blame than he deserves. For more detail, see Christopher Bell’s “The ‘Singapore Strategy’ and the Deterrence of Japan: Winston Churchill, the Admiralty, and the Dispatch of Force Z,” The English Historical Review, 116: 467 (June 2001), 604-34. Professor Bell argues that Churchill’s actions need to be examined in context; that he is not necessarily blameless, but that most of the usual blame is misdirected; and that others (particularly Eden) played a critical role that has not been recognised.

13. See Barker, A Brief History of the Royal Flying Corps in World War I (London: Robinson 2002), 18ff.

14. WSC to Prince Louis of Battenberg, 7 December 1912, official biography II, 689.

15. WSC to F. E. Smith, February 1919, official biography IV, 203.

16. Ibid., 206.

17. See WSC to Trenchard, 29 February 1920, official biography IV, 216-17.

18. WSC to Trenchard, op. cit.

19. Parker, op. cit., 94.

20. Ibid., 94ff.

21. For example, see the hostile Select Committee on 2 July, official biography IV, 208, which shows how few friends the new Air Ministry had at this time.

22. Civil aviation is outside the scope of this article. Readers should refer to Christopher Sterling’s “Churchill and Air Travel,” Finest Hour 118, 24-29.

23. Parker, op. cit., 100.

24. Official biography V, 72.

25. Ibid., 290.

26. Ibid., 508.

27. Into Battle, op. cit., 215.

28. Battlefields of the Second World War (London: BBC, 2001, 53.

29. John Terraine, The Right of the Line (London: Wordsworth, 1997), 347. (C-in-C: Commander in Chief; AOC-in-C: Air Officer Commanding in Chief.)

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid.

32. BBC, op. cit., 164. This is highly recommended as a lucid and calm defence of the strategic bombing campaign on military grounds, without losing sight of its terrible civilian consequences.

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