The history of the Royal Air Force contained in these volumes is a history of operations and the policy which governed them. In focusing attention on this aspect we are fully conscious that we have done much less than justice to the work of all those members of that Force who were concerned with maintenance and repair, signals, training, administration, and a hundred other activities without which the operations could never have taken place. Our reason, apart from the fact that one or two special subjects, such as the RAF Medical Service, will be the theme of individual histories, is simply the limitation of space. To have given these subjects the consideration they deserve would have involved writing a history not in three volumes but thirty. Fortunately the authors of the full-length official military history of the war, now being prepared under the direction of Professor J. R. M. Butler, will have more space at their disposal.
In this context we must make it clear that while our work is based throughout on official documents and has been officially commissioned, it is no part of the final official history. It should be regarded, in fact, as an interim history based on such official material as we have been able to digest during the four years it has taken to write. By the same token we must make it clear that although our manuscript has been read by the staff of the Air Ministry Historical Branch, we are, in the last resort, responsible for the accuracy of the facts we have stated, and, of course, for the interpretation we have placed upon them.
We have thought it right, although the subject is the Royal Air Force in the Second World War, to include a brief introduction covering the years 1934–1939. We are sorry that—again through reasons of space—this could not be longer; for the difficulties of building up an adequate and efficient air force in peace may be even more acute than those of building up such a force in war, and are certainly equally deserving of study.
Since the operations of the Royal Air Force were but one aspect of a larger story, we have also thought it right, where necessary, to sketch in such naval, military or diplomatic background as appeared essential for the air activity to be seen in its true perspective. For this background we can naturally not claim the same degree of authority
as for the air operations; it is derived from official documents, but from official documents perforce subjected to a less critical scrutiny than the air documents.
The student of history will wish to know what, in fact, were our sources. Broadly speaking, we had at our disposal everything relevant which was known to exist—including the decisions of the War Cabinet and the Chiefs of Staff, the directives, the signals between the Air Ministry and the Commands, the official and demi-official correspondence of the leading commanders, the commanders’ reports, the Operations Records Books of Commands, Groups, Stations and Squadrons, the combat and sortie reports of the pilots. In the way of secondary sources we also had available for some campaigns a number of valuable ‘preliminary narratives’ prepared in the Air Historical Branch. In response, too, to an appeal in the Press we received a large number of personal diaries and the like, for all of which we offer our grateful thanks to the senders, and from many of which we derived information, or more usually ‘atmosphere’, of great value. On the German side we had the extremely useful, if incomplete, collection of Luftwaffe documents captured in 1945. We had very little official documentation from the Italian side, and still less from the Japanese. On occasion we have thought it legitimate to expand our enemy sources by reference to published personal documents, such as the diaries of Göbbels and Ciano.
To all this material the Air Ministry gave us free and unfettered access. In view of the general nature of this history, however, and the fact that most of the documents are in any case not available for public study, we have not felt it necessary to quote sources for our statements. We are indebted to Mr. Alan Moorehead and Messrs. Hamish Hamilton for permission to quote from Mediterranean Front; to Wing Commander E. Howell and Messrs. Longmans for the use of the quotations from Escape to Live; to Brigadier Desmond Young and Messrs. Collins for the use of the extracts from Rommel; and to Mr. Roderic Owen and Messrs. Hutchinson for the quotations from Desert Air Force.
Finally, we must express our warmest thanks to those many who have helped us in what has certainly been a long and arduous task. Our debt is especially heavy to the Air Historical Branch: to its narrators—among them Captain D. V. Peyton-Ward, CBE, RN (retd.), perhaps more than any; to Mr. E. Wilson; to its enemy documents section, under Mr. L. A. Jackets; to Miss S. I. Brown and Mr. C. Colgrave of its records section; to its draughtsmen under Corporal S. K. Fowler; and above all to its Head, Mr. J. C. Nerney, to whose encouragement, advice, and unshakeable common sense we
owe more than we can say. To the labours of our own personal staff—among them at various times Wing Commander P. L. Donkin, CBE, DSO, Wing Commander C. R. J. Hawkins, OBE, AFC, Wing Commander N. H. F. Unwin, the late Squadron Leader W. T. S. Williams, DSC, Squadron Leader R. G. M. Walker, DFC, Squadron Leader G. Collinson, Miss J. G. Gaylor, Miss E. Baker, Miss B. Butcher, and Miss N. Hendry—we are also deeply indebted. And to all those from air marshals to aircraftmen, who by letter or in person gave us the benefit of their experiences and impressions, we again express, what we hope we made plain at the time, our heart-felt gratitude.
H. St. G. S.
The first proofs of this History were just about to flow from the printers when the life of my friend and fellow-author was suddenly cut short. I owe it to his memory, and to that of a happy and harmonious partnership, to make it clear that the work thus appears without any final amendments he might have wished to make—though his widow, Dr. Joan Saunders, has very kindly read through the proofs and made a number of most valuable suggestions.
I should also like to record my own indebtedness to him for his generosity towards a younger author, and, at all times, for the enchantment of his conversation and company.