Chapter 1: The ‘Dreadful Note of Preparation’ 1934–1939
The goods ordered in July 1934 were mostly for the shop-window. Nearly everything went into the first line, and the provision for reserves—£1,200,000 over five years—was insignificant. The first great scheme of expansion was designed more to impress Germany than to equip the Royal Air Force for early action.
Unfortunately Germany refused to be impressed. ‘Above all,’ the Ministerial Committee on Disarmament had reported, ‘the mere announcement of a substantial increase would act as a deterrent to Germany and inspire confidence at home.’ But the voices of the critics at home were not silenced. On the contrary, they were soon to grow more strident. And still less were the Nazis—as the Committee apparently imagined—the sort to be deterred by ‘mere announcements’. So far from slackening the pace of German rearmament after July 1935, Hitler sharply increased it.
By the autumn of 1934 the continued growth of a secret air arm in Germany was so obvious that the National Government, in answer to a motion of criticism by Mr. Churchill, felt constrained to refer to the matter. ‘I think it is correct to say,’ admitted Baldwin on November 28th, ‘that the Germans are engaged in creating an air force. I think that most of the accounts given in this country and in the Press are very much exaggerated. I cannot give the actual number of Service aircraft, but I can give two estimates between which, probably, the correct figure is to be found.’ The lower of these two estimates—600 military aircraft altogether—was, as we now know, substantially correct.
By way of comparison, Mr. Baldwin then stated that our own first-line strength in regular units, home and overseas, was 880 aircraft. But he was careful to explain that a total of military aircraft was very different from a first-line strength. ‘... The House must realize that
behind our regular first-line strength of 880 aircraft there is a far larger number either held in reserve to replace normal peacetime wastage or in current use in training and experimental work. ... It is not the case that Germany is rapidly approaching equality with us. ... Even if we confine the comparison to the German air strength and the strength of the Royal Air Force immediately available in Europe, her real strength is not fifty per cent of our strength in Europe today.’
Thus far the Lord President was unquestionably on firm ground. He then went on to speak of the future. ‘As for the position this time next year, if she[ Germany] continues to execute her air programme without acceleration and if we continue to carry out at the present approved rate the expansion announced to Parliament in July ... so far from the German military air force being at least as strong and probably stronger than our own, we estimate that we shall still have in Europe a margin—in Europe alone—of nearly fifty per cent. ... I cannot look with any certainty either into their figures or our own for more than the two years that I have given. All I would say,’ he concluded, ‘is this, that His Majesty’s Government are determined in no conditions to accept any position of inferiority with regard to what air force may be raised in Germany in the future.’
Though Mr. Baldwin was later to declare that he had been misled in arriving at this future estimate, his speech was in fact—as the italicized parts indicate—very carefully phrased, and it contained only one sentence of which he might reasonably have felt ashamed. This was the statement that His Majesty’s Government would never accept any position of inferiority. To contemplate, however unwittingly, a descent from a fifty per cent superiority in Europe alone to a mere parity was indeed to display the cloven hoof. The Lord President’s peroration should have run, not that His Majesty’s Government would never accept inferiority, but that they would in all circumstances maintain superiority.
Hope springs eternal, and by March 1935 Sir John Simon and Mr. Eden were in Berlin, discussing an Air Pact with Hitler. During the conversation the German Führer set the Nazi cat squarely among the democratic pigeons. He stated, first, that the German Air Force, which had enjoyed an official existence of only a fortnight, was already as strong as the Royal Air Force; and, secondly, that his objective was parity with France.
Unfortunately the truth of Hitler’s first statement cannot be checked by an German document now in British or American possession. So far as we know, there is no Luftwaffe strength return in existence covering any date between December 1934 and August 1938. But as the secret German Air Force in December 1934—to our
positive knowledge—numbered no more than 584 operational types all told, and as the German aircraft industry was then producing only some 200 aircraft—operational, training and civil—each month, it is inconceivable that Germany’s whole total of operational aircraft in March 1935 should have been greater than a thousand. And the Royal Air Force in March 1935 certainly possessed operational aircraft (including reserves) to the number of at least three thousand.
Hitler, then, was either lying, or confusedly equating Germany’s total strength with Britain’s first-line strength. Since his claim was afterwards played down by Milch and others, the latter explanation is the more probable. But the former can certainly not be excluded. Hitler and Truth seldom made good bed-fellows; and to paralyse the will of opponents by magnifying his own strength was a regular trick in the Führer’s repertoire. In any case it is clear, despite the lack of precise figures, that he was exaggerating in claiming parity with Britain, just as he was guilty of understatement in giving his ultimate objective as parity with France.
The report of the Hitler-Simon conversation caused consternation in the Cabinet. Other evidence becoming available made it plain that German aircraft production was increasing at a faster rate than we had anticipated—a new German programme had been introduced in January 1935—and the time was obviously ripe to speed up our own measures of expansion. Here, however, the politicians and the airmen to some extent parted company; for the Air Staff maintained—correctly that the Royal Air Force was still considerably stronger than the Luftwaffe, while the Cabinet preferred to believe Hitler. Translated into practical terms, this meant that the Cabinet now favoured faster action than the Air Staff; for the latter, so far from grasping at the long withheld opportunity to expand on a really grand scale, believed that a very large or rapid expansion at this stage would merely destroy the quality of the Service.
The result was a fresh expansion scheme accompanied by an extraordinary admission on the part of Mr. Baldwin. In placing the new programme before the House on 22nd May 1935 the Lord President shocked his critics and delighted his supporters by—as it seemed—an almost unprecedented display of candour. ‘On that subject [his statements in the House the previous November] I would say two things,’ he declared. ‘First of all, with regard to the figure I then gave of German aeroplanes, nothing has come to my knowledge since that makes me think that that figure was wrong. ... Where I was wrong was in my estimate of the future. There I was completely wrong.1 I tell the House so frankly because neither I nor
any advisers from whom we could get accurate information had any idea of the exact rate at which production was being, could be, and actually was being speeded up in Germany in the six months between November and new. We were completely misled on that subject. I will not say we had not rumours. There was a great deal of hearsay, but we could get no fact, and the only facts at this moment that I could put before the House, and the only facts that I have, are those which I have from Herr Hitler himself2 ...’
So far from revealing the truth, as the House imagined, this striking confession was in fact inaccurate and unnecessary. In the first place Mr. Baldwin had not been wrong in the estimate for the future that he had given to the House in the previous November: for he had carefully qualified that estimate with the words ‘if she [Germany] continued to execute her air programme without acceleration’—a condition which had not been fulfilled. And in the second place he had not been misled; for what he was now doing, as the last phrase in italics, was to swallow Hitler’s figures and therefore to conclude that those of the Air Staff were wrong.
The essence of the matter, however, lay not in past estimates but in future plans. Since Hitler had said that the Germans were out to equal France, and since the French were reckoned to have a first-line strength of 1,500, the first line of the Royal Air Force at home was now to be built up to 123 squadrons, or 1,512 aircraft. This was to be done by March 1937, at which time the Germans, it was thought, would also attain the 1,500 level. The programme, modest enough, would have been still more modest but for the insistence of the politicians; for the Air Staff originally proposed March 1939 as the target-date, on the ground that though the Germans might have a first line of 1,500 aircraft by 1937, two further years must elapse before it could be ready for war.
The most remarkable thing about all this, apart from the Air Ministry’s belief that the German Air Force would settle down to two years of consolidation after 1937, was the emphasis on parity. A year earlier the Royal Air Force at home had been immeasurably stronger than anything that Germany could have put into the air. Much of that advantage had now disappeared, but not all. Yet by March 1937 we were to have no more than parity—if we could get it; so soon had we descended from superiority into a struggle for mere equality. But at bottom the position was still worse. The new scheme aimed at parity on a basis of 1,500 first-line aircraft by March 1937. This estimate of Germany’s future strength, which ignored Göring’s
assertion that the Nazis would achieve parity with France on the basis of 2,000 aircraft by the end of 1935, was repeatedly attacked by Mr. Churchill as too law. It was justified by the Air Staff on the ground that the Germans would not be able to support a higher figure with the necessary reserves, maintenance organization and trained men by the date in question. The Air Staff thus visualized the German Air Force of March 1936 as a force backed by reserves in some strength. But the provision of reserves for the Royal Air Force under the new scheme was again trifling. In effect, then, we were now accepting a future German superiority in reserves.
How had it come about that a country which, in 1935, was still considerably stronger than Germany in the air, should contemplate surrendering any title of that advantage within two years? There were many reasons. Economy was only just beginning to loosen its stranglehold; the country was gravely divided on the need for arms; the Government felt it impolitic to speak too frankly about Germany; the Air Staff itself, while strongly in favour of expansion, was all against a hothouse or mushroom growth which, by piling up reserves of outdated aircraft and swamping skilled men with novices, would destroy the efficiency of the Service. But fundamentally all these reasons reduced themselves to one—that the Nazi threat to European peace, though apprehended in a general way, was not yet recognized in its true and terrible terms. This lead to a sense of time, if limited time, in hand: a sense of urgency. In consequence the Government, fairly reflecting the opinion of the country (which it made little attempt to educate), was at this stage prepared only to take measures which would not upset the peacetime basis of industry and trade—measures which would still leave freedom in the factory, goods in the home, and cash in the pocket. The Germans were able to expand their Air Force and aircraft industry so rapid because their rulers had adopted an appropriate, and very different, formula: guns before butter. With us, until the direst hour of national danger, it was butter, butter, all the way.
The weaknesses of the expansion scheme of May 1935 were fully realized by both Cabinet and Air Staff. They were accepted because the hope of ‘deterring’ Germany from rearmament still persisted, and because it was thought that the number of aircraft called for was the greatest which the normal industry could produce on a peacetime footing by the stipulated ate. But when, to the entirely undeterred progress of Germany in the air, there was added the quarrel with Italy over Abyssinia and the continued pressure by Japan in the Far East, the Cabinet was forced to think again. This time the Air Staff secured agreement to a scheme which took account of strategic
commitments as a whole besides recognizing the need for stronger reserves of aircraft and men. Approved in February 1936 for completion by March 1939, it set up a target of 1,736 first-line aircraft (124 squadrons) for the Metropolitan Air Force, added ten squadrons each to the Air Force overseas and the Fleet Air Arm, and provided £50,000,000 for reserves. Within the Metropolitan Air Force t increased the number of Army Cooperation Squadrons—since these would be needed for the.Air Component of the Expeditionary Force now being planned—and greatly improved our striking power by replacing light bombers with medium bombers. And as the normal aircraft firms could not produce the required number of reserve aircraft—which were not be to held at 225 per cent of the first-line strength—the ‘shadow factory’ scheme, under the strenuous impulse of Lord Swinton (who had succeeded Lord Londonderry as Secretary of State for Air in 1935), was brought into operation in advance of war. With some of the leading motor manufacturers laying down new capacity for aero-engine and airframe production, the expansion of the industry, the essential condition for the continued expansion of the Air Force, was now under way.
Reserves of aircraft were one requirement. Reserves of men were another. The professional Air Force, 30,000 strong in 1934, was already expanding with the first line, but only at the cost of a reduced flow into the regular Reserve—for many of those completing their short-service engagements now signed on for a further term on the Active List. It was therefore essential to recruit a large reserve direct from civil life—a reserve willing to sacrifice holidays and weekends. Here the Auxiliary Air Force, which had existed since 1924, and which was now taking over an ever-greater share of the front line, might have seemed a natural nucleus. The Auxiliary Air Force, however, with only 1,500 officers and men in 1934, was a corps d’élite. Somewhat against its will—though it did the job magnificently when the decision was taken—the Auxiliary Air Force in 1936 found itself required to form a large number of balloon squadrons for the newly approved London barrage; and it also discharged with great success the entirely congenial task of building up more flying squadrons. But it was neither organized nor equipped to absorb and train the many thousands of young men who would now be needed both in the air and on the ground. As a result there was called into being a new organization—The Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. Drawing its strength not from the County Associations but from the industrial areas and ‘the whole range of secondary school output’, its first aim was to recruit through its town centres some 800 potential pilots a year, all initially in non-commissioned rank. When entry began in
April 1937 the desired intake was easily exceeded: and by the outbreak of war 5,000 young men of the Volunteer Reserve had undergone, or were undergoing, training as pilots. Aircrew, medical, equipment, administrative and technical branches followed, to form an invaluable reservoir of trained manpower. At the same time—or a little later—the Air Ministry also recognized the need for trained womanpower. The Auxiliary Territorial Service, formed in July 1938, included companies for work with the Royal Air Force; in June 1939 these were given a separate identity as the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Three months later the new service numbered nearly 8,000 officers and airwomen.
The programme of February 1936 governed expansion for three years. But it was not unaccompanied by further efforts to catch the electric hare of German rearmament. In February 1937 the Cabinet rejected a fresh Air Ministry plan, but agreed that airfields should be provided, and pilots and skilled tradesmen recruited, beyond the needs of the current programme. Before the end of the year the Air Staff were back again, but their admirably balanced scheme was turned down on grounds of expense. They then put forward a cheaper variant. This was still before the Cabinet when the Nazis marched into Austria. Within a few days the original version was approved, with time-schedules advanced.
After the rape of Austria a new earnestness marked our preparations. Economy ceased to exert its malign spell, and the Cabinet withdrew the principle of ‘no interference with the course of normal trade’. Aircraft production, thus far increasing but slowly, could now forge ahead. There was still, however, a limiting factor—no longer finance or reluctance to disturb peacetime conditions, but the degree to which the industry could be expanded in the absence of full wartime controls over resources and labour. It was one matter for the Cabinet or the Air Ministry or the aircraft firms to see the need for double-shifts; it was quite enough to secure the labour to work them. But with orders placed to the maximum capacity of the industry under the new dispensation, and with the shadow factories making their contribution, production began to mount. Output rose steadily from the 158 aircraft of April 1938 until, at nearly 800 per month by the outbreak of war, it had equalled that of the Germans.
Big results were now assured for the future. A further expansion programme, to run on until 1942, was drawn up under the compelling influence of the September crisis—a programme in which the emphasis was on fighters and heavy bombers. No amount of progress in the last eighteen months of peace, however, could immediately wipe out the adverse balance of the preceding years. By
September 1939, five years’ expansion within the successive limits laid down by the Government had increased the first-line strength of the Metropolitan Air Force from 564 aircraft to 1,476, that of the Air Force overseas from 168 aircraft to 435. It had seen the personnel strength rise from 30,000 regulars and 11,000 reserves in 1934 to 118,000 regulars and 68,000 reservists in 1939. But during those same years the Germans had expanded a semi-organized and secret collection of 400 aircraft into a full efficient first line of 3,609 supplemented by 552 transports. From 20,000 officers and men in 1935 their Air Force had grown to over half a million in 1939—with a further million for anti-aircraft defence. Over the whole period the Royal Air Force had been multiplied by three or four, the German Air Force by at least ten. Dictatorship had been travelling at full boost; democracy at economical cruising speed.
The size of the Royal Air Force was primarily determined by the political authorities, and in a wider sense by the nation. Within the financial provision available, its quality rested largely in the hands of the Air Ministry. In September 1939 the Royal Air Force was outmatched in size. It was not outmatched in quality.
In the years immediately following 1918 the Royal Air Force, like the older Services, had to make do with equipment produced during the war. No new bomber could be introduced until 1923, no new fighter until 1924. Thereafter the twin principles of disarmament and economy, buttressed by the ‘Ten Years Rule’ until its withdrawal in 1932, continued to restrict technical progress not only in the Royal Air Force but also in the British aircraft industry. And only by carefully scraping the jam of its contracts over very large slices of industrial bread could the Air Ministry preserve the existence of many firms for the days to come, when the country would demand from them every machine they could produce.3
With the purse-strings held thus tight, the aircraft firms and the Royal Air Force could neither devote to research the resources they would have wished, nor embark on changes involving great capital
outlay. Prodigious periods therefore elapsed between ‘specification’ and the entry of the new aircraft in the Service—seven years was reckoned normal for a medium bomber, eight years for a ‘heavy’. And as there was no financial margin for mistakes, novelties could not be ordered until they had been so thoroughly tested, outside the Service and in, that they were no longer novelties. Add to this the Air Ministry’s prolonged insistence on the highest standards of safety and manoeuvrability, and the result was that by 1934 the aircraft in service with the Royal Air Force had fallen behind the van of aeronautical progress. Capable of holding their own with Service aircraft else, they were outclassed in speed and load-carrying capacity by the metal monoplanes of the American and German civil airlines.
When the signal was given for expansion, the Air Staff, under Air Chief Marshal Sir Edward Ellington, therefore conceived their task as not merely to increase, but to re-equip the Royal Air Force. This was a decision which inevitably retarded the rate of expansion, for to rely on the existing aircraft types—and these had perforce to be ordered for the first two scheme, until the more advanced types under development were tested and tried—would have produced a large number of aircraft far more quickly. But it was also a decision which was vital to the future efficiency of the Service. What happened when the contrary course was taken may be seen in France, where ‘panic’ orders in 1933–1935 soon produced hundreds of out-of-date aircraft. By 1938 the French Air Force was stocked with machines unfit to fly against the Germans, who had kept abreast of modern developments. It had then to be gin afresh the whole laborious task of re-equipment—far too late to avert disaster.
The Royal Air Force in 1934 was a force of wooden biplanes. By 1939, with a few exceptions at home and rather more overseas, it was a force of metal monoplanes. The fastest fighter of 1934, the Fury II, carried two machine guns and had a top speed of 223 miles per hours at 15,000 feet; the Spitfire I of 1939, with eight guns, was capable of 355 miles per hour at 19,000 feet. The most up-to-date bomber in 1934, the Heyford III, with an armament of three guns and a bomb load of 1,500 pounds for a range-out-and-home of 749 miles, had a maximum speed of 137 miles per hour. A representative bomber of 1939, the Wellington IA, armed with six guns (mounted in three turrets) and capable of 235 miles per hour, enjoyed a range-out-and-home of 1,200 miles with a bomb load of 4,500 pounds, or 2,500 miles with a bomb load of 1,000 pounds. These differences, for which monoplane construction, the retractable undercarriage, the variable pitch propeller and the increased power of aero-engines were largely
responsible, illustrate the general improvement in performance achieved during the pre-war expansion. By 1939 the aircraft which had been in service with the Royal Air Force five years earlier, strong, safe and admirable in many ways as they were, seemed like relics from the days of the Wrights and the Farmans.
Among the decisions of the Air Staff in the realm of re-equipment two stand out. The first was taken in 1934, when the new fast monoplanes under development at Supermarine’s and Hawker’s were required to carry eight machine guns in place of the four which had previously been the maximum armament of a fighter. This involved placing the guns in the wings, where they could not be attended to be the pilot; and this in turn could now be done because a reliable weapon, in the Browning ‘1930’, was at last available. The other crucial choice was made in 1938, when the ultra-heavy bombers specified two years earlier were selected as the standard aircraft of the Metropolitan striking force. The results of the first decision were seen in 1940, when the Spitfire and Hurricane saved Britain. The results of the second became evident later, when the Halifax and the Lancaster—the former one of the 1936 class itself, the latter a direct descendent—tore the heart out of industrial Germany.
New aircraft were but one part of the story. To support them a vast expansion on the ground—airfields and their associated buildings, storage and repair depots, schools of flying and technical training and the like—was called for. The sheer task of building was in itself formidable and by the summer of 1939 the annual expenditure on works had risen to more than three times the cost of the entire Air Force in 1934.
Purely constructional difficulties, however, were far from being the only obstacle. Since ‘business as usual’ was until 1938 the Government’s motto for industry, the land-owner and farmer could fairly claimed its application to agriculture. The result was that the Air Ministry’s proposals for new airfields, schools and camps met with constant opposition in the countryside. Air gunnery and bombing ranges were especially unpopular, for even if some miracle of selection lighted on a spot at once suited to the purpose and void of human haunt or habitation, voices were rarely lacking to defend the rights of the local wild-fowl. In one case a colony of swans was held to be threatened, but fortunately the birds, when their supports lost the day, rapidly adjusted to their new and noisier surroundings. This did not prevent similar opposition in other cases. Indeed, as Sir Philip Sassoon pointed out when introducing the Air Estimates
in 1937, the bird difficulty was apparently two-fold: either they might be driven away from sanctuaries where it was hoped to preserve them, or else they might be driven away from shooting coverts where it was the intention to destroy them.
Difficulties of this kind, and others more serious, existed to be overcome. The schools and the depots and the dumps were built; and by the end of 1939 there were 138 airfields available for use at home—excluding civil airfields taken over at the outbreak of war—as against a total of 52 five years earlier. Further, the new stations enjoyed a high standard of operational and domestic equipment—even if concrete runways were still a rarity, and the only hard surface was usually an apron of tarmac in front of the hangars.
The operational airfields of 1939 were not only more numerous and more elaborate than those of 1934; they were also disposed in a very different pattern. In 1934 the Metropolitan bomber squadrons, organized in the ‘Western Area’ and the ‘Central Area’ of the Air Defence of Great Britain were, apart from those at Bircham Newton in Norfolk, based in the counties of Wiltshire, Hampshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire. The fighters of the ‘Fighting Area’, with the key task of defending London, were grouped on airfields in Essex, Kent, Surrey, Sussex and Middlesex with but one station—Duxford—further north. It was a disposition based on the assumption that any attack on us in a European war could only be made by France—a hypothesis which had little reality after the Ruhr crisis of 1923, which had continued to exist for want of a better, and which disappeared like a puff of smoke on the advent of Hitler. A contrary, and by no means unreal, hypothesis, that of war in alliance with France against Germany, governed the expansion of the Royal Air Force from 1934 onwards ,and the new airfield locations soon gave evidence of a Drang nach Osten. By 1939 the surviving short-range bombers, earmarked for transference to Continental bases, still occupied the central airfields, but the new long-range striking force was based in the Eastern half of the country—in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, and East Anglia, where five years before there had been only a single operational station. Still more strikingly, a continuous system of fighter defence already stretched from Southampton east and north to Newcastle, while beyond these limits fighters also guarded the Clyde-Forth area and Bristol. Good progress had been made in what official circles were pleased to term the ‘re-orientation’ of our aim defence.
No subject during the expansion of the Royal Air Force received, or repaid, closer study than this problem of air defence. It was a
problem easy to pose, infinitely difficult to answer. The hostile bomber, holding the initiative, had the choice of time, target and approach; and no place in England was more than twenty minutes’ flight from the nearest coast. In such circumstances how could the fighter, which might spend ten minutes merely in climbing to its operational height, intercept before the bombs dropped—even in good visibility—unless it were already airborne on standing patrol? And how could standing patrols, extravagant beyond measure in flying hours, and therefore in aircraft, men and everything else, be maintained at the requisite strength for the requisite length of time round every area to be protected? Only with a truly gigantic fighter force could this be done—a force so enormous that it would leave us with few resources for guns, tanks or ships, and none at all for bombers.
From this central dilemma of air defence, already clearly evident in 1917, had arisen the conviction of the Air Staff that the whole defensive apparatus of fighters, guns, searchlights, balloons and acoustical mirrors and observer posts could only be a part—and not the major part—of our protection against the enemy. The real solution, the Air Staff held, must lie in offence, in reducing the scale of the enemy’s attack by crippling his air force on and over his own soil. This in its turn would bring other dividends; for when the freedom of the enemy’s skies was won, all the immense potentialities of air superiority could be exploited, and the destruction of enemy war potential and morale could proceed to the full. The essence of well-directed air warfare clearly lay in attack, not defence. On the doctrine of the offensive, tirelessly preached by Lord Trenchard—a great man whose vision saw first things steadily and saw them whole—the Royal Air Force was thus built; and until the last declining year of peace at least two new bomber squadrons were formed for every new squadron of fighters.
A belief in the virtues of the offensive, however, did not imply that defence could be neglected. While the fruits of Milch’s husbandry were emerging from the German aircraft factories, the Air Ministry was casting about for the means of nullifying the tactical advantages of the bomber. These, powerful enough before, had now become positively overwhelming, for acoustical detection had broken down in face of the increased speed of aircraft. Despite cases, the proverb has it, produce desperate remedies. Popular imagination was already attracted by the idea of disabling cars—or their drivers—by some form of energy ray, and the same principle might well be applied to aircraft. Towards the end of 1934 the Air Ministry Director of Scientific Research, Mr. H. W. Wimperis, therefore urged that
research into this, and other defensive possibilities should be carried out in association with two or three distinguished scientists. To this end he suggested that Mr. H. T. Tizard, Chairman of the Aeronautical Research Committee and a former pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, should be invited to preside over a small committee consisting of Professor A. V. Hill, Professor P. M. S. Blackett and himself, with Mr. A. P. Rowe, a scientists of his Directorate, as secretary. The proposal was approved, the scientists were agreeable, and the Committee was duly instituted.
No body of men bearing the name of Committee was ever less dilatory. It needed only one meeting for Tizard and his colleagues to reach three conclusions of the greatest importance. The first of these was negative: that there was little possibility of using electromagnetic radiation to cripple aircraft or their crews. The second was positive: that the detection, as opposed to the destruction, of distant aircraft by radio was a field of some promise. The third, that on both matters they should seek the advice of Mr. R. A. Watson Watt, Superintendent of the Radio Department of the National Physical Laboratory, proved decisive. For with the advent of Watson Watt there occurred, in an incredibly brief period, nothing less than a revolution in the science of air defence.
The sequence of events in early 1935 would be accounted rapid anywhere. For work in which Government circles were involved it was almost miraculous. The Committee held its first meeting on 28th January. Within less than a week, in response to its invitation, Watson Watt had submitted a detailed paper showing the impracticability of radio-destruction. At the same time he offered to supply a study of the possibilities of radio-detection. The offer was at once accepted, and this second memorandum was in the hands of the Committee by 12th February. Using as a basis his experiments in calculating the height of the ionosphere by the reflection from it of radio pulses, Watson Watt explained how pulses would be similarly reflected from the metal components of an aircraft, and how this reflection could be recorded. This method propounded made so great an impression on Tizard and Wimperis that they proposed an immediate approach to the Treasury for £10,000 for experimental purposes. But the natural caution of Wimperis’s chief, Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Air Member for Research and Development, first insisted on a practical demonstration.
So it came that on 26th February a Heyford aircraft from the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough might have been seen flying backwards and forwards between Daventry and Wolverhampton as though the crew were in doubt of their position. The pilot,
however had everything under control, for a well-defined section of the L.M.S. main line to Rugby was enabling him to navigate by the best Bradshaw methods. Under the impression that he was participating in ‘some BBC job’, his aim was to fly on a course corresponding to the lateral centre of the Daventry 50-metre beam; and he had naturally no idea that at Weedon, over which he passed three times, his progress was being observed by novel means. For at Weedon, Watson Watt, A. P. Rove and others were gathers round a wireless receiving set which was attached to a cathode-ray oscillograph. The small group of men, gazing into the oscillograph, saw the radiation from Daventry depicted as straight line. But as the Heyford entered the path of the beam, they saw the line oscillate until when the aircraft was most nearly overhead a deviation of over an inch was observed. Without specially designed equipment, without control of wave-length, and without any great transmission power, it had been demonstrated beyond doubt that electro-magnetic energy was reflected from an aircraft, and that these reflections could be depicted visually by the cathode-ray apparatus.
Though this was far from being a demonstration of Watson Watt’s proposed method of aircraft detection, since continuous wave radiation, and not pulse, had been used, it was sufficiently striking to convince everyone present that a new hope had dawned for air defence. By 4th March Wimperis was minuting Dowding in these terms:–
We now have, in embryo, a new and potent means of detecting the approach of hostile aircraft, one which will be independent of mist, cloud, fog or night-fall, and at the same time be vastly more accurate than present methods in the information provided and in the distances covered. I picture the existence of a small number of transmitting stations which will between them radiate the entire sky over the Eastern and Southern parts of this country, using a wave-length of probably 50 metres. This radiation will cause every aircraft then in the sky to act as a secondary oscillator (whether it wishes to or not) and these secondary oscillations will be received by a number of local receiving stations (equipped with cathode-ray oscillographs) dotted around the coast much as acoustical mirrors might have been under the older scheme. These receiving stations would thus obtain continuous records of bearing and altitude of any aeroplanes flying in the neighbourhood (including those still 50 miles out at sea) and deduce course and ground speed.
A few days later, arrangements were made for the services of Watson Watt and other staff of the National Physical Laboratory to be available to the Air Ministry, and for research to be carried out at the Orfordness establishment of the Radio Research Board. By the end of March, only two months after the Committee’s first meeting,
sites for laboratories and towers had been selected at Orfordness, and work had begun on the design of suitable transmitting and receiving apparatus.
The developments that followed, first at Orfordness and then at Bawdsey Manor, quickly made it clear that RDF—or radar, as it was later called—was capable of many applications.4 The use of the new technique was soon visualized not only for detecting aircraft (both at long range to help the fighters and short range to help the guns and searchlights), but also for detecting shipping. Its possibilities, too, were not confined to ground stations, for sets might be developed for use both in naval vessels and in aircraft. For the time being, however, the detection and continuous location of aircraft at long range was accounted the most important task; and by September 1935 the Air Council was sufficiently impressed with progress to recommend the construction of a chain of ground stations from Southampton to the Tyne. As an intermediate step the Treasury agreed to the erection of five stations between Dover and Bawdsey. The building of these, however, was best with all kinds of difficulty and delay, and approval for the main chain of twenty stations did not follow until August 1937.
By the outbreak of war progress had reached the point where there were twenty stations in Great Britain and three overseas; aircraft flying at medium heights could be detected at a range of a hundred miles from our shores; special sets had been ordered for the detection of low-flying aircraft; and a device (IFF—identification friend or foe) had been developed for distinguishing friendly aircraft from ‘hostiles’ Equally important, the radar stations had been incorporated into the general air defence system. A network of new communications had been laid down; the information from the radar stations could be ‘told’ to the filter and operations rooms, and represented visually at these points; large numbers of radar operators were under training; and the system had been tried out successfully in air defence exercises. The result, quite simply, was that with the early warning of this kind our fighters could now dispense with standing patrols, remain on the ground until the enemy was known to be approaching, and still take off in time to intercept. And this, which was equivalent to multiplying our fighter force many times over, was only one, if the most developed, of the uses already foreseen for radar. All told, it may be doubted whether any project of equal
complexity was ever evolved from untried theory to practical application on so large a scale within so short a time.
With expansion and technical development came the need for reorganization. After the 1935 scheme, which aimed at doubling the existing strength of the Metropolitan Air Force, it was clear that the old arrangements for command would no longer serve. If Air Defence of Great Britain continued to direct all the home-based fighters and bombers its commander would be hopelessly over-burdened. Moreover—an important point when bigger and better bombers were soon to be available—air attack on Britain might subject him to pressure to retaliate against the enemy population instead of carrying out a scientific policy of bombardment. In 1936 the old structure of A.D.G.B. and the Areas was therefore abolished, and in its place appeared a division by function—the now familiar Bomber, Fighter and Coastal Commands, support by Training Command and a Maintenance Group (later Maintenance Command). Balloon Command followed in 1938, when the barrage was extended beyond London. Only one other Command was set up before the war—Reserve Command, to control the Volunteer Reserve aerodrome centres and the civil elementary flying training schools; but in 1940 this merged with Training Command to produce Flying Training Command and Technical Training Command. In this shape, apart from the addition of Army Cooperation Command in December 1940, Transport Command in 1943, and a special variation for the invasion of the Continent, the Royal Air Force at home was to remain until victory was won. Overseas, where forces were smaller, the Commands at the outbreak of war—Middle East, Palestine and Transjordan, Iraq, India, Mediterranean (Malta), Aden and Far East—embraced all operational functions and many of the non-operational.
The new functional basis of the home organization, besides limiting Commands to manageable proportions, was intended to develop specialized efficiency and ensure that no arm was neglected. It also helped the Air Ministry to shed the load of detailed administration—a task which could be undertaken centrally only when the Service was small. While broad administrative policy continued to be formulated at the Air Ministry, the actual work of administration was for the most part delegated to the Commands. The Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief at the Command Headquarters, whose principal subordinate in operational matters was the Senior Air Staff Officer, had the main weight of administrative matters taken
from his shoulders by an Air Office in charge of Administration; and the pattern of staff organization stemmed from these two heads. After the September crisis had revealed that even at Command level administration was still too centralized to be effective, the operational Groups within the Commands were also empowered to deal with a wide range of administrative detail, and the Group Headquarters became organized on the same dual pattern. This organization, with few modifications, was to be called upon to sustain the enormous burden of war. It withstood the strain with complete success.
The reorganization of 1936 thus produced the chain of command which governed operations throughout the war. The Cabinet, of which the Secretary of State for Air was a member, decided general strategic policy and the appropriate allocation of natural resources, with the advice of the Chiefs of Staff. Responsibility for the execution of such Cabinet policy, in so far as it concerned the growth and development of the Royal Air Force, rested with the Air Council. Translation of the higher strategy into practical terms was a matter for the Chief of the Air Staff (as a member of the Air Council) who issued directives for the guidance of commanders and preserved broad control over operational policy. The Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief at the Command acted within the role and system of priorities laid down at the Air Ministry, using his forces in accordance with his own judgement to secure the desired results. Below the Commands were the operational Groups; within the Groups were the Stations; and on the operational Stations and their associated airfields were the Squadrons, the fighting formations. So the chain ran—from Cabinet to Air Ministry, from Air Ministry to Command, from Command to Group, from Group to Squadron, with the Station in between for administration. Different Commands had their distinctive variations such as the ‘Sector’ organization in Fighter Command, but the broad pattern was the same. At each stage the orders, narrowing in application, were translated into greater detail. No stage could be dispensed with at home; none, with the communications provided, was to occasion any material delay.
The expansion of the Royal Air Force between 1934 and the outbreak of war is not a story without imperfections. It is not even a story without gross and palpable faults. But it is a story in which the merits far outweigh the defects.
Some of the deficiencies, such as those relating to quantity, are obvious enough. The nucleus for the expansion was very small; the story was at least a year later than the situation demanded; the Government—and by no means only the Government—was slow to realize
the full menace of Hitler, and hence failed to think from the outset out really big lines. In the result the Royal Air Force, which had been far stronger than the Luftwaffe in 1934, was numerically much inferior in 1939. The responsibility for this, the primary fault, was very widespread; though it can at least be urged in the general extenuation that whereas the Nazis knew what they were heading for, we could only guess.
Beyond this primary fault there were others less obvious in September 1939, but obvious enough soon afterwards. The organizations for repair and operational training were inadequate. except in the coastal reconnaissance squadrons and the few squadrons with the primary role of night bombing, there had been too little attention to long distance navigation and blind-flying. More strangely, there had been too little attention to the distinctive weapon of the Service—the bomb. In the task of building up a high-quality force quickly a limited amount of money, all these things had received less than their due. They provide the main instances—there are not many—in which the Air Ministry may be charged with lack of foresight.
That all these deficiencies could be, and were, overcome is not solely the measure of the work put in before the war; for the expansion, whatever its limitations in quality, had fostered a strength which was not to be expressed in numbers. In September 1939 our aircraft were fewer than those of our opponent, and far too few to discharge all their commitments equally well. But they were, on balance and with some exceptions such as the obsolescent Battle, rather better and more up to date than their opposite numbers across the North Sea; and the projects already commissioned for the future, such as the four-engined heavy bomber, held out good hope that this slight but vital lead would be kept. Above all, in the all-important matter of radar, on which the whole air war in Europe was to depend, we were several stages ahead of the enemy. Whatever else the Germans could boast, they could not boast a general technical advantage.
Strong in its technical excellent—especially on the defensive side—the Royal Air Force of 1939 was also strong in its structure. To begin with, it was still itself. ‘Peace hath her victories’, and during the 1920s Trenchard’s fierce devotion had brought the youngest Service unscathed through the cross-fire of its seniors. Renewed assaults had marked the expansion period; but though the recurrent struggle of twenty years ended in 1937 with the loss of the Fleet Air Arm to the Admiralty, the shore-based aircraft for work over the sea still remained part of the Royal Air Force, and the claims of the Army to a virtually separate force—claims so large that they would
have swallowed up our entire production of aircraft—were successfully withstood. A single and unified control of our air forces, apart from those carrier-borne, had thus been preserved: a control which avoided the fatal error of dividing our slender resources into self-contained compartments. Only by such a control could the problems of the air be viewed as a whole; only thus could deployment and reinforcement be handled in a spirit above sectional interest; only thus could the striking force be directed now at the enemy’s air force, now at his warships, now at his armies, now at his industrial centres, in accordance with over-all strategy and the needs of the moment. The principle of a unified Air Force—the First Article of the Air Staff Creed—had triumphed over all opposition; thanks to that, the new organization of the Home Commands remained undisturbed, and it was possible to fight the air war with efficiency and economy.
If the conception—and the fact—of a unified Air Force was a prime source of strength, there were other Air Staff tenets scarcely less valuable. The principle of first gaining and then exploiting air superiority: the importance of preserving both the technical and the tactical initiative: the concept of air warfare, not only in association with the land and sea forces, but also in its own right, particularly in an offensive against the enemy’s war industry—these were the central positions of a doctrine far more cogent and coherent than any which impelled the enemy. For the Luftwaffe, independent though it was in organization, was in effect the hand-maid of the German Army; its solitary venture into the realm of the strategic offensive was to earn few dividends and no laurels.
Up-to-date equipment, sound organization, correct principles—these were all very vital. But in the last analysis they were either derived from, or secondary to, the main strength of the Royal Air Force—the men. The Service was well staffed and well led. In the Air Ministry alone at the outbreak of war there was an enormous array of talent. The Air Staff, under Air Chief Marshal Sir Cyril Newall, included such names as Peirse, Sholto Douglas, Slessor and Saundby; Portal was Air Member for Personnel; Supply and Organization, under Welsh—soon to be succeeded by Courtney—could show Donald, Hollinghurst, Musgrave Whitham, Garrod; and in Development and Production, a vastly expanded department built up and ruled by Wilfred Freeman, there was the civilian Director General of Production, Lemon, a whole range of civilian scientists—Watson Watt, Buchanan, Pye, Farren—and scientifically minded airmen like Tedder and Roderic Hill. Nor were the planets of the system lost in the brilliance at the centre. Ludlow-Hewitt at Bomber Command, Dowding at Fighter Command, Bowhill at Coastal Command—these
were sufficient guarantee that operations would be conducted by men rich in ability, experience and character. Out at the Groups there were commanders of the calibre of Harris, Gossage, Leigh Mallory, Coningham. And the talent went deep, reaching far beyond the Headquarters staffs through the blithe spirits of the air to the sturdy, self-reliant technicians on the ground.
With the ability there was also the will. Only the picked volunteer had any place in the Royal Air Force of 1939; and to the end of the war those who served and flew were but a fraction of those who so desired. Sometimes the will was a little disguised. The buoyancy of youth, or an elaborate pretence of the casual, may have cloaked it to the onlooker. But the protective shell merely fortified an intense inward resolution. Our air crews were immensely imbued with the temper of the offensive. Men of the modern age, they sought the element kindred to their spirit, determined to do well by their comrades, their country, and their professional standards. And though the parties that interested them most were not political, they had a clear conviction of the justice of their cause. They were certainly no sober company of Puritans; but, like Cromwell’s troopers, they knew what they fought for, and loved what they knew.
The architects of the pre-war expansion, from Ellington and Newall downwards, set themselves two objectives. They were determined not only to increase the technical competence of the Royal Air Force, but also to preserve its distinctive quality in flesh and blood and spirit. It was this combination of aims which enabled their structure to endure. For battle in the air is beyond all else a supreme test of the individual; and no degree of mechanical efficiency can atone for human failure. ‘The heart of an aeroplane’, wrote the first historian of the Service a generation ago, ‘is the engine’ but the pilot is its soul.’
The dismal days of Munich, when Britannia’s shield was suddenly a gas-mask and her trident a peripatetic umbrella, cost much in self-respect. Only the ducks in the parks, sailing unperturbed along the newly dug trenches, seemed to lose nothing in dignity. But whatever the moral, political and military deficiencies of Franco-British policy at that juncture, so far as the French and British air forces were concerned there was much to be said for buying a little time. For after the wild surge or relief, the waved scrap of paper and the faltering echo of Disraeli, the realities undoubtedly proceeded at a quickened pace. The French Air Force, for instance, set about acquiring some modern planes. As for the Royal Air Force, the value of a year’s grace—not Chamberlain’s intention in concluding the Munich agreement, but
its only possible justification—may perhaps be seen from this: that in September 1938, to oppose the German long-range striking force of some 1,200 modern bombers, Fighter Command could muster, including all reserves, only 93 of the new eight-gun fighters. No Spitfires were yet in the line; and the Hurricanes, being without heating for their guns, could not fight above 15,000 feet, even in summer. A year later, when war came, over five hundred of these modern fighters were immediately available for operations.
We had gained a breathing-space. The accent must now be on readiness. While the great armaments machine gathered momentum, strenuous efforts were made to complete our operational plans. Fortunately, though the start in this direction had been slow, much had been done already. In 1934, when the Cabinet decided that we must be ready to face the possibility of war with Germany by 1939, only two major war plans had existed. One of these was for the defence of India, the other for the defence our possessions in the Far East. During the next two years, when the Abyssinian crisis was adding Italy to our possible foes and exposing our utter weakness at home when reinforcements were required abroad, plans had ripened for the defence of Egypt and the Middle East. Meanwhile the Committee of Imperial Defence, through its sub-committees, the Chiefs of Staff and the Joint Planners, was examining the probably form of a defensive war in alliance with France against Germany. Not until February 1937, however, were the roles of the Services in such a war sufficiently clear for the Chiefs of Staff to recommend the preparations of detailed operational plans. By that date the Air Ministry was already well ahead with administrative plans for mobilization and war organization.
The operational plans for preparation in the Air Ministry had been classed under three heads—those to help the Navy, those to help the Army, and those for independent air action. The last included plans for attacking Germany’s main airfields, depots of war-like stores and industrial resources. In the subsequent detailed development, priority went to action against the airfields and maintenance organization of the German Air Force, since this would directly reduce the scale of German air attack on this country. The degree of importance attached to this plan (for nothing was more feared than a ‘knock-out blow’ from the air), its independence of the other Services, and its reliance on normal Air Ministry intelligence material, all speeded its preparation. Alone of the air plans for war against Germany, it was complete by September 1938.
After Munich, plans for cooperation with the Navy and for independent air assault against German industry were quickly brought to
a state where they could be carried out. Plans for cooperation with the Army, however, presented more difficulty. For no one, in September 1938, quite knew where the Army was going to fight. By that date military arrangements were more or less complete for the impressive total of two divisions to be transferred to France, if a decision were taken that way; but there was no plan for their employment, nor had any promises been made to the French. On the air side, in the same way, a scheme was reasonably complete for the despatch to France, if necessary, of an Advanced Air Striking Force; but though arrangements for the reception, maintenance and defence of the Force had been discussed with the French, no agreement had been sought on its use. The Advance Air Striking Force, in fact, was to be what its name implied, it was to go to France, if it did go, not to help the French Army, or even the British Army, but to get the shorter-ranged bombers within striking distance of German industry. As befitted their degree of importance, arrangements of this nature had been concerted largely through the Attachés. But if it was a question of framing a joint system of command and a joint strategy, full Staff Conversations on a higher level would clearly be required. And now, after Munich, the Chiefs of Staff at length agreed with the Foreign Office that the advantages of these would outweigh their dangers.
The time was indeed ripe. Not only was the German threat mounting in Europe; it was opening up fearful vistas of simultaneous conflict all over the world. At some stage it would almost inevitably encourage Japan to attack us in the Far East. Still more certainly would it lead to trouble in the Mediterranean and Middle East. For Mussolini, smarting from ‘sanctions’, convinced of French decadence, lusting for easy loot, and lost in a mixture of ear and admiration of his Nordic imitator, already seemed determined to range Italy alongside Germany. In February 1939 the Cabinet accordingly endorsed the view of the Chiefs of Staff that we should now concert detailed arrangements with France, and if possible with Belgium and Holland, for the event of war against Germany, Italy and Japan. The die was cast; but the casting was done with due discretion. Anxious to avoid either general alarm or ‘precipitate action on the part of Herr Hitler’, the Chiefs of Staff delegated the duty of conducting the Conversations to the less conspicuous Joint Planning Committee.
Two weeks before the British and French delegations were due to meet, Germany added further point to their deliberations by occupying Prague and dismembering Czechoslovakia. Even those who have given Hitler the benefit of the doubt the previous September were
now convinced: behind the fervour of the fanatic they at last perceived, what indeed had been there all too obviously from the start, the morals of a gangster. To tolerate further aggression from such a source would be merely to invite our own ultimate downfall. Anglo-French guarantees were therefore hastily extended to the next potential victims; and the Cabinet, having by now concluded that more than two divisions must be earmarked for the Continent after all, decided to double the Territorial Army and introduce conscription.
The Anglo-French Staff Conversations which opened in London on 29th March 1939, continued at various places, stages and levels, until they were caught up in the closer collaboration of war. They revealed from the start a broad identity of view. Germany and Italy, initially the stronger both on land and in the air, but unable to increase their potential during the conflict to the same degree as their opponents, would stake their chances on a short war. It was thus the interest of the democracies to buy time and gather strength—to interruption, to build up armaments, to ensure ‘the benevolent neutrality or active assistance of other powers, particularly the U.S.A.’, to apply economy pressure and harass Axis trade—but not to launch a major offensive, either by land or air. Rather must the Allies await the German offensive and, if it took the form of ta land movement through Holland, Belgium or Switzerland, hold it as far forward as possible. The German assault once contained, the Allies could then proceed to capture the Italian colonies, eliminate Italy, and, in the fullness of time, defeat Germany—though ‘no date and no possible line of action’ could yet be fixed for this final task. As for the broad chances of success, we should probably be able to win only with the help of further allies if Japan intervened; but if Japan remained neutral, ‘once we had been able to develop the full fighting strength of the British and French Empires we should regard the outcome of the war with confidence.
This appreciation was arrived at before the Anglo-French guarantee to Poland. When that guarantee was accepted, it became necessary to consider in detail the implications of the Polish alliance. The small Polish Air Force, it was concluded, might compel Germany to keep one-fifth of her fighters and anti-aircraft guns in the East. This would reduce Germany’s power to resist British and French air attack in the West. The Polish contribution on land would be still more important; for though Germany could certainly knock out Poland by concentrating against her in force, the divisions required to hold down a captive Poland a guard against a possible Russian attack might be scarcely fewer than those required for the initial conquest. All the
same the Poles could not survive for any length of time unless they were supplied by a friendly Russia. Against a German invasion Britain and France could give them no direct help, either by land, sea or air.
The real power behind an enduring Eastern front was thus acknowledged to be Russia. This was a fact on which the French placed greater stress than the British. The British view was that the Russian army, for all its 200 divisions, could not overcome the effect of purges, political commissars, and poor communications, and would be incapable of operating outside its own country. The Russian Air Force, too, in spite of its numbers, was thought to show many weaknesses. The Eastern force could probably not reinforce the Western, there was no great store of reserves, most of the bombers were slow and obsolescent, and the fighters were not up to British or German standards. Although the vital importance in the East of a neutral and friendly Russia was clearly recognized, we thus placed equal, or even greater, emphasis on the benefits of an alliance with Turkey.
This, then, was the shape of things to come as it appeared to the Allies. Poland would be a useful, but far from decisive helpmate; she could be restored to the map of Europe after our victory, but not saved from conquest meanwhile. Our basic strategy of gathering strength and friends, holding the German offensive, knocking out the Italian colonies and then Italy, and finally attacking Germany, remained unaffected. And indeed the course of the war, in its broadest outline, was to conform remarkably to this general conception; though no one foretold that the German onslaught in the West would sweep unchecked through Denmark, Norway, the Low Countries and France before it faltered and failed in the skies of Britain.
As the spring and summer of 1939 wore on, and all the sickeningly familiar preliminaries to a fresh German aggression were set in train over Danzig, Anglo-French plans crystallized. The reception of the Advance Air Striking Force, the protection of British bases and airfields in France, the collaboration of British bombers with the Allied Armies in resisting a German attack through the Low Countries, the arrangements for liaison and command, the division of labour in an air counter-offensive against the Luftwaffe—all these matters were arranged in some detail. In this spirit of preparation, bombs for the Advanced Air Striking Force were laid down in the Rheims area under the guise of a sale to the French Air Force; and a link between Jersey and the Cherbourg Peninsula, forged largely by the energy of the British Post Office, brought into being a new
cross-Channel cable at a respectful distance from the Belgian frontier. Many other subjects of mutual concern, however, received less attention. Discussion of a joint air offensive against German war industry, for instance, was still in its infancy. This was not because British plans were insufficiently advanced. It was partly because we did not contemplate operations of this character for the opening phase of the war, partly because the French had no bombers capable of penetrating German territory.
As the arrangements between Great Britain and France proceeded, and as the international situation grew steadily worse, the two countries quickened their efforts to gain allies. But a request for staff conversations with Belgium was rebuffed on the orders of a King wedded to the hope of neutrality, and there seemed little point in seeking contacts with the Dutch if the Belgians refused to cooperation. With the Turks a more realistic attitude prevailed, and by June a political agreement had been concluded and military discussions initiated. Meanwhile, in the direction which mattered most, a blank greeted all efforts. For reasons best known in Moscow, but which certainly included the understandable reluctance of the Poles to allow a Russian army on their soil, the democratic advances were met with an early but choice example of negotiation à la Molotov. An Anglo-French Military Mission at length arrived in the Russian capital, only to cool its heels while the Russians concluded their agreement with the Germans. With the Kremlin thus deliberately showing Hitler the green light, the world waited for war.
There was not long to wait. The Russo-German Pact was announced on 21st August. On 22nd August the German Commanders-in-Chief foregathered at Obersalzberg; many of them, having already heard from their Führer’s lips on 23rd May that he would attack Poland at the first suitable opportunity, had spent the summer months perfecting the necessary plans. Now they were informed by Hitler that, after a ‘special step’ on his part, an agreement with Russia had been reached the previous day: that Poland at last was where he wanted her: and that living space in the East must be acquired while Germany was still guided by his own unique self. Italy by Mussolini, Spain by Franco, and England and France by no one more significant than the ‘miserable worms’ he had seen at Munich. France, Hitler assured his commanders, lacked men, arms and stomach for the venture; as for Britain, her vaunted rearmament was largely a sham, with the naval programme in arrears, the Expeditionary Force limited to three divisions, and only 150 anti-aircraft guns available for home defence. ‘We need not be afraid of a blockade,’ the Führer continued, ‘the East will supply us with grain,
cattle, coal, lead and zinc ... I am only afraid that at the last minute some Schweinehund will make a proposal for mediation.’ All was ready; frontier incidents would be created; and the attack would begin the following Saturday, 26th August.
The day after this meeting, on 23rd August, the British Cabinet decided to initiate various confidential measures scheduled for an emergency, and in the evening Royal Air Force Units received orders to mobilize unobtrusively to war establishment. On the morning of 24th August green envelopes bearing the word ‘MOBILIZATION’ in large letters—a curious divulgence, hastily rectified by over-stamping—began to descend on the homes of the Auxiliary Air Force, the main body of the Reserve, and 3,000 of the Volunteer Reserve; while visitors to the Royal Air Force Club in Piccadilly noted with surprise the floods of telegrams which threatened to engulf the entrance. The Reservists made their brief farewells and hastened off to the mobilization centres—some, indeed, who were caught up on their annual training, had no need to travel. But Hitler, as it turned out, was smitten by a momentary doubt—a doubt which arose, not from the appeals of Chamberlain or Daladier or Roosevelt or the Pope, but from the fact that on 25th August the British guarantee to Poland was confirmed by a hard and fast alliance between the two countries. It was thus now abundantly clear, even to Ribbentrop, that an attack on Poland would mean a general European war; and at the same time Hitler also learned that in such a war he would not at the outset receive the help of his ill-prepared Italian ally. The operation against Poland was therefore postponed for a few days while the Führer made a cursory effort to secure the fruits of conquest without resort to arms. The attempt failed; and on 31st August the order was given to march against Poland the following morning.
The last week of peace saw British and French Staff delegations—this time led by the military advisers designate to the Supreme War Council—again conferring in a series of formal meetings in London. Since the Italians seemed as yet to have little zest for a conflict—Hitler had force the pace before they were quite ready—and since Italian neutrality was preferable to Italian hostility, British commanders overseas had already been ordered to avoid any action which would bring in Italy against us. The French were now invited to issue similar instructions. British commanders had also been instructed to limit bombardment to purely military objectives in the narrowest sense of the term; and it was agreed to issue a joint declaration of this policy and of our determination to observe the rules concerning gas, submarines and air attack on shipping. This was the logical outcome not only of a sincere desire to limit the horrors of
war, but also of our decision to stand on the defensive until we had gathered strength—a decision which naturally entailed avoiding all provocative action.
While bombardment was so far restricted, we should, of course, be unable to carry out our most far-reaching plans, including those for attack on German industrial resources. But this aspect of the matter did not unduly disturb the Air Staff, who had long before perceived the solution ... ‘this delicate and difficult problem may well be solved for us by the Germans, who are perhaps unlikely to refrain, for more than a limited period at most, from actions that would force the Allies from all legal restrictions’.
With the invasion of Poland on 1st September, full mobilization was publicly proclaimed in Great Britain. By that time the process was already virtually complete in the Royal Air Force. Units, both at home and overseas, had moved to war stations; the air defence system was manned, and ‘look-out’ begun; civil aircraft and airfields were about to be requisitioned; Coastal Commands’ North Sea patrols were on the watch for German commerce-raiders. In the afternoon of 2nd September, the ten Battle Squadrons of the Advanced Air Striking Force winged their way across to the heart of the champagne country, landed, refuelled and bombed up. When, shortly after eleven o’clock the following morning, the embittered accents of a disillusioned Prime Minister announced that we were at war with Germany, the Royal Air Force, if not complete down to the last button on the last Mae West, was ready—and more than willing.